Disneyfication of Culture
an article by Billy Agustin
Dear Asian Youth,
I’m a big fan of animated films.
Call me immature, but my attention span is literally nonexistent. It can only be captured through bright, flashy cartoons.
Some of my fondest memories were made inches in front of the TV screen, enjoying Disney classics like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Cinderella III: A Twist in Time. Disney films were a major part of my childhood; even today, I enjoy browsing their streaming service to scour some lost Disney gems. I have a soft spot for their princess lineup. They’ve captured my attention through fantastical and charming storytelling, and hold a special place in my heart.
However, I can’t ignore the intrusive thought that’s been gnawing at the back of my head for a long, long time:
None of them look like me.
It’s something I’ve noticed since I was a child., I’ve brushed it off, simply being in favor of celebrating the fact that they’ve added quite a few BIPOC princesses to their roster. Some depictions are more respectful than others...I mean, Moana’s depiction of Polynesian peoples is definitely better than Pocahontas’ portrayal of Native Americans. But representation is representation... right?
Not quite. You see, as an avid movie-goer, I’ve noticed how problematic the Disney princess lineup is when it comes to portraying leading ladies of color. They become more apparent as I remove the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia and examine these movies in a more objective light.
Raya and the Last Dragon
A film I’ve been quietly anticipating is Raya and The Last Dragon. Its anticipated release is scheduled for March 2021.
Raya and the Last Dragon stars a warrior on the hunt for the last dragon (as the title suggests) and is supposed to be set in a Southeast Asian fantasy world. My excitement is palpable as it seems my childhood dream for a Filipino princess is coming to fruition.
Still, I’m slightly wary. I’ve come to notice that the settings within POC princess movies aren’t exactly treated with grace. A film that springs to mind for me is Mulan. One of my favorites growing up.
Mulan, a story based upon a Chinese tale, is heavily westernized, with its cultural core being distilled through recognizable and digestible elements. The original story of Mulan, Ode of Mulan, is a Confucian tale that embodies the idea of filial piety throughout its narrative. Filial piety is a moral ideal which emphasizes respect in subordinate-senior relationships. Under filial piety, respect towards elders and rigid patriarchal structure are present. Filial piety is still heavily present within Chinese culture today- through strong familial values and honor towards one’s ancestry.
Ode of Mulan demonstrates how important the concept was in ancient China. To summarize, Mulan’s dedication towards her father overrode the importance of the traditionally feminine gender roles enforced upon women at the time. Mulan filled the role of a traditional Chinese woman — in general, a homemaker. But when the time came to help her father, Mulan’s true filial role was to take his place in a war, since he could not physically fight. Still, the womanly tasks introduced in the text arel tied to filial dedication, and the story ends with Mulan realizing that her true duty is to be a Confucian bride. While texts vary a little, what should be understood is that filial piety is at the forefront of morality within Mulan’s narratives.
I understand that comparing an older piece of text to a modern adaptation is relatively difficult. After all, the point of Mulan isn’t to teach audiences about Confucian ideals. The point is to encourage young people to be proud of who they are, have courage, and demonstrate strength through different facets. It handles its message with relative grace. And by no means do I think it is a bad movie.
However, what Mulan does demonstrate is how Asian culture is made more palatable for American film audiences. The original Ode of Mulan’s theme did not align to American ideals, so the story’s main idea was changed to fit an American frame of mind. Disney’s Mulan is by no means a traditional Confucian woman. She’s tomboyish, somewhat clumsy, and outspoken. These elements serve the new meaning of modern Mulan. Her qualities are supposed to be embraced, and the society that she lives in is painted as regressive by contrast. There is little mention of filial piety. One could argue that Disney Mulan’s quest for honor represents the ideal, as ancestral respect is touched on within the movie, but the point is not prominent to the same extent of Mulan’s struggles against sexism and tradition.
