Bizarre or Beautiful?
An Opinion on Pixar’s Bao
 

Written By Dev Chatterjee

This summer, I walked into the theaters hopeful and nervous to watch a sequel that I (like most late 90s babies) had been awaiting reluctantly for 14 agonizing, seemingly bottomless years: but in the days after seeing Incredibles 2, I found myself contemplating not the 118 minutes I had spent nearly a decade and a half anticipating, but the unexpected 7 minutes preceding. Pixar shorts are always special, but Bao (directed by Chinese-Canadian artist Domee Shi) resonated with me on a level that even many of my other favorite animated shorts (Paperman, Feast, and La Luna, for those wondering) didn’t approach.

 

Bao (spoilers ahead!) is the story of an immigrant mother in Canada, who makes a pork bun which suddenly comes to life. She takes care of the newly animated bun, feeding it and teaching it, taking it with her on errands and protecting it from any potential physical harm. As the bun grows older, it develops its own interests and relationships, leading to an increasingly strained relationship with the mother. In a moment of panic, she swallows the bun whole and is then consumed with overwhelming regret. The allegory is fulfilled when the mother’s [human] son, whose silhouette resembles the pork bun, enters the room, and the tension of the relationship is settled as mother and son share the pastries they shared during his childhood.

 

There were a lot of pieces of Bao that I felt especially connected to: a story about an Asian immigrant mother and her dynamic relationship with her first-generation son and the exploration of food as a platform for cultural exchange are themes that are evocative for me in particular. I laughed when the bun bumped its head, I cried as the mother sat on the edge of her bed with her now-grown son, and every time they showed the kitchen I inhaled harder than usual, hoping to catch a whiff of the familiar-yet-ever-elusive aroma of an Asian mother’s steam-filled kitchen. But my perception of the film was that even members of the audience who didn’t have the specific experiences of growing up Asian in a multicultural, Western society, would identify with the more universal themes that Bao touches on beautifully. These themes, like evolving family dynamics, a desire to preserve one’s heritage, and the unique love that a parent has for their child, are prevalent and powerful for people the world over, not just Asian-Americans.

 

But the public conversation (both in the “real world” and in that dreaded hellscape of groundless outrage, internet comment sections) surrounding Bao took me by surprise, which soon turned to disappointment. While there were certainly internet communities who were raving about how personal and nostalgic a piece Bao is for so many, the larger public was supposedly confused and bemused. Twitter was awash with members of the audience who qualify as being “mainstream” complaining that they had “no idea what the heck was going on!!” or that their kids waited through the trailers for 35 minutes and “we were so excited for it…And wtf?”. 1 IMDB reviews for Bao range from a concise commenter saying “it made no sense” to a concerned mother claiming that it was “incredibly disturbing” and that her “kids sat slack-jawed in horror.” 1 These reviews are a goldmine of the ever-so-thinly-veiled style of racism that every racial and ethnic minority in the West has grown accustomed to sniffing out. Even seemingly “stylistic” criticisms of Bao fall apart under any scrutiny: Bao was supposedly too “bizzarist” for Pixar’s general audiences wrote the commenter-critics, who paid money to see a movie about a family of superheroes that protect a city in a hyper-stylized, utopian, techno-futuristic reimagination of early 1960’s America. 

 

Of course, I know that every member of the audience didn’t necessarily feel that hit of nostalgia seeing a rack of foreign spices hanging on the kitchen wall, and I recognize that there were certainly easter eggs that were beyond the scope of my familiarity with the culture in question. The fact, for example, that “bao” means “steamed bun” in Mandarin but also sounds like the word for “treasure”, and the stylistic animation choices that invoke the director’s mainly Japanese influences, flew over my head. What I didn’t expect was that some audiences would reject Bao altogether as an unredeemable experiment, with some confused critics going as far as to call the Director herself a “racist” for making the film in the first place. The extra vocal part of the internet found itself unable to connect the dots on the pieces that Shi didn’t explicitly spell out for them. This is something that every person of color in America has experience doing: I interact with cultural themes, tropes, and references that I didn’t learn from my parents every day. Whether it’s cultural norms regarding punctuality, or the lyrics to Don’t Stop Believin’, people (and especially immigrants) of color have learned to connect those dots and identify even with those aspects of American culture that don’t necessarily reflect our own experiences. We don’t cast Cinderella or Snow White as absurdist artistic failures just because we grew up hearing different folk tales.

 

The outrage surrounding Bao reminded me of the response to an earlier Pixar short, Pixar veteran Sanjay Patel’s 2015 masterpiece, Sanjay’s Super Team. The short starts showing a young Indian boy and his father sitting on opposite sides of the room, the father meditating in front of a Hindu shrine and the son watching an animated superhero show on tv. Eventually, the father turns off the tv and requires the boy to join him in meditation. The boy begins to lose focus but then is transported into a world where the deities his father was worshipping had come to life. By the end of the journey, Sanjay returns to his father’s side with a new understanding of his heritage and a powerful sense of intergenerational connection.

