AUTHOR: NABEELA HYDAL-KHAN (She/her/hers)
ILLUSTRATION BY MALIYAH HYDAL-KHAN (She/her/hers)
When I watched Pixar's Turning Red, I anticipated relating to the mother-daughter relationship in a coming of age story about puberty and menstruation. What I did not anticipate was just how much I, a 36 year old Caribbean immigrant mom living in Hespeler Ontario would relate to 13 year old Mei Lee, a Chinese Canadian girl living in Toronto.
When Mei Lee and her friends swooned over boys at their school and their favorite boy band, I reminisced about being a preteen Convent girl in Trinidad in the late 90s. My friends and I would daydream about marrying heartthrobs and falling in love; our bedroom walls plastered with BSB photos.
As the giant Red panda makes its first appearance and Mei Lee is hiding in the bathroom from her mom, I am transported back to the very day I got my first period. I hid in the bathroom, hid my stained panties and waited until my sister got home to tell her first. I was too embarrassed....or too scared....or too shy...or too something...to tell my mom. I knew what was happening and what to do about it but I didn't know how to "feel" about it.
When Mei Lee's grandma and aunts show up to help and support her through her "big change", I am reminded of my nani and maternal aunts calling and visiting to congratulate me on my womanhood, giving advice on managing cramps and menstrual hygiene.
As Mei Lee's friends learn of the panda, they become increasingly intrigued and fascinated and we see her, for the first time, start to embrace and own it. While my experience was a far cry from Mei Lee's giant red panda's celebrity status at her school, I felt very much uplifted around my peers. I was the first of my cousins to start menstruating and I remember them being so intrigued and wanting to see EVERYTHING.
This movie for me was such an immersive experience and so much more than a metaphor for puberty and periods. In fact, these are never actually mentioned, nor is it, in my opinion, the central theme of the story. For me, at the heart of the story is friendship, of coming into your own, accepting yourself and finding your own community that supports you through these changes. I think across all ages, genders, races and cultures, all humans can relate to that in some way.
My 6 year old daughter saw the panda as simply a representation of our emotions and "big feelings". Emotional regulation is one of the central themes in this movie as Mei Lee's ability to calm and center her feelings allows her to "control" the panda and keep it hidden.
My mini commented that her learning from the movie was to honor your parents "but not too much". She went on to explain that if Mei Lee had listened to her mom and performed the ritual to lock the panda away, she would have lost a part of herself. The generational trauma in this movie is REAL, as my mini so poignantly described in her own way, in her own words.
As a mom, I am so proud that this was my daughter's take away from the movie. As a person of colour, I am so proud of Domee Shi's creation of this masterpiece. This movie is what representation should be, cultural references without the stereotypes. If you haven't watched it yet, what are you waiting for???
Nabeela Hydal-Khan is a Trini-Canadian living in Hespeler, Ontario. She left her career as a medical laboratory technologist to parent her two daughters aged 6 and 1. In her not so "spare" time between homeschooling and caring for her rambunctious toddler, she advocates for racial, gender and menstrual equity.
Illustration by Maliyah Hydal-Khan is a 6 year old grade one student in the Waterloo Region District School Board. She has a passion for art, music and dance. You can view more of her work on Instagram @maliyahilhaam