Though the original Disney movie was culturally significant, it came out in a film era when people of color were routinely tokenized.
Disney’s new live-action “Mulan” is coming at a time when the entertainment world is still feeling tremors from the success of “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Parasite.” It was a very different landscape when the animated “Mulan” debuted in 1998: American audiences were far less used to the presence of Asians onscreen and many Asian-American moviegoers felt less comfortable with depictions of themselves.
In the 1990s, Asian representation in Hollywood was even more scarce than it is today. What’s more, by the time “Mulan” came out, Asian-American activists were still reeling from the failure of “All-American Girl” (1994-95), the first sitcom to feature a Korean-American family.
Some Asian-Americans had been buzzing over the show, which starred the comedian Margaret Cho — there were even viewing parties for the premiere. But it was a spectacular disappointment, blending stereotypes about multiple Asian cultures, recalled Jeff Yang, one of the TV critics whose reviews contributed to its quick demise.
During that decade, Yang said, Asian-Americans were treated as a genre. If one program prominently featured Asian faces, another couldn’t be made at the same time because it was seen as superfluous — that box had already been checked.
“Everything that had an Asian-American face was dumped in the same bucket,” Yang said. “The problem with that is it meant we had a limited amount of stories.”
After the cancellation of the Cho sitcom, there was a dry spell of television and movies starring Asian-Americans. So when Disney presented “Mulan,” a movie about a Chinese heroine featuring voice actors of Asian descent, it evoked a range of reactions from joy to anxiety.
Guy Aoki, an advocate for representation with the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, said that initially, when he heard about “Mulan,” he was both giddy and nervous. His organization emailed supporters, urging them to champion the movie.
“Every time a studio takes a chance on an ethnic project, we know, 1, we’re happy, but 2, we’re very worried because if this doesn’t do well, heaven help us, they’re not going to try anything like it again,” Aoki said. He was relieved that the movie, directed by Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook and starring Ming-Na Wen as the voice of the title character, was successful: It drew $304 million worldwide at the box office, ahead of “The Little Mermaid” with $184 million, according to Box Office Mojo.
The following year, Aoki’s organization held a ceremony in Chinatown in Los Angeles to present Disney an award for its inclusion of Asian-American actors in “Mulan.”
Despite the animated movie’s success, “Mulan” had no immediate effect on representation in Hollywood; it didn’t open doors for its stars in the same way that “Crazy Rich Asians” would. Just a year after its release came the great “whiteout”: The 1999-2000 fall season lineup of 26 new TV shows with no actors of color in noteworthy roles, which led to protests.
Today, Asian-Americans remain underrepresented on the big screen: Out of Hollywood’s top 100 movies of 2018, only two lead roles went to Asian and Asian-American actors (one male and one female), according to a study by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. The Census Bureau estimates that Asian-Americans make up 5.4 percent of the American population, but the number is probably higher because Asian-Americans — the fastest-growing demographic — are the least likely to fill out the census.
Experts agree that in the 1990s Asian performers were still proving to Hollywood that audiences would be comfortable seeing them in major roles. Despite favorable reviews for the 1993 adaptation of “The Joy Luck Club,” martial arts films like “Rumble in the Bronx” (1995) with Jackie Chan remained the most prominent vehicle for Asian stars.
Renee Tajima-Peña, a filmmaker and professor of Asian-American studies at U.C.L.A., said the decade was also an important time for Asian-American filmmakers, who were starting to make features. (Before then, they had focused on documentaries to fight racism.) Among others, Justin Lin, who would make his mark with “Better Luck Tomorrow” (2003) and the “Fast and the Furious” franchise, got his start in 1997 with the indie “Shopping for Fangs.”
Representation has also improved in terms of accurate portrayals of different cultures. Yang, the critic, noted that Hollywood had evolved to treat inclusion more holistically, hiring more people of color to write, produce and act in shows and movies about them.
That’s how we ended up with the 2018 adaptation of “Crazy Rich Asians” and TV shows like the recently concluded “Fresh Off the Boat” (which starred Yang’s son, Hudson). “Mulan” was just one of many successes that had to happen before representation got to where it is today, he said.
“Over the last 15 years we developed that pipeline and all those people were ready to spring,” Yang said.
The more significant effects of “Mulan” may have been social and psychological. Nancy Wang Yuen, a sociologist and author of the book “Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism,” said the movie had helped shift beauty standards: Its release was accompanied by a prolific amount of merchandise, including “Mulan” Barbie dolls, McDonald’s Happy Meal toys and Mattel figurines. Asian-American girls who grew up with Barbies with blond hair and blue eyes now had versions that looked like them.
“Being able to say ‘Look at Mulan, she’s beautiful’ — for young Asian-American girls, that was a big deal,” Yuen said.
Eleni Kapoulea, a graduate student of clinical psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who was 6 when “Mulan” came out, said her mother and grandparents of Cambodian descent took her to the movie eight times, and she even dressed up as Mulan for several Halloweens. As a mixed-race girl growing up in San Diego, she remembers her classmates mocking her Asian looks relentlessly on the playground.
“Mulan gave me the chance to show my pride a little bit even though the culture wasn’t necessarily directly connected to me,” she said.