At 20 years old, I finally watched Mulan for the first time. I was instantly enamoured with this strong heroine who aimed to bring honour to her family by doing the unthinkable: posing as a boy to go fight in a war against the Huns, so that her sick father could stay home and rest.
Beyond the fact that Mulan is a powerful heroine, she is also Chinese. As a Chinese-Canadian, I love that. To see someone who looks like me as a kick-ass protagonist exuding confidence and strength is incredibly empowering. However, I’m worried that upcoming generations of Chinese Canadians won’t be able to witness leading characters who share their identity.
The new live-action Mulan, slated to hit theatres in 2018, initially considered pushing Mulan aside in favour of a white male fighting to save China. The first script, written by Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Martin, saw a “30-something European trader [. . .] help the Chinese Imperial Army [. . .] because he sets eyes on Mulan,” according to the blog Angry Asian Man.
Here’s my confusion: two women wrote the first iteration of this live-action movie. As a woman, I jumped with enthusiasm as I watched the animated Mulan save Li Shang, the emperor, and basically all of China from the yellow-eyed Huns.
Shouldn’t these women be celebrating these heroic actions by at least retaining the female hero in their retelling? Why was “heroism” automatically given back to men, while women were again stuck waiting for rescue? And beyond gender, what happened to having heroes of different ethnicities?
Hollywood evidently doesn’t consider these questions, or see the issue the same way that many of its consumers do. Since 2007, “characters from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups were 26.3 percent of all characters” in the top 100 Hollywood films, according to USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Further, Fusion Media reports that only 6.6 percent of main cast members across over 100 American network TV are of Asian descent.
There’s a massive gap in our media discourse as far as featuring heroes of colour is concerned — which is incredibly problematic, because not all heroes are white.
Time after time, Chinese characters find themselves stuck in the stereotypes of foreigners (usually with a difficult-to-understand accent), martial arts gurus, oversexualized females, asexual males, or subordinate nerds — not to mention restaurant owners, housekeepers, and suspicious shopkeepers, as musician and writer Zak Keith argues. Even when a heroic role is supposed to be Chinese, Hollywood finds a way to cast the whitest person possible and pass them off as Chinese. (I’m talking to you, Emma Stone.)
This live-action Mulan has the potential to break down these stereotypes and begin the first step towards properly including minorities as heroes. As of late, the script is being updated by Jurassic World writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, with a promise of a global casting call to find a Chinese female lead as well as Chinese actors for the other roles.
As a Chinese girl who has come to love how strong the character of Mulan is, the last thing I want to see on opening day is the likes of Matt Damon or (God forbid) Brad Pitt seducing a young and helpless Chinese girl. To quote an articulate tweet from Asian American actor and writer Anna Akana: “We don’t need a white man to save China in Mulan. That’s what Mulan is for. That’s literally her role.”
Save your pretty white boy arsenal for another day, Hollywood. Bring honour to us all and make Mulan Chinese, and right.