‘Mulan’ 1998: A Moment of Joy and Anxiety for Asian-American Viewers
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.
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.