'Mulan', Whitewashing, And The Problem Of Asian-American Representation In Hollywood

The controversy over casting of the live-action ‘Mulan’ raises some tricky issues — including the complicating power of the Chinese box office

Disney’s animated Mulan peaks early. Like The Little Mermaid, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Frozen, the 1998 movie is emotionally front-loaded, gravitating around its “I Want” song. Belted by the Filipina Lea Salonga in the film, “Reflection” ignores the arguably far larger crises at hand — the impending war and the probable death of her aging-conscript father — to anguish about not living up to parental or feminine expectations. A different face painted over her own, Mulan sighs, “If I were truly to be myself, I would break my family’s heart.”

Read the original “Ballad of Mulan,” and you’ll see that Mulan’s need for authentic self-expression is Disney’s invention. For over a millennium, Mulan has been revered in China for her filial sacrifice, not her feminist critiques. The animated movie’s coming-of-age angst, hunky love interest, and princess-y happily-ever-after are American additions that help Mulan’s tale fit better into the Disney format. That doesn’t make the 1998 version any less meaningful; stories are often updated for new eras and audiences. The powerfully distressed “Reflection” is the best example of why Mulan is beloved as an Asian-American movie — and also why it tanked at the Chinese box office upon release there. The girl-warrior stuff was progressive for the era, arriving 14 years before Katniss Everdeen hit the screen. But the rest of Mulan is never as forceful as “Reflection,” which speaks to the common growing-up-Asian-American experience of filial alienation, of being asked to conform to a set of standards that seems to have been created and make more sense elsewhere.

Disney’s announced live-action Mulan movie, planned for a November 2018 release, is largely predicated on millennials’ nostalgia. But unlike the live-action remakes of Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast, Mulan comes with the added emotional weight of having been the first and possibly only time many Asian-American children saw someone who looked liked them on-screen — while breaking stereotypes of the demure, submissive Asian woman at that. Despite recent gains like The Mindy Project, Fresh Off the Boat, and Master of None — notably all on TV and only produced in the last five years — Asian-American representation in pop culture has barely budged since the late ’90s. So it’s unsurprising that Asian-American activism online has coalesced to pressure Disney to #MakeMulanRight.

It was a parody Twitter account that first reported that Jennifer Lawrence would play Mulan in the live-action film. But after the tone-deaf castings of Emma Stone, Scarlett Johansson, and Tilda Swinton in high-profile Asian/Asian-American roles — and Matt Damon playing a hero who helps defend China in the upcoming historical epic The Great Wall — the possibility of Lawrence embodying Mulan seemed plausible enough to garner over 110,000 signatures for a petition against her casting. It didn’t help that the spec script for Mulan that Disney bought reportedly features a white, significantly older love interest for Mulan who ends up saving her homeland for her. In response to an increasingly organized Asian-American movement, Disney has assured fans that Mulan and her love interest will both be Chinese. It shouldn’t be a victory for the remake of a childhood favorite not to offend fans in adulthood, but here we are. (There are, in fact, two competing live-action Mulan productions: one from Disney, and one from Sony. The latter is “being designed for the international marketplace,” so we’ll table discussion of that film for now.)

Because Mulan has meant so much to so many and because Asian-American stories are still so rare, the live-action movie has become the focal point for a lot of (unrealistic) frustrated wishes. Commentator Paula Young Lee advocates for a romance-less heroine, since the original poem never mentions a suitor or a husband. Writer Claire Light wants the film to take the opportunity to showcase thriving Asian masculinity, since such examples are rare in an American context.

But they’re the norm in Asia, of course. And despite the swelling influence of the Asian-American commentariat and the increasing inclusion — at last! — of our specific concerns in the ongoing conversations about diversity in Hollywood, it’s necessary to recognize that the growing juggernaut that is the Chinese box office may be the biggest obstacle to greater Asian-American representation. Asian-Americans make up a tenth of the population of Los Angeles, but they’re still mostly invisible in that city’s most prominent industry. And Hollywood isn’t looking at its residents and neighbors to boost ticket sales, but its financial partners across the Pacific. The animated Mulan was voiced by a largely Asian-American cast, but it seems unlikely that the live-action film will present such starring opportunities for the struggling Asian-American performing community. Asian diversity in blockbusters looks less like Sung Kang in the Fast and the Furious franchise and more like Fan Bingbing’s glorified cameo in X-Men: Days of Future Past — a transparent and much-mocked ploy for more yuan. The American film industry’s halfhearted embrace of Chinese A-listers means that most Asian-American moviegoers might see someone who looks like them on-screen, but will feel little to no connection to those characters. Underwritten in her films and to many of us unmistakably foreign in accent and aesthetics, Fan, for example, is a reflection most of us can’t recognize.

The live-action Mulan currently looks like it’ll have to appease three overlapping yet distinct audiences: the mainstream American one, the Asian-American one, and the Chinese one. As the disparate reactions to Damon’s casting in The Great Wall illustrated — Asian-Americans understandably indignant at yet another White Savior, Chinese shrugging off the Western actor’s forced insertion for marketing reasons — Asian-American moviegoers can’t rely on Asian audiences to be their allies. Asians in Asia aren’t affected by issues of racial erasure and hierarchy on a daily basis, and thus shouldn’t be expected to understand or fight for Asian-American concerns.

It remains to be seen whether the live-action movie’s screenwriters — Jurassic World’s Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver — will be able to rewrite Mulan in a globally appealing way. (It’s worth noting that the 1998 Mulan’s screenwriting team included the Chinese-American Rita Hsiao.) Chinese audiences rejected the animated 1998 Mulan for being too “individualistic” and “self-aggrandizing.” Her nickname: “Yang Mulan,” or “Foreign Mulan.” (Ironically, the film was seen by many economic observers as Disney’s pro-China “apology” to that country after the studio’s pro-Tibet film Kundun angered the Chinese government.) But it’s Mulan’s non-native qualities of self-searching and self-assertiveness that make her such a great Asian-American role model.

Asian-Americans number just north of 18 million, while the Chinese populace tops 1.3 billion. That Asian-American viewers are asking for a Mulan who exemplifies Asian-American values means that we are asking to be pandered to. And why shouldn’t we? Hollywood at large shamelessly panders to straight white men, and the Chinese film industry has been lobbying for years for more positive representations of their own citizens, making such images requisite for investment or forcing villains to change ethnicities (hence the 2012 Red Dawn’s North Korean baddies). Asian-Americans must continue to seek visibility without China’s financial clout — and fight for a greater understanding of the differences between Asians and Asian-Americans, while acknowledging that that gulf is far wider for some than others. (Easier said than done.) And as much as I’m interested in seeing Mulan, uh, kill a bunch of dudes, I guess, I’m so much more grateful for shows like Fresh Off the Boat and Master of None and movies like Appropriate Behavior and Spa Night, which spotlight everyday Asian-American lives today. There’s a wealth of under-explored contemporary Asian-American lives on-screen. It’s fine to wait for Mulan, but — unlike in the sixth century — she’s not our only hope.

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