In the middle of a question and answer session at an academic symposium, an audience member wearing a Boss Baby shirt showed off the Boss Baby lunchbox he takes to work every day.
“Obviously I eat cookies for lunch,” he explained, “because that’s what Boss Baby fans do.”
There was polite applause.
Boss Baby fans don’t just eat cookies for lunch – they also convene virtual philosophy conferences dedicated to the study of The Boss Baby, the 2017 DreamWorks animated film starring Alec Baldwin.
Organised by Jaime McCaffrey of the University of Kentucky and Tore Levander of Fordham University, the first annual Boss Baby symposium, held online on Tuesday, brought together a wide range of thinkers to examine what we can learn from a movie about a baby who is also a boss.
Over the course of an entire afternoon, eight academics delivered presentations centred around three themes: Situating the Boss Baby in Myth and Media; Personal and Professional Growth: Work and Play in The Boss Baby; and “Not enough love for the two of us”: Birth, Motherhood, and the Lack Thereof. They were joined at the end for an informal chat with JP Karliak, voice of Boss Baby in the Netflix television series The Boss Baby: Back in Business, and its showrunner, or “Boss Baby boss baby”, Brandon Sawyer.
“Frankly, we don’t know exactly what you’ll find,” the symposium’s website admitted, “but we know it will leave you thinking, ‘Yep, that was definitely a symposium dedicated to the 2017 film titled The Boss Baby.’”
But why The Boss Baby? Depends on who you ask. According to one of the symposium’s presenters, it’s just the continuation of a long historical lineage of boss babies – or παῖς-ἄναξ, “child leaders”, in the ancient Greek – stretching from Astyanax from The Iliad, Hikaru Genji from The Tale of Genji, King Edward V of England and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York.
Regardless of why, there’s definitely a strong appeal at work. The film grossed half a billion dollars at the box office and has since been spun off into a 2021 sequel and four seasons of the Netflix television series. K-pop band BTS member Jimin learned English by watching the movie again and again. And when a Boss Baby balloon floated on to the 2021 Macy’s Parade, a transfixed crowd reverently chanted “Boss Baby” in near-religious supplication.
Despite this semi-ironic popularity, The Boss Baby follows a plot that can be difficult to parse, not that that would discourage academics. “It might be thematically richer than the Bible and more confusing than Ulysses,” McAffrey said in her opening remarks.
In the movie, the suit-and-tie-wearing, briefcase-bearing Boss Baby is sent on a secret mission by Baby Corp, where all babies come from. He’s charged with protecting the world’s love of babies, now under threat due to increasing love for puppies instead. So he sets out to stop the CEO of Puppy Co from releasing the “Forever Puppy”, a new version of puppy that remains a puppy for life, which would destroy babydom as we know it and for some reason is going to be launched into the world via a rocket filled to bursting with puppies.
That’s a rough summary that doesn’t even touch on things like the super secret baby formula that keeps the Boss Baby eternally young while endowing him with adult faculties. It would take a PhD just to understand how that’s supposed to work, let alone to conduct a Freudian and Marxist analysis of the milk, as two academics did for the talk The Land of Milk and Money: Lactic Capital in The Boss Baby.
Perplexing as the plot may be, the first annual Boss Baby symposium urged us to not throw out the Boss Baby with the boss bathwater. By the end of the day, we’d learned about everything from intertextual references in DreamWorks movies and US attitudes towards sexuality to Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development. We even sat down for a serious chat about Boss Baby’s “narcissistic and psychotic orientation”, which, to be fair, doesn’t really seem like a rare phenomenon among upper management.
It was during a presentation on the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s concept of play that it all twigged for me. The speaker had been arguing that an authentic existential attitude is predicated on a synthesis of facticity (boss) and transcendence (baby).
I realised that the symposium itself embodied what it means to truly be both boss and baby. The presentations were both tongue-in-cheek larks for a laugh and sincere explorations of the speakers’ areas of expertise. There was genuine affection for the film, as well as a willingness to make fun of it. It was serious (boss), but it was also silly (baby).
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the answers to all of life’s questions can be found in The Boss Baby, but, like the occasional cookie for lunch, it doesn’t hurt.