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.”
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.
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
There 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.