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GETTING DOWN TO BUSINESS: Mulan and Disney's Evolving Progressivism: Profitable and warmly received upon its release, Mulan is significant both for its powerful heroine, whose storyline eschews traditional romance, and for its authentic adaptation of Chinese folklore. MICHELLE LAW examines how the animated film's themes reflect a changing world--and a changing Disney--twenty years on.

Over the past several years, there has been a notable shift in the types of children's films being produced by Walt Disney Studios. There have been stories featuring a Polynesian princess (Moana, Ron Clements & John Musker, 2016); Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations (Coco, Lee Unkrich, 2017); Hindu gods reimagined as superheroes (Sanjay's Super Team, Sanjay Patel, 2015); a sidekick with same-sex desires (the live-action Beauty and the Beast, Bill Condon, 2017); and anthropomorphic animals navigating systemic racism (Zootopia, Byron Howard & Rich Moore, 2016). The studio is embracing narratives that explore gender and feminism, queer identity, race, and minority cultures and their mythologies, arguably as a genuine effort towards championing equity--or, more cynically, as a commercial response to the current culture of 'wokeness'. While this shift may seem to have become more pronounced in recent years, there was a Disney film that set a progressive precedent for exploring non-mainstream characters and themes. Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook's Mulan (1998), an adaptation of an ancient Chinese folk story about a young woman who disguises herself as a man in order to take up arms, was a bold choice for a company that had never made a feature film from an East Asian story before. Mulan was a box-office hit (1) and a critical success, (2) and it remains a firm favourite among Disney fans. With the live-action version of Mulan set for release in 2020, the film continues to fuel conversations about diversity and representation, and just how far Disney is willing to push its progressivism and why.


While there is no historical evidence that a real person named Hua Mulan (renamed Fa Mulan in the Disney adaptation) ever existed, the origins of her story date back to early Imperial China. The first traces of the legend appeared in the fourth century CE, in a work called the 'Ballad of Mulan'. Later, in the sixth century, the song was transcribed into a poem. In the 1500s, during the Ming dynasty, artist and writer Xu Wei adapted the story into the play A Female Mulan Replaces Her Father and Goes to War. During the Qing dynasty, writer Chu Renhuo continued Mulan's story in the epic historical-romance novel Romance of the Sui and the Tang. Each iteration of the Mulan story varies slightly; for example, in Romance of the Sui and the Tang, Mulan takes her own life upon discovering, after returning home, that her father has died, and to avoid becoming a concubine of the enemy Khan. However, the central plot in all of these retellings remains largely unchanged: when Mulan's elderly father is conscripted into the army to help defend China against invaders, Mulan disguises herself as a man in order to take his place. After twelve years at war, the army returns victorious. Mulan's true identity as a woman is revealed and she returns home a war hero. (3)

What is fascinating is that both the play and novel versions of Mulan were written during Confucian periods in China's history, which advocated for traditionally gendered social roles. Men were the prize of their families, protecting the country and carrying on the family surname, while women were expected to submit to their men (husbands, fathers and sons) by undertaking domestic duties, bearing children and remaining chaste if they became widowed. Women were normally nameless and referred to in relation to their male relatives.

Disney's Mulan was largely faithful to its folkloric origins --it revolves around a strong-willed warrior who defies social expectations--but, during the script's early development stages, there were plans to reduce Mulan to the submissive female ideal of the Confucian period in which her story is set. In the early 1990s, Disney was developing two animated projects originating from Asian folklore: one was the story of Mulan, and the other was a short about a helpless Chinese girl who elopes with a European soldier. Disney planned to blend these stories by making Mulan a romance, in a similar vein to its earlier princess films. (4) However, Bancroft and eventual Mulan story supervisor Chris Sanders resisted this idea, as Sanders was attached to the original folklore and Bancroft was invested in creating a heroine who could be a role model for his daughters. (5)

Ultimately, Disney chose the more progressive route and even created additional characters and storylines in order to modernise the legend. In its adaptation, Mulan (Ming-Na Wen) is a leader whose fellow (male) soldiers rally behind her even after her true gender is revealed; Mulan's grandmother (June Foray) is a guiding and supportive matriarch who prays for their ancestors to protect her on the battlefield (distinguishing her from some of Disney's previous older female characters, who are hell-bent on destroying the younger and more 'desirable' female protagonists); and Mulan is depicted in single combat with the film's villain, Hun leader Shan-Yu (Miguel Ferrer)--a woman taking charge and saving the day. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about this Mulan is that she is a rare female Disney protagonist who is not a princess. She is not of noble descent, her family holds no official rank and she never becomes royalty. Even after she saves China, her reward is not a crown, nor does she become betrothed to a prince or emperor; instead, she receives the recognition of her people and her family. Yes, the film includes a love story, but this arc is simply a subplot in what is essentially a coming-of-age film about a woman finding and learning to wield her own power.

