Turning Red celebrates how pop fandom shapes our lives for the better

Pixar’s new film is a refreshingly respectful exploration of how much teenage girls invest in their pop idols – and what they get in return

Within the first five minutes of Pixar’s Turning Red, 13-year-old protagonist Mei Lee and her girlfriends are established as pop music aficionados, as deeply nerdy and informed about their beloved boyband 4*Town as the Rolling Stone crowd are about Dylan bootlegs. The language of expertise is more or less the same: Mei’s sk8r girl BFF Miriam gives her a bootleg CD of the group’s 1999 Australia tour performance complete with “the ‘Girl I Love Your Jeans’ remix” after Mei shows off her knowledge of the band’s choreography. (Call it the Basement Tapes of bell-bottoms.) It’s a delightful tribute to any teen girl’s comprehensive knowledge of her chosen musical love, and the first sign of a film truly dedicated to understanding the depths of a relationship between boyband and fan – one that is often dismissed as superficial and childlike.

Turning Red is a Y2K coming-of-age narrative centred on a Chinese-Canadian tween whose confidence is rattled when she suddenly starts turning into a giant red panda. What we learn is a matrilineal curse passed down through generations is an allegory for the joys and humiliations of puberty: periods, hormonal eruptions, mortifying interactions with cute boys. And few things trigger Mei’s inner panda like 4*Town, the embodiment of a desire that is forbidden yet burgeoning.

When we meet Mei, she’s caught between two identities: the honour roll, maths-loving student who aims to please her mother Ming at all costs, and a young woman eager to navigate looming adulthood. Because of that conflict, Mei knows her love of 4*Town poses some risk: when an ad for their Toronto concert pops up on TV while she’s watching a Korean drama with her mother, she pretends she isn’t a fan for fear of Ming’s disapproval. And she’s right to: Ming labels them “delinquents” and asks, “Why are they called 4*Town if there are five of them?” (It’s a joke that reflects reality: Australian pop-rock quartet 5 Seconds of Summer were asked something similar in the early days of their career.)

Naturally, Mei and her friends want nothing more than to get to that concert: unlike other Pixar films where a child protagonist is tasked with saving the world, making it to the SkyDome is their hero’s journey. “This isn’t just our first concert,” Mei tells her friends. “This is our first step into womanhood.”

4*Star: Nobody Like U – video

Turning Red works because director Domee Shi takes boyband dynamics seriously, and the hyperbolic and self-aware qualities of fandom. 4*Town are a delightful and heavily referenced confection. Their songs – written by Finneas and Billie Eilish – are period-perfect recreations. And when Mei introduces us to each member, she plays into tried-and-true archetypes filtered through a contemporary lens. “Jesse went to art school, Tae Young fosters injured doves,” she says (the latter doubtless a reference to K-pop’s modern dominance of the boyband space). Multi-talented heartthrob Robaire “speaks French” – he’s the group’s de facto frontman and its only Black member, redefining the racist stereotyping of the only non-white member in an early 2000s boy band as the “shy” or “mysterious” one. Meanwhile Aaron T and Aaron Z are “like, really talented, too”, Mei swears, a joke about the inevitably sidelined members of any boyband.

That’s about as much as we learn about any of 4*Town, because Shi recognises that boybands frequently act as catalysts for teenage girls to develop their own identities and navigate questions about the world. They reflect the loyalty between Mei and her friends, who declare that they would rather go to the concert together or not at all. (This is standard procedure: if you’re looking for tickets to, say, a sold-out Harry Styles concert, it’s usually easier to find four than it is to find one for exactly this reason.) The girls’ races and appearances, too, highlight the true diversity of boyband fans: they are not solely white, middle-class girls with their parents’ disposable income at hand, as they are so often characterised. They have to work out how to make money to buy their tickets – and when Mei suggests they exploit her inner panda for merch and paid appearances, Turning Red subtly confronts the capitalist complexities of loving a boyband. Mei’s tactic is risky, but it ultimately shows her that she is worthy of adoration, flaws and all, revealing the fine line between exploitation and empowerment.

