Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Mulan & Me

By Jennifer Gin Lee

AUGUST 17, 1998:  Before the movie even came out, me and Mulan, we already had problems. My twisted devotion to Disney cartoons had led me down some pretty rocky roads as of late, and I wasn't prepared to be a member of the latest offended ethnic group. Mulan seemed to be following in the wake of some kind of trend in Asian culture that had been sweeping American fashion and food for the past year. Worse still, everyone was telling me that I looked like Mulan, when, dammit, anyone could see that she looked like my cousin Catherine. So there I was, pen mentally poised to issue one scathing critique after another, and this is what happens: I laugh at Eddie Murphy's jokes, and at the medley of fools who represent the Chinese army before being whipped into shape by the studly young captain; I appreciate the departure from the Barbie body by the same folks who brought us Jasmine and Belle and Pocahontas; I am duly impressed by the animation and truly terrified by the Hun chieftain whose beady goat eyes and hulking frame bear more than a passing resemblance to certain WWF warriors who stalk me in my sleep; and worst of all, I really like Mulan.

What woman, after all, hasn't been a girl confronted with the dilemma of self-identity after learning some kind of rejection by society? And what woman can't cheer for a chick whose quest just happens to include saving China from a marauding band of barbarians? To borrow an adage coined by the Spice Girls, "Now that's Girl Power!" And Mulan doesn't dress it in hot pants and halter tops to make her point.

But this is the clincher: Mulan makes it cool to be an Asian-American woman. She is neither subservient, fragile, nor meek; nor is she lacking in filial piety or sexuality, despite her gender-bending role. Mulan, you see, kicks ass in a lot of different ways, and in doing so, she helps usher in a whole new standard for Asian-American girls who have always known their place in the classroom hierarchy to be at the bottom where the shy and quiet dwell. Now, instead of some leggy doe-eyed blond, we have a bow-legged, slant-eyed, black-haired champion of China - albeit one cast in technicolor rather than flesh and blood, but I'm not really complaining. Like it or not, in a world captivated by celebrity and make-believe, movies have a tremendous influence in shaping perceptions of reality. This is especially true when the movie is a cartoon and the cartoon is Disney.

We must remember, after all, that Mulan is a mythical creature. There is no evidence that she existed as a real person, and most accounts can confirm Disney's version only up until the point where she leaves for the war. Maxine Hong Kingston's novel The Woman Warrior, for instance, uses the legend of Mulan as a template for a personal soul search. Instead of the characters Mulan paints on her arm to help her survive a matchmaker's interrogation, Kingston asks her parents to carve all the family names on her back with a blade to help her bring honor to them in battle. And Kingston sweeps into combat a woman unconcealed, dueling, killing, and taking a husband whom she visits sometimes at night. "The Ballad of Mulan," a poem written by an anonymous Chinese woman between 420-528 A.D., fails to elaborate on the heroine's wartime exploits. There is no mention of her last name, which might not have been Fa. There is nothing about singlehandedly defeating the Hun invaders.

But what Mulan did in the army and whether or not she even lived is irrelevant now, as is the fact that she was Chinese. Such is the power of Disney as well as its mission - to wipe out variety of interpretation and broadcast one version around the globe. By making Mulan's story into a summer blockbuster, Disney has made her real: English-speaking, Emperor-hugging, one-liner-trading-with-an-African-American-sidekick real. It has folded her into a screenplay thick with Western idioms, personalities, and values. Disney has shaped Mulan into an American, an Asian-American but an American no less, and that means that somehow, she has come to stand for me and those who look like me in the hearts and the imaginations of this Disney-consuming American public. How liberating is that really?

Because while Mulan shows us another side of the Asian-American female, and an admirable one at that, it substitutes one stereotype for another while perpetuating many of those pre-existing. With all the great Asian action heroes and directors finding success on the American big screen these days - John Woo, Jackie Chan, the very cool Chow Yun Fat, and the even cooler Michelle Yeoh - the concept of the Asian fighter, already well-established here, can only be propelled to greater heights by Mulan. And too, Mulan indulges in images that are about as horizon-widening as your average Chinese Restaurant: pagodas and dragons, references to egg rolls and mu gu gai pan (what is that really?), and wise old men spouting Confuciunisms; exotic, predictable, and designed specifically for consumption by American audiences. Now consider this: The reality of minority status in the U.S. is that the Panda Garden on the corner and now Mulan are probably the two most influential, if not sole venues through which mainstream America will ever come to know Chinese culture.

