The first time someone told me they hated Disney’s adaptation of Mulan, I had to do a double-take. This was a Chinese American friend of mine, whom I share similar ideals with in regards to media representation. Disney’s Mulan was a staple of my childhood—I played “Reflection” on my CD player on repeat, I dressed up as her for Halloween in second grade, and I loved the message of female empowerment. We were both Sino Americans thirsty for representation in American media, so why was my friend so against the only Chinese character in Disney’s lineup who promoted such strong messages?
This friend, however, had a more in-depth knowledge of Chinese culture, history, and politics than I ever did. (More than most Chinese Americans, in fact.) She was raised on wuxia (martial arts genre) and xianxia media (Buddhist and Taoist inspired fantasy genre), was highly fluent in Mandarin, and took an active interest in learning about her culture, history, and its mythologies as a child. She listed off ways the film had insultingly misrepresented our culture and I felt shame welling in me for not realizing that.
Well, okay, I wanted to argue, but it’s an adaptation, isn’t it? Don’t all fairy tale adaptations fudge around with their original stories and culture quite a bit? How is this different from when Chinese productions take creative license with costuming and customs when telling fictional narratives? Why can’t Disney do the same?