Who is that girl I see?


Photo and graphic illustration by Katie Chen

Despite the controversy surrounding Disney’s recently-released Mulan movie, the significance of the film itself should not be overlooked.

Katie Chen

Lack of meaningful representation of diverse characters is a glaring pitfall in Western media. After years of searching for narratives that reflect my own, I was finally able to live vicariously through Mulan in Disney’s latest live-action film, whose priceless tale has recently become distorted by scrutiny surrounding those involved in its retelling.

Mulan tells the story of Hua Mulan, a Chinese teenager who decides to take her ailing father’s place in the Imperial Army when he is drafted. Disguising herself as a boy in order to fight, she proves her physical talents on numerous occasions throughout the movie. For me, though, Mulan’s most significant moment is one of mental strength, when she refuses to accept a position as an officer in the Emperor’s army, opting instead to return home to her family. This is merely one instance among many testaments to Mulan’s embodiment of the values engraved upon her family’s sword: loyalty, bravery and truth. Unfortunately, such poignant moments in Mulan are being overlooked as a result of its ties to a series of controversial political developments in China.

Suppressed tensions between Hong Kong and mainland China re-escalated beginning in the spring of 2019 as a direct result of China’s plans to allow for the extradition of criminals convicted in Hong Kong to China. In response to the pro-democracy movement that arose to combat this decision, Hong Kong’s police antagonized protesters in a series of physical altercations. In Aug. 2019, Mulan actress Liu Yifei expressed support for these police forces on social media platform Weibo. In retaliation, activists began using the hashtag #boycottMulan, which is currently circulating social media. 

Furthermore, Western media organizations began reporting in 2017 on their discovery of the Chinese imprisonment of Uighur people in concentration camps, one of which is situated in Xinjiang Province, a major filming site of the Mulan movie. Mulan’s connection to this location associated with genocide has sparked additional backlash against the movie.

While I agree with criticism of Liu Yifei’s political views, I believe that works of art should be separated from the artists who produce them. As a film, Mulan sheds light on values that are meaningful to me as an Asian-American female, and I feel it is important that others are able to see and understand this part of my identity. The movie’s lead character, Hua Mulan, is a young Asian girl portrayed with empowering characteristics. More importantly, her depth of character is revealed throughout the course of the story, such as in her struggle and eventual embracement of her qi, an intrinsic force in Chinese philosophy that was acknowledged only in males during Mulan’s time, but gave her physical abilities that outranked those of her male peers.

Although these gender stereotypes have diminished greatly in the modern age, I resonate with Mulan’s identity crisis in that I find myself feeling pressured by society and those around me to adopt a façade that does not feel true to who I am. In addition, the voice and complex traits given to Mulan are unique because the appearance of a strong female lead of color is rare in Western media. Having grown up devouring Western literature, I have always treasured the beauty of the written word, but acknowledge that more often than not, I have been conscious of the distance between my personal story and those of the novels I read. The Joy Luck Club was the first book in which I truly found an authentic portrayal of characters who looked like me and experienced the same culture that I do. Since then, I have come to value such works that make efforts to reflect my identity, and I can now add Mulan to that list. 

I recognize that it is not my place to dictate whether others should spend the $29.99 to watch Mulan, but I hope that my perspective on its messages will shed light on the significance of its Asian representation. Regardless of my appreciation for the film’s portrayal of concepts such as Eastern culture and a nuanced female main character, I strongly believe that we ought to do more than simply prolong discourse over the value of a movie. Embodying the revolutionary ideals of our generation, we must hold Disney and influential figures like Liu Yifei accountable for their words and actions without allowing their errors to overshadow the substance of Mulan.