Turning Red, and the Tina Belcher Effect
My generation has had a truly unique experience with Pixar that will never be shared by any future generation. We were children when the first Toy Story came out, contemporaries of the young boy whose attention the toy protagonist vied for. And years later, we found that the boy had aged with us in near real-time, returning to explore themes of transition and mortality in Toy Story 3 right when we struggling millennials needed them most. In a lot of ways, we are the Pixar generation, having been spoken to more deeply by this quirky studio than anyone before and anyone yet to come could understand.
And why did Pixar resonate with us so strongly? The answer is a multi-faceted one, but I daresay a big part of it is the fact that Pixar never seemed to give too much of a fuck about what people thought. Seriously, look at some of their movies; do you suppose Ratatouille was the product of a focus group? Do you think that they made Up because some executive was like, "The public wants old men and houses with balloons!"? Do you think that the top brass was 100% comfortable with a post-apocalyptic story about a near-mute robot, a children's frat movie, and fully two stories about death rolled out in quick succession? Pixar gives the impression of being unapologetically authentic, which was a breath of fresh air coming out of the skateboards-and-sunglasses aesthetic of the 90's.
To oversimplify a bit, Pixar was also the masculine counterpart to the largely feminine Disney Animation Studio. Disney defines itself mostly by its "princess" franchise, and its eternal struggle to reconcile its desire to make princess movies with its desire to, uh, make NOT princess movies. As of late they've gotten downright meta in this quest, resulting in weird little moments in Moana and Ralph Breaks the Internet where characters actually try to sit down and explicitly define a princess in a way that makes everyone politically comfortable. Their movies have become awkward, self-conscious, and motivated by what's trendy on social media, just like their audience, which leads me to why Pixar's Turning Red is such a great movie.
What's phenomenal about Turning Red is that Pixar is finally proving that it can also do stories about girls better than Disney Animation Studios can. Sure, as a Pixar movie with a female lead, it's following the tomboys of both Brave and Inside Out, but the former was far too weak a story to be noteworthy and the latter, while amazing, was thematically universal enough that you could have gender-swapped the characters without missing a beat. By my reckoning, Turning Red is the first time Pixar has attempted a story centered around a distinctly feminine lead that delivered the same Pixar magic we got from the boyish titles.
And it's that Pixar magic that I imagine the girls in their audience sorely needed. When I watched this movie, Disney's Encanto was still very fresh in my mind, and while this movie had its good points, I found myself marveling: "Is Disney still telling stories about how arranged marriages suck?"
Somebody needs to finally knock on Disney's door and tell them that most of their audience consists of middle-class kids in the first world; any of them who relate to themes of arranged marriages should be directed to the authorities. And it's not just that, either; I can't help but feel that everything we insist on from a fictitious female protagonist has become entirely irrelevant to their audiences to the point of being harmful. Does today's sad, insecure population really benefit from perfect protagonists? Do over-wired kids desperate for human connection benefit from characters who don't need anyone else in their life? Do kids struggling to find purpose and an identity benefit from characters who are told over and over again that nothing they do matters and they shouldn't be defined by anything?
Turning Red has been getting a big response from audiences because of what I'm dubbing here as the Tina Belcher Effect. If you have never seen "Bob's Burgers" and are unaware of the fan-favorite character for whom I am codifying this phenomenon, Tina Belcher is a weird, even off-putting thirteen-year-old girl; she has all the social awkwardness of a nerd, but without any of the academic aptitude that usually comes with it. She's as gross and hormonal as you could expect a teenager to be and, to put a bow on the whole package, she's desperately boy-crazy. In short, she's the complete antithesis of the kind of protagonist we try to shove down girls' throats, and audiences love her.
Mei Lee in Turning Red has a moment in the climax of the movie where she truly feels like she's stepping into the role of the audience. "I like boys!" she screams at her mother. "I like loud music! I like gyrating! I'm thirteen! Deal with it!" It's the catharsis of a whole generation who wants to feel the visceral, primal feelings they're missing in our eggshell-treading society, our digitized community, and our princess-centric pantheon. Only Pixar has the guts to deliver this kind of catharsis nowadays, and I look forward to seeing where their guts continue to take them in the future.