Additionally, Mulan turns the conventional love story on its head: the romance between Mulan and Li Shang (BD Wong), her mentor and the handsome son of the army general, is homoerotic. For much of the film, Mulan is disguised as a man named Ping, and adopts traditionally masculine traits such as a deeper voice, a swaggering gait and shorter hair in order to fool her fellow soldiers. While assuming this male identity, Mulan develops a strong and ambiguous chemistry with Shang, despite the latter believing that she is a man. Yet it isn't until Mulan's true identity is revealed and she begins presenting as a woman that Shang permits himself to fall in love with her, reinforcing that the friendship they shared always had the potential to blossom into something romantic.


If art reflects society and its flaws back to us, Disney's slate following Mulan--and its unconventional gender, race and queer politics--not only mirrors society's shortcomings, but also offers solutions (however idealistic or simplistic) to remedy them. In fact, some of its most recent films overtly champion the dismantling of the status quo by representing the same kinds of diversity depicted in Mulan: feminist heroes, people of colour and LGBTQIA+ communities. Interestingly, these minority groups and their stories have taken centre stage during times when they have been most needed.

Around the time of Donald Trump's presidential campaign, which was steeped in misogyny and xenophobia, and after his subsequent win, respectively, Disney served audiences with the characters Moana (Auli'i Cravalho), a headstrong Polynesian chiefess drawn to the ocean who defies her over-protective father in order to save their island; and Coco's Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), a music-crazed Mexican boy who ventures into the Land of the Dead to understand more about his ancestry and cultural heritage. Today, the Trump administration continues its attack on women--as seen in its intention to defund reproductive-rights organisation Planned Parenthood (6)--and has set its sights on building a wall along the border between the US and Mexico. (7) But, equally, viewers continue to be inspired by Moana and Miguel--characters who represent the very people Trump has sought to silence.

In early 2018, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, in which survivors such as Academy Award-winning Kenyan-Mexican actor Lupita Nyong'o revealed their experiences of industry harassment and abuse by producer Harvey Weinstein and others, (8) Disney released A Wrinkle in Time (Ava DuVernay, 2018), a fiercely female-centric film about astral travellers tasked with saving an unknown planet, with the lead cast mostly comprising women of colour. While the film's production had begun well before these revelations emerged, its timeliness was not lost on audiences. 'The diverse casting in A Wrinkle in Time [...] takes an important step in normalizing girls and women of color as heroines of our own stories,' wrote African-American commentator Kerra Bolton. (9)

When the Black Lives Matter movement--whose advocates have fought for an end to systemic violence against black people (initially in the African-American community, now worldwide)--first emerged in 2013, discussions about racism, unconscious bias and racial supremacy were dominating headlines. These same themes are tackled in Disney's Zootopia, which was released three years later. In the film's titular world, which is inhabited by anthropomorphic animals, prey and predators coexist in an advanced society despite an insidious undercurrent of discrimination--both against the prey, who are regarded as weak and inferior, and the predators, who aren't trusted because of their repressed hunter instincts. All hell breaks loose when predators are drugged with a chemical that causes them to become savage, later revealed to be part of a ploy for prey supremacy. In a Los Angeles Times interview, Zootopia co-director Howard spoke of Black Lives Matter's influence on the film's development:

It was horrifying to see that members of our society were being persecuted, very obviously because of what they looked like [...] I remember saying, 'This is exactly what we're talking about with this movie.' It was emboldening. We felt like we really needed to do this topic justice. (10)

