Ethnocentrism in Film ‘Mulan’

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Ethnocentrism is used to describe a culture that asserts cultural superiority in order to set a standard for other cultures to be judged. While watching the film, Mulan, we pinpointed three instances in which Disney asserted their western culture ideals into the Chinese culture in the film. The story of Mulan was originally a Chinese poem following a young girl disguised as a man in the army to honor her family. The alteration of Mulan’s individualism, love interest, as well as traditional Chinese cultural symbols were Disney’s way of imposing western ideals into a non-Western culture.

Mulan’s individualism in the film shows that to be successful in her culture she must be independant and do things on her own which is a staple of Western cultures. This goes against Chinese culture which recognizes the collectivist approach as a way to be successful, this approach is typically seen in Eastern cultures. This misrepresentation of Chinese culture lead to an “embarrassing flop for Disney in China” (Cheng,135).

The character of Mulan looked and behaved differently from that of the original story that the Chinese were familiar with. The original story of Mulan had a central theme of Filial piety (in Confucianism) which is the idea that a clan member must serve the head of the clan in order to protect the interests of the whole clan (Cheng,135). Mulan is shown to be deceiving throughout the Disney film, she deceives the matchmaker, her parents by sneaking out, as well as the army and Captain Shang. “In the original poem, [Mulan] left home with the approval of her family” (Cheng, 136). I In the movie, Mulan leaves for the army in the middle of the night without informing any of her family members. The movie relays an underlying message that being creative with the ways in which you communicate, including lying when it is necessary to achieve one’s personal goals, is acceptable. While it may be accepted in the United States, it is not in Eastern culture. The producers claimed they had to make adjustments to cater to the Western market that tends to watch Disney movies. Disney’s modifications impose an ethnocentric view of their culture onto a story that is meant to portray Eastern culture. The imposing of Western ideals into Mulan’s character shows that Disney believes the “Western” way is superior than that of traditional Chinese culture. Disney’s western superiority displays their ethnocentric viewpoint of portraying Eastern culture accurately. When creating this film it was important for Disney to put their own “Disney flavor” into the story, which includes the addition of a love interest for Mulan.

In the original, there was no romantic love story involving Mulan and her army Captain (Cheng, 130). Mulan was not driven by romance in the root of the Chinese poem, instead it was the love and devotion she had for her family. Disney’s addition of a love interest reminds the audience that Mulan is “still in search of her prince charming” (Cheng, 135). The young romance in the film is a part of Disney’s formulaic approach to making movies. Mulan’s romance with Captain Shang in the film reflects Disney’s need to satisfy their audience in the Western market, who have responded well to previous films that featured young romance. The change of Mulan’s motivations reflect Disney’s belief that the appeal to their Western culture is more important that staying true to the original Chinese story. Disney’s ethnocentrism is shown through their belief that the way they do things is superior to accurately portraying another culture in Mulan.

The altered representation of Chinese cultural symbols reveals Disney’s tendency to misrepresent other cultures in a way that appeals to a Western cultures worldview of Chinese culture. The article we used to support our research addressed the idea of hybridization and the process of cultural iconography. Cultural Iconography refers to the visual images and symbols associated with a particular culture, in this case Chinese culture. Some examples of these symbols include the dragon flag Shan-Yu burns on the Great Wall, the dragon statue in Mulan’s family garden, as well as her dragon guardian, Mushu (Cheng,133). In chinese culture the dragon is an honored creature that symbolizes power and authority. However, Mushu is a small, skinny lizard like creature with the voice of Eddie Murphy, an American. Mushu is not the ideal image of a guardian in Chinese culture. This character was created in order to fit Disney’s need of an animated sidekick creature to help the main character. Mushu often talks in street-smart lingo, such as “So you git back to me on da job thing?”, which is representative of modern language in Western culture, specifically the United States. Disney’s transformation of a Chinese symbol such as the dragon, held in high esteem in Chinese culture, into a Westernized version shows the belief that Western language is superior to that of other cultures. An ethnocentric outlook involves the notion that one groups language sets the standard by which other groups will be judged. Disney’s decision to have a Chinese cultural symbol speak like a modern day American shows their assertion that it is more important to appeal to the Western market than to accurately portray Chinese culture.

Ethnocentrism assists us in understanding Disney’s unreliable portrayal of non-Western culture in Mulan by explaining why this film could not be made accurately by people that are not members of the culture being portrayed on screen. Although the clothes and physical appearance of Mulan make her look like a traditional Chinese woman, she was give the individualistic ideals of a Westerner. In Eastern cultures collectivism is highly valued, therefor Mulan’s personality should be in like with that of Eastern cultures. Her deception in sneaking out in the middle of the night to join the army is not an accurate portrayal from the original Chinese poem. In the original story, she informed her family before she left which involved the central theme of Filial piety. Disney’s incorporation of a love interest for Mulan contributes to Disney’s formulaic film element of young romance, present in many other Disney movies. The story of Mulan did not have a love interest in the original version, this was an effort on Disney’s part to appeal to Western audiences. The use of a dragon, a figure sacred in Chinese culture, as a comic sidekick that speak like a modern American is a result of Disney’s Western influence on the story of Mulan.

The research we have carried out helps us understand that due to Disney’s belief that they are a superior Western culture they are unable to portray other cultures in an accurate way, such as in the movie Mulan. Our findings show that Disney infused their Western ideals and language into a film meant to portray a traditional Chinese tale. In any culture there will be a group that believes they have a superior worldview and way of doing things. Due to Disney’s ethnocentrism they incorporated their Western ideals into this film in an effort to make to appeal to the audience they are accustomed to, Americans. Therefore they did not accurately portray Chinese culture in this film. The ramification of our findings provides a better understanding of the way Disney makes movies, specifically movies involving cultures outside of traditional Western ideals they are familiar with. Our findings may have been in relation to Mulan, but the theory of ethnocentrism and its effect on accurate portrayals of others cultures can be applied to countless other Disney movies and even any movie made in Hollywood portraying a culture outside of their own. 

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Ethnocentrism In Film 'Mulan'. (2021, Apr 07). Retrieved April 18, 2024 , from

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