Hot take: Mulan (2020) isn’t feminist, empowering or inclusive
I managed to sit through this consumerist binfire, and I didn’t like it
I don’t get to say ‘as a bisexual feminist’ as often as I’d like, but this is definitely one of those rare occasions where it isn’t wildly irrelevant. As a Bisexual Feminist™, I had the privilege of being one of the first people to facepalm at the planned live remake of Mulan: 1998.
Allegedly because having a relationship with someone who was your former commander is ‘problematic’ (and not because of the rampant homophobia that results in the criminalization of thousands of LGBT+ folk every year in their target market, lol), they got rid of the only positive representation of bisexuality or ‘gender-subversive’ sexuality in the main Disney canon: Li Shang.
For those of you who aren’t millennial bisexuals, Li Shang is cool, macho, hardworking and diligent, not to mention hot, and is allowed to develop romantic feelings for a person he believes is male in the narrative, and then accept the same romantic feelings without any question or ‘ew’ when they are established as female. Which, for 1998, was pretty hip. Even in the early 2000s, as a confused eight year old, that was a subtly comforting thing to see. So when I heard that he was out of the remake script, off the bat, I was suspicious of this sanitized remake that broke the original screenplay to meet the doubleplusgood logic of CCP China, or, as the producers allege, the ‘omg so problematic’ feminists who are weirdly obsessed with Disney. But don’t worry. I’m not one of those people who demands Disney answers to all feminist-genderqueer theory and sanitizes their screenplays accordingly, so you’re good there. This isn’t one of those essays. In fact, as A Bisexual Feminist™, I’m going to argue the opposite.
Hot take: Mulan: 2020 tries incredibly hard to be feminist, empowering and inclusive. In doing so, it is aggressively anti-feminist, unempowering and non-inclusive. And godawful.
Part 1: What does ‘empowering’ actually mean?
To find something empowering, in cinema-speak, you see a version of yourself on screen that you see as uplifting, encouraging or validating. This might be seeing a woman with your body-type being described or treated as beautiful, or a character from your ethnicity/sexuality being portrayed as hardworking and kind, or just not a satanic blood drinking villain, if the bar is particularly low. To be empowering, you have to see that character that is identified as symbolic of ‘you’ go through or address the same problems you face.
So Mulan (1998, I’ll get to the later binfire) was empowering, as a female character, because she had problems. She was disorganized. Isolated. Misunderstood. But she overcame those through sheer determination, a desire to improve, and her own bravery. Her strength was her own self belief, something all women can aspire to. (Mulan:2020) is a super hot power genius warrior who has almost supernatural super hot power genius skills and er, remains an almost supernatural super hot power genius warrior. There’s no struggle, no character arc, and no portrayals of the same inadequacies, self doubt and desperation to find herself in a society that has no role for her. She’s just hot and powerful. That’s not empowering, in the same way I don’t find watching a super hot powerful celebrity discussing her $31m film role empowering.
Mulan:2020, in making Mulan ‘perfect’ to avoid criticism from feminists, makes the character completely un-feminist. She’s not a female. She’s a flawless goddess. Boring and disappointing. Even Liu herself looks incredibly bored throughout the whole film, even in the most intense fight scenes. Men watch characters like this and decide this is why women’s stories are dull. Women watch these stories and feel alienated by the fifteen foot beauty who can wrestle a war criminal while discussing the role of gendered traditionalism in contemporary society. No one wins. Oh, and I didn’t find the good 20 minutes celebrating how ‘edgy’ it was for her to have a job particularly empowering either.
Part 2: Cash 4 Feminism?
Feminism, at it’s core, is or should be the idea that women are equal to men and should have equal rights, powers and freedoms to men. In film terms, as I’ve already stated, that doesn’t mean making women crazily better than men, or erasing male characters and replacing them with women, but establishing the same space and complexity that male characters have had historically within cinema for women. Anything else is, in my mind, lazy feminism.
Or, more accurately here, cosmetic feminism.
