I have to begin by apologising for not writing about The Fox and the Hound (1981). Unfortunately, I couldn’t get my hands on a copy of the film in time. I did, however, find time to take a look at Mulan (1998). I’m keen to talk about our second round of Disney films, and intrigued to see how much my opinions – as an adult first time viewer of these films – will contrast with those who have enjoyed the films since childhood. Essentially, that’s my way of saying brace yourself if you’re a fan because what follows won’t be love or adoration for the Disney treatment of gender and race.
Based on the lengendary ancient Chinese heroine, Hua Mulan, who takes her aged father’s place in the army, Disney’s Mulan is set during the Han dynasty when the Hun army invades China. Reviewed and occasionally revered as being the Disney film with the strongest female character, Mulan doesn’t exactly pass the Bechdel test – all discussions between her and her mother, grandmother, and any other women are not only about men but precisely about pleasing them, with a view to obtain marriage.
The film starts with Mulan being set up as a disappointment; though she is beautiful, she cannot perform her culture correctly. This is because she is a ‘White Asian’ (see more on that over at Asian American Feminist blog). The first song is about teaching her good taste, “When we’re through, boys will gladly go to war for you” and “You’ll bring honour to us all”. Having established that Mulan, failing in the traditional modes of femininity brings shame, not honour, to her family, she is sad because she won’t pass for a perfect bride, which leads to the next item on the agenda; poking fun at cross-dressing. Mulan is often depicted as two-faced; the promotional materials show her feminised face on one side of the sword and and her masculinised face on the other.
Then she teams up with Mushu, voiced by Eddie Murphy, and so too the mocking of African-Americans begins. Relegated to comic sidekick – a precursor to his life as an ass in DreamWorks’ Shrek franchise – the role of the African-American is here one of both servant and misfit. Mushu, an unconvincing, smaller than expected African-American impersonating a Chinese Dragon joins Mulan, a cross-dressing woman, and Cri-Kee, an insolent mute cricket to complete the band of misfits meddling in a man’s world: war and masculinity.
Depictions of masculinity in this film are not exactly sound either. The song that boasts “I’ll make a man out of you”, defines the male gender for its relation to strength and discipline, along with an elusive extra-earthly quality, “mysterious as the dark side of the moon”. Just to recap: woman = beauty, subservience above all, they please men; men = strength, discipline and mystery that is actually not of this earth, hence women could never understand and should just be content to please the strong, disciplined, mysterious men.
Then there’s the depiction of the Huns – whose visual signifier of race is darker (literally and figuratively). They also have beady yellow eyes, are physically larger to a point of ‘monstrous’ stature, all of which signifies they are evil. Presumably, with most of the Hun race now extinct, Disney didn’t anticipate much of an outcry over such demonsising animation. Visual tropes aside (and there’s a lot more to be said on this), the Huns are also depicted as more Asian than the Chinese Asians, most notably through their voices; pitch, tone and accent. The ‘good’ Asians in the film have American accents and either speak with flat or high pitched tones depending on the level of comic relief their character represents. The ‘bad’ Asians (the Huns) have deep, low pitch and tonality, and more ‘authentic’ (if we can at all use that word) Asian accents.
Finally, Mulan is exposed and shamed as a woman. Her only respite is that she saved China. Good thing too, because otherwise it’d be death and even greater dishonour. There’s more to chew over, including: the derogatory reference to menstruation where Mushu mocks Mulan, “Stand watch while I blow our secret with my stupid girly habits - hygiene“; the mocking of Asian languages by suggesting a sneeze is aurally equivalent to their names; the most telling line in the whole film which comes at the moment of gender reveal, “I knew there was something wrong with you – A WOMAN!”; and of course the final resolution where Mulan returns home to her family, her grandmother quick to remark, “She brought home a sword. If you ask me, she should have brought home a man.”, cue entrance of a man.
Thanks goes again to Disney for another astounding entry into my filmic education.
Written by Tara Judah for the Astor Theatre.
Mulan screens as part of a double feature with The Fox and the Hound today (Sunday Jan 5th) at 2pm.