By Darren Tan, Staff Writer
Bao, a 2018 female-directed Pixar short reflecting Asian culture, spurred countless media outlets to rejoice at its monumental Oscar triumph for Best Animated Short Film – at the same time, an entire Reddit community was struck with awe and discomfort at how close it hit home. To them, Domee Shi’s Bao is not merely Asian representation; it mirrors their stories of child abuse, self-righteous parenting, and lack of proper closure.
Released in the same year as the fairly innocuous representation in Crazy Rich Asians, Bao (“dumpling”) explores the complex evolution of Asian parent-child interactions through an allegorical dream sequence. The cute, little dumpling created by the mother symbolizes the quintessential second-generation immigrant child who increasingly strives for independence, only for his teenage rebellion to be viewed with distrust and treated with derision. Eventually, in order to prevent the “bao” from moving out with his blonde beau, the mother eats her dumpling son.
Therein lies the problem: where white audiences laughed out loud at what was arguably the darkest moment in Pixar animation history – perhaps in disbelief that such suffocating familial relationships existed – Asians broke down, cried, and silently struggled as laughter rang out around them. This discomfort and cultural divide is especially prominent in the subreddit r/AsianParentStories, where the grown-up children of tiger parents around the world share stories about their shockingly similar, suffocating family dynamics:
“The short that I saw really epitomized the idea of it being your duty to love your parents, no matter how your family treats you.”
“When she ate bao it brought back moments where my family would use physical violence to get their way.”
“As he grows older, we’re shown her slaving away in the kitchen making this amazing meal for her son only for him to say he’s eating out with his friends, and to get upset. Does this sound familiar to any of you? Your parents don’t ask about your plans, then get upset with you because they worked so hard to plan xyz without even asking if you’re free.”
After the dumpling son is eaten, the dream dissipates and we are shown the “real” son being encouraged (or pushed) by his father to talk to his mother, presumably to mend the rift in their relationship. The idea that her child has to be the one to come back and comfort her reminds countless Asians of all the painful times when our own family has acted in an extremely selfish and self-righteous way, only to expect their child to return and apologize to them.
Regardless of how harshly the mother’s actions are, it is an incredibly disturbing yet relatable cultural message for an Asian community that Bao attempts to convey – but to a very general audience. What’s more disturbing, however, is the audience’s near-complete dismissal of the short.
Reactions to Bao on social media reveal a less enthusiastic reaction to the critically acclaimed Pixar short. From Twitter threads to Facebook comments, people expressed confusion (“my family was the only one laughing!”) to disbelief (“that came on and wtf?” and “ball of crap”).
Petrana Radulovic put it best on Polygon: “When people don’t get a cameo at the end of a Marvel movie, they Google it for better understanding. Yet more often than one might expect, when people are confronted with a particular cultural experience that they don’t get, the confusion rarely seems to turn into curiosity. Instead, it becomes a source of bewildered judgment. Vocal, bewildered judgment.”
When someone encounters something outside of the mainstream Caucasian perspective, the lens through which we are used to viewing any kind of media, often they react like a mistake has been made. My first thought after watching Bao was to show it to my parents to try to help them understand where my grievances with them came from. It’s harder to do this when half the reviews call it “dumb.”
Outright dismissal of Bao is an insult to Asians because it’s like telling us, “You are confusing, and I can’t even bother to understand you.” And that, ultimately, is the main problem with lack of representation for minorities in media. As Twitter user @_indusvalley aptly put it, white audiences consume all art as if they are the intended audience. Most art, especially those viewed in America. was made by and for white people – when it finally isn’t, they ridicule or can’t appreciate it as a result.
White audiences can relate to, or at least respect, stories like Bao when that is what minorities have been doing all their lives.
And even if the central messages of stories like Bao aren’t perfect, they are still a small step forward in representation. More than that, Bao did what Domee Shi set out to do – it took on the daunting task of depicting the intricate facets of an Asian parent-child dynamic – and the outcome was gorgeous.
It’s the kind of universal tale that is so rarely told, so rarely understood, yet so overwhelmingly relatable. And as much as the Asian community could argue over whether Bao’s message is justified, one thing is clear: we deserve this Oscar.