by Alex Banciu
What about the remake?
A Guardian review called Mulan “the most empowered Disney heroine of all.” One could argue that there is some truth to this statement. Mulan manages to infiltrate the imperial army as a man. This was the only way to save her father from going to war, as one man from every family was drafted. She shows great skillfulness in battle, keeping up with the training, and gaining the respect of the other men. However, one must ask the question: are we talking about the animated version of Mulan or the live-action one? There is a huge difference between the two films in how they construct the protagonist. That difference is striking and people who have grown up with the animated version might find themselves disappointed in the remake. The two films are created twenty years apart, so the cultural and political context has changed significantly. The time difference amplifies the contrast between the films and it creates complex discussions on how the cultural/political context influences films and vice-versa. The article explores how the 2020 version of Mulan compares with the original one and what is the general reception of the new adaptation, furthering the analysis into more political and cultural aspects of the film’s female representation debates.
The premise of the two films is the same: in ancient China, Mulan is the curious daughter who struggles to understand what she really wants, whilst at the same time her parents try to match her with a suitable husband. War clouds, however, are gathering and threaten to disturb the peace of the kingdom. One man from every family has to join the imperial army, and Mulan’s father is the only one in their family. Mulan cannot bear to watch her father go to war, so she steals his armour and sword and marches to war in his place, disguised as a man. She ends up saving the land and wins the emperor’s trust.
The plot is quite straightforward, but the protagonist’s journey, internal as well as external, is where the biggest difference lies. 2020 Mulan presents from the start an exceptional girl who has inherent powers that make her special. She does not need to work hard to prove herself to the other soldiers because she is already much stronger than them. The only struggle she faces is remaining undercover in the camp. 1998 Mulan shows the development of a young girl who is trying to save her father, whilst trying to also prove her place in a patriarchal world. She remains authentic until the end, compensating for her lack of physical strength through her sheer determination and cleverness.
The struggles that the main character faces seem obvious at first, but it is the inner conflicts that distinguishes the two films. The 2020 version, as Nicholas Barber puts it for the BBC, goes for a “humourless and even sombre tone, replacing all the witty lines with portentous speeches about honour and loyalty.” The seriousness of the situation, in the original, is alleviated through the hilarious songs and a talking dragon. Although both films show the same protagonist, it almost makes more sense to talk about them as different characters. They both have a sense of duty to their family, but the way they deal with the expectations is exponentially different. The animated Mulan has to prove herself and work hard to achieve this goal. The 2020 Mulan is born with the power. In the initial scenes of the film, Mulan as a young girl is chasing a chicken. She displays incredible acrobatic skills and dexterity, all coming from chi. Later on in the film, when she is in the army camp, she fights one of the soldiers. Again, the audience can see a great amount of skill in battle and it leaves the other soldiers impressed. There is not anything wrong about Mulan having a strong force within her that makes her special, after all the film is a fantasy one. However, the impression that the protagonist makes is slightly dry. Aja Romano writes that “the new Mulan doesn’t seem concerned with deeper characterization.” And, indeed, the action is set in ancient China, where people had certain roles and had to respect tradition. But is that an excuse for having very stoic concepts, such as honour and loyalty, as the only motivation for the character?
The reviews from news outlets that have been mentioned occasionally in the above paragraphs have a common thread. They all affirm that the remake of Mulan has had quite some pressure to deliver a good female representation, since the original was already critically praised. However, the general perception is that the 2020 adaptation failed at delivering a worthy product, leaving fans disappointed.
The question remains: where did the 2020 adaptation go wrong and what kind of implications does the cultural context have on the production?
Neoliberal representation and Postfeminist confusion
Postfeminism and neoliberalism are very broad concepts, and for the sake of this article, I will be employing the analyses of Lyndsey Ogle and Megen de Bruin-Mole to explain the concepts. Ogle builds her analysis on the observation of several trends on social media and the interaction between those. One of those trends is #WomenAgainstFeminism, which rejects the idea of feminism because it starts from the conception that feminism did its job, and it is not needed anymore; i.e. a post feminist society. Moreover, Ogle’s analysis shows that this trend voices the opinions of some women who say that they can choose whether they want to be an independent woman, focused on her career, or a stay-at-home mother. Thus, equality is the same as choice for these women. Ogle’s book chapter goes deeper in saying that this association between a collective political endeavour with personal choice echoes a neoliberal framework.
The idea of individual choice is present in Mulan as well. The protagonist has from the beginning an intrinsic power, which grants her the choice to go to war. The choice that Mulan has is not immediately clear in the film. She lets her familial duty guide her actions. This technique, however, cannot hide that Mulan has too much strength and the prospect of war does not pose a threat to her life. As a result, the construction of the character seems forced as she chooses to follow a gender ideology that infantilizes her, when she can very well prove the system wrong. Mulan’s position works to her disadvantage, not in the film, but in the real world. The message implied in the film could be taken as an affront to everything that feminism fought for. Just because the film displays a strong female character, it does not mean that it is a feminist production. It has become common for films to have these strong women as protagonists, for the sake of being “woke” and politically correct. But the results are characters that are dry and flat. This in turn creates a sexist discourse in the fanbase, especially among male fans.
