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'Turning Red' is a turning point for Asians in film. Why is it seen as unrelatable?

The marquee is seen at the world premiere of Disney and Pixar's "Turning Red" at El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, Calif. on March 1.
Alberto E. Rodriguez
Getty Images for Disney
The marquee is seen at the world premiere of Disney and Pixar's "Turning Red" at El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, Calif. on March 1.

Puberty might be the most relatable human experience we go through.

But in the case of the character of Meilin Lee in Disney and Pixar's latest film, "Turning Red", her teen angst is marred with the slight complication of turning into a red panda bear.

The film, directed by Domee Shi, tells the story of Meilin (played by Rosalie Chiang), a Chinese Canadian 13-year-old, battling the ups and downs of the early 2000's with her friends, trying to please her mom (played by Sandra Oh) and crushing on her favorite boy band.

The coming-of-age story also breaks some barriers in the industry; Shi is Pixar's first solo female director, and it's the first Asian-led film by the studio. The film, which premiered Friday on Disney+, been widely hailed as a refreshing, creative look at tweendom and the awkwardness of growing up.

But one review posted online earlier this week sparked outcry.

CinemaBlend's managing director Sean O'Connell wrote that he couldn't connect with the film, calling it "limiting."

"By rooting 'Turning Red' very specifically in the Asian community of Toronto, the film legitimately feels like it was made for Domee Shi's friends and immediate family members. Which is fine — but also, a tad limiting in its scope," O'Connell wrote.

In a since-deleted tweet, he also called the movie "exhausting."

The review has since been taken down and both O'Connell and the editor-in-chief of CinemaBlend have apologized.

To call the film 'limiting' is a white-centered perspective, expert says

For many in the Asian community, O'Connell's review felt all too familiar, and still deeply frustrating.

Nancy Wang Yuen, a sociology professor at Biola University and author of "Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism," said the review didn't match up with her perception of the film at all.

"She's just this average 13-year-old girl who has this puberty issue, so I think it's funny right? Because it's actually probably the more relatable representation of Asians, the most humanized version," Wang Yuen said.

For O'Connell to say that the film was made for a narrow group of people, it's "the centering of whiteness," Wang Yuen said.

"If it's not white, it's somehow marginal," she said, "The global majority is Asian, so there are a lot of people who can relate to this."

Domee Shi, Sandra Oh, Rosalie Chiang and Lindsey Collins attend the U.K. gala screening of 'Turning Red' at Everyman Borough Yards on Feb. 21 in London.
Gareth Cattermole / Getty Images
Getty Images
Domee Shi, Sandra Oh, Rosalie Chiang and Lindsey Collins attend the U.K. gala screening of 'Turning Red' at Everyman Borough Yards on Feb. 21 in London.

She also points out that most animated movies are "strange" in some way, and that a film doesn't have to reflect her personally, as a straight, Asian woman, in order for her to connect.

"It's not like I could relate to Ratatouille... I didn't even know Ratatouille was a dish," she said. "It's not like we're not exposed to things that don't speak to us personally."

"It's uncomfortable for people who are used to a white male-centric perspective, not understanding that there are other ways of storytelling... There's emotions in 'Turning Red' that are absolutely part of a human story," she said.

Asian representation on-screen impacts more than just the film industry

Phil Yu, who blogs under the name "Angry Asian Man" and is co-author of the book "Rise," says the review is reflective of the scarcity of stories that center around Asian characters.

"A lot of this is based on the fact that people have no point of reference to when it comes to an Asian story because there are so few... so when something like this comes along, it feels like some kind of aberration because you're forced to reckon with something you rarely experience in a movie," Yu said.

The relatively invisible nature of Asians in films affects the "dehumanizing" of Asians off screen too, Yu said: "Everything from just random street attacks to racist policies."

"There's just this level of empathy that is not there, the kind of empathy that comes from being able to relate to somebody's stories, somebody that you have no connection to," Yu said.

Wang Yuen also added that the review felt dehumanizing, especially at a time when East Asian and Southeast Asian women are being targeted with violence.

"Even when you are the center of a story, I can't possibly relate to you because you're not human. That's what it kind of felt like," Wang Yuen said.

Cast members, director responded to the review

For all the backlash O'Connell's review created, cast members from the film have responded by emphasizing how the movie is for everyone.

"The story of all of these friends and the family is so universal... so many reviews are going to say the other way, that so many people are able to relate to Meilin's story regardless of whether you are a young Chinese girl from Canada, or not," Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, who voices the character Priya, said this week.

Shi, the director, might have had the best response when she was asked by CBC to respond to Sean's critique calling the film "exhausting."

"Was his puberty not exhausting? Lucky man."

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Deepa Shivaram
Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.