Subtle Prejudice of Disney/Pixar’s “Bao,” “Turning Red”

For centuries, the United States of America has been seen as the hallmark of opportunity. My whole life, I have been taught that it is the land of the brave and the free, a nation built by immigrants that welcomes them with open arms. But really, truly, how brave or free can a country be that hides its prejudice against immigrants behind happy endings?

Disney/Pixar released Bao in 2018 as an animated short film depicting the shifting relationship between a Chinese mother and her son, the latter of whom is initially represented as a baozi, or dumpling. As he grows older, he starts to pull away from her to assert his independence. A push-pull dynamic ensues between them, culminating when he tries to leave home with his fiancée, and his mother eats him, at which point it is revealed that the dumpling sequence was a dream and her son is still alive, and the two reconcile.

This year, the animated full-length film Turning Red made its debut. Protagonist Meilin, “Mei,” Lee lives with her Chinese parents in Toronto and constantly struggles to live up to their expectations. When Mei transforms into a ginormous red panda, the precarious balance of her life soon comes crumbling down and she must choose to either follow her passions — the part of her that the red panda represents — or to satisfy her family by locking away the panda’s spirit. She picks her passions and, in the process, helps her family let go of their expectations for her.

While Domee Shi, the director of both works, appears to appeal to a courageous and liberalizing world view — the dumpling/son being eaten in Bao is definitely a shock factor, and Turning Red addresses menstruation, sparking unreasonable backlash — she skips out on the opportunity to really dig deep. Is this because of Disney/Pixar’s censorship or Shi’s own discretion? Perhaps it’s a bit of both. Regardless, neither film goes far enough to address real experiences of race and assimilation; instead, they actually express some harmful undertones.

Bao and Turning Red both antagonize the main characters’ parents. The parents are the ones stuck in the past, in the old structure of tradition. Their children see the light, the glitter, and the opportunity of Western idealism. All the while, the films champion independence, freedom, and the realization that there is a better world out in the big bright yonder. While independence and freedom are undoubtedly both positive attributes, the films demonstrate, even if unintentionally, prejudice toward Asian culture.

From whom do the children in Bao and Turning Red gain independence? According to Disney/Pixar, the confinements of a cultural household and the people who are part of it  — likely immigrant parents.

Where, then, can independence and a sense of liberty be found? According to Bao and Turning Red, in the Western world. This message implies that the ones at fault are those attached to cultural beliefs. Their refusal to accept the exploratory and freedom-loving nature of Western society seems to make them regressive villains who can only be redeemed by the love of their children, suggestive of the films’ communicated prejudice toward Asian cultural backgrounds despite Shi’s own Chinese-Canadian identity.

I think it’s important to note that while both the director and the protagonist of Turning Red are Chinese-Canadian, neither of the films solely circulate in Canada. Disney/Pixar’s international reach and availability on digital platforms such as Disney+ mean that their audience extends both into non-English speaking countries and into the United States.

Thus, Western values are heavily tied to both films: they are idealistic, telling young people that anything is possible as long as they come to the West and integrate themselves into Western culture. Persuasive Western exceptionalism is perpetuated by the distribution of such media. Had 13-year-old me, a quiet and geeky Chinese-American kid from Chicago, seen Bao or Turning Red, I would have believed wholeheartedly in this emphatic and upbeat — dare I say? — propaganda. I wouldn’t have known that the fun and fancy-free messaging failed to address the unfortunate reality of anti-Asian racism. 

In Turning Red, no one in Mei’s small Chinatown community is beaten in broad daylight. Her grandmother is neither ridiculed or punched in the face. No stranger stabs her neighbor in the back or demeans her on public transit. None of the random people Mei talks to tells her to “go back to China.” 

“But that’s too much for a children’s movie,” I can already hear someone grumble. 

Too much? What’s too much is teaching young, impressionable adolescents that only positivity exists; that the grass is greener where contemporary Western ideals of liberty and abundance abound. It devalues other cultures, and it’s essentially a lie.

Amid continuing reports of attacks on Asian Americans, young and old, the one-year anniversary of the Atlanta spa shootings has come and gone. On March 16, 2021, Robert Aaron Long gunned down eight people, six of them Asian women. These victims sought some form of liberty in the United States. For Daoyou Feng, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, and Soon Chung Park, it was financial freedom: the ability to make enough money to ensure the comfort of their families back home in China and Korea. Xiaojie Tan and Yong Ae Yue sought the liberty of love through the promised American pursuit of happiness, as marriage brought them to the United States. Unbeknownst to all, there was no freedom to be found.

Bao and Turning Red have delivered to audiences  a package of Western exceptionalism wrapped quite nicely with a bow, a message of the “better life” in Western nations free from the cultural tradition, economic conditions, and expectations of the home country. But this message is, at best, deceitful, and, at worst, deadly. It’s especially tragic that young people are the intended audience.

Pixar, you’re not going to change the hearts of prejudiced people by enlisting a Chinese-Canadian director to create a happy-go-lucky Asian/Western representation film. Sunshine and rainbows won’t undo the past. But most importantly, these saccharine lies sell dangerous promises to the highest bidder. 

Domee Shi, why exceptionalize the West at the expense of the East? Use your position as director to uplift unheard voices, not give the bullhorn to the ones who have always shouted the loudest.

Children should be able to see and understand the world they grow up in. They won’t be equipped if there is no conversation about realit;, if they are instead lied to and made to prioritize one identity over another.