How a Red Panda Put Puberty Front & Center for Preteens & Parents Everywhere
Back in December (ish) the kids and I braved Covid and the cold to trek to the theaters to see Sing 2 (super-duper cute, btw. Been listening to THAT soundtrack shamelessly since). As we sat gorging ourselves on Five Below dollar candy and movie theater popcorn (see previous two posts before making any comments about our eating habits, please), a fuzzy red panda danced across our screen.
I glanced over at Avery and was ready for the exact reaction she delivered: “We HAVE to see that movie, Mom!” Turning Red, coming to Disney+ March 2022.
My girl has had a thing for red pandas since she could spit out the words. It’s always been her favorite stop on the trail at the zoo and she has an entire family of red panda stuffed animals. In fact, after we split households, she once left her red panda at her father’s house on my night. Sheer panic and face full of tears. She loved that red panda so much we ordered an exact replica off of Amazon so she could have the SAME exact one at each house.
So a movie, featuring a small group of slightly awkward and somewhat boy-crazy teens, one of whom morphs into her favorite fluffy creature? She didn’t say it, but in her mind she’d already signed us up to watch the movie, bought a t-shirt, and purchased any and all paraphernalia associated with it.
I’m not super picky when it comes to Disney/Pixar flicks and it looked cute enough. I didn’t put a whole lot of energy into researching it in advance, ‘cause, well… it’s Disney and rated PG.
It was a trap.
I was elated when I realized it was coming out on my weekend. Friday Night Movie Night, a new release, and a much-anticipated one that was going to have my girl on Cloud 9? Hell yes, Mama win!
We built the anticipation up all week until Friday finally arrived. The pizza ordered, lemonade poured, Disney+ all queued up… it was time for our main event.
I’m not going to spoil the movie for ya in case you’re slow to watch, but here’s the gist: pre-teen girl of Asian descent, striving for perfection and attempting to please everyone (especially her mama), struggling with coming into her own identity, managing some very big emotions, and surviving puberty, all while learning her family’s legacy includes a super awesome fun fact that was otherwise left out: your preteen years not only include puberty, but a little dash of red panda powers.
Turning Red, I thought, mimicking the facepalm emoji. I get it now. Mei Lee (the star of our performance) literally turns into a red panda overnight. She wakes up one morning to find she’s jumbo-sized, red, fluffy, and full of emotions as large as her new and awkward body. The entire movie chronicles her attempts to navigate these emotions - anger, love, joy, independence, confidence, rebellion, loyalty. Every time a big emotion hits, it triggers her “inner panda.” And Mei, with the help of her three besties, is left trying to keep it in check (and from popping up in a series of seriously public places - think: middle school classroom).
The movie ended and I was all but hiding under a blanket. But why??? Why did I, a woman in her mid-30s, feel the need to escape after watching a movie about puberty? Was I honestly that afraid of my daughter and her questions and comments?
Avery loved the movie and totally picked up on the coming of age theme. Kudos to her. But, like, she REALLY loved it. I know we hear a lot about representation and how much it matters that our literature, films, TV shows, music, art, etc. is representative of a broader range of ethnicities, nationalities, races, backgrounds. But here was my almost 11-year-old, who lives some days on the brink of either ecstasy or a complete emotional breakdown, absolutely enthralled with the fact that they made a whole movie FOR HER. The girl who now has to check her wardrobe choices before leaving for the day in case they’re showing too much of SOMEthing. The girl who cries and screams at me for absolutely no reason for an hour some nights, as I throw a mini Snickers at her from the opposite corner of the living room until the inner demon that is Puberty retreats. The girl who is exploring like versus lust versus love. The girl who is figuring out what it means to be a real friend and how to be a good one. The girl who feels the weight of invisible pressures placed upon her as she tries to keep the peace, live up to expectations, and make her parents proud. And on top of all of that, the girl who now has to learn what it means to be a woman.
So I revert back to my previous line of questioning: why in fuck’s name was I sweating like a sinner in church on Sunday, PRAYING, she didn’t ask me any questions about everything she’d just seen?
I started to think on this more and more over the last few weeks and it brought me to this conclusion: our daughters’ pubescent experiences are their own.
