Bao Blacklash is Nothing New
In the summer of 2018, arguably one of the most highly anticipated movie sequels was released, Incredibles 2. The film grossed an estimated $180 million, making it one of the “largest opening weekends of all time” and the largest in animation. Preceding the movie in theaters was Bao, the first Pixar short film to be directed by a woman—and a woman of color at that. Domee Shi’s short film depicts a Chinese-Canadian mother who struggles with empty-nest syndrome as her child grows older and more independent. In Bao, the son is represented as an anthropomorphic dumpling who is constantly urging for a life that is different from what his mother is trying to provide: a western life.
This narrative of a strained relationship is extremely common for Asian immigrant parents and their westernized children. The former emphasizes collective and collaborative culture, where children often do not leave home until they marry, if then. There is deep respect for the elders in the family and importance in taking care of one another. In juxtaposition, western cultures are extremely individualistic. They emphasize independence, especially for children from their parents. This dissonance is a commonality for westernized Asian children. Petrana Radulovic describes her experience living in the middle of these two cultures in her article about Bao.
However, for many attending the Incredibles 2 screenings, Bao’s central metaphor, a mother trying to reconcile her relationship with her son who is depicted as a bao, was lost. Many took to Twitter to express their discomfort and confusion. Twitter user @courtsnyder15 wrote, “The most confusing 10 minutes of my life.” User @nicolepietig admitted, “I paid very hard attention to it and I have no idea what the heck was going on?” @JamieMcAliste7 wrote, “Plus my kids waited 35 minutes for the previews and we were so excited for [Incredibles 2] to start….then that came on and wtf?” @Alycia_Ladha said, “LOL still confused at how that ball of crap turned into her son????” User @tmetteer wrote, “My family was the only one laughing when she ate it. Oops.”
While most of these comments are not intentionally harmful, it is important to recognize how western culture often acknowledges Asian culture in only two extremes: fetishization or disgust. What these Twitter users, and many of the people who did not understand the short film, fail to do is suspend disbelief. It is unlikely that these confused viewers have never encountered a metaphor before, but it is likely they have been subconsciously groomed to either reject Asian culture or view it through the lens of Orientalism. Edward W. Said in his eponymous book defines Orientalism as the way western culture experiences and defines “The Orient” as other.
This rejection is not new in western society. If existent in media, Asian characters—and even real people the movies are based on—are often portrayed by actors like Scarlett Johansson, Emma Stone, or Jim Sturgess and Hugo Weaving. White people have even won Academy Awards for yellowface. And these portrayals are often caricatures such Joel Grey’s Chiun in Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins and Rob Schneider as the Asian minister in I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry. These caricatures promote stereotypes that depict Asians as the “forever foreigner,” and often rely on heavy accents—that sometimes transcend several Asian languages—and terrible prosthetics and makeup to land a “punchline.” These and other Asian stereotypes in media—the nerdy and unsocial student, the over-sexualized school girl, the sidekick—are all used to keep Asians othered.
The ridicule and exclusivity of Asian people in America has been present since Asians began immigrating in the 1800s. A song published in The California Songster in 1855 named “John Chinaman” is explicit in its racism: “John Chinaman, John Chinaman / But five short years ago, / I welcomed you from Canton, John— / But wish I hadn't though;” The poem goes on to remark on “John’s” dishonesty, unwillingness to assimilate into white culture, and thievery. This poem is not remarking one experience though. The Oxford English Dictionary lists “John Chinaman” as a derogatory term for Chinese people—all Asian people regardless of ethnicity—collectively. As art, especially cinema and music, depicts the culture of its time, this song truly depicts the racism that Chinese people faced during the time they were unallowed to mine during the Gold Rush and forced to work in primarily low wage cooking, laundering, and construction jobs. Despite this, the Chinese laborers were seen as such a threat that the fear toward them was dubbed the yellow peril.
Anti-Asian sentiment was not exclusive to the arts and pop culture. In fact, Americans were so afraid of Asian immigrants becoming too dominant in the work force during the late 1800s that in 1882, “Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act [that] suspended the immigration of Chinese laborers” and prevented legal residents from becoming citizens. It was also required for Asian people to carry identity certification. Then, six years later, Congress “passed the Scott Act, which made reentry to the United States after a visit to China impossible, even for long-term legal residents.” Four years later, Congress extended exclusion for another decade through the Geary Act. These Chinese Exclusion Acts were extended “indefinitely” until their eventual repeal in 1943, over sixty years later. This repeal was not because racism toward Asians and Asian-Americans had ended, but because the strained relationships between China and the United States of America needed to be somewhat repaired during World War II. Subsequently, the anti-Asian sentiment shifted away from Chinese people and toward Japanese people and their descendants. It is important to recognize that throughout history, marginalization of minority groups is heavily dependent on past marginalized groups targeting the new groups, for example, the Irish toward the Italians, and that this case was no exception.
It may seem trivial as an animated short film, but it is important to remember that Bao and the backlash it received do not exist in a vacuum. The rejection that some felt after watching the short film was not just because of the film as an individual unit, but because of the way western society has been taught to consume media centered around the Asian experience—rarely, if at all, and controlled through a western lens. As depicted in Bao, Shi’s own experience may have been new, maybe too new, to some, but the first-generation Asian community has been waiting for authentic representation since we first began immigrating to this country.
About the author: Teresa Tsang is a senior at Seattle Pacific University double majoring in English creative writing and Social Justice and Cultural Studies. She is also pursuing a double minor in political science and Women's Studies.