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Disney’s live-action ‘Mulan’ should elevate Asian-American men, too

via Disney

Earlier this week, an anonymous Asian American, who claimed to work in the film industry, wrote in a post for the popular blog that the upcoming live-action Mulan film would feature a white male lead.

The resulting backlash had Disney scrambling to clarify that:

  1. The spec script that the anonymous whistleblower cited was just a “jumping-off point for a new take on the story that draws from both the literary ballad of Mulan and Disney’s 1998 animated film”
  2. A Chinese Mulan will indeed be the film’s central character
  3. Her love interest will also be Chinese, and not a white male hero who fights for China after he’s inspired by his love for a beautiful, teenaged Mulan

I’m glad to see that Disney has become more responsive to the sensitivities of its Asian American audience. But whitewashing isn’t the only potential problem with the planned adaptation of Disney’s beloved 1998 cartoon; if it’s taking other cues from the animated film, there will still be problems with the representation of Asian men.

Mulan is the only one of many female-centered animated Disney films that features a weak, incompetent male love interest for a female protagonist. In line with a long tradition of effeminate and villainous Asian male characters in Western fiction, Mulan depicts every Chinese man as impotent, foolish, or corrupt.

Mulan depicts every Chinese man as impotent, foolish, or corrupt.

In the film, Mulan is forced to step up because there are literally no men in all of China who can save the day. Her father is old and disabled. The good General Li gets himself and his army slaughtered, down to the last man. And Mulan’s spirit guardians, her ancestors, sends her yet another incompetent Chinese male: a mini dragon named after a Chinese American dish, who causes more problems than he solves.

Even Mulan’s love interest, Capt. Li Shang (handsome and muscular as he is), proves useless: He doesn’t know how to inspire his troops, is poor at strategy, and his fighting skills turn out to be subpar. Ultimately, Mulan is the only person who can make things right. She inspires herself, then her fellow recruits, when Shang fails. She develops a strategy to save China and destroy the Hun army when Shang fails. She saves Shang’s life twice. Then she saves the emperor when the entire combined might of Imperial China fails.

This fits in perfectly with the orientalist depiction of Asian men throughout Western culture, but particularly in the U.S. since the late 19th century. Needing to justify centuries of colonizing Asian societies rich in desirable trade goods, Western culture became riddled with judgmental binaries: The West was masculine, strong, good, white, and normal, while the East was feminine, evil, weak, colored, and exotic. Indeed, Asian men were typically depicted as soft-voiced and effeminate, as well as morally bankrupt and ineffectual. Think: Fu Manchu, Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles.

And there’s, of course, a complementary Asian female stereotype: hyper-feminine, submissive, sexually available, and morally compromised.

But in the 1980s, Hollywood became interested in Asia. The triumph of Japanese business and the opening of Chinese markets caught our capitalist imagination. At the same time, America was entering the “culture wars,” a two-decade-long phase during which progressive Americans fought their conservative counterparts over the country’s cultural institutions. An awareness of the existence of a multicultural America, including many Asian Americans, entered mainstream consciousness. Now wanting positive depictions of Asians, Hollywood naturally chose the sexually attractive Asian woman to rehabilitate. Soon, we had Asian anchorwomen, Asian supermodels, and Asian love interests in films. But no strong Asian men.

As the call to diversify role models grew louder in the ‘90s, Disney released three animated “princess” movies with mythic-historical women of color as central figures: Pocahontas, Aladdin, and Mulan. Set in ancient China, which already appealed to America’s lust for the exotic, Mulan didn’t need a white hero like Pocahontas or a legendary male hero like Aladdin. But clearly, Hollywood didn’t have the imagination to push Mulan’s male love interest, nor its predominantly male cast of characters, past the limitations of Western stereotype.

Soon, we had Asian anchorwomen, Asian supermodels, and Asian love interests in films. But no strong Asian men.

Mulan also drew its tone from a spate of ‘90s woman-centered action movies (e.g. Thelma and Louise, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Terminator 2, La Femme Nikita), which put kickass female protagonists in the midst of a passel of male villains. At the time, female empowerment in film often came at the expense of male success. Depicting white men positively was the defining characteristic of Hollywood, so a few films in which white men only played villains or helpers wasn’t a huge problem. But this was a decade in which Asian men were rarely depicted at all, and then only as comic relief or henchmen—never as authorities or love interests. So for an all-Asian film, such as Mulan, to depict all of its male characters as failures was a devastating blow.

Indeed, the depiction of Asian men as strong, morally centered, and desirable romantic partners is still in its infancy. The hashtag #StarringJohnCho shows what Hollywood would look like if it cast Asian-American men in its tentpoles, but these images remain a fantasy; I can only think of one successful TV show or film with an Asian man as an object of desire.

The internet is full of millennial women who grew up loving Mulan for its strong-yet-vulnerable heroine and her ability to turn her own awkward weaknesses into virtues. But it’s time for a rethink. Mulan was never faithful to its source material, which was a legend of Confucian filial piety appropriate only to pre-revolutionary China. Instead, the film was always intended as a vehicle to celebrate America’s diversity and inclusiveness—of both women and Asians—which is why its failure to respect Asian men stings all the more.

This new live-action adaptation offers us an opportunity to consider how we should depict Asian Americans in the 21st century. Let’s seize it. Let’s hire an Asian-American writer and director. Let’s cast Asian Americans in the main roles. Let’s make the “ancient China” depicted a complex place full of different characters. Let’s make Mulan herself complex, with strengths and weaknesses, as well as strong relationships with other women. Let’s allow Chinese men to be human beings, with foibles and limitations, but also competence, ingenuity, and heroism of their own.

Above all, let’s not let Mulan’s success mean the continuing failure of Asian-American men.