OPINION | Diversity in “Mulan” proves Hollywood has long way to go

Leah Martino, Contributing Writer

Ashley Chen | Art Director

 When I was little, my sisters and I would curl up in our living room and watch Disney princess movies for hours. Our favorites included “The Little Mermaid,” “Pocahontas” and “Mulan,” which would continually be on loop on our boxy Panasonic. As a white woman, “Mulan” did not have any cultural significance to me, but it definitely shaped my perspective on womanhood and the power women have as self-sufficient individuals. When my friends and I heard Disney was making a live-action “Mulan,” we decided to have a group viewing equipped with snacks and high expectations. 

While watching the movie, I was slightly disappointed by the story discrepancies between the 1998 version and the new adaptation. That made me realize, however, how white-washed and inaccurate the version I grew up with and loved as a child was. The 1998 “Mulan” was primarily written, directed and produced by white men. While a majority of the voice actors were of Asian descent, the story they were telling was only loosely adapted from the original Chinese folktale. The 1998 film was based on the “Ballad of Hua Mulan,” which was a poem written during the Northern Wei Dynasty between 386 A.D. and 534 A.D. about a girl who enlists in the army to save her father. Even though the 1998 film does include this as a major plot point, there was no mention of a love interest in the poem, nor any inclusion of familial spirits. The 1998 version is arguably less feminist than the poem because at the end of the movie, after saving China and the Emperor from invasion, the leading character’s family reacted more when she brought home a man than in response to her dangerous and heroic achievement. 

The 2020 version of the film also deviates from the original poem, but significantly less than the 1998 adaptation. This version focuses on the character development of Mulan as a warrior, rather than her relationship with Li-Shang, who is not even a character in the new film. The screenwriters, however, included a new character Xianniang as a foil to Mulan, to emphasize Mulan’s power as a warrior, otherwise known as her qi

One would think Disney would learn from their past criticism and remake the 2020 Mulan with a predominantly Chinese production team. The screenwriters, director and producers, however, are all white. This information was extremely disheartening to read, especially after hearing so much about Disney’s effort to stay within the cultural guidelines of the poem and Chinese culture in general. Disney also made a public search for a Chinese actress to play Mulan after multiple petitions were released over rumors of whitewashing. But to me, finding a Chinese actress to play Mulan should be expected and not something that is revolutionary. Who else would be fit for the role?

The remake of Mulan was a step in the right direction for Hollywood in terms of honoring cultural significance, but it ultimately proves how far behind Hollywood is in diversifying powerful production teams.