In 1998, Disney released the animated film Mulan, based on the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, which takes place in the Han dynasty. In Disney’s version, Mulan is a female warrior who honors her family in an unexpected way. She steps in for her ailing father in the Chinese army by disguising herself as a man. Her secret is eventually discovered, but Mulan redeems herself by saving her city from the evil Shan Yu.
Twenty years ago, this gender-bending female heroine was praised by movie critics and viewers alike. Not only did Disney celebrate a strong young woman, but it also prominently featured an Asian story in its major animated release for 1998. Can we still celebrate these wins from 20 years ago?
It’s fascinating to take a look back at Mulan and discover where the film succeeded and where Hollywood still needs to do better when it comes to portraying diversity and gender onscreen.
Disney worked hard to feature Asian actors in the voice roles in Mulan. Ming-Na Wen provided the speaking voice of Mulan, and Lea Salonga was the character’s singing voice. Other Asian actors in Mulan are B.D. Wong, Gedde Watanabe, George Takei and Pat Morita. This was the first major film with a primarily Asian cast to be heavily promoted since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club.
“Throughout my career, I’ve always been the token Asian or the lone character who happens to be Asian,” Wen told Asian Core Media in 2016. “I know when the writers and producers were casting for Mulan, they strived and tried as hard as they could to make the right choices by casting as many Asian-American actors as possible. They looked high and low and the [talent] pool was even smaller than it is now.”
This is not a new issue in Hollywood, nor has it been addressed well; this will be a hot topic this summer with the release of the highly anticipated Crazy Rich Asians. Hollywood needs to do better overall with telling diverse stories.
2. Strong female lead
Disney celebrated the strength of a young tomboy who didn’t want to conform to the norms of her Chinese culture. Mulan was interested in honoring her family in different ways — instead of accepting an arranged marriage, she went to war. Her strength was a big part of why Wen appreciated playing the character.
“To have it be such an inspiration for that many women over the years, I didn’t know it would have that kind of impact,” she said on The Real in 2015. “This wonderful story of a young girl who saves China and she didn’t need a man to do it. In fact, she saves a man.”
Disney took a narrative and flipped the script, but it’s hard not to dwell on the fact that Mulan had to dress like a man to be taken seriously. If she had tried to join the Chinese army as a woman, she wouldn’t have even made it to the first battle.
In the end, Mulan rescues her city as a woman, but the underlying story has her hiding her gender to help out her family — and it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Mulan is officially categorized as a “Disney princess.”
We can’t ignore some of the stereotypes going on in Mulan, and 20 years later, they do stick out in the film. A lot of these masculine versus feminine traits are highlighted in some of the songs. Women are supposed to be docile and men are supposed to be filled with testosterone and strength. The song “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” has lyrics that are insulting to both men and women, unless you subscribe to the idea that men must look and act like cavemen.
Let’s get down to business to defeat the Huns Did they send me daughters when I asked for sons? You’re the saddest bunch I ever met But you can bet, before we’re through Mister, I’ll make a man out of you
Poor Mulan is not only subjected to the male stereotypes, she’s subjected to the female stereotype that women are a prize in marriage. Even though Mulan bucks these traditions, it’s hard not to cringe when listening to the song “You’ll Bring Honor to Us All.”
Men want girls with good taste Calm Obedient Who work fast-paced With good breeding And a tiny waist You’ll bring honor to us all
We question why these lyrics are in a family film. It’s even more shocking to think we didn’t blink twice at this 20 years ago.
Disney is currently developing a live-action feature based on Mulan. The film was supposed to premiere on Nov. 2, but the release date was recently pushed back to March 27, 2020. Casting the title character took Disney to five continents, and nearly 1,000 actresses auditioned for the part.
It’s clear that Disney took the casting seriously in finding the right person to play the part: Chinese actress Liu Yifei. Hopefully, some of the stereotypes and gender issues will also be addressed to make Mulan resonate as a true heroine in the modern world.