And like any boyband, 4*Town offer Mei her first foray into exploring her sexuality. In the era that Turning Red takes place, teen boy lust was celebrated in gross-out films such as American Pie. A young girl’s sexuality, in all its awkward and charming lustfulness, wasn’t given that kind of space (and faithful depictions of it are still rare). But Shi subtly shows this evolution through Mei’s love of 4*Town. Boybands are the perfect catalyst for budding desire: they’re a handsome, talented, wholesome, facial-hair-free group of guys known for gooey songs that celebrate their girl listeners. The archetypes within the band offer a springboard for Mei to start to refine her own tastes in a crush: in one scene, she makes sexy doodles of topless boys with mermaid tails (which are inevitably discovered by her aghast mother).

Although the band may initially drive a wedge between Mei and Ming, Turning Red doesn’t make Mei choose between the two; in the film’s epic conclusion, it’s clear that 4*Town is as much a part of Mei as her friends, her family and their generational traditions. Shi’s wonderful film argues that acute fandom, of the kind so many young girls have for boy bands, remixes a general love of music into something more potent: a way to understand both your individual and common identities.

Maria Sherman

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The 50 best films of 2020 in the UK, No 2: Soul
Jamie Foxx stars as a music teacher transported to the afterlife in Pixar’s spirit-world fable, which is a joy from beginning to end

Andrew Pulver

17, Dec, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
Inside Out trailer: Pixar loots its own back catalogue for 'major emotion picture'
Animation company uses clips from Wall-E, Toy Story and Finding Nemo among its other hits in teaser trailer for latest film, set inside a child’s mind

Guardian film

03, Oct, 2014 @11:47 AM

Article image
Daveed Diggs: 'Pixar wanted feedback from a ton of black folks'
The polymath star of Pixar’s Soul, the Guardian’s No 2 film of the year – who also has an album in our top 50 – on his busy 2020, the necessity of representation, and why horror is especially adept at conveying the black experience

Ryan Gilbey

18, Dec, 2020 @7:00 AM

Article image
The most exciting movies of 2020 – family films
Mulan fights her way out of controversy, Pixar jams with a jazz Coco and Keanu Reeves stars opposite SpongeBob Squarepants in next year’s most promising kids’ flicks

Guardian film

25, Dec, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
Frozen in time: when will Disney's heroines reflect real body shapes?

Anna Smith: Disney's writers are clearly making efforts to produce less compliant female leads – so why are we still lumbered with hourglass figures, tiny feet and huge doe eyes?

Anna Smith

28, Nov, 2013 @4:17 PM

Article image
Ellen DeGeneres: family is not about blood relations
Talkshow host says at London launch of Finding Dory, Pixar’s sequel to Finding Nemo, that family is ‘wherever you are supported’

Andrew Pulver

11, Jul, 2016 @5:03 PM

Article image
Finding Dory to Cars 2: Pixar's greatest hits and misses
Pixar redrew the rules of animation with its groundbreaking CGI – and the gorgeous visuals are matched by lovable characters and thrilling storytelling

Ben Child

30, Jun, 2016 @5:12 PM

Article image
No right or wrong answer on Finding Dory's lesbian couple, say film-makers
Team behind animated sequel have addressed rumours that film contains Disney’s first gay characters, after online speculation grew from recent trailer

Benjamin Lee

09, Jun, 2016 @9:54 AM

Article image
Lightyear review – Toy Story spinoff boldly going beyond with a treat from Pixar
This cracking origin story for Toy Story’s spaceman hero is fun and clever and reminds us why we loved Pixar in the first place

Peter Bradshaw

13, Jun, 2022 @9:00 PM

Article image
To infinity – actually, let’s go back: why can film franchises no longer look to the future?
Everywhere you look, Hollywood’s biggest science-fiction, fantasy and action franchises have stopped exploring uncharted territory, and put themselves into reverse gear

Nicholas Barber

15, Jun, 2022 @9:36 AM