February 05, 2008

Mulan

When watching Disney's Mulan, there are really two questions to consider: Is Mulan feminist/anti-racist? And, is Mulan more feminist/anti-racist than the typical Disney film?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I'd say no to the first and yes to the second. While Mulan herself is undeniably a better and less stereotypical heroine, in terms of both gender and race, than previous atrocities like Pocahontas, Ariel, Jasmine, and Belle, and the portrayal of the culture and people of China is nowhere near so infuriating as previous Disney racism (as seen in Aladdin, or earlier in Peter Pan, or in dozens of other Disney films), I would be hard-pressed to describe Mulan as a feminist or anti-racist film.

Mulan is a re-telling of a Chinese legend about a young woman who goes to war for her country in the place of her ill father. To do so, she has to dress as a boy. This heroine, Mulan, ends up being outed as a fraud, but also saving her country. This premise is all fine and good. However, the film is still chock-full of stereotypes of both women and Chinese folks. In her Salon review of the film, Katherine Kim says she is thankful for Mulan's being in drag for most of the movie, so she won't be sexualized inappropriately, but goes on to say:

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.

While seeing Mulan as an Asian-American feminist is not necessarily a bad thing, making her more "white," in order, one presumes, to be more accessible to Disney's Western audience, doesn't garner them any points for anti-racism. Kim goes on to argue that the film portrays Mulan's victory as a victory of Western ideals over those thought to be more traditionally Chinese. She concludes her review with:

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.

I can't disagree, and I think it rather rude, if typical, of Disney to usurp a traditional Chinese legend and use it in this way.

Another Salon reviewer, Andrea Quong, points out another problem with Mulan, and it is my biggest issue with the film an attempt at feminism. She writes that Mulan is shown throughout the film to be more competent and more heroic than any of the men, including her commanding officer, Shang. Still, Shang is at the end presented as a possible romantic interest for Mulan. The message, Quong writes, seems to be "Girls, you can do with or without men, but be prepared to accommodate some pretty childish behavior." She goes on to say:

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.

It is here where the film really loses me. Throughout the story, Shang is in no way heroic. He likes Mulan when she proves herself as a man, but is immediately horrible to her when he finds out she is a woman, even after he's seen what she can do. Then, when she goes out of her way to try to help him even after he has rejected her, he is too stupid to figure out that she's right. So why in the world would the film end with him coming to "claim" her as a suitor? I just didn't get that.

All in all, Mulan is a pretty lousy movie in terms of both gender and race. The fact that it has been hailed as the first "feminist" Disney film says much less about how good it is and much more about just how poorly the rest of Disney's movies treat women and non-white characters. When taken as representative of all films, though, and not just the drivel produced by Disney, I can't see any reason to give it more than the "typical" one star.

13 Comments

Also, I thought Mushu was pretty racist too. In half his jokes he's not laughing with Chinese folks, but AT them.

I wouldn't say it's more feminist/anti-racist than other Disney movies - rather, it's LESS sexist/racist.

And don't even get me started on the historical inaccuracies.

I'm really biased 'cause I'm a BIG Disney fan, but I don't find Mulan sexist at all...or any of the other newer animated features(basically from Little Mermaid on), for that matter. Snow White and Cinderella do irk me a bit...and Peter Pan, beautiful animation but completely backwards when it comes to gender and race.
BTW, I'd like to see your opinions on other animated/family films, even if I might disagree. ;)

Oh come on! Cry me a river! I'm Chinese (born and raised in Taiwan) yet I don't find the movie even remotely racist, anti-feminist, or sexist at all. For me this movie couldn't have been more political correct. If anything, I felt sometimes they were trying too hard to be anti-feminist or racially sensitive. In my opinion, Disney did a amazing job on accurately depicting our Chinese culture and value, and by doing that they gave the film the proper respect it deserved. And for that I couldn't have been more grateful.

So what if Mulan's personality appeared to be more Chinese-American and not your conventional Chinese lady? She's supposed to be unique, non-traditional and different from the typical (stereotype) Chinese girls! That's the point of her character! Were you even paying attention to the movie?

There's nothing racist, anti-feminist, etc about this film, so stop making issues out of nothing. I find it strange that it always seems to be the western/white people who see racism or whatever PC issues in everything and complain about them. Could it be that they are actually the racist/anti-feminist ones?