‘Warrior woman defeats male enemies while challenging gender roles’ looks like a feminist film, it walks like a feminist film, and also isn’t. The feminism in this is lazy, contrived and forced. Every line of dialogue sounds like it was run past a team of lawyers to check whether it was ‘woke’. Every scene has some contrived, jumbled forced comment on sexism or identity. Imagine if I sat up suddenly in Costa and proclaimed “I believe that men can do anything.” You’d look at me like I was completely off my rocker. It doesn’t help that nothing actually happens in the film, it’s just an extended Karl Lagerfeld shot of Liu Yifei staring out over sunsets, strutting about with a sword and easily massacring faceless soldiers with immaculately parted hair and clean clothes.
This film isn’t feminist. It’s just carefully iced to appear like it tried just enough to not go down in history as a blatant sell out to try and get the Disney brand into the lucrative Chinese film market.
Part 3: Not a Remake, and Whitewashed ‘Inclusivity’
This is probably my most controversial point: ‘Mulan’, the Disney film story, was never Chinese. It was never meant to be a story for Chinese audiences or even, astonishingly from a modern perspective, about Chinese history. Apart from her name and the fact she went into battle, almost everything else was ‘Disneyfied’ by white, American men who weren’t too bothered whether they understood the ancestor spirit beliefs of the Northern Wei. In the same way Disney’s Robin Hood isn’t an accurate representation of the 1215 revolt against King John in England, lute playing cockerels and all, Mulan was very much it’s own thing for American girls to watch with mom before buying cuddly dragon merchandise. When people say they ‘loved Mulan’ they loved the American musical rom-com. Not the tribal conflict poetry ballad of the Northern Wei. This would have been way better as a stand alone interpretation of the original text.
Trying to make something that is known and loved as an ‘Disney American’ interpretation of traditional Chinese folklore into a CCP approved, intersectional and accurate portrayal of the Northern Wei’s military campaigns against the nomadic Rouran is a bit of a challenge. There’s no way you could really do it without radically rehashing the story to the extent it isn’t representative of the original film at all. So you will ultimately end up disappointing everyone: the western audience will miss the romance, music and drama, and god only knows what Chinese audiences will think (let’s be real, they were the reason this was made, I can’t wait to hear back).
I think making a China produced, live action Hua Mulan film is a really good idea. It’s a fascinating ballad and I’d love to see how the original source material was used. But did you have to say a gritty, dull drama about a superhero martial artist was a ‘remake’ of a cheesy romcom musical for western kids? Or even flog it in a western market used to, and largely happy with, an American interpretation? Surely that marketing just…irritates everyone?
That and the fact that, despite all the very loud bang drumming on how ‘Chinese cast and produced’ and ‘inclusive’ and ‘diverse’ this film is, it really isn’t. The director is a white woman from New Zealand. The cinematographer is a white Australian woman. All the music for the film was written by white men. Liu Yifei herself has identified as ‘Asian’ not ‘Chinese’: she was brought up in America. The lead men are from Boston or LA, and one is half Hawaiian. Almost all of the main cast grew up or were born in western nations and don’t have any strong connections to the folklore or stories they are telling, outside of their historic ethnicity. These casting choices was argued as an issue of ‘accent and fluency’ but seriously, would having a Chinese accent for these characters be a bad thing? For real?
None of that would matter so much to me if this wasn’t being sold to the west as ‘Chinese’ and ‘intersectional’. It isn’t. Power and storytelling is still overwhelmingly in the hands of white westerners, casting is still ultimately a matter of what ‘looks’ right in terms of identity, despite being superficial, and the whole thing is just uncomfortable.
If you want to tell a foreign story, and make your own cultural interpretation of it, go for it: I love Bollywood versions of Hamlet, James Bond and Cinderella. I think Nigerian versions of western romcoms are hysterically funny. My favorite film is a Serbian comedy that is strongly influenced by Romeo and Juliet. That’s fine. But packaging stories from cultures with minimal western exposure as somehow organically from the culture that inspired them is wrong. We need to get used to letting people tell their own stories in their own voices, not doing a good PR campaign to mask our own shortcomings as an industry.