Mulan

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Traditional Western and Disney Ideals as Seen in Mulan

Fairy tales have been a long tradition in almost all cultures, starting as oral traditions to and gradually evolving into written texts intended for future generations to enjoy. Today, a common medium for relaying these ancient stories is through animation. The Walt Disney Company is probably the most well known for its animated portrayals of many classic fairy tales. These fairy tales are considered, by fairy tale researcher Justyna Deszcz to be "cultural institutions, which exist within an institutional framework of production, distribution, and reception, as well as fulfilling specific social functions, such as the preservation of the cultural heritage of a given country." The majority of these Disney fairy tales are derivatives of European stories. However, in 1998 Disney opened its first animated feature with an Asian theme in both the United States and Asia. Disney's Mulan seems to stray from the traditional structure of a Disney fairytale, those which have a "relatively uncomplicated sequence of adventures, revolving around impeccably positive characters, who, depending on their gender, either conquer evil or passively wait to be rescued" (Deszcz). Disney's Mulan was aimed to please both the Asian and modern American markets. However, the Walt Disney Company fails to completely step away from its established model in terms of portrayals of minorities, Western depictions of men being dominant in the fairy-tale world, and a woman's ultimate role and happiness being conditional on men. Mulan continues to promote Disney's idea of Western cultures as being ideal and its sexist views regarding women.

The story of the great Chinese female warrior, Hua Mulan, first appeared as a ballad titled "Ode to Mulan" in approximately 500 A. D. In the ballad, there is a young woman by the name of Mulan who is feeling dejected because she has just gone into town where she saw lists of men's names who are being called to serve in the Chinese army. One man on the list is Mulan's crippled father. Because she has no older brother who can take his place, Mulan, with the consent of her parents, then decides to go to the marketplace and buy a horse and saddle so that she may go to war. Mulan leaves and fights in the war against the Huns for twelve years. When she returns, her troop is honored and offered prizes by the Emperor. However, all Mulan wants is to return home. She is then taken home where she finally takes off her armor. It is only at this time that the rest of the army discovers that she is a woman. The ballad ends at this point, but research has been done on the historical Hua Mulan, showing that this ballad does not give a full and accurate account of the warrior. First, Hua Mulan's family name was not, in fact, Hua, but rather Wei. Second and more importantly, is "Mulan's" life after her return home. Once the Sui Emperor, Yang Di, heard about this woman warrior, he was greatly impressed and asked her to come live at his palace and serve as one of his concubines. However, the woman refused and committed suicide instead. "Since this matter was bad for the emperor's reputation, no one dared eulogize ‘Mulan' in writing…and her exploits were only recorded among the populace in the form of a folk song [‘Ode to Mulan']" (Song, 33).

The Walt Disney Company had two target audiences for its animated version of this Chinese folk tale. Along with its primary audience, the United States, Disney was also looking to appeal to its Chinese consumers. There were two main reasons for the company's newfound interest in China. First, Disney was responsible for distributing the movie Kundun in 1997, which told the story of the Dalai Lama. However, the Chinese government was not pleased with the portrayal because it felt that the movie was critical of its rule over Tibet and banned the movie from being shown in China (Kuhn). Also, Mulan was released in the late 1990's when China was...
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