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Disney's Turning Red: Interview with Rosalie Chiang, lead actress (2022)

Stick-on earrings, digital pets and garish music magazines, the late 90’s/early 00’s were a rush of sugary fangirl mayhem. Obsessing over the latest boyband was encouraged, as was plastering your bedroom wall in dogeared posters of floppy-haired teen idols. Butterfly hairclips and plastic bracelets were all the rage, toes crushed into a pair of jelly shoes, school books smothered in sparkling stickers from a machine at the local bowling alley. It was a rainbow-spattered coming-of-age for the teens of a new era, where the ‘girl power’ and ’be yourself’ popstar catchphrases rutted against the inevitable hormonal chaos of growing up.

It’s a journey reflected in Disney Pixar’s latest release, Turning Red. Turning Red follows Mei Lei, a 13-year old girl torn between being her mother’s obedient daughter, and the burgeoning chaos of her youth. As if that were not enough, when Mei gets too excited, anxious or angry, she turns into a big red panda.

Mei’s story, whilst spanning a variety of themes and turns, features her small, yet loyal, group of friends and their adolescent obsession with uber-famous boyband, 4*Town. 4*Town’s glossy centrefold reveals a pop band consisting of five handsome, conveyor belt boys; each girl has a different favourite, and each boy appeals to a different demographic. They’re a competent simulacrum of the Backstreet Boys and N*Sync of yesteryear, complete with saccharine love songs and extravagant, stadium-filling stage shows.

Mei and her friends, (Miriam, Abby and Priya,) openly engage in excited chatter about their beloved boyband. They flap music magazines in one another’s faces, share mix cd’s, create dance routines and daydream about their favourite members. They develop a crush on the local mart’s Saturday boy when they realise he bears a passing resemblance to the floppy-haired boys of their dreams. Mei, in a devilish teenage fervour, even sketches smoochy doodles in her secret notebook. When transformed into her red panda alter ego, Mei lets out a loud “awoooga!” and thumps her foot ala Thumper from Bambi.

However, these endearing behaviours seemingly garnered a partially negative response from the baying Twittersphere.

‘Cringe.’ The word bandied about by a small, but vocal, group of dissenters, a word defined by the Oxford dictionary as ‘to feel very embarrassed and uncomfortable about something.’ A word used to title needlessly cruel video compilations since the dawn of the internet, particularly prevalent with the rise of video sharing platforms like YouTube and TikTok.

Beyond the verbiage, ‘cringe’ has become increasingly used to simply mean, something you don’t like. A young person, experimenting with an aesthetic change, somebody speaking passionately, a superfan, a geek, the neurodivergent and homosexual, people who’s young lives have been immortalised in the eternal annals of the internet. Whilst MySpace was kind enough to erase my questionable public blog posts and My Chemical Romance-themed profile page, children of the modern era aren’t afforded the same kindness — their boyband fervour is splashed over everlasting Tweets, their bad haircuts are plastered across infinite Instagram accounts, and their impassioned speeches and social faux pas persist as eternal video evidence of their adolescent mistakes.

But haven’t we all been there? Hasn’t it always been a part of us?

Since the Beatlemania of the 60’s and Elvis Presley before that, young women have been framed as hysterical, hormonal fanatics. Crying, screaming, throwing themselves at stages, dated bedrooms hid a multitude of young women creating dance routines, spreading posters on their walls and oggling their popstar idols. It’s a tale as old as time; the raging hormones and tumbling emotions of adolescence meet the carefully curated public image of a handsome talent in a press release, and boom, there you have it - a brand new, shiny obsession.

Hysterical, fangirl, cringe; words prepared to tear down the burgeoning excitement bubbling beneath approaching teenage years. Inexplicably, the damning was almost always reserved for young girls. Whilst a glossy centrefold of Aaron Carter would illicit rolling eyes and mocking jibes, the same couldn’t be said for an adolescent boy’s beloved Pamela Anderson poster.

Whilst girls were taught that their passions were embarrassing, boy’s were encouraged to express quite the opposite. They were told to shout at football matches, gaze at Baywatch and pursue rough-and-tumble with their friends. Girls, though, made up dances behind closed doors, and concealed heart-drenched fan art beneath their pillows. When they squealed at the vision of their favourite, foppish boybander, it was frowned upon - while their brothers and fathers bayed aggressively at televised sports.

The diminishing of young women’s passions and emotions is a recurring presence in society, but Turning Red has no time for it. It revels in the frantic chatter of youthful excitement, regardless of it drawing unwanted attention and negativity towards the central friend group. Those ‘big feelings’ also result in Mei’s fluffy transformation, bringing a very physical component into the story, one with ample consequences and it’s own set of troubles. But, despite the teething process, Mei begins to embrace her panda… and her burgeoning individuality. Both in film and in life, Turning Red makes sure to remind us that our passions, our uniqueness and our unapologetic ’us’-ness is key to our development and subsequent happiness.

“All I can say is, stand your ground and don’t let anyone else’s opinions change you.” Says Rosalie Chiang, the wise-beyond-her-years voice actor behind Turning Red’s Mei, “Because of course there’s going to be adversity, of course people aren’t going to like it, of course people are going to think it’s different… But that’s okay!”

Chiang continues, “If everyone acted the same, life would be so boring! To be unapologetically yourself, just like Mei is, is such a powerful thing because when you’re unapologetically yourself, you don’t let anyone change you, you don’t let anyone phase you and that’s a super power.”

Grab your glitter gel pens and your polaroid cameras, ladies; Cringe is in.

Originally posted on The Female Lead in April 2022

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