Written by: Regina Yi
The earliest memory I have of Asians, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders in the Media would be from the Disney movie Mulan; a movie about a Chinese girl who disguises herself as a man to fight in the war in her disabled father’s place. At first she is preparing for marriage but feels that there is more in store for her than this. Hearing about the war and how her father cannot battle, she sees this as an opportunity to prove herself and decides to risk everything and fight in the army. While I feel that this Disney movie has a lot more women empowerment than the others, there are a few negatives as well. After learning about explicit and implicit yellowface, mimicry and mockery, I noticed that this movie had a lot of those going on.
First, when I looked up the characters of the movie, I noticed that several characters were not voiced by Chinese actors. For an explicit yellowface example, Shan Yu, the leader of the Huns was voiced by Miguel Ferrer who is Puerto Rican. Although this film is animated and the actors are not seen portraying the role of Asians, it still has a non-Asian voicing an Asian character. Another example would be Mulan’s grandmother who was voiced by an American actress named June Foray. Yao was voiced by American actor Harvey Fierstein, and the matchmaker who shows up in the beginning of the film was also played by an American actress named April Winchell.
There were quite a few implicit yellowface accounts going on as well. Mulan’s father was voiced by a Korean actor named Soon-Tek Oh, the main ancestor that orders Mushu around was voiced by a Japanese American actor named George Takei, Ling was voiced by Japanese American Gedde Watanabe, and Chien Po was voiced by Jerry Tondo who I believe is Japanese American as well.
In the beginning of the film, Mulan lines up with a group of other women to go to the match maker to be matched with a man for marriage. The song during this montage talks about bringing honor to one’s family by marrying a suitable mate. The lyrics itself have a specific stereotype of Asian women: “Men want girls with good taste, tall, obedient, who work fast paced. With good breeding and a tiny waist, you’ll bring honor to us all.” Chapter 4 from our “Asian Americans and the Media” textbook talked about the problematic representations of gender and sexuality of Asians and Asian Americans. The stereotype of Asian women that is being represented by this part of the movie if that of the Lotus Blossom; a woman who is obedient, subordinate, supplicant, passive, and self-sacrificing. This is exactly how Mulan and the other women are portrayed in the beginning of this film. However, Mulan deviates from this image and turns herself into a soldier, running away from home to fight against the Huns.
As for the mimicry and mockery, there are several characters who serve as a bit of comic reliefs. Chi Fu, who is the advisor to the emperor, has a heavier accent than the other characters, is short, has a high pitched voice, and fills the stereotype that Asian men are sexually depraved. Ling, who is one of the 3 close friends of Mulan, is always clumsy, has a very slim build, and is quite weak in strength which also fills the stereotype surrounding Asians. Yao is portrayed as a short, angry, clumsy, man while Chien Po is portrayed as an obese figure who is always trying to use spiritual ways to calm his friends down, indicating a possible Buddhist attribution. The Emperor of China also seems to have a slight accent and is always seen as calm. Whenever he speaks, he speaks wise words that could make people think of Confucius, or Buddha, or even the sayings that come out of fortune cookies. The only man in the film that is deemed as attractive and masculine is the main man, Shang. However, because Shang didn’t know Mulan was a women when she first joined the army, he went through a majority of the film treating her like a man, being tough on her, and eventually ended up developing feelings for her. The only problem is, he is seen as gay, which correlates to the complex Bruce Lee had as was mentioned in chapter 5: Problematic Representations of Gender and Sexuality in our “Asians and Asian Americans and the Media” textbook. Mushu is another character that is added for comic relief with his jokes and over-the-top dramatic behavior. I also find it amusing how his name is correlated with one Chinese dish called Mushu Pork. Even some of the names of the characters could be a form of stereotyping; for example, Ling, Ping, Ting-Ting, and Chi-Fu.
It’s always fascinating to realize things you’ve never noticed before while watching movies and certainly makes you wonder if the producers did these specific things on purpose or not.