Why the Disney Princess Redesign of Mulan is Problematic

By Viv Obarski

Editors’ Notes:

2/7/13: Check out Viv’s other post on the Mulan redesign!

2/4/13: We’ve previously written about poorly thought-out character redesigns and the meaning of princesses. And others have written about how important it was to possibly have the first Latina Disney prince (she isn’t, because she is only “a fairytale girl who lives in a fairytale world”, according to Disney). But what is the impact of these redesigns of long-standing Disney princesses (the newly generic term for all Disney heroines)? TLF Contributor Viv Obarski delves into Disney’s Mulan redesign. While many Disney characters are based on works in the public domain (with known authors) or on folklore (or are Pocahontas — a real person), Mulan is the only Disney movie (except for Song of the South), solely based on folklore from a non-Western culture.  Mulan has been part of Chinese folklore for over a thousand years, and has been reinterpreted many times before. However, Mulan’s “identity” isn’t really known by Western audiences apart from her Disney princess-ing.

As the parent of a five-year-old girl, I feel lucky that my daughter, while she’s sipped from the cup of Disney Princess, never really drank deeply from the well (for the record, she’s more into Mythbusters, which makes my heart sing). But she does like the stuff, so on occasion, I’ve had Disney Princess books, backpacks and dolls in the house.

That’s not normally a big deal for me — after all, a child is also a person with their own taste and style. But what I can’t deal with is the new redesign of the princesses, in particular the princesses of color. More specifically? Mulan.

If there was a Disney princess I identified with, it’s Mulan. She’s a symbol of China. I remember when the movie Mulan came out and even though I was in my twenties, I was as excited as a little girl. There was our culture, our people up on the screen, instead of some blonde chick singing to an animal sidekick.

Granted, the movie’s not perfect — it’s stuck in that 90’s Disney formula of song, song song, ACTION, tension, song, FINAL BATTLE and then romance in the end. There’s even the talking animal sidekick. But for me, it’s the best Disney Princess movie from the 90s. When the Huns come down the mountain in the big battle scene right before the climax of the movie? I remember gasping in the theater because it was so beautiful and tense.

I love that the romance with Shang never really happens until the end and it’s not even a “I love you,” but a “Would you stay for dinner?” It’s all about family for Mulan and that was such a refreshing change from Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid and other movies where romance is at the forefront. I don’t care about true love’s kiss — I want to kick some ass.

So yes, to use Internet speak, I have a lot of feels for this movie.

And then I saw this:
(from feministdisney.tumblr.com — the image on the left is the redesign, the right is from the movie Mulan)

For the record, the entire redesign of the princesses is just this mish-mash of ugly and overblown beauty ideals. Belle’s new hairstyle looks like she got stuck in a windtunnel, Jasmine’s waist doesn’t occur in reality and her skin tone resembles Snow White’s and even Cinderella looks like the SNL sketch “The Real Housewives of Disney” with Kristen Wiig. But for now, my focus is on Mulan.

Mulan’s redesign is awful. It’s like they whitewashed Mulan and then made her don yellowface. I realize that sounds contradictory, but she is  the perfect storm of wrong for Asian portrayal in media. The new redesign makes her look like she comes from a planet of cat people. I know Asian eyes have a slant, but I’ve never seen a slant like that, nor eyebrows that arched. Her face isn’t that strong, willful round moon that was in the movie. I have no idea what this is. Slap some blue make-up on her and she could pass as one of the aliens from the movie Avatar.

Her skin’s been lightened to ridiculous proportions and I know that while it may have been considered “beautiful” (granted, she spends part of the movie in white make-up) that make-up was a symbol of what she didn’t want to be. Mulan pushed against the makeup-wearing ideal that her family wanted.

Mulan was never about fitting in with the rest of the crowd (which is a trope of Disney movies — how many times do we hear a song or a speech about how the protagonist wants to get out and see the world/feels alienated/is a special snowflake?). She is a hero because she defied the conventions placed on her by society. But with this redesign, Disney’s successfully shoved her into a box and forced her to fit in and blend in with everyone else. So much for individuality.

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Comments (9)

This is a thoughtful, entertaining read, Viv. Also, it’s nice to hear about how awesome your daughter is becoming and OH MY GOD SHE’S FIVE NOW? I feel like I was reading about her antics on Blogger just yesterday!

Thank you for the nice words! And it’s good to hear from you again 🙂

The wee beastie is indeed five now! She’s pretty brilliant in her own way. I suspect she’ll be ruling the world soon enough given her charisma and brains.

In your last paragraph, you really articulate an interesting tension between the merchandise princesses and the actual Disney princesses in their films. Mulan is a particularly vivid example; even before this redesign, her dolls presented her in her matchmaking outfit, an outfit she explicitly rejects. You rarely see her as Ping (which, I would argue, is still an anxious identity for her) or in the simple clothes she wears at the end of the film. And this applies to most of the Disney princesses.

Anyway, here’s a picture of the Mulan at the parks as Ping to cheer everybody up.

I totally agree that Ping is an identity that she wouldn’t assume normally. It’s done to protect her father from having to go into the war, because that’s also not her. But that picture is awesome.

I loved her outfit in the end because it was simple, clean and her. You could tell she was comfortable in it and if they wanted to, I’d love to see her in that outfit with Shan Yu’s sword. That would be badass.

And you’re right on the other Disney princesses. But they’re selling a product and this idea that women should be princesses with the glamour and other “pretty” things — after all, they’ve expanded into wedding dresses and destination wedding stuff.

It’s just annoying because I feel like the princess thing misses out on the more complicated heroines like Alice, Wendy, Lilo and Nani. They’re just as important as the princesses (if not moreso because they can be complicated and messy like reality). You don’t have to be a princess to be awesome, but because the princesses take up so much shelf space, it’s clear Disney’s not getting that message.

Exactly! If you’re familiar with the films, you can see the tension between character and product and how the two concepts can’t fit with each other if you’re trying to sell a product.

Man, tell me about it. My favorite Disney heroine is Esmeralda, and you don’t see anything for her—because she never got a fancy dress, because she’s older than the princesses, because she doesn’t end with the protagonist… Man.

Did you see that Disney actually “fixed” it? (Sort of… they made her less white and made the blue in her eyes brown.) Go look either at the tumblr you linked to or the original page.

[…] be honest — when I wrote the Mulan piece, I didn’t expect to see change happen. I’ve been around long enough to see large corporations […]

[…] a huge Disney fan, I am not an advocate for their new choice. Many of the designs don’t represent who the characters are or what they stand […]

Personally as a father, Disney should not be “sexifying” the Princesses! My 2 yr old adores Jasmine. She has seen all 3 Aladdin movies countless times. Yet the way they are making them look, I AM VERY DISAPPOINTED!

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