The reception of the film’s message and depiction of women is as important as the actual plot of the film. Megen de Bruin-Mole calls this transmedia marketing, or how the film is taken in the public discourse through opinions, merchandise etc. Hence, the reviews of the film are worthwhile to understand this discourse. Reviewers are disappointed in how Mulan comes across: powerful and a worthy soldier (even though she did not go through an extensive training). Nicholas Barber wrote that “she might have been more engaging if she’d had a spark of rebellion.” The fight scenes and the alleged challenges, to borrow Bruin-Mole’s phrase, “are mostly for dramatic effect.” Bruin-Mole analysed the Star Wars franchise, and called out some of the aspects of those empowered females. She states that there are no real challenges for them, resulting in creating scenes for the sake of dramatic effect. The same may be said about Mulan. The film has a protagonist that is powerful, but keeps her strengths hidden because she has to follow the norms of society. The female representation is quite confusing in 2020 Mulan; you have a female character that is born with power, and wants to fight, and, on the other hand, she has to stay obedient and serve her family and country.
The confusion created by the different representations, according to Ogle, are part of postfeminist performance. In this postfeminist world, there is not only one discourse on a woman’s position in society. Discussions vary from women not being subjugated by patriarchy anymore to women still facing misogyny. These complicated and complex debates create an ever changing state of feminist representations, according to Ogle, which at times are antithetical to each other. She explains that these debates impact how people identify with feminism too. Because of the identification with feminism (or the lack of it), the neoliberal system turns this identification into a commodity, used for consumption, without challenging the existing frameworks. I would argue that this commodification of feminism and lack of criticism towards neoliberalism is where the 2020 adaptation of Mulan failed. It followed the debates from different postfeminist performances that women can be #girlboss, without being critical that they are all within a neoliberal framework. Any challenges that women could face are a result of the individual choice. The result is that the framework remains unchallenged since the responsibility is redirected towards the individual and not the system that creates such a conflicting environment.
The 2020 adaptation plays into this neoliberal framework. Mulan gains the respect of the others because of her powerful chi, and she saves them in battle. For that, she is forgiven for disguising as a man and lying. Everything goes unbelievably well for her, which does not help in making her more complex. And it does not make her situation believable when in reality women (Asian women) face tremendous discrimination. Bruin-Mole says that “increased visibility and accessibility” in a film does not “translate to political change.” The adaptation was released in September 2020, after the pandemic was creating rampage through the world and an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes was prevalent. The Independent writes that the political relationship between the US and China was waning because of the increased xenophobia. Many American figures, including former president Donald Trump, called Covid-19 “the China virus.” Thus, one can observe how the making of a seemingly strong Chinese female character does not necessarily reflect reality. To expand on that, the character is not even constructed in a profound way, she remains shallow. The film, on the other hand, does have big publicity, still reaching a wide audience. The problem is that the audience sees a character that is poorly characterised and does not face many real-life challenges. For the people who grew up with the original movie, the new one comes as a disappointment. The contrast between the film and reality is stark, showing that the strong female leads from movies like 2020’s Mulan, to quote Bruin-Mole, “live in a world of postfeminism and colourblindness”.
Mulan has received criticism for not being relatable and for a lack of a plausible challenge for her. Going back to the film, there is another character that has the same special powers like Mulan: the witch. This character’s story is underdeveloped, which is disappointing because the witch seems more interesting than Mulan. The witch has special powers, but unlike Mulan, she was ostracised from her community. Why did not the same happen to Mulan? The film did not offer much screen time for the witch, thus, everything is left to speculation. Mulan has fought for the imperial army and helped win, showing loyalty for the kingdom and honouring her family. Her success is measured along the lines of patriarchy. However, I would argue that the witch’s situation makes her more relatable to people who face discrimination in real life. The film offers an unrealistic resolution for Mulan because the majority of women, or people in general, that go against the norm are faced with rejection and critique from society. In truth, the film Mulan fails because it does not really counteract the norm of an oppressive society.
Bruin-Mole and Ogles seem to have similar conclusions when it comes to contemporary female representation. Both say that quite a number of cultural products (i.e. texts, films etc.) show characteristics of postfeminism and neoliberalism. Ogles’ analysis of Twitter culture and Bruin-Mole’s analysis of the Star Wars franchise argue how the neoliberal context influences the construction of texts. I have reached a similar conclusion: Mulan (2020) plays into a postfeminist neoliberal framework, without challenging it, resulting in an individualistic product, blind to society’s inconsistent treatment of discriminated groups.
Bradshaw, P. (2020, September 3). Mulan Review – Disney’s female warrior charges into reality. The Guardian. Retrieved March 22, 2023, from https://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/sep/03/mulan-review-disney-remake-liu-yifei
Barber, N. (2022, February 24). Mulan Review: Live-action remake is ‘humourless and sombre’. BBC Culture. Retrieved March 22, 2023, from https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20200903-mulan-review-live-action-remake-is-humourless-and-sombre
Romano, A. (2020, September 3). Disney’s New Mulan: Pack Up, go home, you’re through. Vox. Retrieved March 22, 2023, from https://www.vox.com/culture/21419366/disney-new-mulan-review-2020-live-action-remake
Aggarwal, M. (2021, May 27). China accuses US of ‘politicising’ Covid origins and says it is damaging investigations. The Independent. Retrieved April 20, 2023, from https://www.independent.co.uk/asia/china/covid-wuhan-lab-china-us-b1854780.html
Ogle, Lyndsey. “Confused Cats and Postfeminist Performance.” In #identity: Hashtagging Race, Gender, Sexuality, and Nation, edited by Abigail De Kosnik and Keith P. Feldman, 123–36. University of Michigan Press, 2019. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvndv9md.11.
Bruin-Mole, Megen de. “Space Bitches, Witches, and Kick-Ass Princesses: Star Wars and Popular Feminism.” In Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling, edited by Sean Guynes and Dan Hassler-Forest, 225–40. Amsterdam University Press, 2018. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt207g5dd.20.