I’m Asian and I Don’t “Relate” to Mulan: Asian-Pacific Islander Representation in the Media
May 26, 2017
“There has been several incidents where characters that were specifically Asian are being given Caucasian actors. That’s astounding to me because, on the one hand, I understand about economics and about needing to make money and needing to have big names. But if it’s not serving the story, then you’re not serving the entertainment value of that story”—Ming-Na Wen
Confession Time: As someone who is not your stereotypical “Han Chinese” (picture Disney’s Mulan) nor “shy Asian nerd,” I didn’t see myself on the big screen until last year. Yep, that’s right, I didn’t even relate to Mulan. When I was in kindergarten, my classmates used to ask me “what is it like to be Mulan” and I had no idea.
As many of you know, I am obsessed with Moana. I have seen it at least 25 times and the first time I saw it I was silently sobbing within the first ten minutes of the movie. Why? Because, for the first time in my life, I was looking up at the big IMAX screen and seeing myself. Moana’s wavy, thick, coarse, hair isn’t just amazing animation, but an affirmation that my natural hair is something to be celebrated. Throughout middle school and even high school, I’ve always tried to straighten my hair (just ask my mom about the enormous amount of money spent on useless hair products) because that’s what I saw in the few Chinese people on TV and in the media. I felt that I needed to have sleek, shiny, straight, smooth black hair to look pretty. When people tell me that I look like Moana or have her hair I think it is a compliment.
Additionally, Moana breaks from the stereotypes of Asian and Pacific Islander characters. She isn’t your “quiet good-girl shy Asian” nor the “artist Asian,” “nor the tech-y Asian”. Moana is a character who is determined to the point of flawed stubbornness despite the mistakes she makes on her journey, yet she continues with empathy and humanity. Moana’s personality is exactly like mine. I never give up when I want something and if I think I’m right in an argument and I will continue it over several days. I’ve made so many mistakes and yet I continue to trip over myself to get to the finish line.
I hope you remember that Asians aren’t “over racism” because they have been successful or are considered the “model minority.” I hope you know now that Mulan does not represent nearly 105 million people who make up 56 other ethnic groups in China and may be more of a heroine to white children than Chinese kids themselves. I hope you know that a Disney heroine whose story is set 2,000 years ago on a made-up island finally gave me someone to connect to after 19 years. And most importantly, I hope that you understand it’s not as though there is so much Asian representation that you can spare those parts to white actors such as Emma Stone in Aloha, Scarlet Johanson in Ghost in the Shell, and Tiltda Swanson in Doctor Strange so for the sake of studio profit