Picture this: It’s 1998, less than a year after Tony Blair walked into 10 Downing Street. Madonna’s Ray of Light album is climbing the charts, and 11 countries in Europe have agreed to adopt the euro. In three months, a TV show called Will & Grace will premiere on NBC and, as Joe Biden later puts it, "[does] more to educate the American public" on LGBTQ issues than "anybody’s ever done so far."
In June of 1998, however, 10-year-old me has little to no concept or understanding of any of these events. I am ascending to my own personal queer Valhalla; I am, as my newly converted Buddhist mom puts it, breaking free of the wheel of reincarnation and reaching a truer level of enlightenment.
I am in a Singapore movie theater watching Mulan, the 36th animated Disney film and its first starring an East Asian heroine. The cartoon, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this week, is also perhaps the most queer-friendly story that Disney has committed to celluloid—and it now serves as a cultural touchstone for a whole generation of Asian LGBTQ people around the world.
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For those who lack an otherwise near-perfect recall of the movie, here are some basics: Based on a fifth to sixth-century Chinese ballad, Mulan tells the story of a tomboy whose ailing father gets called up to fight against the Huns. Instead of letting her elderly dad go off on what would otherwise be a suicide mission for him, she dons his armor, takes his sword, and enlists under the family name. After proving herself a more than adequate warrior, she eventually leads a daring mission to defeat the Huns and gets herself anointed by none other than the Chinese emperor.
I was captivated by Mulan for all the obvious reasons. Here was a princess that not only looked a lot like me, but also led an existence that, if I squinted my eyes, looked a lot like mine. My family ate rice for dinner and I, like Mulan, also got told off for chewing with my mouth open! Like Mulan, we had a shrine to the ancestors (well, a small altar in our living room that we occasionally remembered to light joss sticks for). Simply hearing the matchmaker shout out the name "Fa Mulan" thrilled me, even though it abominably mashed up both Cantonese and Mandarin. (Fa is Cantonese, while Mu Lan is Mandarin—Fa Mulan is the equivalent of constructing a name out of both Esperanto and Spanish.)
But I’d be lying if I said that 10-year-old me was just high on the joy of seeing my Asian-ness represented onscreen. Even as a kid, I knew that there was something deliciously subversive happening on screen. Disney princesses who bind their chests and adopt male dress are few and far in between. Even the heteronormative fairy tale ending with Captain Li Shang, the barrel-chested masc daddy of the film, didn’t quite add up.
Any idiot with eyes can see that Shang, who begins the movie by sneering at Ping (a.k.a. Mulan in drag), doesn’t fall in love with her when he realizes that she is, in fact, a woman—but when "Ping" knocks him to the ground with a well-placed kick in "I’ll Make a Man Out of You." It’s not for nothing that people on Twitter call Shang a "bisexual legend" and openly mourned Disney's decision to can the character in the new live-action adaptation: "Rest in peace, bisexual icon," one fan wrote. In 2013, Disney even gestured towards the queer subtext in the animated film by making the Mulan of their ABC Once Upon a Time show bisexual herself.
At the time, of course, I didn’t even know what the word "bisexual" meant. All I knew was that there was something about Mulan that was different than all the other Disney princesses I’d seen; different in the same way that I felt different to all the other girls in my school. Like Mulan, I didn’t want to be a girly girl. And I felt a little fluttery thrill in my stomach seeing Mulan and Shang together at the end; did I want to be Shang? Did I want to be Mulan? Or did I just want to be with one of them—or both?
A couple of years later, I cut off my hair, swapped my Sanrio backpack for a wallet with a chain, and upgraded my kids’ jeans to baggy Billabong denim with a matching blue button-down shirt. Obviously, it would be ridiculous to state that Mulan made me a baby butch, but it definitely added a little sprinkle of flavor in the murky soup of my sexual development. At the very least, it showed me a way for Asian girls to be strong, resilient, independent, and decidedly un-feminine; a fairy tale in which we could get the boy and be the boy.
I’m not the only Asian LGBTQ fan with these many feelings about what is ostensibly a kid’s cartoon. "Growing up as a mixed Chinese and white kid in very white Scotland, Mulan showed me I didn’t have to be demure and obedient," Bristol-based writer and photographer Ailsa Fineron tells me. "I could be a powerful and feminine and masculine. And to my current gender-questioning bi self that’s still so so important. This embodiment of strength, resilience, and androgyny is something I’ve sought out more in wuxia films, but Mulan will always remain my first love."
New York-based writer Arabelle Sicardi was five when the movie came out in the US. "I still have my Mulan lunchbox,” they say. "But yeah, she was and still is so interesting to me. I feel like her story is so rich, the real story of her life is so cool, and I'm invested in the remakes, of course. But what a great story of family/war/identity to have and be able to grow with as a queer Asian kid."
Of course, Mulan isn’t perfect. To a well-trained eye, the film is an ahistorical mess—the Forbidden City, which Mulan saves from destruction at the end of the movie, wasn’t built until the 15th century. The Huns primarily terrorized Europe and Central Asia in the fifth century, and the film conflates them with the Xiongnu, a warlike group of nomadic tribes who had by then assimilated into Chinese culture. But 20 years ago, I didn’t know any of this stuff, and none of it stopped something in the film from hitting a nerve buried so deep that it only come to light years later, when I began dating boys and girls.
When I looked at Fa Mulan, I didn’t just see someone who looked like me—I saw someone whose interiority mirrored my own. Whether you’re butch, femme, bisexual and/or queer, Mulan’s message is that you can explore all these different identities and ways of presenting—and save the Emperor of China in the process.