Mulan: the White Feminist

Mulan and I go way back. I’m sure every Asian/AA girl growing up in this country has been in an ideological tussle with Mulan at some point in their life. Whenever Halloween rolled around to my little town in Minnesota, girls would be dressing up as Cinderella, Ariel, or Belle. Each year, without fail, someone would ask the dreaded question: “Are you going to dress up as Mulan?”

No. And no, I’m not going to be ninja either.

Actually, I didn’t even know what Mulan was until much later l when I watched the movie in middle school. There was nothing too memorable about the movie, other than their constant repetition of “you must bring your family honor,” which made me oddly uncomfortable, even back then.

This time around, I was able to notice moments that went above and beyond “uncomfortable” to reach “blatantly racist,” such as the fat man chanting Amitabha Buddha with a thick English accent or the comic relief being an Eddie Murphy-voiced dragon named Mushu (remind anyone of Mooshu pork?). I also considered the idea that Mulan is sort-of like another ninja. In line with the “Yin-Yang” wise old Asian Man stereotype, the Emperor’s dialogue mainly consisted of repeated fortune-cookie phrases such as “A single grain of rice can tip the scale. One man can make the difference between victory and defeat” or “No matter how the wind howls, the mountain cannot bow to it.” I stopped the movie and contemplated turning it off once the ancestors turned up, looking more like translucent Greek Gods and bickering: “My children never caused such trouble. They all became acupuncturists.” 

mulan-ancestors

Sometimes it’s difficult to gauge the political correctness of a Disney movie because their purposes aren’t exactly propagating moral stories for children (they’re a corporation after all). Plus, most movies were made more than a decade ago when political correctness or racial awareness wasn’t high on anyone’s priority list. But I still believe that criticism of the movies is necessary, as they will continued to be watched by (and invade the minds of) future generations.

WHITE FEMINISM VS. ASIAN TRADITIONS
Of the Disney movies, Mulan is the most widely praised for presenting a powerful, strong female role model to young girls. But as an Asian/Asian American female, I personally find a strange cord of dissonance within the movie. I’m still working out the details but the bottom line is: the movie Mulan falsely presents a dichotomy of Asian powerlessness and Western power, therefore, saying that the only way to be an empowered, strong female is by abandoning Asian traditions and living solely the Western way.

Mulan’s actions are undeniably more powerful and stronger than any other Disney princess. She takes problems into her own hands (not waiting for the prince to come save her) and as a result, is praised by “all of China.” Even when Shang comes to ask her hand in marriage, viewers know he fell in love with her brains and wit, not just her looks.

But with her need to assert her individuality, her inability to be punctual, or even the humorous portrayal of her reading notes off her arm, I realized that Mulan was actually just another quirky American girl. And this whitewashed Mulan seems unable to co-exist with the tensions around Chinese culture & familial obligations, and at times, she flat out rejects them. Disney portrays arranged marriages being silly and judgmental, and Mulan herself being too wild and individualistic to fit into such an outdated, backwards model. Her initial motivations of fighting on behalf of her father is quickly replaced by an individualistic need to “discover herself” — as evidence by her long song about showing “who I am inside.” With Mulan’s distinctly individualistic portrayal and disregard for obedience and duty, the benign Disney movie becomes another imperialistic story about how superior Western ideals conquered the backward traditions of Asian culture.

mulan-disney-princess-reflection

In fear of being sexist, especially within the “submissive and obedient” Asian cultural context, Disney chose an inherently egalitarian story and drove it to the extremes of Western feminism. And in that process, the story began to escape the context of Chinese society. That was when Mulan became a fantastical tale about a whitewashed girl in Ancient China.

When I tell U.S. audiences about Bidya [a Sri Lankan feminist who got an arranged marriage], what they almost invariably communicate back to me precisely proves my point. They consider her powerless — power being equated with the individual’s ability to take action and choose freely, a market-impelled notion. For them, the possibility that arranged marriage may be beneficial to a kin system, the smooth functioning of which in turn ensures its members’ survival and well-being, is an alien thought.

