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Why On-Screen Representation is Absolutely Meaningless
Or, a vicious takedown of Mulan (2020)
This weekend, Mulan (2020) was released on Disney+ for an additional $30 rental fee on top of their $6.99 lowest-tier monthly subscription, an absolute monstrous thing to do at a time when there is record unemployment and a surge of heartless evictions around the US. Look, I’m not suggesting that Mulan (2020) is a vital necessity that will save a country in the grips of a pandemic, but it will almost certainly tank the movie’s profits, which in turn might suggest to major studios that Asian American movies are “not profitable.”
Which, excuse my French, is some racist-ass, Catch-22 bullshit.
Of course, there may be many who might be asking, if you’re so worried about Mulan (2020) not being profitable, then why don’t you fork over the $30? You’re lucky enough to have a stable, full-time job during this time, and thirty dollars isn’t such a dent in your bank account that it would put you out of commission before your next paycheck.
That’s an easy question to answer. Because Mulan (2020) is some racist-ass bullshit, and on principle, I will not be supporting it with my hard-earned money. And asking people of color to support problematic depictions of themselves is, in and of itself, some racist-ass bullshit.
How do I know that Mulan is problematic when I haven’t seen the movie (and don’t ever plan to)? Well, readers, let me count the ways. Strap in, folks, because this is going to be a long one.
Asians =/= Asian Americans
The very first indication to me that something was off came even before I saw the trailer. Disney revealed that most of the changes being made to the live-action adaptation of Mulan were being taken from the Chinese audience’s criticism of the 1998 animated film — mainly, that they did not like Mushu, did not like that it was a musical, and did not, apparently, like that Mulan cut her hair to join the army, as Chinese men grew their hair long during that time period. That, out of everything, seemed to be the choice producer Jason Reed was most embarrassed by.
Mulan (1998) is rife with its own issues, for sure. Its creative team was largely white (in fact, I only spot one Asian name in the above-the-line crew: screenwriter Rita Hsiao), it participates in Orientalizing and confusing Asian cultures for one another (clock Mulan’s geisha makeup in the matchmaker sequence), and one could argue that Mushu essentially made an offensive joke out of one of Chinese culture’s most important and iconic symbols. Nonetheless, the movie resonated with Asian Americans at the time because it seemed to encompass the blend of Western and Eastern culture that was the reality of our existence. As Petrana Radulovic explains in this Polygon article, the inaccuracies of Mulan’s hair-cutting was done in service to the movie’s story, and was a move that spoke directly to the Asian American diaspora. Chinese viewers hated Mulan (1998) because, frankly, it was never made for them.
That Asian Americans loved Mulan (1998) and seemed to dislike all of the changes being made to Mulan (2020) didn’t seem to concern its production (or marketing) team at all. You might think that this is a small and petty point, but it actually points to a more troubling mode of thinking — that the opinions of Asians are more “valuable,” “authentic,” and “correct” than that of Asian Americans.
This couldn’t have a clearer example than with 2017’s Ghost in the Shell, which came under fire in America for casting Scarlett Johansson for the lead, Kusanagi Mokoto, who, if you couldn’t tell by the name, was supposed to be a Japanese woman. Meanwhile, in Japan, Ghost in the Shell performed admirably in the box office, and Ghost in the Shell creator Oshii Mamoru himself said that he didn’t have a problem with the casting. Many white Americans, including Johansson and director Rupert Sanders, would come to prop up these statements as a way to silence Asian Americans and tell us that our concerns were misplaced, and that we were just too “sensitive.”
Except those who made this argument were forgetting one key thing: that Asian Americans grew up in a mainstream culture that often mocked us, and Asians grew up in a society where they were the mainstream culture and didn’t need to fight for accurate representation. To the Japanese, it was exciting that Americans even wanted to replicate their culture. To Asian Americans, it was yet another example of how white people will loot what they want from our “aesthetic” and leave our humanity behind. (For more on this distinction, I’ll forward you to Nikita Redkar’s insightful essay on why her parents don’t think that bindi-wearing is cultural appropriation, but she does.)