In 2017, the live-action Beauty and the Beast sparked controversy when its filmmakers announced that it would feature Disney's first openly gay character. The announcement led to theatres banning the film and refusing to screen it, (11) when in fact the moments of queerness - between Gaston (Luke Evans), who pines after Belle (Emma Watson), and his sidekick, LeFou (Josh Gad), who pines after him--are only fleeting and insinuated. As just under two years had passed since same-sex marriage was legalised in the US, its position as a point of nationwide contention was still relatively recent, whereas, in Australia, the debate around same-sex marriage was intensifying in the lead-up to the marriage-equality postal vote later that year. But it's worth noting that Disney - which has not, to date, featured an openly queer protagonist in any of its children's films--seems much less progressive when it comes to embracing queer stories. The narrative of LeFou's unrequited feelings for Gaston is mostly sidelined in Beauty and the Beast, while, in the upcoming live-action remake of Mulan, the character of Shang has apparently been dropped, leading fans to accuse the studio of bisexual erasure. (12) Considering the boycott of Beauty and the Beast over the inclusion of less than a handful of scenes implying queer desire, Disney's exclusion of openly non-heterosexual protagonists and their stories thus far indicates that the studio's interest in progressive politics may fall away when its profits are at risk.


'Diversity' and 'representation' are becoming increasingly common terms in the screen industries, with sceptics regarding them as overused buzzwords for calling out projects that are not 'woke' or politically correct enough. (13) However, for those from minority backgrounds, the political is personal. At the 90th Academy Awards, Coco director Unkrich said in his acceptance speech for Best Animated Feature that, with the film, he and his team tried to take a step forward toward a world where all children can grow up seeing characters in movies that look and talk and live like they do. Marginalized people deserve to feel like they belong. Representation matters. (14)

Undoubtedly, representation has the ability to normalise one's reality--which is significant for groups of people who are not only discriminated against for their difference, but also forced to persevere against systems of institutionalised oppression.

Mulan brought to the screen numerous underrepresented groups. Mulan's gender ambiguity and Shang's implied bisexuality spoke to queer communities. Her defiance of gendered roles spoke to young women seeking agency beyond the domestic sphere. And, perhaps most notably, Mulan's ethnicity as the first and only East Asian Disney Princess (15) provided a role model for audiences of Asian descent; for them, Mulan was a beacon of hope--a three-dimensional Chinese lead character amid an ocean of stereotyped, whitewashed, ridiculed and underwritten roles.

For Asian audiences especially, Mulan is iconic--which is why, when the live-action version of the film was announced, fans took to social media with online petitions calling for Disney to make it authentically Chinese. Disney responded by issuing a worldwide casting call for a Chinese lead, (16) treading carefully after the whitewashing controversies that have plagued recent Hollywood films like Cameron Crowe's 2015 Aloha (Emma Stone plays a pilot of Hawaiian, Chinese and Swedish descent); Scott Derrickson's 2016 Doctor Strange (Tilda Swinton plays a powerful Tibetan mystic); Rupert Sanders' 2017 Ghost in the Shell (Scarlett Johansson plays a Japanese cyborg soldier); and Zhang Yimou's 2016 The Great Wall (Matt Damon plays a white warrior who inexplicably protects the Great Wall of China during the Song dynasty).


Disney's decisions to foreground diverse characters and stories raises questions about the studio's agenda; certainly, it is making strides towards equity and open-mindedness through its commissions, but it would be remiss to overlook the fact that the company is still a capitalist behemoth, and that they are perhaps merely looking to cash in on the political Zeitgeist. With its track record of producing Eurocentric and heteronormative narratives helmed by male filmmakers, can audiences trust that films like Mulan and its successors signal meaningful change within the company? A definitive answer is difficult to arrive at, but perhaps it's telling that Disney's chief creative officer, John Lasseter--who executive produced Zootopia, Moana and Coco--took a voluntary leave of absence in 2017 in the wake of the Weinstein scandal, after acknowledging his own physical misconduct towards his staff. (17)

Nonetheless, it's noteworthy that these films are being made, and by increasingly diverse creative teams. The continued success of Disney's slate only proves that these kinds of stories are speaking to a new, younger generation for whom progressive ideals are simply a part of growing up in this modern age. And there is more to look forward to

from Disney: the recently released Incredibles 2 (Brad Bird, 2018) centres on Elastigirl's (Holly Hunter) crime-fighting while Mr. Incredible (Craig T Nelson) becomes the primary caregiver at home. And Frozen (Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee, 2013) - to date the highest-grossing animated feature film of all time, and the first Disney animated feature to have been directed by a woman--will have a sequel, Frozen 2 (Buck & Lee), out in 2019. In an interview with The Huffington Post earlier this year, Lee hinted that protagonist Elsa (Idina Menzel) could have a girlfriend, following speculation from fans that she might be gay. (18) Next year will also see the release of the CGI remake of The Lion King (Jon Favreau), which will boast an impressive voice cast of African-American leads (including Donald Glover as Simba and Beyonce as Nala). It seems that Disney is evolving and, for the time being, acting with good intentions--something audiences will only continue to see more of, thanks to the forthcoming live-action Mulan's Chinese cast and trailblazing heroine. (19)


(1) Worldwide gross of US$303.5 million from a budget of US$90 million; see 'Mulan (1998)', The Numbers, <>, accessed 14 June 2018.