When I tried to recall having “the talk” with my Mom, I came up as empty as my gas tank on day 3 of E. As close as my mom and I were, and continue to be, I have no recollection of getting a down and dirty version of all the girl parts, what they do, symptoms of a period, how to treat it, etc. Nada.
Not that it’s her fault - ‘cause having this conversation with my daughter now, 25 years later, is anxiety-inducing enough to put me on Xanax. And after talking to some of my other friends, I think her idea of the birds and the bees talk was largely universal and common for her generation. Most of them had never chatted in-depth with their own mothers and relied on school health classes to have those awkward anatomy lessons with us.
In fact, when my Red Panda did make its big debut, my parents weren’t even in the country. In a bit of shit-poor timing, my sister and I had been shipped off to my grandparents’ to spend a week with them and my aunt, uncle, and cousin in Ohio while they had some much-needed kid-free time overseas. My poor aunt (and mother of precisely one BOY), got more than she bargained for when she asked if I need anything from Meijer and it was met with a sheepish “Ugh, yeah, pads…” After realizing it was my first one, she helped me gather the supplies and comforted me.
But I still felt largely in the dark. It was a rite of passage, for sure, but passage into what exactly?
There was no such thing as period parties and I certainly don’t remember discussing the details with friends at school. It was all very hush hush.
Then there’s my kid. Who comes home with a slew of new questions or comments every day. She’s curious, and to be honest, she should be. Her body is morphing faster than a tadpole and changing daily, her blonde leg hair that once shimmered in the summer sun is very noticeable now. She shaved her armpits for the first time the other day. Deodorant and panty liners and cramps and period headaches are now parts of a routine vocabulary that’s included in our daily after-school dish.
And I’m trying really hard not to hide under a blanket every time she brings up Big Red. I realized why my guttural reaction is to preferably feign death over actually talking.
Because: I DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M FUCKING TALKING ABOUT!!!!
Obviously, I know the basics. The day you get your period, you get a supercharged, lightning fast crash course in that. But the particulars? The science? The why? The hows? Nope - I got nothing. And to be honest, for a long time, I was OK with that.
As open as I am about my daily life, my relationships, my sexcapades, period talk is poo pooed with me. There’s always been this veil of shame around it - it’s felt dirty, it’s looked dirty, it was dirty to me. Why in the hell would I talk about it freely?
I bought tampons and pads secretively, hiding them under bigger ticket items on the Wal-Mart conveyor belt, convinced the 50 year-old dad behind me was judging the contents of my purchase. I called out sick on the first day each month in high school - choosing to isolate and wallow in misery, surrounded by Tylenol Extra Strength, a heating pad, blankets, and chocolate. I wouldn’t let a boyfriend or husband near me on those days. And it was never casual locker room chat with the girls.
But here’s my baby, eagerly anticipating it, equal parts nerves, excitement, and apprehension. And she isn’t afraid of it. And she has somehow grasped that it’s natural. And she’s formed a little support group where they all swap advice, theories, and war stories from the battlefront that is adolescence.
It’s been said that in motherhood, you’ll sometimes swap roles with your kiddos, and they will become the teacher, leader, and role model. And this is definitely one of those times. My kid is dictating what she needs here, folks. She’s directing this show. And as much as I try to run, flee, hide from, and escape it, I’m here for it. Because she needs me to be and she deserves that much. Why should our daughters feel as lost as we did at their age? Why isn’t the evolution from gangly little girl to filled-out femme discussed more freely and naturally, without the secrecy and shame? Shouldn’t the cycle stop here, with us?
That said, here’s to our daughters, and Disney, and Pixar, and whoever else wants to hop on board with this little revolution, changing the conversation around puberty. Here’s to our girls normalizing what’s always been normal. Here’s to them always feeling comfortable and confident enough to seek out answers to their questions and demand them from people who don’t provide them. Here’s to each and every one of their inner Red Panda, as they learn how to channel their new powers for good. And here’s to us, the mothers - may we be brave enough to have the tough conversations and provide them with the safe space they need to explore these new identities.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some Googling to do…