It’s a problematic and toxic trend for white people to decide who the arbiters of the “real” culture are, because Asian American culture is wholly distinct from Asian culture, and neither are our lived experiences equivalent nor exchangeable. Not to even mention that it is (to use my recurring phrase) some racist-ass bullshit to use our people against us as bludgeons to discredit us, especially when we know better than anyone why something does or doesn’t work in context.
It’s also, frankly, poor narrative writing. What’s more memorable, Mulan making the quiet but deliberate decision to slice off her hair in the middle of the night, a sequence set to rising orchestral music, or Mulan riding off into war, essentially unchanged?
Cultural and Historical Inaccuracies
It’s really ironic that Disney made such a fuss about appealing to Chinese viewers when they didn’t even bother making sure their movie was accurate to Chinese culture in the first place.
When the trailer for Mulan first dropped in July of last year, it was exciting for many Chinese-Americans to see their culture depicted in such a way by a major studio. But that excitement was quickly dampened with the appearance of Hakka tulou in the trailer, which was roundly criticized by Chinese citizens and Chinese-Americans alike.
How could the creative team behind Mulan have made such a glaring, easily-correctable mistake, especially when the rest of the movie seems to have been so carefully crafted to Chinese concerns?
Easy. The creative team is stacked with white people (or, at the very least, non-Asian names).
This is just a light sampling of the crew list from the IMDb Pro page:
It’s not just a question of accuracy. The decision to place a character of Northern Chinese descent in a Fujianese tulou points to a larger, racist idea: that all Chinese people (and, to a larger extent, Asian people) are indistinguishable from each other. It doesn’t matter to a white audience whether Mulan grows up in a Hakka tulou or a Mongolian yurt or even a Japanese minka — hell, all they care about is seeing an Asian girl performing martial arts against a vaguely Oriental backdrop. It’s easy to condense all of Chinese food into one overarching idea of Panda Express when you don’t care to learn about the striking amount of regional diversity in a country that is 9.6 million square kilometers, dwarfed in area only by Russia and Canada. (And this is coming from someone who uncompromisingly loves Panda Express.)
The tulou decision also demonstrates a fundamental lack of care for what the story of Mulan is actually about, as Alyza Liu masterfully explains in this Twitter thread. If the creative team was really concerned about capturing an authentic depiction of Mulan and representing the Chinese people, shouldn’t this have been at the top of their concerns?
Besides, China doesn’t need white-savior-complex Hollywood to horribly bungle a Mulan adaptation! They already did that themselves in 2009.
Marketing to China, not Chinese-Americans
Of course, what we Asian Americans think of this movie doesn’t matter in the first place. The 2010 US census counted approximately 17 million people who identified as Asian American / Pacific Islander (or AAPI for short), which makes up 5.6% of the US population. Which means every single one of us could boycott Mulan (2020), and it wouldn’t make a dent in Disney’s profits as long as they capture the real cash cow: the 1.4 billion ticket-paying viewers in China.
This is yet again incredibly ironic as Forbes is already projecting the movie to do poorly in China, where Mulan will be released theatrically a week from now, but it doesn’t change the central fact that Mulan was created for the Chinese audience in mind. It’s been reported on obliquely in other articles, but never so directly than in this Wall Street Journal article titled, “How Disney Enlisted ‘Mulan,’ a $200 Million Folktale, to Court China,” an article I cannot read because it’s been paywalled, so I’ll let you all in the comments tell me how I’ve missed the main point of it completely.
This, of course, is not a new trend in Hollywood. For years, the American film industry has been after China, the most lucrative foreign market due to the size of its audience, and yet a veritable white whale for distribution. As this Vox video explains, China only allows a small number of foreign films to be distributed in the country every year — 34 films as of 2017 — which means getting on that slate is incredibly competitive. Hollywood’s strategy for getting their films into China has been increasingly portray bit role Chinese characters as heroes, or even to subtly nod to pro-Beijing propaganda. A recent example of this is from Top Gun: Maverick, in which the patches on Maverick’s iconic jacket were altered, with the Japanese and Taiwanese flags removed. Since the film had Chinese financial backing, many on the internet suspected that the change was done to appease the Chinese government.
