Two Views of Kung Fu Panda: Zizek Vs Weinstein

Slavoj Zizek thinks that Kung Fu Panda, the movie, pretty much presents the audience with everything that’s wrong with modernity. He speaks about the subject with surprising frequency, and several of his references are in Youtube videos like this one:

Here is a taste of his views, in text:

“If you ask me for really dangerous ideological films, for ideology at its purest, I’d say Kung Fu Panda. I saw it five times because my son likes it. The movie is extremely cynical in that you know they make fun of all this ideology, of Buddhism and these things, but the message is even though we know it is not true and we make fun, you have to believe in it. It’s this split of you know it’s not true but just make like you believe in it.”

Here, there’s a much longer explanation, spiced up with some Lacanian theory. In summary, I would say, Zizek objects to Kung Fu Panda being an all-inclusive. anything-goes US style-appropriation of foreign (in this case, Chinese) themes to provide the all-American message: if you try hard and believe in yourself, you can be anything you want. Anyone can be a hero o a Kung Fu master, if you just make a minimal effort.

However, I think there’s a better interpretation of Kung Fu Panda than this one:  Eric Weinstein — mathematician, economist, and managing director of Thiel Capital — has a fascinating explanation of how and why Po, the useless fat Panda, ends up  becoming a great Kung Fu fighter:

“First one must challenge the assumptions of the questioner. Po is not a slob. He is a panda with an appetite and lack of athleticism to match, and principally fat because of this. From a defensive perspective, we find out early that Po’s rolls of fat insulate his nerves from being easily accessed by Mantis’ acupuncture needles. We also learn that Tai Lung’s most impressive power is his perfection of various nerve attacks in the style that Master Oogway used against Tai Lung to keep him from the dragon scroll. Thus we see at the climax of the film that it is Po’s very fat that keeps Tai Lung’s nerve attacks from having any effect on Po beyond a tickling sensation. Next, Tai Lung underestimates Po as an opponent. The snow leopard is so contemptuous of Po that he never focuses on defeating him until it is too late. Instead, Tai Lung is focused exclusively on gaining the dragon scroll as he sees it as his rightful entitlement. This gives Po plenty of opportunity to understand Tai Lung as an opponent while Tai Lung chases the scroll and Po chases them both. Lastly, and most importantly, Po is not a classic ‘student’ of Kung Fu. There is no ‘bear style’ and Shifu, mindful of his failure with Tai Lung, teaches no one techniques like the WuXi finger hold. Thus Po is left to find the secrets of his own power as a self teacher. And this, in my opinion, is the real secret to the whole film. Oogway is a self-teacher. As a turtle, he is even less appropriate than a Panda as a Kung Fu archetype. But we learn that it is Oogway who, in apparent solitude at the pool of sacred tears, unravels the ‘secrets of harmony and focus’. Thus Oogway is a self-teacher trying to pass the secret of self-teaching. But how can he do this as to train a student risks crowding out the self-teaching modality? So he decides to pick a self-teacher by choosing the panda whose only achievement is to break into a Kung Fu competition by turning a fireworks cart into a makeshift rocket to hop a wall. Yet this act of improvisation tells the great turtle that he is better off working with this humble unconventional maverick than with the overtrained tigress or other conventionally trained high achievers. Po then realizes that he can create without waiting to receive wisdom down the chain of masters. Po uses Tai Lung’s own power and vulnerabilities against the snow leopard and finishes him off with a trick that he realizes he can reverse engineer without needing to wait for a knowledge transfer from Shifu that will likely never come. This is a highly subversive, deep, and subtle film. Pretending it is a comedic children’s cartoon with a simple ‘be yourself’ message is perhaps the ultimate Kung Fu move. You are so busy being distracted, you never really see it coming.”

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About David Roman

Communicator. I tweet @dromanber.
This entry was posted in Bad Propaganda, Zizekiana and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Two Views of Kung Fu Panda: Zizek Vs Weinstein

  1. spottedtoad says:

    Yeah, the original Kung Fu Panda was pretty deep, even if the two follow-ups were superfluous nonsense (the third one was both beautiful and totally empty). Weinstein’s remarks above remind me of an idea I’ve had that I think he’s hinting at, which is that the economy that is developing, the world as it increasingly is, is one in which the marginal value of individual contribution is highly unpredictable, more and more detached from individual effort and even individual talent in a conventional sense. The meritocratic/credential-based structure that we’ve placed onto our society (which his colleague Thiel has often criticized) is an attempt to rationalize and justify what is ultimately unfair and arbitrary. The irony perhaps is that Chinese society is at a stage in development in which, while corruption and nepotism are no doubt rampant, the society has bought into the value of talent and effort in rendering results, while American society has only held onto these values only in its upper echelons. The temptation I’ll fall victim to is to connect everything to this year’s election, but I think it applies here: Trump (along with the reality TV culture which he reemerged from) was a rejection of conventional credentials and even conventional talents for a politician (he had no grasp of policy details and was not remotely articulate by conventional standards) while Hillary had a superfluity of conventional credentials. My strong sense has been that the depths of anger and betrayal a number of my friends feel at Trump’s election comes not just from an antipathy to the perceived racism and sexism of his campaign but to a sense that his election was a full-on repudiation of the ideas of meritocratic effort and success that they’ve based their lives around (and which I’ve benefited from to a large degree myself.) In any case, that must be how Tiger felt when Po was elected the Dragon Warrior.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh goodness, no, Kung Fu Panda 3 isn’t empty. At least, from my perspective as an adoptee who found her biological family as an adult, KFP3 is actually pretty insightful. Take the tension between Po’s adoptive and biological father–in most stories where a kid has been adopted, the biological parents are dead, making reunion impossible. But in reality, most adopted kids’ biological parents are still alive out there somewhere. Adoptive parents being unhappy about or afraid that their kids will decide they like the biological parent better is absolutely a thing. You don’t put all of that love and effort into a kid and then just look the other way when some “real parent” shows up.
      But from the kid’s perspective,there are those pesky question of, “Who am I, where did I come from?” Even the most perfect adoptive parent can have trouble answering. In Po’s case, he is literally a panda raised by a goose–not even a member of his same class. Surely Po feels a bit out of place, no matter how great a father the goose is nor how much Po loves his dad. That moment when Po realizes he is like the other pandas in a way that he isn’t like a goose or a tiger or a mantis–I’ve felt that. Over in goose land, Po feels incompetent. A lot. Geese can fly; Po has to climb the stairs–and he’s not good at climbing stairs. Well, none of the other pandas like climbing stairs, either. In panda land, there aren’t a bunch of stairs. In panda land, Po’s not incompetent. He’s normal.

      But discovering that he fits in at the panda village in a way that he didn’t back home doesn’t mean home stops being his home. His goose-dad doesn’t stop being his dad. Often people feel like they have to chose an identity. Po realizes he is all of his identities–son of a goose and a panda, teacher and student.

      And then chi–the whole story revolves around the quest for chi–chi isn’t something Po learns. It’s not something the pandas can teach him. It’s something they give him because they love him. As a child, you don’t earn love. You can’t learn tricks to make people love you. It’s just something your parents give you. And yet it’s incredibly important; it’s part of what makes you, you.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. David Roman says:

    Very intriguing comment! We definitely need to get Zizek to comment on Kung Fu Panda again after the Trump election.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Kung Fu Panda and Meritocracy – spottedtoad

  4. Pingback: De Qué Va Slavoj Zizek, en 10 Cómodos Fascículos | Neotenianos

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