While I respect your opinion that the film isn't racist and is culturally sensitive, Danielle, I'm not the only person who felt otherwise. Nor is it only white people who thought Mulan was racist. Jennifer Gin Lee wites about it here:

http://www.filmvault.com/filmvault/austin/m/mulan2.html

There is also a good blog entry about Disney's racism and general here:

http://resistracism.wordpress.com/2009/06/01/the-usual-stupid/

The link to the asian critic is invalid but I presume she was talking about Mulan 2, which I didn't care for much and wasn't within our discussion here. I was talking about the first Mulan film only. And I won't be (or am I interested in) talking about the racism in disney films in general either, especially since most of the articles regarding that subject are coming from the writer's point of view and their personal feelings. Of course people will always find things that are wrong in every disney movie. And no matter how carefully it's done Disney will always end up offending some people (overly-sensitive type if you ask me). Unfortunately this seems to have become part of the nature of every disney feature release.

I'm just curious though. Have you ever thought about the fact that even if the movie had been made otherwise (or according to how you'd like it), it would still get complaints and criticism? Would it have been perfect or free of controversy if the movie had been made by or according to those pro-feminist/PC people? I highly doubt it. My point is everything can be interpreted as good or bad, racist or non-racist, etc. And if I had to I could pick every Disney film, even the ones that seem the most innocent and harmless, into pieces. So IMHO there's really no point in arguing about things like racism or feminism (or lack thereof) because it's an argument that will never be won.

And no offense, but I'd say to have given Mulan such a poor rating (one star? seriously?), you either have questionable taste, or you simply couldn't understand and/or appreciate the beauty and value of ancient Chinese culture, or you were simply too busy nit-picking the movie to enjoy any other aspect of it, which is a shame.

if you think anti-racist and feminism analysis has no point, I'm not sure what you are doing at Heroine Content. Looking at films through those lenses is our mission here. I stand by everything I said about Mulan.

I fixed the link, luckily it just had the period at the end of the sentence included in the URL. That happened to be the 2nd review of Mulan on that particular website, that's why it had a 2 at the end of the URL. It actually is for the first Mulan.

I really can't agree with this review at all.

To begin with, your first point bothers me a great deal. Goodness prevails = the West will win? What kind of reasoning is that? Are you trying to say that in Chinese culture the bad people should always win? I haven't exactly made a study of Chinese or Ancient Chinese culture, so I understand I can't be speaking with an expert's opinion, but that sounds pretty racist and ethnocentric to me.

I don't see how Mulan is supposed to be a 'white woman' unless you assume that only white women can be hardworking and passionate. Her ideals of wanting to protect her father and save her country... are you trying to imply that only white people have these values?

Then comes the issue of whether it's empowering to women or not. Yes, Shang was originally very disgusted upon learning that she was a woman, but let's remember that he changed. He went through character development and realized he was wrong, and that she was not worthy of resentment.

At the end of the movie, the implication that he would like to be her suitor is not a message that he wants to own her it's an indication that he has come to respect and like her for who and what she is, soldier and all. It's a very good message to be sending to girls, I'd say --- that you don't have to be subservient and docile and quiet in order to find a potential life partner.

Not to mention the other message that lying, even for a good reason, can hurt people when they find out, but despite the hurt they can come to forgive and love you for your true self.

It seems the ideas you are taking issue with are less mine and more Katherine Kim's. As I suspect she knows more about Chinese culture than either one of us does, I'm going to defer to her.

I just wanted to address the racism prevalent in this film... I've just finished reading Helen Zia's "Asian American Dreams" (Helen Zia is an award-winning journalist who has focused on Asian American rights for many years), and in her book she mentions that in the film, the Chinese soldiers wear traditional samurai attire. I can't specifically pinpoint where in the film this occurs, because frankly I'm not sure exactly what samurai attire looks like, but I'm sure Zia is not wrong in this respect. If that's the case, then the racism we should be looking at here is the blatant disregard for any distinction betwixt ethnicities. Disney might not be necessarily poking fun at any one race or ethnicity per se, but by lumping aspects of multiple ethnic cultures together into one "grand unified" Asian culture, and then calling it Chinese is blatantly ignorant.

Katie: Do any of Disney's more conventional European-based fairy tales films maintain a consistent national setting down to the armor? I think pan-Europeanism often comes in with the European fairy tales. Beauty and the Beast was set in France but if memory serves French accents were not universal and were typically used to comedic effect.

