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:
- Stories that step beyond the mainstream “universal” perspective are “niche” and “limited in scope”
- 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?Continue reading