There are few greater example of the western world’s fascination with exoticizing and exploiting Asian cultures for entertainment than Disney movies. Most of these films are catered to children and meant to be a family fun experience but they perpetuate stereotypes and prejudices about Asian people while also pushing a unilateral and generalized identity.
While Mulan is set in China, the film meshes Japanese and Chinese culture together. In the opening sequences of the film, Mulan is depicted with white powdered makeup typical of a Japanese geisha and she is also wearing a Kimono, a style of clothing not typical in China but instead in Japan.
Despite the sacredness of ancestral rites, the movie uses the Fa family’s ancestors as an object of ridicule. We, the audience, are supposed to find them strange and humorous. Instead of respecting this cultural practice, the film openly mocks it in its portrayal.
In addition, a major theme of the movie is Mulan’s burden of bringing “honor” to her family. The word alone is mentioned 29 times in the movie. It’s the reason she visits the matchmaker in the first place and why her family attempts to force her into marriage. It’s also her motivation behind going to war and risking her life in place of her father. In doing so, the film suggests that sacrificing herself is the only way she can honor her family and make them proud. It suggests that she must do those things at all costs. Her success and good-standing in the movie is judged by her sidekick, Mushu who never fails to tell her which actions do or do not dishonor her family.
This is a common trope in western movies where filmmakers will present the idea that all Asian people live in pursuit of one thing: honor. But honor as an all encompassing value does not exist and it isn’t unique to just one culture. We all have a personal definition of honor we apply to our lives. And yet, when Belle in The Beauty and The Beast takes her father’s place as the Beast’s prisoner, we called it an act of love.
Not honor. And not 29 times.