It’s a course of action that is getting dangerously prevalent in the Western world. Politicians and business leaders alike are weighing their investments in China against blatant human rights offenses, and often choosing the former. One of the most high-profile examples of this clash came in October 2019, when Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of the Hong Kong protests, to obviously negative response from Chinese broadcasters and sponsors. Various people associated with the NBA, including Lebron James, quickly tried to distance themselves from Morey’s tweet, as basketball is China’s most popular sport — and therefore a valuable business interest. This, of course, lost Lebron a lot of Hong Kong fans, and prompted Hong Kongers to stage protests at NBA games to voice their displeasure. But as this NPR interview with Jordan Ritter Conn points out, it’s an unfair fight. In pure economic terms, the NBA would rather lose a city of 7 million than a country of 1.4 billion.
How does this relate to Mulan (2020)? Well, in August 2019, the movie’s lead actress, Liu Yifei, voiced her support for the Hong Kong police — who, if you’ve kept up with the news, were brutal in their crackdown of the protesters in Hong Kong. Donnie Yen, who also stars in Mulan and is much beloved by American audiences, recently celebrated Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule on social media. In fact, many Chinese actors who have been allowed to flourish in Hollywood, like Jackie Chan, have all expressed pro-Beijing sentiments. Meanwhile, my man Chow Yun-Fat, who famously lives on $100 per month and plans on donating his inheritance to charity, has been vocally in support of the 2014 Umbrella Protest and the 2019 Hong Kong protests, and the last US production he starred in was 2010’s Shanghai, a movie with a 4% Rotten Tomatoes score. He’s also been barred from mainland China’s film industry.
What are we saying when we allow the American film industry to be a covert vehicle for pro-Beijing propaganda?
For the record, I am Chinese-American, and I hate the xenophobic “China is a conniving foreign power that needs to be put in its place by Western powers” rhetoric as much as the next sensible person. But I am Chinese-American, and I am very much aware of the evils that the Chinese government is perpetrating on its own (contested) soil and elsewhere. This will take a whole ‘nother essay to get into, so I will only summarize in brief: ethnic cleansing of multiple groups of people, concentration camps, imprisonment for activists and dissenters, imperialistic claims over various parts of Asia, neo-colonialism in Africa, and mass surveillance of its own people. My love for my mother country is in constant battle with the knowledge of these egregious injustices, so I understand better than most Americans what the world is allowing when we put our business interests with China above human lives.
The Mulan (2020) rental is only thirty dollars on top of a Disney+ subscription that my sister happened to get for free for signing up with her new cable service, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s a thirty dollars that is tainted with the blood of my people, and of all the people I am fighting for. And that, for me, is a cost too high.
On-Screen Representation is Meaningless Lip Service
From my years of observation on the internet, it seems that the AAPI community, particularly the privileged and often wealthy folks of East Asian descent, is preeminently concerned with the idea of “representation.” Maybe it’s natural that it’s become the pet cause of a group of people for whom invisibility has been the worst imaginable offense. So the rallying call for the community often goes, it’s not perfect, but we have to support it with our wallets, or else Hollywood may not make so many movies about us. Certainly, that was the rhetoric around Crazy Rich Asians, and despite whatever misgivings I initially had about the movie, I begrudgingly went to see it anyway (and let the record show that I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would). But this idea that we need to “prove” ourselves to Hollywood is, in and of itself, a pernicious lie. Upon its release, Crazy Rich Asians broke records upon records, becoming the highest-grossing comedy in a decade and the sixth-highest grossing of all time, at a time when theatrically-successful romantic comedies were basically extinct. Its second weekend experienced only a 6% drop in ticket sales — a mind-boggling (and aptly Asian American) overachievement, when a second weekend drop of 20% is usually considered “good.” And yet, in September 2019, screenwriter Adele Lim had to leave the sequel because she found out her white, male co-writer was offered a pay rate that was eight times hers. Adele Lim, who is of Malaysian Chinese descent, and without whom Crazy Rich Asians almost certainly wouldn’t have been a success. Ever since then, there’s been no news about the sequel, and I can only assume that it’s languishing in development hell. Maybe we will see Crazy Rich Asians 2 eventually — there is likely too much money riding on it not to see it through — but the magic has been broken. Warner Brothers championed a movie that seemed to be the first of its kind in studio-backed Hollywood: a creative team and cast of mostly Asian descent, recruited to its cause from around the world. I mean, for God’s sake, they got Michelle Yeoh! But behind the scenes, it was another story completely. The same old story, as it turns out.
