Making Mulan Right, and the Limits of On-Screen Representation

by Oanh-Nhi Nguyen and Mark Tseng Putterman

When a leaked script revealed that Disney planned to center its live-action Legend of Mulan film around a white merchant who comes to “white knight” the hero of China, the outrage was swift and fierce. After thousands signed 18MillionRising’s petition, Disney quickly responded to assure fans that all major characters would be cast as Chinese. “Don’t worry,” one patronizing headline went so far as to say, everything’s going to be fine. And by and large, the once-raging fire of #MakeMulanRight has cooled to a few glowing embers. Asian America seems to be satisfied to know that Disney won’t turn Mulan into yet another white savior film.

It’s a win, but not exactly the sort of victory you can feel great about. We’ve been through this too many times, haven’t we?

In September, NBC dropped the prospective sitcom Mail Order Family following similar Asian American outrage over a premise that turned the Filipino “mail order bride” industry into fodder for cheap laughs. Last week, Doctor Strange premiered to box office and critical success that largely ignored Tilda Swinton’s logic-defying casting as “The Ancient One.” Recently, Netflix unveiled a teaser trailer for its Iron Fist series, starring a milquetoast Finn Jones in a role that many said would be better suited for an Asian American. It’s enough to make any advocate for Asian American mainstream media representation pessimistic.

At 18MillionRising, we’re working to channel members’ passion for pop culture towards changing media institutions that systematically exclude voices of color. We believe that accountable representation for historically excluded communities means more than having people of color on screen. By metrics of visibility alone, Mail Order Family would be considered a success. We deserve better — and it takes diversity in writers’ rooms and executive offices to make sure that projects like Legend of Mulan’s white savior spec script don’t get greenlighted in the first place.

makemulanright3Even more, we need to question the politics of the platforms and institutions through which we share and consume media. That’s why 18MR has called on the FCC to create more opportunities for independent video content creators by breaking Big Cable’s stranglehold on the set-top box platform, and why we continue to fight for net neutrality principles that preserve a level playing field for all content online — whether it comes from entertainment behemoths like Disney or from independent filmmakers, bloggers, or activists armed with little more than a camera, a keyboard, or a petition page. In a media landscape in which the world’s biggest telecommunications company (AT&T) is set to purchase the world’s third-largest entertainment company (Time Warner), we need to challenge the consolidation of power and the narrowing circle of top decision-makers that make it harder for creatives of color to break through. We need to derail the mechanisms of Hollywood that perpetuate storytelling within the “white racial frame” — narratives created by and for white Americans that leave the rest of us fighting for scraps.

We know just how much Asian Americans and other creatives of color can do when we don’t have to jump through Hollywood’s hoops. From YouTube superstars to independent film festivals, independent Asian American media makers are changing the game on their own terms. When we were kids, Disney’s 1998 animated Mulan was one of the first nuanced depictions of Asian characters, let alone Asian women, we had ever seen in mainstream American media. And while digital platforms have made it easier for the next generation of Asian American youth to find people that look like them to look up to, representation remains nearly as bleak on the big screen.

Besides being a Chinese historical figure, Mulan has become a cultural touchstone for a generation of Asian Americans. Which is why it’s unsurprising to learn that Chinese American screenwriter Rita Hsiao had a hand in shaping the original script. Knowing the impact that Mulan had for our generation — from “pour the tea” jokes at family dim sum to car-ride singalongs to “Reflection” — we’re determined to have someone who understands firsthand the impact of Asian American representation behind the scenes making sure Disney delivers a film that is accountable to the millions of Asian Americans who, for better or worse, will see a part of themselves reflected on the big screen when Legend of Mulan hits theaters.

The #MakeMulanRight hashtag has always been about more than one film. It’s about taking the fight for media accountability off-screen — and into the writers’ rooms, executive offices, and legislative seats where we can finally harness the power to tell our stories on our own terms.

Sign and share 18MR’s petition to Disney calling for an Asian American writer to work on The Legend of Mulan. Help us hit 20,000 signatures before we deliver the petition!

Oanh-Nhi Nguyen (@OanhNhi_Nguyen) is a campaigner at 18MillionRising, where she leads campaigns on social justice and civic engagement. She was selected as a Kairos Fellow in 2016, a fellowship for digital campaigners of color. Oanh-Nhi graduated from Dickinson College with a double major in International Studies and Policy Management, and currently serves on the Philly Chapter Workgroup of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF).

Mark Tseng Putterman (@tsengputterman) is a New York-based writer, organizer, and artist. He is the media justice campaigner at, where he focuses on internet, technology, and media issues through an Asian American racial justice lens.

4 thoughts on “Making Mulan Right, and the Limits of On-Screen Representation

  1. I wouldn’t mind a white character if said character is more of a sidekick to Mulan than a ”white savior”. European people have been seen in Asia as far back as the Roman times the ancient Roman and Han empires did trade with each other. They even attempted to send a political emissary to Rome. But I agree with you, more needs to be done in the writer’s room. And if you ask me they should cast Ming Na as an older Mulan and that’s it.

  2. And may I add with the invention of the internet, films are relatively easy to make it’s broken the monopoly. The Blair Witch project was made cheaply and it became a success.

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