Media consumers worldwide believe that Disney’s animated films are wholesome fun for the entire family to enjoy. However, a critical analysis of Disney’s movies revealed that they continue to promote films full of stereotypes that demean women, the working class, and those who struggle with their weight (Lamb & Brown, 2006). If consumers exercised their media literacy skills they would be appalled at the amount of flagrant stereotypes in Disney films and demand more realistic characters. This paper will analyze the following stereotypes found in Disney’s movie Mulan, and determine if these labels have an effect on viewers: dark skin versus light, fit versus fat, working class versus the elite class, and the overuse of female abuse.
Dark versus Light …
First, Fa Mulan, the female protagonist in the film made a strong statement when she wiped away her white Geisha girl makeup to show her natural, darker complexion. Mulan tried to make her family happy by hiding behind the traditional makeup, but she could not live a lie and chose to be true to her inner self. Studies show that young impressionable girls pay attention to what girl characters are saying and doing (Lamb & Brown, 2006). Thus, Disney receives praise for addressing this issue and putting a positive spin on dark skin.
In contrast, the lead villain, Shan Yu, and his soldiers are dark-skinned and loom larger than their enemies. Why cast villains as darker and larger? Is it difficult for illustrators to create another way to portray dark thoughts? Are illustrators racists? Disney continues to show stereotypes in films like, Aladdin, where the heroes have Anglo-American looks and accents, but the villains are dark-skinned and have Arabic accents (Clements & Musker, 1992; Wingfield & Karaman, 2001). Over time, consumers may start believing that people with darker skin are evil. The time has come to lighten up on the color of a villain’s skin.
Muscle Madness; Bigger than Big …
Not only do villains loom large, our hero Captain Li Shang has a very muscular physique that looks more like an Anglo-American body on steroids. During drill practice, Li Shang takes off his shirt in front of his unfit cadets and parades around with bulging pectoral muscles and six-pack abdominals. I doubt a captain in the Chinese army would disrobe in such Hollywood fashion. This G.I. Joe stereotype takes away from the story by making Li Shang into a sex symbol rather than a noble young warrior. Alas, at the end of the movie, the once feisty Mulan actually falls for the good-looking captain in Disney’s classic happily-ever-after style. This fully negates Mulan’s strong and independent character, but definitely supports Disney’s mantra of unrealistic happy endings (Maio, 1998; Lamb & Brown, 2006).
Sadly, the heavy Chinese soldier may be the recipient of the most overt stereotype in the film. Whether swimming underwater, crossing the river on poles, or marching with his fellow cadets, the portly soldier is portrayed as clumsy and always in the way. However, the most vexing moment was when the larger cadet sang about the girl he would fight for. He did not care what she wore or how she looked; thus, all that mattered was how she cooked. In one sense, this sounds like a step forward for women—in that, looks are not everything (Lamb & Brown, 2006). Yet, in reality it is a step backwards for large men who supposedly only want someone to feed them. Lastly, while dressed as a concubine the soldier says, “Does this dress make me look fat?” The comment was funny and does elicit a laugh, but it makes fat people into a joke. And, that is not funny. Fortunately, near the end of the movie, the larger comrade becomes quite agile along with his fellow soldiers and saves the heroes as they dangle from a cliff.
Working Class versus Elite Class …
Interestingly, General Li promotes his son to captain and jokes that he comes from an impressive military lineage. In contrast, Li Shang’s superior, the Emperor’s Counselor, rebuffs the new Captain saying, “I got the job on my own” (Bancroft & Cook, 1998). Disney effectively portrayed the difference between preferential treatment and hard work. Further, the screen writers showed how arrogance can cause one to stumble, like when the proud counselor fell for the simple ploy concocted by the lizard Mushu to get the fighters to the front lines. Disney’s message is clear. Anybody—no matter what their rank—can fall for a clever ruse.
Sadly, the Chinese cadets are shown as working class buffoons until they receive military training. While military service can transform young people, it is narrow-minded to portray working class people as barbaric and uncultured prior to such training. Stereotypes like this may cause kids to treat people unfairly (Shifrin, 1998).
Female Bashing and Thrashing
Lastly, the Emperor’s Counselor may have worked his way up in the ranks, but the man is a colossal idiot. Perhaps the screen writers used his antics to elicit strong emotions against him. However, I argue that slapping Mulan and throwing her to the ground is not something kids or adults need to see. The Counselor’s actions were deplorable, and his words harmful. He expressed that he knew there was something wrong with Mulan and went on to refer to her as “a woman, a treacherous snake” (Bancroft & Cook, 1998). Aggressive scenes like this could perpetuate this type of abuse against girls and women (Shifrin, 1998). Mulan is the hero and does not deserve this sort of attack. Why did Disney have to go there?
In sum, Disney films are made to entertain the entire family, but this paper suggests that parents should do their homework first. They need to exercise their media literacy skills and prepare their children for the onslaught of stereotypes in these films. Disney’s princess Mulan may not dress in pink, but she’s also not as independent as we were led to think.
Bancroft, T., & Cook, B. (Directors). (1998). Mulan. [Motion picture]. United States: Walt Disney Pictures.
Clements, R., & Musker, J. (Directors). (1992). Aladdin. [Motion picture]. United States: Walt Disney Pictures.
Lamb, S., & Brown, L. M. (2006). Packaging Girlhood. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Maio, K. (1998, December). Disney’s dolls [Electronic version]. New Internationalist, 308. Retrieved March 28, 2009, from http://www.newint.org/issue308/dolls.html
Shifrin, D. (1998, August). Three-year study documents nature of television violence. AAP News. Retrieved March 28, 2009, from http://www.aap.org/advocacy/shifrin898.htm
Wingfield, M., & Karaman, B. (2001). Arab stereotypes and American educators (revised version of an article which appeared in the March/April 1995 issue). Social Studies and the Young Learner, 132-136. Retrieved March 28, 2009, from http://www.adc.org/arab_stereo.pdf