Hot-button issues like workplace misogyny and a lack of diversity aren’t often explored by family-friendly Pixar. But this month, it released a nine-minute short that does just that.
Called Purl, it was released on 4 February and has already amassed six million views on YouTube. It’s the story of a walking, talking ball of yarn called Purl. She’s carnation pink, bubbly and eager to kick off her new desk job at the firm B.R.O. Capital.
But after her colleagues – all male – negatively react to her, she shapes herself (figuratively and literally) to be more like the hyper-masculine workers around her so she can fit in.
Pixar story artist Kristen Lester, who wrote and directed the short, says the film is inspired by her own experiences in the animation industry. Starting out, she was often the only woman in the room, and felt like she had to morph into “one of the guys”.
“I didn’t want to risk being rejected, and so I would change to eliminate that risk,” she says.
The film satirises “bro culture” – a term often linked to fields like tech, finance and video games which have drawn criticism for fostering macho office environments that can exclude and demean women.
Purl is a sunshiney, eager ball of yarn who's instantly excluded by her "bro" colleagues (Credit: Pixar Animation Studios)
Purl’s colleagues are stereotypical “bros”. They make loud, vulgar jokes, they constantly talk about hitting the gym, and rowdily leave en masse at 17:00 for all-you-can-eat wings happy hour. When Purl gleefully bounces into the office, they’re dumbstruck and speechless, with no idea how to relate to her. Almost immediately, they start ignoring her in meetings, and ditch her when it’s time for after-work hangouts.
It’s an example of tribalism, which can be damaging to both individual workers and the companies that employ them – when people are in an environment where everyone looks, sounds, acts and thinks the same, it can create an echo chamber and cyclical system that only includes and rewards the same kinds of people over and over. (All the photos on the “employee of the month” wall at B.R.O. are of white men sporting the same grin.) Study after study has shown that more diverse teams are more innovative, more successful and make better decisions than homogenous teams do.
Eventually, Purl reinvents herself as a two-dimensional, defeminised caricature in a suit. She copies their behaviour to the point where she becomes one of them. She swears, she’s aggressive in meetings – and she’s instantly accepted. (In a montage later with the boys, she throws up strings of green yarn-vomit after a heavy session at the pub.)
Between the cursing and the on-screen regurgitating, Purl isn’t typical Pixar fare. But that’s exactly what Pixar has aimed to do: Purl is one of six short films in an experimental series called “SparkShorts”. The company gave a handful of employees of varied backgrounds six months and limited funds to make their own films based on their personal stories, allowing for more latitude and edginess.
Why depict women as balls of yarn?
“We can change into whatever we want in order to negotiate a situation where we feel uncomfortable,” Lester says. “This idea of shape-shifting and ‘knitting new personas’ was something I thought could be a cool metaphor.” At her early jobs, Lester says she had to do little things, like self-edit her conversations around her male colleagues, to fit in. One example was avoiding referencing films that she feared were viewed as “too girly”.
“I didn’t want to be associated with those things because I felt it emphasised that I was different,” she says. “So, I would choose to reference movies that I knew my male coworkers had watched and liked. It got my point across, but it wasn’t the movie that I had personally connected to.”
Purl is one of six experimental short films part of Pixar's new "SparkShorts" initiative (Credit: Pixar Animation Studios)
Some time after Purl’s transformation, a new cheerfully earnest hire joins B.R.O. – a yellow yarn ball named Lacy. The bro contingent instantly crushes her own spirit and excludes her. But when Purl sees Lacy going through what she did, she drops the act and welcomes Lacy into the fold, setting an example for the others.
But the short isn’t just about casual gender discrimination in the workplace – it’s about general inclusion.
In the film’s happy ending, the office is filled with dozens of brightly-coloured yarn balls working joyfully alongside the now-enlightened men. But there’s a visual difference in the men, too: they’re more racially diverse. That was no coincidence, Lester says.
“I wanted to portray the world as it could be. A world where people – and yarn balls – of all different shapes and sizes could work together to make something great.”
Since the film’s release, many people have contacted Lester with their own version of Purl’s story. “Some of their stories are funny, some of them sad, but they are all stories of people relating to the struggles of [Purl].”
She hopes people keep telling their personal stories, especially through film.
“Being able to understand and empathise with a point of view not our own opens up new possibilities for us as a culture,” she says. “Movies have the power to create empathy for other points of view we may not have considered.”
Bryan Lufkin is BBC Capital's features writer. Follow him on Twitter @bryan_lufkin.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called "If You Only Read 6 Things This Week". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.