turn red is a fantastic coming-of-age story, largely because it’s not afraid to dive into the messier parts of being a young teenager. Periods, peer pressure, and confusing, lustful feelings are all fair game, and the film handles them with aplomb. It’s a phase of life that isn’t often celebrated in movies, and it’s a story that has resonated with a number of fans. Since the film’s release, artists of all ages have learned from the protagonist and the occasional red panda Mei to get down to their work and embrace the grimace. Many of these artists also reflected on how the art they created during their younger years inspired their art today.
“I knew something was wrong the moment my best friend from college texted me and said Mei ‘reminds her of me’ and the movie brought back a lot of great memories of us as incredibly chaotic and confused teenagers.” said Devon Giehl, producer and lead writer on Netflix The Dragon Prince, in a conversation with Polygon.
turn red is unapologetically invested in the messier aspects of its characters’ lives, taking things often seen as gritty or better hidden, and putting them in the spotlight. This includes 13-year-old Mei’s doodles of her secret crush, a 17-year-old boy named Devon who’s a cute clerk at the local Daisy Mart. In one of the film’s early scenes, she draws them kissing; she also portrays Devon as a newt and herself as an anime protagonist along with her friends. Everything seems very authentic in the notebook of a young teenager. And he has inspired conversations between people deeply connected at times like Mei sweating and scribbling depictions of her teenage yearning. People also celebrated these moments, rather than finding them inappropriate or embarrassing.
“I grew up when the internet was still a wild frontier of fandom, and we met in places almost by accident: my most significant hub for the buffy the vampire slayer fandom was, for example, the Neopets roleplaying boards,” Giehl said. “Like a ton of other people from all sorts of marginalized backgrounds, I had a pretty rocky start to my creative career, and I felt that some of my most heartfelt creative instincts were too easily stifled by leaders who saw the vulnerability in them – and seemed to see it as something that needed to be eradicated. ‘Kill that, it makes your teeth cringe!’”
For many artists, this creative phase has been essential in developing their voice and their identity. Doodling in a notebook was more than just a fantasy; it was a way for some creators to discover key elements of themselves.
“When I saw turn red, I found Mei’s drawings cute… and really tame! I was definitely drawing more racy stuff at that age, and a few years later I was doing erotica as I discovered my homosexuality,” said Ro Salarian, a comic book artist who publishes comic book projects like Show or the very NSFW Hexual. Fancy. “I watched the movie and I never even imagined that anyone could have a problem with it. I really don’t understand what it looks like anything other than innocent to people. Did they meet a kid of thirteen before?
Salarian’s long history in self-publishing online comics began after he got his start as an amateur artist. “I realized I was queer when I was a young teenager when a very tame girl-on-girl comic I was drawing took an erotic turn.” But the pivotal moment culminated in burning the art and rinsing out the ashes. “My parents didn’t even shame me. They didn’t need it, because I grew up surrounded by messages that sex was bad and dirty. As an adult, I now know how many of my peers were also doing similar art at the time.
Now, it feels like the culture is shifting more towards celebrating that kind of young, serious interest in art and fandom. Shows like Bob’s Burgers give space to the fantastic erotic fanfic of Tina Belcher and friend fic. This is also the case for programs featuring millennial women, with an episode of Tuca and Bertie dig into Bertie’s love for English period pieces. And turn red is, of course, a very visible example. While turn red received negative reactions, the enthusiastic and positive reactions to the film show that many fans learn to love what they love without shame.
For Giehl, learning to accept this was an important part of her growth as an artist and creator. Now, she’s unabashedly in love with her fandoms, easily sharing them with friends. “‘Here,’ people say, ‘Sounds like your bullshit.’ They send me pictures of sad shirtless boys and blacksmith women with huge swords. I go up immediately, lovingly roasted.
Even though both Giehl and Salarian work as professional creators, both emphasized that certain types of art should be created for the good of the artist, not just as a pursuit of capitalism. Giehl lovingly crafts stories in the Warcraft universe, enjoying time spent with his original characters.
“Are these perfect stories that I would present professionally? NO!” said Giehl. “Are they full of indulgent, messy, romantic stuff that could put a ton of people off? what I want in them, especially when I know I could make a different choice for my professional to work? HELL YEAH.
While hustle culture and social media may encourage people to focus on posting more polished artwork, in hopes of funding a Patreon or merchandise shop, there is something pure and unblemished thing about sweatily doodling sexy crushes in a lined paper notebook. turn red captures this innocent, messy joy and treats it as a mode of communication and self-discovery that is important in its own right.
“Not everyone who draws is an A-capital artist who wants to make it their passion and/or their job one day. A lot of kids do it because they like to do it, because they are communicators visuals that get to know each other better through drawing,” Salarian said. “I’m afraid a lot of kids will see the talk and think it’s not worth trying, that they’ll give up something valuable before even to start. I fear that shame will seep into their subconscious if we don’t make a deliberate effort to counter it. And I think that’s the point of people who bring up this stuff. They don’t want their children to have a sexuality, let alone explore it. But the children yes. Children younger than Mei.
They added: ‘I hope kids get to see people championing all their wacky fantasies. I never got to embrace Tuxedo Mask for real, but I’m glad I spent so much time drawing it.