This results in a lot of BIPOC American children feeling as if they have to compromise parts of their culture. In my own personal experience, it seems that so much of Disney media screams “Break tradition and outdated standards!” which has contradicted what I have been taught. In many Asian cultures, there’s a heavy emphasis on familial values, respect towards elders, and tradition. Princess movies directly challenge those ideals and portray being rebellious or modern as something everyone should strive for. Pocahontas marches to the beat of her own drum as a free-spirited girl who embraces the New World. Moana is the pioneer of her people and triumphs tradition. Mulan leads by breaking all the rules. And sure, that’s all well and good, but it indirectly calls important aspects of culture downright wrong. Plenty of BIPOC kids, myself included, struggle to accommodate the cultural ideals of our American nationality and our ethnicity. These narratives contribute to the idea that we have to choose between the two. They show American beliefs as objectively better, which is harmful to creating diverse perspectives. Being exposed to people who think differently, especially at a young age, is wildly beneficial. It helps everyone learn new things and fosters empathy early on.
Culture in Disney films feels almost like a backdrop to me;their stories are essentially white narratives. Mulan was directed by two white men, after all, so it's safe to say the directors lacked a certain empathy for the importance of maintaining the cultural authenticity of the story. This brings to light why we need BIPOC spearheading these projects. For the sake of authentic presentation! Confucian ideals are loosely tied into Mulan, and exposure to such subjects should be more common. Disney’s primary audience is children. By making culture more palatable, no matter how respectful the representation is, will simply make the actual culture seem more foreign. While perhaps Confucian principles aren’t very aligned with modern-day thinking, filial piety in Chinese culture is still present. My issue with Disney is not the fact that they failed to adapt Ode of Mulan to perfection, it is the fact that there is no true acknowledgement of Chinese principles and tradition.
Mulan is one instance of many that embodies my concern for digestible and Americanized stories. Aladdin, a film set in Southwest Asia, caters to a familiar, American depiction of the Middle East. It’s exotic, dangerous, and “barbaric”. There’s a history of orientalism behind such sentiments. Beyond that, the melding of Indian elements in an Arabian story serves as a harsh generalization of both cultures. The 1992 film features inspiration from Indian culture (such as the sultan’s palace being modeled off of the Taj Mahal), but the 2019 live action brings the Indian influence to greater light: Bollywood dance sequences, animals specific to the Indian region, and costumes that are traditionally Indian like salwar kameez/ghagras and kurta/sherwani. It seems that they made an effort to instill respectful representation through consultation of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and Muslim scholars, activists, and creatives. However, as Farah Harb from the Arab-American News says:
“While this is a good sign that Hollywood is finally taking a step in the right direction to fix its problematic portrayals of Arabs in entertainment media, it would be nice to see some of the positive facets of the true Arabic culture, as opposed to borrowing elements from other cultures.”
Regardless of what people mark as accurate or inaccurate within these portrayals, there is no doubt that these films are products of cultural appropriation. They are pieces of BIPOC narratives reskinned to fit a different moral ideal. Films built off of BIPOC histories/tales that are now being told by white people. The aspects that make them distinctly BIPOC are often reduced to aesthetics, very similarly to the cherry-picking present in the retail industry. American companies take a piece of foreign clothing and reduce it to a palatable, aesthetically-pleasing fashion statement. One can glean that Disneyfication of culture belongs to a larger issue of cultural appropriation. Telling the story of Mulan or the history of Pocahontas should come with significance and a greater understanding of culture. There is meaning behind these original narratives that goes beyond their modern portrayals, just as there is meaning behind an ao dai or a sari.
I could go on and on about all of the BIPOC princess films (Moana, Pocahontas, Princess and the Frog) and explain how they have been Americanized for the sake of catering to white comfort. But at the end of the day, one thing that’s common across all these films is the fact that these movies are all directed by white men. Raya and the Last Dragon follows suit. I’m just saying, it’d be nice to watch a BIPOC princess film directed by someone who looks like the titular character.
Contrast: The Farewell
Sure, perhaps traditional ideals don’t really fit with the American frame of mind. But that’s not really an excuse to distill an actual culture.
Last year, I got to see a film called The Farewell by Lulu Wang. It still stands out in my mind as a great movie, and I think it perfectly embodies the reason why we need BIPOC writing BIPOC stories.
The premise of The Farewell is simple: the protagonist, Billi, returns to China with her family under the guise of a fake wedding to stealthily say goodbye to their beloved matriarch — the only person that doesn't know she only has a few weeks to live.
