Disney’s Attempts at Asian Representation

Illustration by Echo Dieu

Linda Chong & Echo Dieu

Opinions Editor/Senior Copy Editor & Social Media Director

A new trailer showcasing Disney’s new project, “Raya and the Last Dragon” has been released, stirring uneasy anticipation from some Southeast Asian communities. Considering the notoriety already earned from this year’s live-action “Mulan,” Disney has a history of misrepresenting Asian cultures, fixating on racist trademarks, or meshing together hundreds of individual cultures simply labeling them — Asian. A full retrospect of this year alone, we look into the controversial live-action “Mulan” (2020) and the upcoming movie “Raya and the Last Dragon” (2021).

Raya and the Last Dragon(2021)

Set to release in March 2021, “Raya and the Last Dragon” is advertised as a new original animation featuring Southeast Asian cultures through their reimagined kingdom, Kumandra. Despite the stellar cast and a spotlight to finally celebrate diverse cultures in Southeast Asia, Raya brings to question a greater issue. Why does Disney get to blanket the entire scope of a racially distinct and diverse region with “Southeast Asian influence”? Generalizing the 11 countries under this label may finally introduce more cultural outlook to Disney’s viewership; but it’s unfair to those 11 countries and the hundreds of distinguished cultures within them to claim this movie is meant to publicize all of Southeast Asia.

This definitely isn’t a call to cancel the movie. It’s surprising to get Asian representation from a Eurocentric animation production brand like Disney. With a reputation built on their largely white films, Disney has been answering the call for people of color (POC) representation, starting in 2009 with “The Princess and the Frog.” Movies roll out with more ethnic depictions, considering “Big Hero 6” and “Moana” were certainly based on non-European cultures. So yes, Raya is Disney’s new project to expand its inclusiveness. 

“Treating the conglomerate of Southeast Asian cultures as one influence is the colonizer’s easy way out. It’s their ethnocentric constraint on what Asians amount to: one group.”

Though this unfamiliar concept is something to be excited for, it’s important to recognize and individualize the plethora of customs and traditions embedded in each Asian country. Treating the conglomerate of Southeast Asian cultures as one influence is the colonizer’s easy way out. It’s their ethnocentric constraint on what Asians amount to: one group. 

But, we’re not just one homogenous group. Every culture under this term has its own origin, unjustifiably merged with other cultures. So to circle back, Raya is a long-waited representation of Southeast Asian culture, but in a way that classifies various cultures as one. Considering the fact that the directors aren’t remotely Asian, the animation may as well be just another project to satisfy the colonizers. 

“Mulan” (2020)

Featuring badass women, exquisite cinematography, and a lofty budget, “Mulan” seemed to have it all. It strove to be a hallmark in film by promoting female empowerment just as its animated predecessor did, and it aimed to promote Disney’s image as a company that values diversity. Yet, the whole world was shocked by its disservice to female empowerment and its Chinese audiences.

“Mulan” is a paradigm of an ongoing trend dating back to antiquity of Western society depicting the Eastern cultures as oriental and bizarre. The script repeatedly touts words such as “honor,” “disgrace,” and “chi” every few minutes as if the writers figured that audiences have the memory of a goldfish. In the matchmaker scene, Mulan’s makeup was brutally botched, bearing no resemblance to the soft and silky qualities of traditional Chinese maquillage. To some viewers, this film appears to be authentically Chinese, featuring an all-Asian cast and seemingly authentic set and costume design. 

Some credit should be given to the director and writers who are all white; trivial inaccuracies of their depiction of historical China can be overlooked given their unfamiliarity with the culture. What is intolerable is the way they depict ancient China as an oppressive patriarchy that seeks to stamp out women’s talents and ambitions. They do this — ineptly — by incorporating a Western outlook on ancient Chinese culture. 

The writers misrepresented the patriarchal system established by Confucianist doctrine as the absolute vilification and oppression of women. The film equates power to masculinity; that Mulan would be considered unfit for marriage and dishonorable for being powerful estranges its female audiences. The movie never rectifies this point either: Mulan embraces and helps rescue the kingdom and the same institutions that helped oppress her. 

Of course, this is a gross misrepresentation of the ancient Chinese outlook on women’s roles in society. The idea that a woman — namely a “witch” — should be removed from the ranks of society for merely possessing magical powers is a Western concept.

In Chinese lore, the fate of every person is predestined by the obscure forces of the heavens. Powerful heroes work and suffer immeasurably before becoming great warriors. Mulan and the witch would be lauded as legends because there is an implicit understanding that their possession of great power results from their destiny. Instead, the writers wrote about gaudy disputes to honor the family and keep women in their place, a cursory attempt at depicting Chinese values to Western audiences.

Feminist values within the story reinforce the idea that women are free to express themselves so long as they do not challenge the gendered hierarchy. The witch and Mulan are two sides of the same coin: the former wished to subvert the patriarchy and thus was unaccepted by society. Mulan upheld the status quo of male dominance and in turn, she was accepted by the men around her in spite of her “dishonorable” gifts. 

In these trying times, anti-Chinese sentiment is on the rise, and many women fear they may lose their reproductive rights. A haphazard approach to sensitive topics concerning feminism and orientalism is counterproductive and may have consequences. With the long-standing social prestige that Disney has, their movies have a wide reach. Unfortunately, “Mulan” may teach audiences that Chinese culture is bizarre and that women should indeed stay in their place.