Somewhere in my parents’ garage, there are old disposable film camera photos of me dressed in the Party City costume version of the pink Hanfu dress that Mulan wears in the animated movie. I was probably about 7 years old at the time, though I definitely wore that costume for more than one Halloween.
Mulan was important to me, because even though I’m Vietnamese and Mulan is a Chinese story, as an Asian kid, you don’t have a ton of options if you want to somewhat look the part of the character you’re dressing up as. This was before I realized that I could dress up as whatever character I wanted, though at the time, I think I just really got attached the first Disney character who looked remotely like me. And beyond that, it was just cool to see an Asian Disney princess in general. Besides Pocahantas and Aladdin’s Jasmine, until that point, Disney princesses had been white, and so were their princes. They didn’t go on that many adventures, let alone go out to battle.
As important as that representation was, the movie definitely isn't perfect. In the 20 years since it’s been released, plenty of people have criticized it for not entirely being faithful to Chinese culture (it was apparently too Americanized for Chinese audiences — it barely made $30,000 in China, where Disney movies tend to make millions).
Jackie*, 27, a Chinese-American woman, says that while she was a “die-hard” fan of Mulan while growing up, as she got older, she began to feel like the movie played into stereotypes about Chinese culture, and might not have been as feminist as she initially thought.
“Looking back now, I do feel like some parts of it were reductive of Chinese culture, and that it sort of plays into some gender stereotypes — Mulan is heroic because she exhibits more ‘masculine’ traits, like being brave and fighting in a war, and being fairly tomboy-ish,” she says.
On the flip side, there was Mike Pence's criticism in a 1999 op-ed unearthed in 2016, wherein he argued that the movie was "mischievous liberal" propaganda that only proved that having women in the military was a bad idea, because, he wrote, “many young men find many young women to be attractive sexually. Many young women find many young men to be attractive sexually. Put them together, in close quarters, for long periods of time, and things will get interesting.” Unfortunately, the now-vice president is still beating that drum, only now he doesn’t have a Disney movie to blame.
Either way, two decades on from the movie's release, with a live-action remake on the way, what do we make of any imperfections Mulan may have had? And do they take away from what the movie did for representation?
"I think it's easy to criticize a movie in hindsight after so many years," she says. "The movie is not perfect, but at the time, it was pioneering for Disney to release a movie with an Asian heroine. It was a good start towards incorporating greater cultural diversity in movies, and I applaud Disney for doing it."
The movie is not perfect, but at the time, it was pioneering for Disney to release a movie with an Asian heroine.
Ying Yen, executive director at the New York Chinese Cultural Center
Before Mulan, pretty much the only other major Hollywood movie telling Asian women’s stories was The Joy Luck Club. But these days, Asian representation in Hollywood is still paltry at best. A 2017 study from the University of Southern California found that out of 900 popular films from 2007 to 2016, only two Asian male actors had leading roles, and of all the characters in all those movies, only 5.7% of them were Asian. And when Asians are represented, not everyone is receptive to seeing our stories being told. Star Wars actress Kelly Marie Tran recently deleted all of her Instagram photos, something many are attributing to her being harassed by racist commenters. (Even if that’s not the reason Tran deleted her photos, there’s no denying that people were harassing her with racial slurs.) It might be 2018, but people aren’t as accepting as we might hope, which only highlights how necessary good representation is.
Jennifer Siebel Newsom, CEO & Founder of The Representation Project, says that for its time, Mulan was a big step for women of color in particular, and made a statement that "Asian women and girls are the protagonists in their own stories."
"This centering of Asian women is especially important because we live a culture that demeans and degrades women in general, and particularly women of color," Newsom says. "We have to work every day to overcome the limiting narratives society sets for women and women of color. Movies like Mulan are part of that. They expand what's possible for all children and chip away at what it means to have a particular identity. This doesn’t mean that Mulan is perfect — I have quite a few critiques of princess culture — but it does mean that Mulan is important."
Though Mulan wasn’t a princess in the movie, her formal coronation as the eighth official Disney princess along with Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty, among others, was a big deal. However, Disney’s treatment of her beyond the movie has been seen as problematic — when she was “redesigned” as a princess, fans pointed out that her skin was lightened, she was wearing the dress she hated, and her warrior storyline seemed watered down to make her look like all the other princesses. This despite the fact that unlike many of the others, she didn’t marry into royalty, and became somewhat of a royal through her heroism. For what it’s worth, Disney seems to have now scrapped that redesign on her character page, opting instead to show her as the warrior she was in the movie.
Given how important the animated movie was for people, it's not surprising that fans have been adamant that the live-action remake casts Asian actors in the movie, instead of white-washing it à la Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, or Emma Stone in Aloha. Some have also expressed disappointment that the remake doesn't have an Asian director (Yen, for her part, says that she would have loved to have seen how a Chinese director would remake the movie today). It’s worth mentioning, though, that at least the movie now has a woman director — the original movie was directed by two white men, though at least it featured mostly Asian voice actors.
Time will tell just how culturally sensitive and faithful the remake will be, but the one thing that's clear is just how significant Mulan remains.
"I think a lot of people are so fervent about [the remake] because it has the potential to be so great and affirming for Chinese people and Asian people in general," Jackie says. "We just want to see ourselves as heroes, and we want to see it done right."
*Names have been changed for the sake of privacy.