Last month, Disney cast Chinese actress Liu Yifei as Mulan for their live-action Mulan remake. The decision was applauded by many, and over 100 thousand people had signed an online petition calling for Disney to cast an Asian actress in the role. Supporters included Asian-American Ming-Na Wen, Mulan’s original voice actress in the 1998 cartoon.1
Disney has produced live action remakes of several cartoon classics in the past few years, but Mulan 2019 is perhaps one of the most scrutinized thus far. Mulan is different from Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, and Cinderella because of race; it is based on a Chinese legend about a Chinese female warrior, so thousands challenged Disney to cast a Chinese actress.2
Disney’s choice to cast Liu Yifei as Mulan took place in a larger discourse regarding Asian representation in American media. Despite America’s growing Asian American community, there is still little representation of Asian Americans in the film industry. The Screen Actors Guild reported in 2000 that Asian Americans were cast for less than 3 percent of roles that year and 4.4 percent in 2013.3 In 2014, analysis of a sample of studio films revealed that only 1.4 percent of lead characters were Asian.4 Additionally, several recent Hollywood films featured Asian characters played by Caucasian actors. Some examples are Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange (originally a male Tibetan mystic in Marvel’s comics) and Emma Stone as Allison Ng in Aloha (a one-quarter Chinese, one-quarter Hawaiian character).5
This lack of representation has implications beyond movies, as film is not merely about the actors, the set, or the special effects; film is ultimately about telling a story. Movies have messages and share values, and Hollywood both reflects and propagates American values to Americans and the rest of the world.6 So if the American story is changing, then shouldn’t this also be reflected in its film and media? If the Asian story is shaping and being shaped by the American story, then how is the Asian voice heard in popular media?
Academic literature suggests that there are two ways in which the Asian story is misrepresented in popular media. One way is to tell the Asian story with an “accent.” This occurs when a particular cultural trait is highlighted to counter traditional Western values, like a plot including an Indian arranged marriage to contrast Western ideals of true love. The reverse is equally distorting; the Asian story can be mistold through a neutralized voice. This occurs when a story is told in a way that eliminates all cultural elements that would distinguish Asian characters from others. In other words, a neutralized story is told by rewriting Asians’ backgrounds and stories to seem more like the status quo. This is perhaps a more insidious version of misrepresentation, as a neutral story can be hidden under the veneer of a diverse setting or cast.7 Though Disney has taken the step to cast an Asian actress, the public has no idea how the story will be told–will it be an accented, neutralized, or other version of an Asian narrative?
Perhaps casting Liu Yifei in a major Hollywood film is a big step in the right direction, but Mulan is currently untold. The true challenge for Disney will be to create an authentic story reflecting Asian voices and experiences, and the real test results come out in two years.
1 “Mulan: Disney casts Chinese actress Liu Yifei in lead role.” BBC News, 30 Nov. 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-42177082. Accessed 13 Dec. 2017.
2 “Mulan: Disney casts Chinese actress Liu Yifei in lead role.” BBC News, 30 Nov. 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-42177082. Accessed 13 Dec. 2017.
3 Erigha, Maryann. “Race, Gender, Hollywood: Representation in Cultural Production and Digital Media’s Potential for Change.” Sociology Compass, vol. 9, issue 1, 2015, pp. 18-89, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/doi/10.1111/soc4.12237/full. Accessed 13 Dec. 2017.
4 Hess, Amanda. “Asian-American Actors are fighting for Visibility. They will not be Ignored.” New York Times, 25 May 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/29/movies/asian-american-actors-are-fighting-for-visibility-they-will-not-be-ignored.html. Accessed 13 Dec. 2017.
5 Chow, Keith. “Why Won’t Hollywood Cast Asian Actors?” New York Times, 22 Apr. 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/23/opinion/why-wont-hollywood-cast-asian-actors.html. Accessed 13 Dec. 2017.
6 Erigha, Maryann. “Race, Gender, Hollywood: Representation in Cultural Production and Digital Media’s Potential for Change.” Sociology Compass, vol. 9, issue 1, 2015, pp. 18-89, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/doi/10.1111/soc4.12237/full. Accessed 13 Dec. 2017.
7 Dave, Shilpa. “Racial Accents, Hollywood Casting, and Asian American Studies.” Cinema Journal, vol. 56, no. 3, 2017, http://muse.jhu.edu.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/article/658170. Accessed 13 Dec. 2017.
Rebekah Hwang is an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto. She’s currently serving as a Contributor for Synergy.