I’m sick of being caught in the crosshairs of white-centered capitalism and the unethical, imperialist ambitions of my mother country. I don’t want to sacrifice my morals just to “see someone who looks like me” on screen. This is why AAPI folks who crow about the importance of representation come off as myopic and, worse, blissfully ignorant — representation is ultimately meaningless without the teeth behind it. If you’re just using my culture to profit and line your own pockets, then no thank you — I don’t want to participate.
What AAPI folks, and POC in general, need to do is to stop looking at the white gatekeepers to let us in through the door. The only thing that accomplishes is letting white folks tell us what stories we can or can’t tell, which stories are and aren’t important. There are plenty of amazing and subversive storytellers who have “made it” in Hollywood, of course — Ava Duvernay, Jordan Peele, Ryan Coogler, Barry Jenkins, Lulu Wang, just to name a few. But I refuse to believe that there shouldn’t be way more names on the list. How many necessary, challenging, and incendiary voices are we missing out on? Because Hollywood’s diversity efforts will always operate on the scam of manufactured scarcity — of a quota that they’ve “already” filled. There will come a day where the white execs will think that they’ve got “enough” POC stories on the docket, or will pass around a list of the same five POC directors to helm their “diverse” projects. They’ll tell you that your story isn’t “marketable” enough, which is really just code for, “it’ll scare the white folks.”
Enough is enough. If the June uprisings of 2020 have taught me anything, it’s that we POC can’t rely on white people to give us anything. After three months of daily protesting, Breonna Taylor’s killers still have not been arrested. And she is only one of the many, many Black folks who have been killed just this year whose murderers have not been brought to justice. She is only one of the many, many Black women who have been brutalized by white supremacy across history itself. If it takes this much for white people to recognize our right to live, then when will they see our talent? Our points of view? Our stories?
Film is a particularly disadvantageous field for POC to be in because it’s a medium that, by necessity, costs a wild amount of money, and without a national film board or government agency that awards film grants (like many other countries have!), it’s almost impossible to make a film in the US without thinking about your profit margins. You need money to make money, an adage that rings particularly true for film, and as we all know, it’s a cruelly infuriating conundrum when POC have little generational wealth in comparison to their white counterparts. Part of revolutionary cinematic work will be to disentangle film as an art from its current business model, for art cannot thrive as long as it’s connected to money.
Maybe this is radical of me to suggest in an essay about representation, but I think it’s time to start our own industry, outside of the white gaze, where we pool our money and resources to make the movies that matter to us. Hell, it’s not a new idea — every New Wave movement has managed to operate this way outside of their respective mainstream film industries (before getting utterly absorbed by the mainstream itself), and the L.A. Rebellion was a fantastic and essential precursor of this idea. Just a idealistic suggestion I’m throwing out there to the world, to whomever will take it. Because I don’t want to continue creating art in a world where I let the white gatekeepers tell me yes or no. I want a world in which I and other POC tell ourselves yes!, every resounding yes! we can shout from our chests, and create the type of art that heals souls and builds communities.
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