– Delia D. Aguliar, Dragon Ladies: Asian American Feminists Breath Fire

360_mulan_film_1201There is a Chinese movie about Mulan that shows a very different perspective of the story, where Mulan is a strong Asian female who worries about her father more than her personal title. I watched all of it and felt it helped to illuminate why I felt discomfort with Disney’s version. It’s definitely a different perspective of the story and a good example of how Chinese traditions could be balanced with the ideas of a “strong woman” without tipping into White Feminism.

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13 thoughts on “Mulan: the White Feminist

  1. Well some issues here:

    1. Nonuami Tofu dah is a Buddhist chant to the Amitabha Buddha. I don’t know if you just find words and automatically think they are stereotypes because they sound like “asian” words commonly known in American culture, but at least do SOME research.

    2. The insistence that Mulan is “abandoning Asian tradition” is also enormously misguided and seems to be based on a stereotype of Asians in the mind of the viewer, not in the movie itself. Mulan is a story over 1000 years old and although they do change some large features of the story (yes, one of them being her motives), they do so to introduce a moral that can be recognized and internalized by modern audiences. The problem with adapting the original story is that it requires ENORMOUS amounts of background knowledge of the culture in order to be comprehended. They simplified the story so as to reach a more global audience (they actually do the same with stories such as Snow White, Cinderella, or Rapunzel).

    3. Feminism movements such as those you characterize as “Western” exist in Asia too and have existed. Insisting that the tradition of “Western” feminism belongs to the West is an insistence that limits real cultural representations in the East.

    4. The portrayal of arranged marriages is meant to show that children should not seek to just jump into love and should actually consider what they are doing first (undermined by some aspects of the end of the movie sure). Also, although China still does have arranged marriages with a good deal of frequency, the practice is both changing and falling out of favor. The depiction in the film is reflective of real cultural dynamics.

    • John,

      Thanks for your comment. I appreciate your comments & made updated edits to the post as necessary.

      I wanted to make clear that my argument is not that Mulan is indeed “abandoning Asian tradition,” but that the movie itself establishes a dichotomy between Mulan (embodying notions of Western individualism and seeking to escape her familial obligations) and the rest of Chinese society that she encounters (all that belongs to family and China are deemed “traditional,” “backwards,” and thus, abandoned in her pursuit of self) — rather than exploring the complexities and tensions between familial obligation and personal desire in an honest manner.

      I also agree with you that feminism is not inherently a Western idea, although forms of individualistic WHITE feminism has been critiqued as such, especially in regards to addressing racial or cultural relations. I make a similar critique, as Mulan’s form of “independence” and “feminism” does not take into account the tensions around arranged marriages or traditional gender roles but rather rejects them. I believe a more “culturally appropriate” depiction would have presented Mulan as incorporating family and obligation to the collective, and thus, rebranded traditional notions of individualistic feminism. As of right now, Mulan simply uses China as a backdrop just to tell another white feminist story through a more seemingly culturally different means.

      • My point was that feminism has and does take on the individualistic forms that are a “White” method of addressing feminism. The use of the word white is interesting as well. By using the word “white”, you deny the many other racial groups that either helped in the mainstream US/UK suffragette movements (which I am guessing you are referring to) or denying that spinoff groups of those geared toward minorities. Even if you make the argument that this movement began with white people (which is difficult to actual argue as one could point to the fact that the origins of the movement could have arguably come from any of the cultures the Europeans contacted and then partially assimilated, much to their detriment), but referring to it as “White” feminism denies a real faculty of minorities or other cultures to take said movement into their own hands.

        Even if you are appealing to previous arguments of the effect of otherness bred in feminist culture through some sort of “media invasion” of a sort, you still fail to justify this by establishing criteria by which Mulan invokes a “white” version of feminist rhetoric beyond the vague statement of individualism. Furthermore, you fail to provide contrast with the movements in Asia.