For me, watching Sanjay’s Super Team in a theater was even more moving than the first time I saw Bao. In seven nonverbal minutes, it perfectly summarized my experiences as an American Hindu, a set of experiences that I have been struggling to put into words for most of my life. On one hand, it encapsulated several of the key points of internal reflection in my religious upbringing: the balance between preserving traditions and embracing progress, incorporating elements of Hinduism into aspects of my life that I found beauty in, and the attention required to stay on the right path, even in the face of distraction. I know what it’s like to be a young boy daydreaming as his father does puja. I know what it’s like to experience the moment when Hinduism become personal for me. Above all, the artistic elements of the short speak to me on an ultra-personal level. The symbolism of Computerized re-imaginations of millennia-old deities moving in patterns reminiscent of the classical dances my sister performed throughout our shared youth, the background score that uses the father’s “om” as a foundational bass, and the evocative imagery of Sanjay himself engaging in an act of intentional material sacrifice to protect his team stuck out to me immediately. On even the most superficial level, Sanjay’s father looks like a stylized version of what my own dad looked in the early parts of my childhood. In Sanjay, I see a younger, simpler depiction of myself: an artist’s impression of some version of Dev that actually existed about fifteen years ago.

 

But just as Sanjay’s Super Team had tugged at my most personal heartstrings, the response to it salted my deepest wounds. Conversations were dominated by voices calling it “too scary for kids” at best and “unacceptable proselytism” at worst. Reviews claimed that Pixar was out of line to “force” a different religion upon unsuspecting moviegoers and that their children’s nightmares were haunted by demonic Hindu imagery. Scrolling through comments and online reviews was a distilled version of what it feels like to grow up as a religious minority in America. Reading every one-star rating on IMDB gave me flashbacks: seeing protesters outside Atlanta-area Hindu temples as a child, holding up signs warning my parents not to consign their innocent children to an eternity in hell. Having to bookend the description of every holiday my family has observed for countless generations with “it’s like our version of Christmas!” Explaining to incredulous beefeaters that it wasn’t that “my God” wouldn’t hate me if I ate a hamburger, I just didn’t really feel like eating one.

 

The Big Three animation studios—Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks— have made an obvious and intentional shift in the subject matter highlighted in their work in recent years. From shorts like Sanjay’s Super Team and Bao, to features like Coco and Moana, Disney and Pixar, in particular, have not shied away from telling stories with people of color in relatable lead roles. They have managed to navigate this shift while integrating into their films complex cultural elements in a manner that is not only respectful, but celebratory, compelling, and accurate. And while I certainly didn’t catch every reference about small-town life in Mexico in Coco or notice every subtle nod to Polynesian culture in Moana, I identified with those characters and I could see a part of my own experiences in each of them. Furthermore, knowing the significance that Sanjay’s Super Team and Bao had to me, it’s easy to see how the other films could be extremely powerful and inspiring for members of the communities that those films highlight.

 

Conversations that dismiss Bao as absurdist or unrelatable and condemn Sanjay’s Super Team as fanatical anti-Christian propaganda amount to an erasure of minority cultures, and actively exclude the stories of immigrants and people of color from the body of work that comprises the so-called “mainstream”. American people of color have more practice putting themselves in the shoes of characters who don’t look like them, sound like them, or share their same set of common experiences than their white counterparts do. This is a valuable skill that develops empathy and fosters solidarity, one that we should encourage children (and adults) of all backgrounds to practice. It is both troubling and puzzling that some White parents are more comfortable with their children identifying with leads that are vehicles, rodents, or aliens more readily than leads that are people of color, immigrants, or other members of marginalized minority communities.

 

This problem doesn’t stop at the end of the reel: studies show that white participants are less empathetic towards people of color than the other way around2. Doctors have been shown to assume Black patients experience less pain than their white counterparts,3 and white people routinely rank political issues that affect them less directly as unimportant as compared to people of color4. This is not mere speculation or inference: neuroscientists at Brandeis University and the University of Toronto-Scarborough have confirmed that white participants registered lower levels of stimulation of so-called “mirror neurons” (which fire when people see someone else in a position they can easily imagine themselves in) when observing non-white subjects as compared to white ones5. The racial empathy gap quite literally leads white people to see the experiences of people of color as less human than their own.

 

I don’t think that Pixar, or any of the Big Three, should exclusively produce stories with people of color in lead roles. Nor do I consider animated film that doesn’t highlight people of color as irrelevant or unimportant. It is important to remember, however, that the stories we choose to popularize play an essential role in the socialization of our world. Animated film, in particular, plays an important twofold part in modern American cultural socialization: for one thing, it is marketed primarily towards young viewers, whose worldviews are not yet so stubborn. Additionally, the specifics of the medium allow for a certain suspension of disbelief that can lead to stories feeling more magical and emotional than reality. It is important for us as mindful and conscious audiences to reflect carefully about our responses to the art we consume: we all have a duty to challenge ourselves to be more empathetic, even if we haven’t had the exact experiences of the characters we watch. Bao is much more than a film about a woman “swallowing” an anthropomorphic dumpling, and it is the audience’s responsibility (rather than the director’s obligation) to lead itself to that realization. 

Footnotes

1. its_willyu. (2018, June 24). THIS WASN’T MADE FOR YOU [Tweet]

2. Silverstein, J. (2013, June 27). I Don’t Feel Your Pain. Slate.

3. Trawalter S., Hoffman K.M., Waytz A. (2012) Racial Bias in Perceptions of Others’ Pain. PLoS ONE 7(11).

4. Newkirk II, V.R. (2019, February 21). The Racial Divide is the Political Divide. The Atlantic.

5. Human brain recognizes and reacts to race, UTC researchers discover. (2010, April 26). University of Toronto Scarborough.

Dev Chatterjee is a Boston University Senior pursuing a degree in International Relations in the Pardee School of Global Studies. A Posse scholar and Georgia native, Dev enjoys analyzing animated films and making puns and pasta.