Mulan: why it was a missed opportunity to create a strong Asian woman on screen

In casting waif-like Liu Yifei in its live-action remake, Disney squandered its chance to show a Chinese audience that girls can be both beautiful and tough

As a child who grew up in China with little exposure to Disney until I was eight, the idea of a princess marrying a prince and living happily ever after was something entirely foreign. I was more familiar with the fox and snake spirits in Chinese folklore that transformed into beautiful women and sorceresses, and the cross-dressing heroines of wuxia martial-arts TV shows of the 90s.

It’s no surprise, then, that Disney’s 1998 film Mulan was more relatable than Sleeping Beauty. Mulan was not only Chinese but had a mission greater than marriage – to save her father and country – and she didn’t need saving herself. For Disney, she was the first “non-princess” who did not end up marrying a prince. It was a mortal’s story: there were no spells or supernatural forces to help her fight her battles, and she did not levitate off rooftops like the wuxia women. Her only celestial remedy was a plump, cheering squad of ancestor spirits and a funny little serpent called Mushu.

The emphasis on determination and strength in Disney’s animated Mulan inspired girls like me to work harder and be braver. Her story defied Chinese ideals, which for most of history held up fragility and weakness as the essence of beauty. From the frail and often sick Lin Daiyu in the great Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber to the deformities of “bound feet” that stopped upper-class women walking, patriarchal society had long-fetishised the physically compromised woman. Twenty years on and amid a resurgence of traditional notions of beauty and femininity in east Asia, the live-action Mulan was a chance for Disney to reinvent its “princess” once again and bring to life a mighty Asian warrior.

But any hopes I had for a more progressive-looking action heroine were dashed after watching Liu Yifei fail to deliver the physical and emotional realities of being the only female soldier fighting in a man’s war and having to work 10 times harder – a theme, unsurprisingly, relevant today. Her physique is daintier than Zhang Ziyi’s in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – whose portrayal of a female warrior was itself considered a way to “feminise and glamorise the martial arts” – and the endless flash-cuts to her stunt double during fight sequences also leaves the audience wondering why there was little effort to train her up for the role, fitting in with Mulan’s own transformation from weaver girl to warrior.

Zhang Ziyi in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, in 2000
Zhang Ziyi in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Photograph: Allstar/Sony/Sportsphoto Ltd.

The truth is that in an industry where “the thinner the better” goes without saying, bulking her up for the part could have had a detrimental effect on Liu’s chances of getting other roles in the Chinese film industry. It also raises the question of whether she was chosen purely as a “vase”, a Chinese term used for someone with a purely decorative effect. With Disney anxious to please the Chinese audience, producers were clearly keen to keep up Mulan’s porcelain perfection throughout the film, ensuring that her large wavy curls blew romantically over her untanned and only slightly soiled complexion. Looking dark isn’t a popular aesthetic in east Asia. Contrast this to Zhao Wei’s 2009 portrayal of Mulan, which more closely resembles a hardy, wartorn soldier.

The homogeneity that such narrow standards of beauty have spawned in young Chinese performers is disturbingly striking. From martial arts shows like Eternal Love to fantasy dramas like Love O2O (both available on Netflix) the trend has shifted away from real women’s bodies towards a distinctly thinner, fairer, more schoolgirl-like appearance. A few years ago, a Beijing film director told me that going under the knife had become a rite of passage for aspiring actresses. Facial contouring surgery that shaves the jaw bone to achieve a slimmer, “v-shaped” face has also become popular and has made Seoul a mecca for plastic surgery.

Dream big … the 1998 animated Mulan.
Dream big … the 1998 animated Mulan. Photograph: Allstar/Disney

Such images have already fuelled a generation of women in pursuit of extreme “waif-like” aesthetics with a loathing for muscle definition. A 2018 paper found that among thousands of female university students, 27% were found to be underweight (classified as having a BMI below 18.5) because of an “ultra-thin ideal” and that the problem was potentially more severe in China than the west.

It’s frustrating enough when the Asian entertainment industry propagates such unrealistic images of women’s bodies. When Disney panders to it and projects it to a global audience, it sends the message that looking like a Disney heroine will forever be more achievable than becoming one. Mulan was a chance for Disney to show Asian girls that they could be beautiful and strong at the same time, that there were no shortcuts or stand-in doubles in real life, but they too could join the army or pursue sports and be proud of the muscles they build. For now, you’re better off rewatching the animated Disney version, which will inspire you to dream big.


Yuan Ren

The GuardianTramp

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