Whose “Universal” Narrative Is It Anyway?

When you hear the phrase universal themes, what comes to mind? This is a topic that’s been on my brain recently, in part due to my literary research and in part due to something I came across while I was procrastinating my literary research. Pixar’s new movie, Turning Red, dropped on Disney+ this month and has naturally been in the news and in pop culture discussion. CinemaBlend’s managing director Sean O’Connell sparked quite a bit of conversation when, in an early review, he criticised the movie for being “unrelatable”. This review has since been deleted, but its essence is helpfully preserved by articles like this one:

“I recognized the humor in the film, but connected with none of it. By rooting ‘Turning Red’ very specifically in the Asian community of Toronto, the film legitimately feels like it was made for [director] Domee Shi’s friends and immediate family members,” O’Connell wrote in the since-pulled review. “Which is fine — but also, a tad limiting in its scope.”

O’Connell also called the movie “exhausting” because he couldn’t connect with it: “Some Pixar movies are made for a universal audience. Turning Red is not”.

Now, I’m not here today to take apart O’Connell and his argument—the Internet at large has already done that plenty. Instead, I want to use this review as a jumping-off point to unpack this idea of a “universal narrative” in kids’ media. Because in his professionally-published knee-jerk reactions to this film, O’Connell has usefully highlighted some dominant, persistent perceptions at the heart of discussions about diverse media. These are:

  1. Stories that step beyond the mainstream “universal” perspective are “niche” and “limited in scope”
  2. Stories that step beyond the mainstream “universal” perspective must be educational to close this gap

I’ll be using a lot of “air quotes” (though not scare quotes, I hope) in this post because I really want to dig into the constructed nature of these ideas. The idea of a “universal narrative”, or, to be even more specific, the idea of a universal coming-of-age narrative or universal story about childhood, is not something that formed in a vacuum. While the notion of universal tropes or experiences that every viewer can relate to might not sound like anything insidious—surely it sounds inclusive!—it’s one that often ends up framing and stifling conversations about storytelling. When O’Connell talks about universality, what is he picturing? Maybe more to the point, what is he not picturing? And what can his expectations tell us about broader trends in storytelling and reader reception?

“By rooting ‘Ratatouille’ in the rat community of Paris, the film feels limited in its scope…”

So, okay: focusing on thirteen-year-old girls in the Chinese-Canadian community of Toronto in 2002, rooted in references and homages to boy bands and anime, does sound like a pretty narrow storytelling niche. But so does, for example, a story that focuses on twelve-year-old boys in the suburbs of a small town in Indiana in 1984, rooted in references and homages to Stephen Spielberg movies and Dungeons and Dragons.

Stranger Things didn’t receive this kind of reaction, despite being representative of a very narrow niche of childhood/adolescent experience. Despite the series clearly drawing on the creators’ lovingly-crafted nostalgia for their own youth and its popular culture, there was no widespread critical scoffing that Stranger Things was clearly made for the Duffer Brothers’ immediate family and friends, and no one else.

The trick, then, is not to argue that Turning Red is not niche, but to flip the conversation and acknowledge that, unless a story is so painfully generic it doesn’t reflect anything about life in the real world, every story will exist in a “niche” of some kind: every story has to be set in a certain place, anchored in a certain culture, drawing on certain experiences. Especially stories about childhood and teendom, times of our lives informed and shaped by such deeply personal intersecting factors of where, when, and who.

But the niche of white, straight, cis, American boyhood has been explored in so much media, repeated over and over from a rich variety of angles from countless writers and directors each drawing on their own specific experiences, that it feels like it’s no longer a niche. It feels “universal”, the norm, the mainstream. And anything outside of that makes the people used to seeing the norm, and used to seeing themselves in that norm, react with surprise and, as it turns out, discomfort.  

There’s still a lingering perception that stories about boys are for everyone, but only girls will enjoy a story about girls. It’s groundbreaking enough that Turning Red has a female lead when that’s still seen, by some, as a decision that will cut your market in half (unless of course you’re going for that coveted Princess Movie demographic). Turning Red’s main character being a girl with Chinese heritage takes it one more big, risky step away from being “for everyone”.

O’Connell’s suggestion that other Pixar movies are more “universal” implies that non-human characters like toys, bugs, or sentient cars are easier to relate to than humans of a different ethnicity. This echoes and exemplifies a bigger issue: studies like the one reported here found that illustrated children’s books are eight times more likely to have an animal for a protagonist than a child of colour. Most hilariously and most damningly, the aspect that makes Mei’s story unrelatable according to this review is the fact that it’s anchored in the Asian community of Toronto… not the fact that Mei turns into a giant red panda. Just as it’s seen as easier to empathise with non-human heroes, suspending your disbelief for fantasy scenarios is more doable than engaging with a real-world cultural context you don’t share.

It speaks to a lack of empathy. Not as some personal flaw in O’Connell (and the other critics that his comments so helpfully represent) but as something structural: if the story that’s repeated over and over again is one that resonates easily with you, you’re simply not given much practice at looking for echoes of yourself in stories about something different. If you’re a boy, you’re not asked to do the legwork to relate to female protagonists in the same way girls are often asked to relate to male ones. If you’re white, you’re not asked to empathise with characters of colour—unless that’s the whole point of the story, of course.

Here we come to perception #2. I think a reason O’Connell found Turning Red “exhausting” is because he’s used to either “just getting” all the sociocultural cues in a movie, since they’re familiar to him—or, having them explained if they’re new and unfamiliar. Turning Red doesn’t spoonfeed the viewer. It doesn’t pause to explain why honouring your parents is seen as important, or what a historical C-drama is, or the significance and untold power of The Aunties. If you get it, you get it. If it’s not immediately familiar to you, maybe you don’t “just get” it, but the storytelling trusts you to figure it out by seeing how the story moves around it and how the characters react. Basic media literacy, right?

