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Mulanalysis by
Mimi Nguyen.
Website by
David Gauntlett.

Role models: Mulan

This piece is by my best internet mate Slantgirl and was published in the San Jose Mercury News on July 5, 1998.

Pop culture saved my life.

As a refugee-tomboy slogging through the swampy environs of a Midwestern small town, I produced hundreds of bizarre fictions starring me, pilfering from comic books and TV shows for fantastic plots and daring personalities I'd suture into the fabric of my otherwise less-than-panoramic existence.

Comparing childhoods with a Latina girlfriend, the both of us migrants from wars of all kinds, we lined up our icons side by side, secret identities we appropriated to survive being alien in similarly hostile situations. Bionic Woman, Wonder Woman, Laura Ingalls, Pippi Longstocking -- together we're an encyclopedic recounting of all possible pop-culture heroines.

And barring the rare Storm or Karma from the mutant X-Men universe, all of our early models were white as snow.

I'm still obsessed with pop culture, and I admit I was helpless in the thrall of "Mulan," this year's animated feature film by Disney about a young cross-dressing Chinese woman who runs away to take her father's place in the Emperor's army and eventually saves China. Loosely based on a historical myth, it appealed to me on exactly that note: an Asian tomboy defies convention, hoodwinks patriarchal authority and goes on to save the masses - the dominant narrative of my fantasy youth, thank you very much.

I paid my eight bucks. And I loved it.

So is "Mulan" - channeled through the coffers of a multimedia conglomerate - an overdue exhortation of girl power for Asian America?

Well, not quite. But as Disney fictional heroines go, the proto-feminist Mulan outranks Pocahontas, Belle, and the pathetic Ariel. And she's light-years ahead of Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, spunkless specimens of yesteryear's Cold War gender roles.

Too butch for the bride gig, Mulan is impulsive, disobedient and resolutely vocal in her defiance of the "seen not heard" school of social conventions. She's a skilled martial artist and an intuitive strategist, a girl of action and intelligence who does the feet-sweeping, butt-kicking and outwitting. All at once.

Gender subversion

Light on the Confucian strictures, the film pokes fun at the ultimately repressive gender roles that seek to make Mulan a domesticated creature. In some great boot-camp scenes, it satirizes male homosocial behavior - patting butts, punching arms, trading insults.

What's amazing is the sly acknowledgment that gender norms are socially constructed -both masculinity and femininity are exposed as elaborate performances - while concurring that these same gender norms prove to be the source of much injustice. Never mind feudal China, it's a critique that resonates in contemporary U.S. society. So throw in lots of drag and transvestitism, "Mulan" becomes a veritable boiling pot of gender trouble.

Okay, so Mulan doesn't take the cabinet position the Emperor offers her after she saves China - who wants to be a bureaucrat, anyway? And there are the requisite cheap shots: The character who most obviously signals "gay" - the effeminate, sniveling consul - happens to be the most resolutely misogynist. And the pompous matchmaker finds herself the victim of the ever-popular "fat lady on fire" gag.

But there's something awesome about an epic, animated or not, starring a strong-willed heroine - and an Asian woman, no less. So call me a sucker, I'm easily susceptible to Mulan's struggle and the revenge of the tomboy. If I were 10, I'd probably change my name. I loved "Mulan" as long as I remained selectively amnesiac. Disney, who?

Disney cashes in

But "Mulan" -- the movie as opposed to the celluloid heroine -- is, of course, strategic. Swift on the heels of Xena, the WNBA, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Olympic women's hockey team, the Mouse-Eared One rides the wave of female athleticism with its own Nike-esque "Just Do It" directive. Tie that to a current U.S. fascination with Hong Kong directors, feng shui and Tibetan Buddhism - all things Asian are all the rage- and Disney cashes in. Action maven Michelle Yeoh's burgeoning popularity is the apex of all these trends, and Mulan is her animated counterpart.

But Disney doesn't really want to inspire a generation of swashbuckling tomboys, let alone foment any preteen gender-bending on the grade-school playground. This becomes glaringly obvious in the toy store aisles.

There you can purchase Mulan in a variety of strictly feminine guises, play at having tea and dumplings with the Palace Playset or become a suburban "China Blossom" with the Matchmaker Deluxe Dress-Up Set, complete with coquettish fan, mandarin-collared top and a mirrored compact.