(2) The film has an 86 per cent 'Certified Fresh' rating on Rotten Tomatoes; see <https://www.rottentomatoes.eom/m/mulan/>, accessed 14 June 2018.

(3) See Xiaosu Sun, 'Mulan on Page and Stage: Stories of Mulan in Late Imperial China', Master's thesis, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, CA, 2008, available at <>; and Sheng Huang, 'When Tiger Mothers Meet Sugar Sisters: Strategic Representations of Chinese Cultural Elements in Maxine Hong Kingston's and Amy Tan's Works', doctoral thesis, Curtin University, Bentley, WA, 2017, available at <>, both accessed 13 June 2018.

(4) Glenn Whipp, 'Mulan Breaks the Mold with Girl Power; Newest Heroine Isn't Typical Disney Damsel Waiting for Her Prince to Come', Los Angeles Daily News, 19 June 1998, available at <>, accessed 13 June 2018.

(5) Rebekah Bruckner, 'Tony Bancroft Brings APU Animation Program to Life', AZUSA Pacific University website, 21 March 2018, <>, accessed 11 July 2018.

(6) Sarah Kliff, 'The New Trump Plan to Defund Planned Parenthood, Explained', Vox, 18 May 2018, <>, accessed 14 June 2018.

(7) Dara Lind, 'No, Seriously, the Trump Administration Is Building a Wall', Vox, 13 March 2018, <>, accessed 14 June 2018.

(8) Lupita Nyong'o, 'Lupita Nyong'o: Speaking Out About Harvey Weinstein', The New York Times, 19 October 2017, <>, accessed 14 June 2018.

(9) Kerra Bolton, 'Watching A Wrinkle in Time Is a Political Act', CNN, 9 March 2018, <>, accessed 11 July 2018.

(10) Byron Howard, quoted in Jen Yamato, 'Oscar-nominated Zootopia Directors on How Their Film Mirrors the Black Lives Matter Movement', Los Angeles Times, 24 January 2017, <>, accessed 14 June 2018, emphasis in original.

(11) Natalie Wolfe, 'Beauty and the Beast Director Hits Back at Critics over Gay Scene',, 6 March 2017, <>, accessed 14 June 2018.

(12) Kimberly Yam, 'Shang Might Not Be in Disney's Live-action Mulan, and People Aren't Taking It Well', The Huffington Post, 18 April 2018, <>, accessed 11 July 2018.

(13) See, for example, Kevin D Williamson, 'On the Difficulties of the Movie Star', National Review, 29 January 2016, <>, accessed 11 July 2018.

(14) Lee Unkrich, quoted in Carolyn Giardina, 'Oscars: Coco Wins Best Animated Feature', The Hollywood Reporter, 4 March 2018, <>, accessed 14 June 2018.

(15) Mulan is included within the Disney Princess franchise despite her storyline not identifying her as a 'legitimate' princess.

(16) Traci G Lee, 'Disney Launches "Global Casting Search" for Live-action Mulan: Report', NBC News, 5 October 2016, <>, accessed 14 June 2018.

(17) Laura Bradley, 'Pixar's John Lasseter Takes Leave of Absence After Citing "Missteps" in Vague Memo', Vanity Fair, 21 November 2017, <>, accessed 14 June 2018.

(18) Jennifer Lee, quoted in Bill Bradley, 'Frozen Director Gives Glimmer of Hope Elsa Could Get a Girlfriend', The Huffington Post, 27 February 2018, <>, accessed 14 June 2018>, accessed 14 June 2018.

(19) Anjelica Oswald, 'Here's the Cast of Disney's Live-action Mulan and Who They're Playing', Business Insider, 12 April 2018, <>, accessed 14 June 2018.

Michelle Law is a writer working across film, theatre and print. Her work includes the stage play Single Asian Female and the award-winning SBS web series Homecoming Queens. She is a past recipient of the Queensland Premier's Young Publishers and Writers Award.
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Title Annotation:NEW & NOTABLE
Author:Law, Michelle
Publication:Screen Education
Date:Sep 1, 2018
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