While I was writing the post on Mortal Kombat Legacy’s possible bad Japanese, it reminded me of way back in my college years when Disney’s Mulan movie first came out. I was of course incredibly excited and thrilled by the prospect of Disney finally doing a Chinese legend based movie. Like many, I grew up on Disney films, so it was nice finally to be “represented”, so to speak, since out of all the Disney princesses, Mulan would be the one I could most easily identify with. She’s of Chinese descent and is a warrior princess. Definitely.
Sad to say, out of all the Disney movies, Mulan ranks pretty low in my book. I still remember clearly the moment I sat down in the movie theater at the age of 20 to watch it for the first time, filled from head to toe with dread about what I was going to see. I kept telling myself “It’s just a Disney movie. Just accept it as a Disney movie.” The problem was, it was a DISNEY MOVIE.
For the three years before I sat down to watch Mulan in that theater, I had been studying Chinese Mandarin extensively; traveling in Asia through Taiwan, China, Indonesia, Japan, and Hong Kong; watching Kung Fu movies and many historical Chinese films; and reading a variety of in-depth books on Asian history, art, culture, politics, and linguistics. I even read some feminist theory books on the history of Hua Mulan and how her role as a “symbol of feminism” was complicated by the fact that Mulan had to pretend to be a man in order to gain any power. I was in a period of my life when I basically absorbed everything I could about Asia and its people, mainly because from K-12, there had been NOTHING in any of my classes for 13 years of schooling about it (current California social studies curriculum is much better about this). I was seriously making up for lost time.
Just a few months before watching Mulan, I had stood on the Great Wall of China and stared north at the lands from which the “barbarians” attacked, after having read a few scholarly books about the steppe nomads of the region. So as the film began and the antagonist was introduced, my first thought was, “They didn’t use oil to light the fires on the Great Wall…it was animal dung.” And it all went downhill from there.
It wasn’t just little historical inaccuracies that got on my nerves while watching Disney’s Mulan. I hated the way the northern nomadic tribes were portrayed as vicious demonic barbarians. It reeked of racist stereotypical propaganda, the classic one-sided portrayal of history where there is a clear-cut division between the good guys and the bad guys.
Although retellings of a legend have the creative freedom to bestow whatever personality they would like on the main character, the Disney Mulan herself was too much of a “defer to my family” girl for my taste. It’s possible to care about family and to bravely run off into battle in the place of daddy without being a stereotypically subservient Asian daughter chewing her nails off over “family honor”.
And don’t get me started on the martial arts! When they started to break into song and do ugly kung fu, I wanted to gouge my eyes out! Look, I LOVE musicals. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy Disney movies so much. I also grew up on My Fair Lady and Sound of Music. But I just couldn’t stomach it.
To highlight my hypocrisy, of course, I have to mention that I totally loved a lot of other Disney films like The Emperor’s New Groove and simply adored The Little Mermaid as a child. Most recently, I’m totally obsessed with Tangled. I’m sure that there’s a million things about each of my favorite Disney movies that are historically inaccurate or socially stupid, but fortunately and unfortunately, I’m ignorant enough about them to just blissfully enjoy the Disney movie as just a Disney movie. That just wasn’t meant to be with Mulan.