Mysteriously - or not- all the packaging features a chubby-cheeked blonde bedecked in hackneyed orientalia. A McDonald's commercial dishes up another of these white clones mouthing some irritating "honorable father" gibberish - serving Happy Meals to the men in her family, no less- while the Mac himself pulls some ill-executed moves, Karate-Kid style and Rambo-red headband intact. The conspicuous lack of props for the Mulan-inspired tomboy is not a surprise. Imagine if hoards of little Asian girls paraded the public streets with their own swords and utilitarian soldiering togs, making proto-feminist declarations of both independence and solidarity a la Mulan. That's my Fantasia, not Disney's.

So we can hardly ignore the instrumental reason for Disney's cultural production: profit. Take teenage sweatshop labor in Haiti and scattered overseas Free Trade Zones, place it next to the "girl power" message of "Mulan" and we have something of a gaping inequality.

Obviously, uprisings are for some and not for others, and in any case must be tempered by the immediate purchase of a Simply Charming Jewelry Necklace Set.

Even so, I'm hardly innocent. For my 24th birthday, I paid the eighteen bucks for the Secret Hero Mulan -the only model of four with jointed limbs, shorn hair, a sword and comfy shirt and trousers- with a clear sense of my own ironic distance from any critique of directed consumerism.

Aside from girl power, "Mulan" is also being lauded as a breakthrough for Asian American representation on the big-screen. It's hailed as a signpost: we've made it. Tinseltown (i.e., mainstream America) wants us. Call me a selective cynic, but I don't buy it. To read "Mulan" as a rubber stamp -- Asian America, as validated by Disney - means that in the desire to see our reflection splashed across the blank white walls, we end up scrambling for crumbs and pretending it's a whole meal. Are we only "real" if we're imprinted on Hollywood celluloid? Should we be grateful? Are Asian-Americans finally vindicated, and of what? Why should we be so desperate for mainstream recognition in 35 mm - to be mirrored in the box office figures and merchandise sales?

Besides, I never had a Mulan -- and I still managed to find inspiration enough for long summer afternoons spent swinging through trees and staging elaborate fight scenes on monkey bars. I borrowed liberally from Star Wars, X-Men, Wonder Woman and even James Bond flicks to fashion my own fictional interventions and alternate personas, and I later realized my nascent feminist impulses in the punk-fostered riot grrrl movement. Throughout my plundering and partial identifications with space pirates, mutants and punks, I remained a resolute Vietnamese refugee-tomboy.

That is, we validate ourselves, when we have to.

On the other hand, the sweeping denunciation - that "Mulan" is just another cheap vehicle for the Disneyfication of culture- is similarly too, too literal. Of course there is no mass culture that isn't shaped by mega-corporate management and marketing trends. And we've all memorized the usual arguments decrying how Hollywood simplifies, plagiarizes and Westernizes. But outright dismissal suggests that those of us who derive pleasure, however contradictary, from "Mulan" are dupes -- as if our reception of pop culture is not a process of negotiation: of picking, choosing and reimagining.

So let's get over the obvious, the bad dog/good dog scenario. We give too little credit to the power of the imagination if we believe either that until "Mulan," little Asian-American girls floundered without inspiration or, on the other hand, that with "Mulan," little Asian-American girls are ripe for conglomerate-sponsored consumer conformity.

Between the opposing camps -one suggesting that "we" finally are represented and acknowledged, the other arguing that identification with the Mouse's Mulan is naive or otherwise participates in a nefarious plot to assert mass mind-control - there is a third space where, I think, we can juggle our critiques and our pleasures with the complexity of analysis they deserve.

Still, I would've killed for a Mulan when I was 10.


© Mimi Nguyen 1998. Reproduced here by kind permission.

Extra bit

[David writes:] I said to Mimi that "one of my problems with Mulan was that, despite all the cool gender-twisting surrounding Mulan, the guy she fancied looked exactly like He-Man [i.e. big, macho, muscular body], as Disney male heroes always do these days (like Hercules). That was a major disappointment, wasn't it? If she had to fancy a guy at all, did the object of her desire have to be stereotypically macho?".

But Mimi filled me in on something I wasn't aware of:
"The thing is", she said, "the guy who gave voice to the 'love interest' is B.D. Wong, a gay Asian/American actor who portrayed a transgendered/queer communist spy/drag queen in David Henry Hwang's revision of the Puccini opera 'Madame Butterfly'! That's very, very queer -- making his character, in a queer reading, another kind of drag! That's cool, you gotta admit!".

And that is cool -- although it would be unknown to the majority of viewers, especially kids, so my point remains true as well. (Hurray! We're both right!).