Perhaps not so basic. And this, again, comes down to those ideas of what is “the norm” in narrative, and the amount of empathetic, imaginative effort certain audience members just aren’t usually asked to extend. Remember Rudine Sims Bishop’s allegory about fiction for children functioning as mirrors, windows, and sliding doors? Folks who can see themselves in mainstream cinema and storytelling come to expect that if a text does not directly work as a “mirror” for their experience, it surely must be a “window”. If something represents an experience outside of the mainstream, its function is surely to be a teaching tool about what that experience is like.

As the title of this research paper helpfully sums up, there are “expectations that [authors from marginalised backgrounds] be educators” permeating the marketing and reception of their stories—and often, I imagine, in the lengthy process that goes on before publication, where editors and agents decide which manuscripts they want to try and turn into books in the first place. For a long time, “window” books (and movies) about any experience outside of the perceived norm—be that race, queerness, disability, etc.—were configured as didactic empathy tools to show how Other People live. Or, at least, those were not the only stories being published, but they were often the ones that received the most attention and/or critical acclaim.

Stories about marginalised people where there is no lesson and no attempt to appeal to a “mainstream” audience are becoming more common, yet obviously remain unusual enough that reviewers who are used to “window books” get confused and alienated. So thoroughly used to having their hand held, they feel suddenly adrift when something isn’t educating them. So used to stories being for them, by them, and about them, they balk when experiences they don’t personally recognise flash across the screens. So used to thinking of their own stories as “universal” that they can’t conceive of a universe that involves other people.

Is there any such thing as a “universal narrative”? You can talk about puberty, family, first loves, the forming of personal identity, as aspects of the coming-of-age story that will apply to everyone. But these things may look so different in their different contexts that audience members so accustomed to their version might not recognise them. Or, might not be trained to recognise them—again, talking about a failure of empathy here is not to say that people who grew up as white, American boys are inherently broken or cruel, it’s just that Hollywood caters to them in an endless feedback loop that removes their need to imagine other ways of being.

And I keep mentioning American for a reason—I’m not from the US, but a solid 95% of mainstream media is. A double standard has been set where we’ve all grown up expected to understand American cultural norms, to project ourselves onto American settings, and to empathise with the “universal” image of American adolescence… but an Australian story, overtly set in Australia and drawing on Australian cultural touchstones, is perceived as only being marketable within Australia. Aussie creatives feel the need to sand off specifically Australian details in order to make them more “universal”. There is an understanding—at least in marketing terms—that something the American audience can’t immediately resonate with won’t get bought. How’s that for a “limited scope”?

This is the problem with “universal narrative”: as a literary concept, sure, it’s fine and interesting. But it’s being applied as a marketing strategy and it’s creating an endless loop. Reactions like O’Connell’s review are important to deconstruct because that thought process isn’t just happening on the reception side of things, it’s happening in production. Behind the scenes, from an industry standpoint, people are making decisions about what projects to greenlight, what stories get told to a “mainstream” audience, and they’re informed by thinking like this. Executives fund projects they think have “universal” appeal, and in doing so play a hand in what “universal” storytelling comes to look like.

There was a fair bit about Turning Red I didn’t personally relate to: I’m not Chinese, Canadian, or Chinese-Canadian, so I’m sure a lot of the nuances and little details informed by the diaspora experience (plus, Toronto in-jokes) went over my head. I can’t map my relationship with my mother directly onto Mei and Ming. I never had a boy band phase. I never turned into a red panda! But we don’t engage with art just to have our own lives reflected directly back at us.

I enjoyed the peek into a cultural context I don’t share. I can’t map my relationship with my mother directly onto Mei and Ming, but I still got all weepy when they resolved their conflict with each other in the climax. I never had a boy band phase, but I can giggle along with the characters as they goof around being their authentic cringey thirteen-year-old fangirl selves, and appreciate what they’re representing. I never turned into a red panda, but I can suspend my disbelief, empathise, and engage with the story enough to notice a metaphor when I see one.

Screw “universal narrative”, what I enjoyed the most about Turning Red was how specific it was, how lovingly it draws from the director and writers’ imagination and memories, how it offers me a glimpse into an unfamiliar world without feeling the need to teach me a class about it. Turning Red is an unusual film, at least for now. It’s clearly disrupting a pattern if reviewers like O’Connell—who, again, I’ve used here to stand in for a bigger problem, rather than shredding him as a person—are so affronted by it.

For every story like Turning Red that breaks through the pattern and finds success, the more wriggle room is made for others that can follow in its footsteps. The more voices get to speak from their personal backgrounds, their unique experiences, and their imaginations, the wider our idea of “universal narrative” will open and the less they will seem “limited in scope”. Or, hey, maybe with enough variety we’ll begin to set aside this demand for universality and will instead embrace “niche” stories that tell one particular, “narrow” but heartfelt version of the coming-of-age story. Maybe with enough practice critics will learn to engage with them differently and expectations will shift. We can only hope, and the universe of “universality” can only get bigger.

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Filed under Fun with Isms

5 responses to “Whose “Universal” Narrative Is It Anyway?

  1. I was directed here from Tumblr. This was a really great read, thank you for posting.

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  4. I am going through my old emails and reading things that have been taking the dust for months and I am glad I did because I could not agree more with this! Where is their sense of wonder and discovery about discovering a new culture? (I guess nowhere and that’s why they always have to adapt everything because how dare other countries and cultures do good things!)

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