Mulan through the looking glass

For young Asian-American women, Disney's new heroine Mulan is no mirror image, but at least she casts back a reflection.

By Katherine Kim - Andrea Quong
Published July 7, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

EDITOR'S NOTE: Disney Studio's 36th animated feature is its first movie with an Asian theme: the story of a young Chinese woman who leads an army into battle and saves her country. Like every Disney heroine before her, Mulan is meeting with huge box office success -- $55 million in ticket sales in the movie's first two weeks since release. Mulan is Disney's first thoroughly modern (if legendarily ancient) heroine -- who doesn't wait for her prince to come, who doesn't sleep until love's first kiss, who doesn't change herself or leave her home behind for a man. She is also Disney's first Asian-American heroine who reflects. What do young, Asian women think of "Mulan"? The following are two perspectives on Disney's woman warrior.

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The Disney peril


I have a complex relationship with "Mulan."
Expecting to be painfully offended by the Disney studio film "inspired" by
a beloved 2,000-year-old Chinese legend, I ended up enjoying this relatively benign film. Instead of buck teeth and chopstick
accents, I saw a pretty, politically correct tale with a lead character I
could relate to -- a feminist of color. Even so, "Mulan" had a subtext: It was yet another movie showing the West as superior to the East.

According to the legend, Hua Mu Lan, sometimes called "the Chinese Joan of Arc," took her father's place in battle and led the Chinese troops to
victory. I first met her as "Fa Mu Lan" in Maxine Hong Kingston's novel
"The Woman Warrior." The tale's heroine raised my fist in the air. She was a
virtuous, bad-ass sista.

But the film "Mulan," released in the midst of intensifying anti-Chinese
sentiment in the United States, is yet another Hollywood treatment of
Asians as exotic. Recently, heightened political interest in Asia has
prompted a commodification of anything Eastern --
spirituality, fashion, food and even women, as the sheer number of female
Asian roles in film shows. Suzy Wong, Madame Butterfly and geisha girls played this role in the recent
past. The new Asian female characters may be more empowered and less passive this
time around, but they are still sexual and are usually still paired with white men.

Since she impersonates a man for most of the movie, Mulan is
thankfully not the clichéd object of "yellow fever," nor a Disney-style
sexpot like Pocahontas, who ran around in a low-cut deerskin, or the Little
Mermaid with her strapless tube top and sexy fishtail.
Instead, Disney depicts the up-to-date Asian woman riding her horse with the
Great Wall rolling in the distance, eating pot stickers, bowing to her
father -- all nonthreatening images of what Westerners love about Asians.
Disney's Americanized Hua Mu Lan is an affable character with G-rated
allure -- she has Eastern looks with Western values. Her face, according to
a Disney release, is "based on the Chinese ideal of beauty with its round
egg-shape and cherry blossom lips." Her free-spirited personality and
forthright manner make her palatable to Western audiences.
She is a banana -- yellow outside, white within. With her anglicized name,
her perfect unaccented English and her wild gesticulations, it is easy to
see she is not a Chinese woman warrior, but an Asian-American feminist.
My mother -- a first-generation Asian-American -- would say this film shows we've come a long way.

But this is Disney, after all. Most people my age are cynical about Disney's
simplistic, hyperromantic epics, and too savvy to be manipulated. With our
anti-corporate attitude in the age of takeovers and technology, Disney is
an enemy. In "Mulan," the simplistic banality of the Wonderful World is evil because
it is culturally imperialistic. By focusing on a girl whose "irrepressible
spirit clashes with her tradition-bound society," the film shows China as
an unfree society.

Indeed, the view of China is one-dimensional and stereotyped throughout.
Mulan is summed up in fortune-cookie prose: "The flower that blooms in
adversity is the most rare and beautiful of them all." A musical sequence
ends with Mulan and other conscripts leaping in the air, giving a kung-fu
kick and exclaiming "Hi-Ya!" A brass gong reverberates every so often.
Mulan's sidekick, a dragon named "Mushu," shouts, "Call out for egg rolls"
at the end of the film. Mulan's arch enemy, Shan-Yu, has slanted, malarial yellow eyes and an ominous, anthracitic visage. In their duels, there is a striking visual contrast
between Mulan's western qualities and his "Oriental" features.

