By Viv Obarski
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.