Disney’s Mulan: Off-Screen Representation Matters


Grossing over $100,000,000 and receiving major critical acclaim, the original 1998 animated historical action film Mulan was regarded as a triumph. Set in China amidst the reign of the Han dynasty, the Disney musical centers around Fa Mulan, a young maiden who restores honor to her family by disguising as a man to fight against the Huns in place of her ailing father. Mulan’s feminism, courage and loyalty deviate from the standard ideal of a hopeless, prince-dependent Disney princess. Both Mulan’s East-Asian heritage and character strengths resonate with millions of children globally. 

When the live-action remake of Mulan was announced, fans were initially ecstatic. The movie was set to release in 2020; however, given the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was instead moved to the platform Disney+ for commercial streaming. Nonetheless, it gave many families a beacon of hope to look forward to. 

And here’s the first shove in the general direction of failure. Rather than accessible to any person with a Disney+ membership, to view Mulan you must pay for a monthly or annual Disney+ subscription as well as a $29.99 “Premier Access” fee. With monthly membership at a price of $6.99, the total cost of viewing the film rings in at $36.98. The large fee is unreasonable for the average family, especially in such a financially straining time.

Unfortunately, the film’s path to demise doesn’t end there. Many Asian-Americans began to condemn the film entirely upon realizing that the off-screen East-Asian representation was severely lacking. The director, screenwriters and costume designer are not of Chinese descent; this prompted an outcry from Twitter users, who questioned the film’s supposed and marketed authenticity. Nancy Wang Yuen, a sociologist who teaches at Biola University’s School of Cinema and Media Arts, told NBC News that she “think[s] that what we’re seeing here is some of the growing pains of Hollywood wanting to be inclusive in terms of storytelling, and yet behind the scenes are not able to or wanting to.”

Unfortunately, the trend of a lack of offscreen representation isn’t solely limited to Mulan. Disney committed the same offense with its 2019 remake of Aladdin, in which both the director and lead costume designer were white. Juxtaposing a diverse on-screen cast with a lack of those same voices off-screen is, at best, merely performative. The Dean of the UCLA College of Social Sciences, Darnell Hunt, posed the following question in response to the outcry:

“Are we actually seeing systemic change, or is Hollywood just appealing to diverse audiences through casting, but without fundamentally altering the way studios do business behind the camera?”

Paying for the seemingly mild film signals to Disney that the company can continue to produce remakes that lack cultural understanding. Instead of Mulan, ensure that you support films that promote inclusivity not only on-screen but off-screen as well. 


Diverse on-screen/off-screen films:

Crazy Rich Asians

Black Panther

The Farewell

Get Out

Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse