What if fat jokes and cultural (mis)appropriation weren’t considered so darn cute? A review of Kung Fu Panda

The kiddies have been a-begging to see Kung Fu Panda and, whether it was the lure of an air-conditioned theatre or a weakness for Jack Black, I capitulated. I am not glad I did so. While the theatre was cool, the movie was not.

Filled with fat jokes, fighting, and not much else, this filmic (mis)appropriation of Asian culture upheld a number of fat stereotypes. While Liz Henry over at The Body Politic felt the film was body positive, I disagree. Liz writes that:

The movie has a very clear message of respect for bodily differences. The Furious Five, a tigress, viper, monkey, crane, and mantis, all have radically different bodies. The mantis is notably tiny and fragile, and a great fighter. While there is a lot of humor and mockery based on fat jokes at the panda’s expense, he learns to believe in himself. He trains hard to become wise, fearless, and talented – not to lose weight. He becomes a hero, but stays a big fat panda.

I agree that the Furious Five have radically different bodies, but this bodily diversity is not emphasized in the film. The only character whose body is consistently focused on is Po’s – the panda of the title (voiced by Jack Black). Moreover, Po’s size is used not to subvert fat stereotypes but to reinforce them. According to the logic of the film, those who are fat (like Po)

  • are motivated by food
  • are unable to control their desire for food
  • are emotional eaters
  • are unfit and klutzy
  • are funny and jolly
  • are talkative but not all that bright

How original!!! When was the last time you saw a fat character that didn’t live up to these stereotypes in the mainstream media? From Patrick in Spongebob Squarepants to Carl in Jimmy Neutron to Cartman in South Park, fat cartoon characters tend to exhibit some or all of these stereotypes. Come to think of it, so do non-cartoon fatties. And fat women? Forget it. They are even more negatively depicted than fat males. Fat men get to be funny, jolly, and cool (like John Candy, Chris Farley, Jack Black) while fat women are usually the sad sacks who are considered angry, ugly, and in need of a diet. Or, as in the cartoon world, they apparently don’t exist. (If you want something that IS body positive, skip Kung Fu Panda and see Joy Nash’s recent Fat Rant 3. Or, for the kiddies, have them read Fat Camp Commandoes by Daniel Pinkwater.)

In the film, Po’s fatness is not represented in a body positive way. If it was, his fat would not become his defining characteristic. How about this idea: what if instead of having Po’s breakthrough moment come over an epic battle over a dumpling (there is the motivated by hunger stereotype), Po could have been motivated to achieve Kung Fu greatness by something other than food? The end of this scene is the clincher. After battling for what seemed like eternity over the last dumpling, upon his victory, Po claims “I am not hungry” and refuses the dumpling. Ah, thanks for that – thanks for the message that winners don’t eat, that to be a ‘winner’ Po must overcome that nasty habit of his of actually liking food. Po does indeed train to become “wise, fearless, and talented,” but this scene implies that he will also have to lose his love of dumplings to become a real Kung Fu fighter. Thus, as Melissa puts it over at Shakesville:

this movie also appears to be one long fun-filled adventure in fat hating. Ha ha-the fat panda can’t climb the stairs without getting winded. Ha ha-the fat panda is so inflexible and graceless. Ha ha-the fat panda is fat

However, the movie doesn’t only get a negative F count for its anti-fat messages, but for its blatant appropriation of Asian culture in a way that, you guessed it, perpetuates a number of Asian stereotypes.

As Jennifer at Mixed Race American sarcastically notes:

we need MORE reinforcement of Asian stereotypes, especially those that perpetuate the connection of Asians with Panda bears and martial arts, and DAMN IT, this one has BOTH.

Or, as nickalew writes over at The Asian Code:

First of all, it’s about a panda, which in today’s culture epitomizes oriental (sic) culture. This panda is also named Po (I know, surprisingly not Ling Ling huh?). On top of all this, his family owns a noodle shop (why not a flippin’ dry cleaner for gosh sake). Stereotypical to the max, I’d say. Po is big martial arts fan (because ALL Asians are evidently)

In addition to the stereotypical focus on Kung Fu, panda bears, noodle houses, dragons, and fireworks, the film also manages to appropriate Asian symbols, belief systems, and cultural practices in a way that waters them down into a bland Americanized/Westernized form. The film doesn’t convey anything about the art of Kung Fu or the culture/historical context of the setting – rather its message is “Kung fu is cool and fat is funny! Go fat panda, go!” Like Mulan, which represented Asians as backwards, war-mongering sexist beasts who barter women in a purported message of female empowerment, Kung Fu Panda trades in being ‘pro-Asian’ or ‘multi-cultural’ while being nothing of the sort. I agree with at The Asian Code, who argues “the stereotyping is so completely clear…It may be rated PG ‘for sequences of martial arts action,’ but I’d rate this R, for RACIST.”

Sure, there are the nods to Zen wisdom, but overall the film trades into a facile commodification of Asian culture. By allowing viewers to buy into things they already associate with Asian culture – Kung Fu and pandas – and by doing so in a way that waters each down so they are not even linked to Asian traditions in any relevant way – the film appropriates Asian cultural traditions in order to offer up a very Americanized championing of individualism. This is most evident near the close of the film when Po finds the Dragon Scroll that contains no words but instead reflects the image of whoever is holding it. This personal empowerment message may seem nice for the kiddies (it’s good to believe in yourself), but it also promotes an individualistic credo which is decidedly not in keeping with the supposedly Zen teachings of the film. Further, at the film’s end, the five communal warriors are not part of Po’s battle with Tai Lung – of course not, cuz Po can pull himself up by those Horatio Alger bootstraps and do it all by himself. (For a much better kid-friendly introduction to Zen, see the book Zen Shorts by Jon J Muth.)

Here, as nguirado points out at Asymmetric, the film hits on what he (unsarcastically) deems “perfect marketing”:

What better way to capitalize on a growing Chinese-world marketplace than a story set in uncontroversial ancient China and featuring the one uniquely Chinese export that Westerners love- acrobatic martial arts.

Yes, perfect marketing indeed. Take China and make it into bland Americana, add in some popular Asian-style visual affects and a few nods to anime, throw in Jack Black with a catchy “skadoosh,” keep the fat jokes coming, and hey, presto, you’ve got yourself one heck of a marketable fat-hating Asian-appropriating film!

As for the representation of women in the movie, well, there isn’t one – NOT ONE – key female character. Yes, Tigress (voiced by Angelina Jolie) is represented as the most skilled warrior, but she (along with the other 4 of the Furious Five) remain decidedly in the background. Besides her and Viper (voiced by Lucy Liu), there are no women. As usual, the animated world is populated almost entirely by males! Further, the Tigress and the Viper play into the Asian female Exotic Dragon Lady type- they are both a bit sinister, a bit dangerous – and, they are both sexualized. Why couldn’t the females have been the monkey or the crane? Guess its harder to sexualize a crane or make a monkey seem sinister. Heck, why didn’t they bring back the ‘We are Siamese’ cats from Lady and the Tramp and go old-school racism?* In comparison to older animated films, Kung Fu Panda is less overtly racist and sexist – it hides these impulses under a glitzy exterior of multi-culturalism and nods to powerful females. Yet, the undercurrents of racism, sexism, and fat-phobia (as well as the pro-individualistic, pro-violence messages) are all the more sinister precisely because they go down so easy. It’s the subtle, gentle way of making audience goers agree with (and laugh at) Others. The film thus successfully serves up subconscious racist, sexist, anti-fat propaganda. And, despite the nods to celebrating diversity (both bodily and culturally) the film actually presents a very American message: If you are fat, you better be funny and if you are Asian, you better know Kung Fu.

*For a great overview of racism in Disney films, see the documentary Mickey Mouse Monopoly

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21 thoughts on “What if fat jokes and cultural (mis)appropriation weren’t considered so darn cute? A review of Kung Fu Panda”

  1. Thanks for the warning. My kids have been begging me to see this movie as well. I am always skeptical of anything produced by Disney. They are the masters of problematic cartoons.

  2. Your welcome, Renee. I am not saying your kids won’t enjoy it — mine did — but we had to do lots of analysis after the film together in order to ‘unpack’ all the negative messages. I think seeing movies that are problematic can be a good lesson in learning to be critical media watchers for kids. Plus, if we didn’t let are kids see anything problematic, well, they wouldn’t get to see anything at all. 🙂

  3. I’m sure they tried to do them with accents before that was completely thrown off the table. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m actually a little fired up from the McDonald’s commercial promoting Kung Fu Panda. You see two Asian kids, one boy on girl, battling over a McNugget. Very-Crouching-Tiger-Hidden-Dragon-esque. I’m not so fond of commercial writers. They are the worst!

  4. “…Mulan, which represented Asians as backwards, war-mongering sexist beasts who barter women in a purported message of female empowerment…”

    I’d like to point out they only and very specifically represent Chinese and Mongols, not all Asians.

    It is also clearly a defensive war that China is fighting. The attackers are the Mongols (who are also Asian, but it still doesn’t represent ALL Asians as-war mongering.)

    And it is interesting that out of all the problems that there are with the film, including the rape of an ancient tale and historical and cultural inaccuracies, and the message that you should ultimately conform to gender standards, the arranged marriage and sexism of ancient Chinese culture offends you the most (even though it was true, and to some extent, still true to this day).

    Is it how they portrayed it, with so many other falsities, that bothers you? Or the fact that it is exposing the negative side of nonwhite culture and not the negative side of white culture?

  5. I’d also like to add that I refused to go to Kung Fu panda because hours of mutilating a beautiful martial art mixed with fat jokes is my idea of torture.

  6. Kara,
    Thanks for commenting. My comments on Mulan were made as a point of comparison and you are right that perhaps I was not specific enough in my commentary.

    However, my one comment does not ‘rank’ what upsets me the most about the film – -they are all equally critiqued.

    There are parts of Mulan that I like — what I don’t like is the more general trend in Disney movies, Mulan included, to ‘exoticize’ non-white culture, and yes, to also portray people of color and other cultures in a very Otherized fashion. White is the norm in Disney — this is what bothers me — not too mention the racism, sexism, classism, etc messages of the films. Not that I don’t enjoy many Disney movies — but liking a movie does not mean I refuse to scrutinize its more problematic messages.

  7. Uhhhmmmm. Are you seriously, REALLY taking a movie where Jack Black plays a PANDA and saying it has racist messages?

    God damn man, I aint gonna start making fun of asians and being sexist because of a animated movie for kids. Also, I dont think it is saying “KUNG FU KUNG FU ASIANS ONLY DO KUNG FU.”

    Yeah, I think the focus on that is there because it’s….I dont know….A PART OF THE PLOT. Seriously, there are not radical propoganda messages in American animated films. We aren’t a “Big Brother” state yet, no matter how close we have come.

  8. I think you are kind of overreacting in this post. It’s a cartoon, not a serious movie. Cartoons are supposed to contain stereotypes. People aren’t supposed to take them seriously. Some people probably do though, and I think that’s the real problem that you should be more concerned with.

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  10. Sorry for the really late reply, but in case someone finds this years after… like I did.

    I can’t really comment on anything else than the problem on “stereotypical focusing on Kung Fu”. I think it’s important to keep in mind that Kung Fu panda is meant to be a wuxia movie, thus the content is what wuxia movies typically are: an ordinary guy who learns Kung Fu and gets better, grows as a person and becomes really really good, and then he fights for justice and there’s lots of cool fighting scenes where people fly through air, etc.

    I’ve seen many wuxia movies in my life, and Kung Fu Panda isn’t that different, content wise, except that it’s made in USA which is bound to show a little.

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