        Additionally, the idea of not considering all the arguments around arranged marriage and simply writing it off is not a tactic only used by Western film. Watch Deepa Mehta’s Earth, in which a young girl is forced into an arranged marriage as the protagonists look on with pity. In fact, many Asian born feminist movements want immediate abolition of the practice. This brings up the issue that Mulan’s depiction of arranged marriage could also be found in an Asian film, then perhaps the movie is not a matter of race relations between subject and director, but rather an issue of polarized opinions on a matter (not inherently Western or white opinions either).

  2. I agree, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Mulan is a parable about how Confucian social norms are restrictive and outdated, completely failing to fulfil the needs of young people and preventing both them and society from reaching their full potential, which is a sentiment I agree with 10000%. I would much rather live in a world where children are raised according to ideals of individualism, personal rights and child development theory than what an old man thousands of years ago thought was a good idea. As an Asian-Australian child, Mulan and her defiance of a culture where ancestors are gods and the father figure reigns supreme were everything I ever needed to know was possible.

  3. […] This isn’t to dismiss the fact that there is a lot of room for caution in making a Mulan movie. Inherently, the Disney rendition of the film was racist at various points. An example of this is that every character who was meant to be used as comic relief in the film (the Matchmaker, Chi-Fu) all had ridiculous heavy accents, while Mulan and Captain Li had American accents. There’s also the risk of appropriating Asian culture—an example of this being the Emperor fulfilling the “wise old Asian Man stereotype…repeating [sic] fortune-cookie phrases.” […]

  4. Hi there,

    Thanks very much for this article. I am a white British feminist and I have to say, ever since I saw this film when I was little, I have been ignorant of the racial issues that are (I now see) obviously at play in the film. I am an absolute ardent advocate for intersectional feminism and I think it is so important for voices like yours to critique aspects of our culture (like Disney films) that especially white western people take for granted.

    I just wanted to ask a couple of questions if you don’t mind. I totally understand your argument that Mulan, especially early on in the film, is very much on a ‘find yourself’ mission which blatantly reeks of Western capitalism. However, after it is revealed that she is a woman (in the mountains scene) she says that by going into the army she hoped that when she looked in the mirror she’d see something worthwhile. Instead she was wrong and sees nothing. Effectively, therefore, does she realise that her pursuit for Western self-knowledge completely fails? I would then argue that the only way she gets some form of belonging is by risking her life to protect her emporer and by ridding China of the huns. The goal is to protect China and not herself which completely undercuts the idea of market-led Western individualism. What do you think? I also want to say that at same time I TOTALLY see your point about the representation of many secondary characters, which definitely relies on stereotypes and cliché. I think it’s quite sickening especially as you have said about the fortune cookie emporer in the big city but then in the pastoral countryside areas where Mulan grows up they’re seen as quaint, backward and almost bumpkin like.

    Disney, around that time, had a bit of a renaissance when it came to portraying women of different races and ethnicities. How do you compare Mulan with the presentation of the women and cultures in films like Pocahontas, Esmeralda and Tiana?

    Thank you!

    • Hi there, Elizabeth! I usually don’t reply to comments, but appreciated yours. I have to admit that it’s been awhile since I’ve seen Disney’s Mulan (I wrote the post nearly 3 years ago), and so I don’t particularly recall that scene. I think the argument about Western individualism is more so about how her initial motivation for joining the army to protect her father from going was morphed into self-discovery, rebellion, and pursuit of “success” to return to her family. The shift of that motivation signals to me how the character was shaped and morphed into fitting the values & ideology of a Western audience. I know that doesn’t directly answer your question, but hope it’s helpful.

      I do agree that there was a collect-them-all set of POC disney princesses that came out (never more than one for each racial checkbox), but I think that the critique for each of those portrayals vary. Mainly because the white gaze lands on Chinese, Native, Romani, and Black women all differently. For example, colonization and conquest might be a more relevant theme to examine Pocahontas with, and I have heard many a critiques about the lack of Tiana’s screentime as an actual human being (rather than a green frog). I would refer you to http://feministdisney.tumblr.com/ for more nuanced critiques on these films. Thanks!

      • Thanks so much for replying, I find the whole thing really interesting and I completely appreciate your argument. Thanks also for the heads-up with that blog, I feel like a lot of my time in the near future is going to be spent on there!

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