This is not to say that the film is culturally authentic or sensitive, just that Disney doesn't appear to be doing much different than it would with European ethnicity. Context does matter, much of the audience is familiar with some differences between European countries and less familiar with the differences between Asian ones. Similarly, the film is given more of a national setting than your average Disney flick (although not more so I think than Beauty and the Beast). So I'd say ignorant and culturally insensitive is a fair charge, but notably racist seems to go beyond what's evidenced by mixing up armor types.


about the armor: can we find out if the armor was truly and only japanese? I remember when Mulan first came out, there was an outcry over Mulan's dresses and how Disney had given Mulan japanese clothing instead of the Qing dynasty influenced clothing that everyone was so familiar with. But then, it turned out that Disney was aiming for the Han dynasty clothing which did look like a bit like a kimono, because early Chinese costume had some influence on a lot of other asian clothing (kimono, hanbok, ao dai). Maybe the armor could have been culled from some early Chinese dynasty armor, which had influenced the Japanese samurai armor- or even the other way around? But then again, Disney had made dumb decisions and mistakes before, so it is very possible Disney might have messed up.

as for the review, I can see your point of view, though I don't entirely agree. I also have to also say that it's easy to overanalyze Mulan, as with any movie involving an Asian person. I had a classmate once saying that she couldn't watch anything with an Asian person in it without overanalyzing his/her role and that she could never be satisfied with the Asian portrayal. No portrayal can ever be perfect, even if the portrayal exactly resembles an Asian person she knows. She wants the Asian portrayal to represent every possible side of being Asian/Asian American and to be positive, but not so positive as to appear as the model minority. However, she doesn't know where to draw the line between positive and too positive. And it's impossible to embody all of what she wants in one or even a few characters, because Asian/Asian-Americans are also human beings too with a diversity of personalities and flaws. This is what sucks about the meagerness of multi-faceted representations of Asians in the media. =/ But on the other hand, how can we can say we're too sensitive when we've sort of earned the right to be sensitive with the massive amt of racist garbage the entire movie industry has been feeding to the audience? And as for your argument abt Mulan being more your Asian-American feminist and the issue abt the prevail of Western ideals in the movie...: even with some movies/dramas made by Chinese in China and other Asians in their respective Asian countries, sometimes liberties are taken with what is traditional in order to appeal to modern sensibilities( which also happen to be more western, though I'm not sure if I should really be splitting everything into eastern=traditional and western=modern). I'm not saying it's right, but it's just some food for thought.

And then there's the issue with feminism being redefined all the time. Yikes! Race and gender is complicated stuff.

And I interpreted the end as Shang reforming his narrow-minded views by the end of the movie and Mulan finding a life partner who likes her for who she is. So she manages to get both a great career and love.

anyways, racial and gender considerations aside, i really enjoyed Mulan as an entertaining movie and found Mulan to still be a kickass cartoon heroine that I can cheer for. Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty (who also happens to be a guilty pleasure for my activist feminist friend.) can just choke on ash, eat some poisoned apples, or just prick themselves with pointy spindles or something. >=)

I would disagree that Mulan was show as "more competent and more heroic" than the men.

She was clearly shown as incompetent compared to the males when the film started. Which was perfectly reasonable because she had never done any sort of training before. She was physically weaker (carrying water up the mountain) and did not learn as quickly as the other soldiers (shooting arrows), but through hard work became equal to them in physical ability and skill (the physical ability part is actually somewhat unrealistic, due to differences in male and female physiology but that's a different issue).

I'd say she was equally heroic in the film. She was willing to stand and fight along with the men when confronting the Huns and to go after Shan Yu just like the other man. None of her actions were more heroic, though on several occasions she was shown as more creative.

Shang is not "horrible" to Mulan when he finds out she is a woman. It fits his upbringing and culture entirely. The other men are more reluctant to leave her since they've know her as a friend for longer and have more of a bond and respect for her. Shang has spent fairly little time around her or speaking to her in any meaningful way, yet he still respects her for her actions enough to spare her (already going against his culture), even though he feels betrayed and confused. It would be unrealistic for him to jump up and say "women are clearly equal in every single way and Mulan should be a solider with us!" when he's never thought about this issue before and has been raised not to see women as equals and probably has had fairly limited interactions with women anyway.

With more time to think about Mulan and with Mulan further showing her determination and bravery he comes to change his opinion of women (a much more natural character progression). At the end of the movie he doesn't come and claim her or ask for her hand in marriage. He likes her an has decided to try to pursue a relationship with her, which she consents to.

I don't see Shang as inferior to Mulan and even if he was it would be irrelevant. As long as they like/admire eachother in some way they don't have to be equal in all respects. Athletes can date non-atheltes, highly intellectual people can be with average people.

I can't say much for historical or cultural issues.

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