Showbiz, Baby: ‘Turning Red’ gives vital representation

Mei walking down a street while facing the camera. The image is a screen grab from the movie
“Turning Red,” the Disney+ film released Feb. 21, addresses the difficult conflict of identity and cultural values which many Asian teens experience. (Photo courtesy of Disney+)

When I turned on “Turning Red,” I expected to watch just another feel-good Disney movie about a young girl with the power to turn into a red panda. What I didn’t expect was a representation of the very expectations and family pressure that I experienced growing up in an Asian family.

As the first person in my family to grow up in America, I always felt this extra need to succeed and follow whatever path my parents had planned for me. My parents had done everything they could to set me up for success, and so of course I had to do everything I could to stick to that, right? It wasn’t that easy. I didn’t want to be a lawyer or doctor like they wanted. I had no plans to attend a prestigious graduate school. I instead wanted to spend my years pursuing different passions and going out with my friends. 

I’ve found some major differences between Asian and American cultural values. Traditional Asian family values often conflicted with individualistic American values.

Fulfilling both sides of my identity has been a battle. A battle that has been more difficult to face when I felt like others around me weren’t going through the same thing. However, the relationship between Mei Lee and her mother Ming showed me that this was an experience a whole generation of Asian Americans have dealt with. 

Like Mei, I would do anything to see my favorite artist in concert. I begged my parents to go to Halsey’s Badlands Tour in middle school, but I knew it would be a hard no when I told them it was on a school night. At one point, I was on the phone with my dad sobbing during a football game because they wouldn’t let me go. They didn’t understand the appeal or why I would put my school work on hold for it. 

Before I moved away for college, there was an intergenerational disconnect between my parents and me. I thought it was right to put my wants first at times when they thought family or school should be my priority. I didn’t know who was right or wrong in this situation because no one I knew was in the exact same situation.

That is most likely why I didn’t expect to relate to “Turning Red” as much as I do. The movie showed me that representation is about more than just color but also cultural experiences. Growing up, it was hard to find movies that were actually relevant to my own life. Everything seemed to feature another white actor or actress that was nothing like me. It wasn’t until very recently that I saw my Southeast Asian culture on the big screen in the 2021 film, “Raya and the Last Dragon.”

American media has long been without comprehensive, accurate Asian representation. According to a recent study from USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, Asians and Pacific Islanders made up less than 8% of speaking roles in popular Hollywood films from 2007 to 2019. The United States population includes tens of millions of Asians and Asian Americans, yet we fail to be seen in mainstream media. When we are, it’s to fit a certain Western stereotype. 

This issue can be attributed to the lack of Asians within Hollywood’s entire industry and has even been rationalized under the basis of budgeting. Asian Americans make up a very small percentage of all leading roles in Hollywood. One percent, to be exact, according to the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. This leaves the 18 million Americans of Asian descent to only be represented by this one percent. Consequently, the few Asian leading roles cannot represent such a large population, which often leaves Asians not being represented at all in the media.

Movies such as “Turning Red” and “Raya and the Last Dragon” show great strides for Asian representation. I wish I could have seen myself like this on the big screen when I was growing up, and I thank Disney for giving the next generation the representation we desperately need.

Sarah Hendartono is a sophomore writing about current events in the entertainment industry. She is also the page design director at the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Showbiz, Baby,” runs every other Tuesday.