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Mulan, the hero of China, and white male centrality

October 10, 2016

Today AngryAsianMan posted An Open Letter to the Creators of Disney’s Live-Action Feature Film ‘The Legend of Mulan’ from an anonymous reader concerned about the direction the of the live action Mulan movie currently being produced by Disney. The writer of the letter had read through The Legend of Mulan spec script by Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Martin and was “deeply disturbed” by the proposed white male lead, a “30-something European trader…who develops a mutual attraction with Mulan and fights to protect her in the ensuing battles. To top it all off, this man gets the honor of defeating the primary enemy of China, not Mulan.” According to the anonymous writer, Disney is also not considering using an Asian American actress for Mulan–instead preferring to work with a 16 or 17 year old actor from China. Hynek and Martin’s spec script seems to have “Disney’s Pocahontized” the original Mulan story as much as possible.

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Since the open letter was posted, multiple sources, including actor Joel de la Fuente and journalist Jeff Yang, have corroborated that this is indeed the content of the spec script. Yang summarized the early plot of the script:

“Seriously, the script first introduces the white male hero (a Roman legionnaire) cavorting in a brothel with voluptuous Chinese prostitutes, until he’s caught by a ‘mountainous Chinese thug’ that he’s scammed — who disrupts the party by violently beating the prostitutes, because Asian men, as we do.”

Mulan is one of many animation-to-live-action Disney movies in the works, but perhaps the most unfaithful–in sharp contrast to 2017’s live action Beauty and the Beast which will even include the original movie’s songs. Disney apparently felt it wouldn’t be possible to do a Mulan adaptation without centering it around the experiences of a white guy–even if Hua Mulan is an actual historical legend.

The Mulan spec script is now being rewritten by the scriptwriters of Jurassic World, Amanda Silver and Jick Jaffa. Their script for Jurassic World was notable for originally intending for main characters to be Chinese. Even so, Mulan is being adapted with no significant input from writers of Chinese descent, and it’s unclear if the next draft will continue to emphasize this odious white guy character.

It’s possible Disney is simply going back to the roots of their 1998 animated Mulan. In 1993, Disney was working on a short feature called “China Doll.” According to the Los Angeles Daily News, the heroine of “China Doll” was “a waifish Chinese girl who fought a losing war against tyranny until a British soldier came and swept her away. Nobody liked the character, so the writers went back to a Chinese poem [Mulan] for inspiration.”

At the time, director Barry Cook said that they were careful to not use romance to drive Mulan’s plot. “There was another story line that had her running off to war to escape a bad situation at home, either bad parents or a forced marriage. That didn’t work. Then she was driven by a romance she had with the captain of the soldiers. And that just ruined everything.”

This isn’t new. It’s a well-worn Hollywood pattern. We’re a little over half way through and the 2010s are shaping up to be the Decade of White Male centrality.

The Decade of White Male Centality might have started with the 2009 film Avatar, an extremely popular genre film that Mighty Whitied as hard as possible in it’s scifi setting. In the film, white dude Jake Sully dons the physical appearance of the alien Na’vi, romances the Chief’s Daughter, and eventually becomes their leader. Or perhaps it’s true start was in 2008’s The Forbidden Kingdom, a film set in Ancient China and based on the Journey to the West, featuring Jackie Chan and Jet Li, where the main character was somehow still a white guy named “Jason Tripitikas.” Since then, even as the incidence of conventional yellowface and whitewashing have somewhat decreased, the number of films set in non-white settings but centering the experiences, feelings, and heroism of white men continues to explode onto big and small screens. It’s how we ended up with 2015’s Stonewall, a film about the New York riots that kicked off the modern LGBTQ rights movement–historically lead by bisexual trans women of color–that inexplicably told the story of a white man from the midwest.

Many times, these films tend to follow a predictable pattern:

A) A white dude main character becomes immersed in a culture that is not his own
B) The people of this culture (frequently an Asian culture) are skeptical of this man because he is an outsider.
C) The white dude proves his mettle and teaches the Asians (or Other culture) that they were wrong to discriminate against him. He is allowed to fight alongside them. In more extreme iterations of the trope, he even leads them to victory or saves them.
D) Along the way, the white guy scores with the Asian female lead/appropriate love interest who is quite impressed with him.
E) The white dude actor playing the white dude character gets the top billing (even the title of the movie/show), the most lines, and the most story. Maybe an Asian actress gets some screen time, but not as the lead. The most prominent Asian men in the story are antagonists or supporting characters.

What results is a surefire recipe of Othering, dehumanization, orientalism, or otherwise. When your viewer surrogate does not come from the culture you are featuring, it’s easy to frame the “frequently less represented in media” folks and their culture as something beautiful, exotic, weird, strange, or misunderstood.

This plot arc plays out in the spec script of The Legend of Mulan and it played out in Netflix’s Marco Polo (2014). The Netflix series focuses heavily on Kublai Khan’s imperial court, but is still named after and focuses on the adventures of Polo. Although historians are not even sure Marco Polo ever made it to China, the series depicts Marco Polo earning the trust of the Khan and winning the heart of a Mongol princess. It even again immortalized the original Marco Polo’s lie that he taught the Mongols how to build trebuchets. By Season Two, the series had shrunken the size of Lorenzo Richelmy’s head on the posters, but he was still there–lurking randomly out of place–and the show was still named after his character.

