It was June 1998. The day was sunny and warm and I was a five year old excited as any five year old could be. I was going to watch my first ever movie in a movie theatre. That movie was Mulan.
Mulan, both the movie and the character, represents a lot, A LOT, to me. But the most significant reason is that at the age of five years old, a little girl of Chinese-descent, born to immigrant parents, who had just finished her first year of elementary school, got to see a version, a representation, of herself on the big screen.
That changed my life.
And I am only now starting to truly understand the profound impact that, that movie, and that character in particular, has had on me and the impact it will continue to have the older I become.
Some of our core understandings of the world, how we see it, how it works, are formed during our formative years. A large part of that formation is comes from our families, our friends, our living conditions, our education, etc. Another, and I want to say, significant part comes from books we read or are read to us, the TV shows we watch, and the movies we see. Or at least I did for me. I learnt the English alphabet through children’s TV shows like Sesame Street and the English language through books borrowed from the library. Crazily enough though, I knew the one through five times tables by the time I reached kindergarten (thanks, mom) but couldn’t fully remember how to walk home from school without my dad’s help.
(Fun fact: I can still recite the one through twelve times tables at a drop of a hat, but only in Cantonese.)
That’s why I think, no, I know that diversity and representation matters in media, in television, in movies, in books, because I know my experience isn’t a unique one. It’s one shared by many.
Diversity was a watchword in 2015. Everywhere you turned, the publishing industry, the press, Hollywood. Diversity was the “in”, the “hot” thing to talk about, to parade out and show the world, “look we’re changing, it’s not all about white guys”. (I’mma let you guess what look crossed my face as I wrote that. Seriously, comment below or hit me up on Twitter with your guess. I want to know.) But it shouldn’t be, it should be part of our everyday lives. We live in a diverse world with different kinds of people, people of different skin colour, genders, sexual orientations, languages, religions, and culture. And what we read and watch should reflect that.
A great article to read about that issue is one written by Jen. It’s an amazing article and one that you should read. She’s also pretty freaking amazing. Here’s the link. Go read it!
Diversity matters. Representation matters. A child being able to see someone that looks like them, acts like them, speaks like them, share’s similar thoughts and feelings, matters. And that’s why Mulan remains so significant to me. She encompassed so many of those facets to me and continues to, to this day.
Mulan was my first intersectional feminist role model. (Fuck, yes!) And I didn’t even know it. Granted my five year old mind could not properly grasp what intersectionality and feminism meant, but Mulan represented it all. And she still does.
Mulan faced a lot of adversity. She was a young woman, who had her own ideas, and thoughts, feelings, and ways of doing things, trying to figure out who she truly was, living in a very misogynistic society, one which still largely exists in modern China. She was an only child, an only female child, to an elderly couple. And the only way that society saw that she could bring great honour to her family was through marriage.
She tried to shape herself into how a young woman, a perfect daughter, a perfect bride, in society should act, should speak, should present herself, especially when it came to the matchmaking ceremony. But her true self shone through in the end, somewhat hilariously for us to see and in the poignantly in the song “Reflection”. It left her in a state where she felt a surreal amount of disappointment and inadequacy.
My parents never saw my gender as a detriment, but as something to be celebrated. And I am very thankful for that. But I know that is not always the case, especially when we’ve made visits to China in the past. I’ve heard some of the not-so-well-hidden snide comments. “Oh you only have two daughters? (Well lady, China has a female shortage thanks to your favouring of boys over girls. So ha!) You let her dress like that? Why doesn’t she wear more colour? More print? Why does she like reading so much?” (Insert eye rolling, some very foul language, and a certain finger.)
I understood how Mulan felt in those moments. The disappointment. The inadequacy. The reflection my behaviour must of had on my parents my family. But I moved past it. I became stronger for it. And so did Mulan.
Mulan was a badass, sword wielding, country saving, heroine, a good decade before the explosion of any dystopian heroines hit the scene. She was an original in every sense of the word.
She defied social and gender norms and masqueraded as a man to join to the army so her father wouldn’t have to risk his life at the great risk of her own life. She was fiercely determined and never gave in, never gave up in the face of failure. She shouldered the dishonour and acceptance of being discovered as a female impersonating a male solider by Shang. She didn’t sacrifice her femininity in her pursuits; she used it to her advantage (concubine dress up, anyone?). Her resourcefulness, her courage, her loyalty, engendered her to not only her fellow soldiers but the Emperor of China and its people as well. She defeated Shan Yu with a freaking fan! A fan! She was a warrior and a woman. She stayed true to herself and her ideals till the very end. She turned down the chance to be part of the Emperor’s counsel, a position that a woman would not have ever likely held in his court. But she turned it down. She turned it down. She made a choice, a choice for herself and returned home to her family. That to me takes an incredible strength.
Mulan walked through fire and came out stronger on the other side, like a phoenix emerging from flames anew but not really. The flames just revealed her true self, a reflection that finally showed who she was on the inside. (Do you have all the songs from Mulan running through you’re head at the moment? Because I did when I wrote this post.)
Mulan was a groundbreaking film when it debuted in 1998. It not only gave us a kickass heroine and one of Asian descent but it offered a look into China, its culture and traditions in a way that had never been depicted in North America. Being able to see to see my culture, my traditions, parts of the language I spoke, represented on screen was an incredible experience. The one part where Mulan calls her father “Baba” at the end of the film still makes me tear up a little.
The Emperor at the end of the movie said, “The flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of all.” It encapsulates Mulan’s entire journey from the very beginning where she was unsure of who she was and her place in the world to the powerhouse that she became by the end of the film. This movie and this character represents so much to me and has indelibly impacted my life for the better. I want other kids to have that same experience, to see themselves, to see that the obstacles can be overcome, whether it’s through a movie, or a TV show, or a book. That’s why diversity matters. That’s why representation matters. It shouldn’t be just a passing phase but something that is permanent and evolving as time goes on.
I love the character of Mulan and the movie that introduced me to her. I even enjoyed the sequel. I will always be grateful to my aunt and uncle who took me to see Mulan in theatres that sunny June day in 1998. The character of Mulan has inspired me, educated me, and shown me that being true to one’s self is the best choice and that the effort to get there is worth it. I still cannot fully comprehend the impact that this movie, this character, has had on me but I’m very thankful for it. I sincerely hope that Disney pays homage and respects what they created in the animated film when they begin filming the live-action version of Mulan. I want other little girls to see what I saw and the inspiration it can have just like I did when I was five years old.