Of course, the film ends with a triumphant Mulan in the Forbidden Palace,
throngs of Chinese bowing to her reverently, after she has sent the villain
rocketing in the distance on a firecracker. In Disney, goodness will prevail. In Disney, the West will always win.

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Asian feminism unbound


The promotional materials for the Disney feature "Mulan" were intriguing: a warrior girl breaking out of the mold of her "tradition-bound" society. I
wondered how Disney would deploy cultural paraphernalia -- bound feet
perhaps? -- in some commentary on China.

At the theater, little kids spilled over the seats in barely contained
excitement, and gregarious teenagers -- most of them Asian -- congregated in the aisles, giddy on popcorn and gimmicks (a Hum-vee giveaway, a real live
Mulan in a short cheongsam). I began to see that Disney not only has to
hold the short attention spans of kids accustomed to Saturday morning
cartoons but also must appeal to older kids hungry to see reflections of
themselves, or at least to be swept away in a good story.

Luckily "Mulan" has a decent, clear message -- 100 percent unadulterated
feminism. The woman warrior who not only survives war but ultimately saves
China and is offered the position of the emperor's highest counsel --
spectacularly bypassing both the walls of the Forbidden City and China's
rigid examination system -- is no "girl" to be dismissed. Every time she is
shunted off, she rises again, driven not by the need to "prove" herself so
much as by the necessity to do the right thing and go beyond her own self
for the greater good.

Oddly, what one comes away with is not the notion that Chinese people have
a great love for bowls of steaming grain or for kowtowing in front of their
ancestors' altars, but that a very smart, intrepid teenage girl saved
China when the men were incapable.
But a sad footnote, buried in the feminist message, cautions girls and
young women on their own eventual relationships with men.

There are
suggestions of a romance between Mulan and her commanding officer, Shang.
He respects and trusts her when he believes that she's a male army
conscript, but shuns her once her gender is revealed. By saving and
outperforming him, she blows his ego to bits.
Later, when the country itself is at stake, he fumbles his second chance,
so blinded by social mythologies he proves unable to deal with the reality
confronting him. After all, a woman -- who is supposed to have no instinct or
talent for war -- cannot possibly be taken seriously.
What are we to think when Shang follows Mulan to her parents' house, contrite
and totally enamored of this amazing goddess? She's so much better than any
of the men -- he's light years behind her, but Disney implies that she'll
end up with him and all of his immaturities. The message seems to be,
"Girls, you can do with or without men, but be prepared to accommodate
some pretty childish behavior." For all the film's feminist messages, they
are being broadcast into a world in which the relationships between the
sexes are still far from ideal, and women as a matter of course compromise
their own personhood to accommodate the damaging insecurities of the men in
their lives.

Visually, Disney does an unabashedly American take on a kitschy Chinese
backdrop. Bamboo forest, steaming bowls of rice, gong fu, pandas, the Great
Wall and ancestor worship assure us that we're talking China. But as soon
as the first character appears -- a Chinese guard on the Great Wall --
and opens his mouth to speak in brisk American intonations, we know we're in
America, not China.

"Mulan" deftly avoids negative stereotypes by peopling
its China with sympathetic characters. There are no "Lady and the Tramp" "We are
Chi-a-neeesee if you do pleease" numbers this time around. Mulan may live in a
patrilineal Confucian society, but her father is a noble individual, not a
product of some deterministic (otherly) culture. The Emperor is not only
wise and good, he accepts Mulan's impulsive hug. The cultural critique
refers to our contemporary, Western world -- it's not bound feet that Mulan
rejects, but the powder and lipstick on her face.

A golden light washes over this mix of feminism and cultural projection.
Chinese from China are the Good Guys. Mulan is a hero because she saves
China from the invaders. (A century ago, it was the West that launched the
Opium War in response to the Middle Kingdom's rejections of outsiders.) For
a few moments, "Mulan" creates Chinese patriots out of all of us.

Katherine Kim

MORE FROM Katherine Kim

Andrea Quong

Katherine Kim and Andrea Quong are members of Brave New Word, a Pacific News Service-based coalition of writers in their 20s.

MORE FROM Andrea Quong

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