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As I wrote in 2013 in my article about the forgettable film 47 Ronin:

Hollywood doesn’t just whitewash Asian characters…it depicts how the white characters face discrimination from Asians. It’s bitter irony. It’s a complete lack of self-awareness. What they do to Asian American actors in real life they depict happening to white(washed) characters on screen. In the story, being part white is depicted as a liability. The people of color in the film are exclusionary. Yet, these films inadvertently demonstrate that in Hollywood, it’s the opposite–characters of color are whitewashed. People of color in the film industry are excluded, even when the main characters were originally people of color.

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In the chute already are three properties that threaten to continue this belabored trope. Next up is Birth of the Dragon, a film about Bruce Lee that maintains the apocryphal myth that Lee fought against “reverse racism” and the right for white people to learn martial arts. A completely made up character, white dude Steve McKee (played by Billy Magnussen), is the viewer surrogate for the exotic land of…1960’s Oakland.

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As pitched to the Toronto Film Festival, Birth of the Dragon is about how “the Bay Area Chinese community frowns on his sharing of ancient ways with non-Chinese, but [Bruce]Lee is a rebel.” Lee will challenge Chinese martial arts master Wong Jack Man to defend McKee’s right to learn kung fu. McKee will teach Bruce Lee about how to get into movies and birth the dragon. And McKee will of course, get to kiss a Chinese girl. (See: awkward trailer) Bruce Lee’s family has spoken out against the film:

The upcoming Netflix/Marvel show Iron Fist (2017) also threatens to play out this trope. Based on the comic property of the same name, Iron Fist tells the story of an American orphan adopted by a mystical Asian community. Despite being an outsider, he becomes their most gifted student and is bestowed with the superpower of the Iron Fist. In the original story, set to be reimagined in the upcoming Netflix series, he will return to New York to reclaim his inheritance and seek justice for his family. In 2014, years before the show went into production, fans attempted to advocate for an Asian American Iron Fist arguing that it didn’t matter if Danny Rand was Asian American or white American as long as the character was some sort of American orphan stranded in Asia. Fans argued that making Danny Rand Asian American would improve Marvel’s poor diversity track record and was actually a good workaround to avoid repeating the trope being discussed in this article.

Fan efforts to racebend Iron Fist were unsuccessful, although it appears that some Asian actors were given at least some consideration. Actor Lewis Tan, who was ultimately cast as the villain Zhou Cheng, had 15 years of martial arts training under his belt. When the series finally premieres, the white actor who was cast as Iron Fist, Finn Jones, will probably be credited for undergoing a grueling martial arts regimen. Leaked casting sides from the show depicted a white Danny Rand telling mixed race Asian American character Colleen Wing that he understands what it is like to be different. The trailer shows him fighting Asian villains kidnapping a white woman and showing off his muscles to Colleen.

The Great Wall, also set to premiere in 2017, is a Chinese co-production starring Matt Damon battling monsters on The Great Wall. It’s a fantasy story and Damon plays an original character, so he argued at New York Comic Con that the film is not “whitewashing.” Even so, the trailer is intent on centering Damon and following this trope to a tee– Matt is a white dude who arrives in fantasy Ancient China, an outsider who is initially distrusted. Matt impresses them with his archery and proves the Chinese wrong. Matt is invited to fight with them. Matt impresses a Chinese lady. Matt Matt Matt Matt Matt Damon does all the things. Even if the movie radically demonstrates otherwise, more people will see the problematic tropes reinforced in this trailer than the actual film itself.

The Great Wall is no different from any other Hollywood production centering white men, except this time white male centrality will be working in tandem with Chinese investors to showcase Chinese filmmaking and Han supremacy to an international film audience. I have no doubt that the producers of this movie feel that having seasoned Chinese action stars fighting alongside a white Hollywood A-lister is a form of validation and legitimacy. But functionally, it provides no opportunities for Asian American actors and continues to reinforce a racist phenomena that Taiwanese American actress Constance Wu describes as “hero bias”–the preference for white male characters to be audience surrogates and heroes. Matt Damon convinces the Chinese characters that they cannot fight the monsters without him. Whether the monsters are Great Wall climbing dragons or Hollywood production companies, his character is reinforcing a myth that isn’t true.

If you go by the definition that whitewashing is changing a pre-existing character of color into a white character, none of these properties–Legend of Mulan, Marco Polo, Birth of the Dragon, Iron Fist, The Great Wall–are whitewashing. Unlike the upcoming Ghost in the Shell movie, no original character is being “washed”–instead, a white guy is being added as a viewer surrogate so the story can be centered around his experience. Unfortunately, this reliance on a white audience surrogate reinforces the dangers of a single story–that all stories worth telling about people of color in Hollywood are only worth telling through the lens of a white male protagonist.

What about adding “a white man really into Chinese prostitutes” helped make the spec script for Legend of Mulan so appealing to Disney? Isn’t it kind of sad that nearly a decade after the whitewashing of The Last Airbender, Disney’s decision to cast a Chinese actress to play the Chinese character based on the Chinese Ballad of Hua Mulan made headlines? It’s disconcerting enough that this casting announcement was spurred by an anti-whitewashing petition signed by over 106,000 people hopeful that Disney would do the right thing.

A Chinese actress will play Mulan. It’s just not guaranteed that she’ll be the center of her own story.

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#MakeMulanRight is an effort being led by 18Million Rising to encourage Disney to scrap the concept from the original spec script. You can sign on to the petition here: http://action.18mr.org/makemulanright/

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About the Author

Marissa Lee is one of the co-founders of Racebending.com

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