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.”
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.