Pop Culture

I love “Mulan” more as an adult than I ever did as a kid

A while back I was browsing through the YA section at Barnes and Noble and a bright red cover featuring Disney’s Mulan caught my eye. The book was Reflection, one of the special Disney-official fan fiction series Twisted Tale that includes spins on Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and my girl Mulan. I didn’t end up buying it that day, but I checked it out from the library recently and it was as much fun as I could have hoped Mulan fan fiction––written by a Chinese American, Elizabeth Lim––to be.

I never imagined my 23-year-old-somewhat-adult-self would enjoy Mulan fan fiction, much less read it at all. I have nothing against fan fiction itself, I believe that most pop culture that so many people love is actually fan fiction (Wicked), I just never got in to it. My actual surprise is at how devoted I’ve recently become to Disney’s 1998 cartoon character. Since I grew up with the movie I don’t have any specific memories about how momentous it was to have a Chinese Disney princess; she was always around so as a little Chinese girl it felt like I had to like her the best. Of course I liked Mulan, but it was the same expectation that I had to know kung fu and had to be good at math. Mulan became another stereotype for me, but she was so awesome I didn’t know if it was one to embrace or push away.

Jump ahead a few years to late high school, and the premiere of ABC’s new TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. By this time I’d started thinking more about my identity as a Chinese and Asian American, media representation, and where I fit in the community overall. Naturally, Agent Melinda May quickly became my favorite character (sorry Skye) and you can imagine my surprise when I found out Ming Na Wen also voiced the original badass of my childhood, Mulan. That got me to rethink my original perceptions of the girl who saved China, the qualities I admired in May that she shared with Mulan. Side note, Ming Na Wen has an awesome theme going in her career.

When a friend of mine said, “You only like (May) ‘cause she’s Asian,” it felt like the old perceptions that I had to like May ‘cause I’m Chinese. This time I came prepared and listed off the number of other reasons why I loved May. Although I’ll admit that her being an awesome Chinese American was a driving factor, and for the first time it didn’t feel like a bad thing. I didn’t like May only because she’s Asian, but it was nice to see an awesome character that was also Chinese. I remember thinking, “She’s Chinese, I’m Chinese, this is great.”

Speaking of Mulan and the actresses who play her, I remember the first time I jumped into the I Will Fight For Mulan Fan Club was back in 2016. Disney’s live-action Mulan was making the news, and of course whitewashing Fa Mulan was a real concern. I remember seeing rumors and Twitter hashtags campaigning to get Arden Cho or Jamie Chung to star as Mulan, and not feeling great about it. I mean, she’s Chinese, I’m Chinese, shouldn’t her actress be Chinese too? I wrote about going through my thought process on my blog back then, and deciding that I was being weirdly prejudiced in how I wanted this American-ized Disney princess to be depicted. I didn’t come to any real conclusions in that post, but writing my way through my bias was an interesting process for me. And in the end, Disney ended up casting Chinese actress Liu Yifei.

The cosplays I was seeing  at different conventions got me thinking more about Mulan too. One year for Boston Comic Con, my roommates and I decided to go as Disney heroines. Immediately I knew I was going to be Mulan, so I started looking up her costume on Amazon; I could only find her dress, the matchmaking dress at that. I couldn’t find a pre-made, generic style costume of her training tunic anywhere. She spent most of the movie dressed as a man! She hated that first dress too, were you not listening to Reflection? On the other hand, her final fight against Shan Yu–– when she’s confident in herself and facing him as her true self––is in a dress. That dress is slightly more common to buy, but that summer it suddenly became important to me to see Mulan represented in her warrior tunic. Not important enough for me to make her tunic for my own cosplay, but enough for me to notice it when other people wore it and what her clothes meant as their own representation of Mulan as a character.

One of the biggest epiphanies I had about Mulan was reading Jes Tom’s essay, “The Groundbreaking Queerness of Disney’s ‘Mulan’” last June. In it they write about their experiences watching and thinking about Mulan as a young adult and understanding the movie as a queer Asian American story.

“Disney’s “Mulan” is, however unintentionally, a queer narrative that explores both gender identity and sexual orientation. It is not, as it is often simplistically described, a story about a disempowered woman who becomes empowered by masculinity. It is a story about a young person who doesn’t fit the rigid constructs of womanhood or manhood, and who must instead carve her own path.”

I’m not queer or transgender, but reading Tom’s perspective on Mulan opened my eyes to just how unintentionally open the story is for interpretation for Asian American narratives, in a really important way.

Finally, only barely related to Tom’s essay about femininity and masculinity in Mulan, I have a lot of thoughts about Mulan’s representation in the Disney Channel musical franchise mess, Descendants. It was a movie night my roommates decided on as half joke, half we genuinely love DCOMs, and for the most part we liked laughing at it. But Lonnie, Mulan’s kid, stuck with me. In the first movie she’s depicted as a sort of bubbly airhead, super feminine type––which really got under my skin. Mulan was never that way, she didn’t know how to be “a perfect bride,” she was a tomboy. But… that’s not the right way to think about Mulan either. If Tom’s essay taught me anything, it’s that if you think hard enough about Mulan, you’ll start to think outside the binary. So, let’s think harder about Mulan and her hypothetical teen daughter: Why was I disappointed Lonnie didn’t fit my expectations of Mulan’s masculinity? What made it a “bad thing” that Lonnie was more feminine? I never came up with any answers to those questions, and no one wanted to really get into the gender performativeness of Disney Channel’s Descendants, so I eventually let it go. But not really, because it’s still something I think about, and how it reflects back on the ways I’ve grown up around and relating to Mulan.

As I’ve found myself thinking more and more about Mulan into my 20s, I’ve realized how much I care and think about my own identity related to her arc and story. It’s been fascinating to see how other Asian Americans and myself rethink this iconic Disney princess, taking her story and character as our own patron saint of sorts. The hype around her cameo reveal in Wreck It Ralph 2 was so much fun to watch and retweet, the joy of seeing our Best Girl updated for current times in a way that felt genuine and not too much of a grab for millennial nostalgia. This upcoming Anime Boston I plan on going as that specific casual Mulan, and I’m excited to make my own claim on Mulan’s influence in my life.

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