But to entertain Americans, and enlighten them at the same time? That's quite the burden for anyone, especially Disney, which like any good hegemonic pop culture machine has to summarize and reduce its products to their least common denominator in order to appeal to the widest audience. With Mulan, then, Disney has squished, packaged, and sold us their version of one of my culture's greatest stories. So no, I am not going to swallow the movie down whole and let Disney off the hook because it acts in the pursuit of profit. Disney has reached into my private domain - that simultaneously cherished and reviled Asian heritage - and put its stamp on Mulan, and erased all other versions of her story as far as its empire reaches. And the sun never sets on the Disney empire. Disney has taken away something uniquely Chinese and reinvented her in American form.

And where does Disney get off with this sudden change of heart? They've stereotyped and ignored Asian-Americans throughout their entire history up until now when political trends - the transfer of Hong Kong, the opening up of China - have spurred interest on the cultural front. Admittedly, it is a kick to suddenly be cool and fashionable simply by virtue of my culture, the way white Americans get to be every day of their lives, but I don't want Disney to make me trendy when it's never cared about me before. And I don't want to be trendy when trends affect only the frivolous parts of life - the way people dress, the things they eat, the new stereotypical way they perceive Asian-Americans - only to fade away and leave things the way they were before. Of course I'm going to be selfish about Mulan and engage in a little Disney-bashing here. Disney has no idea how much Mulan means to me.

I know this because Disney has entered into an agreement with McDonald's in order to expand its profits, and McDonald's has launched one of the most ignorant, insensitive campaigns in recent memory to pump up Mulan. Ugly things happen when the main idea of a much essentialized children's movie is crammed onto the back of a box of Happy Meal Chicken McNuggets. The result? "Don't wok, run to see Disney's honorable new movie Mulan. It's China-mite!"

What is most disturbing about this revival of Charlie Chan-era racism is that McDonald's is telling us that the most outstanding thing about Mulan is that she is Chinese and that the most outstanding thing about being Chinese is America's relationship to China by way of bamboo font and cultural keywords. But because McDonald's is cute, appeals to children, and is perhaps the holiest of holy American cultural institutions, it can make us believe that whatever message it sends is harmless, an unworthy punching bag for the politically correct. Patrick, my six-year old cousin, sure thinks so. When he grows up he wants to be blond. Until then, though, he is learning from his classmates, pulling his eyes into slits with his hands and leering, "Ching Chong Chang, Chiiineeeeeeeese."

It would be so easy to hate McDonald's and Disney, but as life would have it, these decisions are never that simple. As a friend of mine so eloquently put it, Disney is a lot like Cheetos, those delectable cheesy snacks wrapped in plastic and pumped full of preservative goodness. Sure, they're displacing real food, and too much of them'll kill you, but damn, do I love Cheetos. Mulan, then, would kind of be like a new improved Cheeto made with Olean - fat free but possessing that authentic oily taste. It's great, the very stuff of dreams, until afterwards when you realize that Olean greases up your digestive system and, well, I won't take this analogy too far.

So here I am at the end, riding the fence again - raving on about Mulan on the one hand and issuing my little piece on the double-edged sword of multiculturalism and the advent of a global consumer culture embossed with mouse ears on the other. Nothing much has changed, I guess. Me and Mulan, we still have issues, but it's a good thing to know she's around anyway.

Jennifer Gin Lee returns to Brown University as a senior this fall. She spent this summer as an intern at The Austin Chronicle

Weekly Wire Suggested Links

Page Back Last Issue Current Issue Next Issue Page Forward

Film & TV: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

Cover . News . Film . Music . Arts . Books . Comics . Search

Weekly Wire    © 1995-99 DesertNet, LLC . Austin Chronicle . Info Booth . Powered by Dispatch