I want to start with how The Farewell treats Chinese culture. As it is written and directed by a Chinese creator, I feel that it was handled with grace. Nothing is degraded for a western audience. For example, I have no immersion in Chinese culture, and even with foreign differences like the drinking game during the wedding scene, I understood the context and the mood. Many have praised the director for embodying the bicultural experience perfectly, but in an interview by The Verge, Wang stated: “I don’t necessarily think I came into it trying to represent biculturalism. From my perspective, where I stand, that’s just who I am. It’s part of my point of view. It’s just organic to me. In a way, biculturalism is my culture.”
And the film resonates with both American and Chinese audiences not just because it handles a foreign culture exceedingly well, but because the central idea and theme is something that can only exist if written by someone who has that experience as a Chinese-American. The Farewell is a semi-autobiographical story, and with that comes a certain amount of intimacy between audience and director. Writers equate what they know with a narrative- that’s often what makes a great piece. The Farewell takes no sides in deciding whether or not keeping the illness a secret is a good decision. It simply displays the conflict as it is: wildly complicated. It opened my eyes to something I had never heard of, without treating me like an outsider. I’d recommend it to anyone.
Now, I want to compare this movie to our BIPOC princess movies. Moana, Mulan, Jasmine, and Pocahontas all challenge the traditions of their respective cultures. The thing is, the only thing we learn about their cultures is that they are restrictive to our heroines whether they force her into a subservient, feminine role or force her into something that she doesn’t want. Culture is vague and usually not interwoven with the central narrative. Mostly because the people directing these films are not BIPOC.
Again, I want to acknowledge the difference in mediums: The Farewell is a serious, live-action movie, and princess films are cartoons meant primarily for children. We can’t equate the two. But the idea that children are incapable of comprehending another culture if it’s not palatable enough is completely inexcusable. It’s important to clear any misconceptions and generalizations about other cultures from a young age, and BIPOC children need to see themselves in relatable media, too.
Is There Room for BIPOC in Writing Rooms?
At the end of the day, Disney is a corporation. They follow a formula that guarantees mass market appeal. Creating a BIPOC princess includes the BIPOC audience, but if the culture presented on screen isn’t palatable enough for Caucasians, then there’s a large profit being missed out on. Tony Bancroft, co-director of Mulan, admitted the limitations to creating the film. “We knew we had to respect the material”...”We also knew that we weren’t going to make a Chinese picture. We couldn’t. We’re not Chinese. We have a different sensibility, a different storytelling style.”
This is not to say that Mulan or any of the other films I mentioned are badly written or malicious. They are simply not good instances of representation. I bring up The Farewell again to mention that the film was pitched to several companies, both Chinese and American. On both ends, Wang was told that she needed a white man in the film, to act as a window for western audiences. In reality, the film shouldn’t have to cater towards white movie-goers. It is a subject dedicated to the Asian-American experience- specifically, Wang’s Asian-American experience -and by creating such an unfiltered piece of cinema, there’s more knowledge surrounding Chinese culture, and it’s knowledge that’s actually coming from someone who is Chinese. Film, as with many art forms, is an intimate medium. By putting different kinds of people behind the scenes, we are given a more diverse array of stories that can foster empathy by displaying different points of view. But the profit motive comes before lovingly-crafted passion projects. That’s simply a fact of capitalistic life. Change starts with the people. The audience, as consumers, needs to demand diversity onscreen and behind the scenes.
Just Watch the Movie
Well, comparatively, hasn’t Disney made strides in media today? Things are better than they were fifty years ago. Again, while Moana and Pocahontas both had consultation teams, at least Moana’s story doesn’t blatantly romanticize a real-life and genuinely twisted narrative. Many have pointed out that the character of Pocahontas is sexualized and the character of John Smith falls prey to the white savior trope. Both are harmful to Native American representation and progression of ethnically diverse narratives. At least the more recent Moana doesn’t do the same. At least we can say that BIPOC princesses exist.
While that’s true, it doesn’t stop the fact that representation today is imperfect. It caters to white comfort and ideas that exoticize foreign cultures, feeding into a cycle of microaggressions and generalizations that result in more misconstrued narratives. Stereotypical and inaccurate depictions of culture are harmful to BIPOC communities No matter how respectful a film is, if it is not spearheaded by BIPOC, then it is not a BIPOC story.
We can still enjoy princess films, but we can’t ignore the fact that Disney mishandles its representation. I’m hoping that through this article, I can urge you to elevate BIPOC stories and narratives. I’m of the opinion that anyone is worthy of a good movie. Especially a good princess movie.