Action Mulan Fan-Casting Debacle of 2015
There have been some Chinese actors who have been fancast: Zhang Ziyi, Liu Yifei, Constance Wu, Tiffany Espensen, Zhu Zhu, Fan Bingbing, and Ming-Na Wen have all been suggested, despite the fact that many of these actors’ ages skew older (~30 years old [and 51 for Wen!]) than Mulan herself. Personally, I think Espensen is probably the best fan-cast, simply because Mulan was only 17 when she went off to war, and Espensen is 16 right now. Furthermore, I’m a firm believer that we need to help younger actors get their foot in the door, as I’ve heard numerous times in my life that “you can count the number of famous Asian American actors on one hand”, and that isn’t going to change unless we give more opportunities to new actors. By that same thought, my other personal preference for Mulan would be for them to find a new and young Chinese actress and help kickstart her career.
Regardless of age, these women all belong to the Chinese community, and thus have a reasonable stake in being cast as Mulan. But it seems that the fan favorites, and the ones who are gaining the most momentum via social media, are not Chinese at all.
The fan favorites by and large seem to be Arden Cho and Jamie Chung. Cho is a Korean-American actor made famous for the role of Kira Yukimura on Teen Wolf, where she happened to wield a katana. I’m assuming that the imagery of her holding a sword is what’s made her a front runner in fan-casts (and of course because of the size of the TW fandom). Chung, a Korean-American actor, is known for actually already playing Mulan on ABC’s Once Upon a Time (in which she was notably made a queer character, but was then unfortunately killed off). Other non-Chinese but Asian actors who have been suggested can be seen in the image below: Ashley Argota, Kristin Kreuk, and Jenna Ushkowitz.
So why is this problematic? Because all Asians are not interchangeable, and we should be kicking up a fuss when Hollywood says we are. Chung, Cho, and Ushkowitz are all Korean-Americans. Argota is Filipina-American. And while Kristin Kreuk is half Chinese, as a half white, half Asian actor, she comes very close to being white-passing (and thus has slightly more advantage than full Asians when it comes to getting ahead in predominantly white Hollywood). As much as I love Kreuk, the role of Mulan would not be appropriate for her as it specifically calls for a person of full Chinese descent, and so the role should be viewed as an opportunity to give exposure to a younger and full Chinese actor. Hollywood also has a tendency to cast biracial Asians (specifically half white Asians) as leads in movies where the setting is in an Asian country and the rest of the cast is full Asian. (i.e. look at Keanu Reeves in 47 Ronin and Man of Tai Chi.) Because you have to have whiteness represented in there somehow right?
Fan-casting for supporting characters like Shang have also been all over the map, with the most popular seeming to be Taiwanese Godfrey Gao, but also Korean Steven Yeun and Korean Ki Hong Lee. The rest of the cast seems to fall all over the place, with some people fan-casting all Chinese actors, even down to minor roles, while others throw in other Asian and Pacific Islander ethnicities for the supporting cast.
The fan-casting reached particularly egregious levels when MTV posted this truly embarrassing article where the (white) author posited that Vanessa Hudgens should definitely play Mulan because she’s Chinese “by way of the Philippines”. As in, she thinks the Philippines is in China.
See that? Is a problem. The fact that a white writer can’t correctly differentiate between two vastly different countries shows how little mainstream culture understands about Asia and people of Asian descent. The Philippines is decidedly not located in China. It’s not even geographically connected to China; the Philippines is literally a series of islands, none of which even remotely touch the land mass that is China. And as a Filipina I can tell you that our culture looks nothing like Chinese culture. But the fact that this article even got published demonstrates that, other than we now know everyone at MTV is probs white, that white society knows little about Asians. All they seem to know is that we are apparently all interchangeable, and worse, that our silence or active fan-casting of non-Chinese actors means we’re ok with being seen as the same, just a sea of yellow faces.
The idea behind all of these non-Chinese fan-casts is “As long as they’re Asian, close enough right?”
I’m trying to resist coming down too hard on anyone who’s fan-casted their favorite non-Chinese Asian actor because understanding what media representation entails and why it’s important takes a lot of time and introspection that many people, whether because they’re still too young or were never educated on it, have never had. If you asked me five years ago if I would be ok with any of the above actors playing Mulan I would have said yes in a heartbeat. My whole thing used to be, what’s the big deal? As long as we can get an Asian in any film, period, does it matter if their real life ethnicity doesn’t match the one on screen? That’s why they’re “actors”? We don’t throw the same fuss about white actors matching the ethnicity of their characters? A small victory is still a victory, correct?
I had a lot of internalized racism (regarding my own Filipina roots and about being Asian in general) and was just generally ignorant about topics on race, and it wasn’t until I went to college and spent a lot of time learning from Asian-American Studies professors, being around other Asian students of varying ethnicities, and spending time talking to my family members that I began to unpack all of that emotional baggage. I started to realize that there’s value in claiming our own culture’s stories for ourselves and to resisting being put in boxes by society simply because the box is labeled “Asian”. And that the argument of “well we don’t care about the ethnicity of the white actors” is just a derailment of the issue because reverse racism doesn’t actually exist, and white people are not the one’s woefully underrepresented in media. We are.
It’s hard for me to fully articulate this as it took me quite some time to come to this level of understanding (and I’m still learning), but I do want to try to impress on people the importance of Mulan being portrayed by a Chinese actor. See, it’s an almost subversive act for people of color to be proud of their ethnicity in America. That sounds strange, as we always think of America as being “the melting pot of cultures” and the land of free speech and expression, but the fact of the matter is that a POC’s value in America is calculated by how much they can assimilate into mainstream white society. And when I say assimilate I don’t just mean dropping the accent and accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. I mean conforming to a “universal point of view”, where “universal” is basically a euphemism for conforming to how white people see us, and falling in line with whatever stereotypes they have for us because, as conventional thinking goes, that’s how you survive in America. I’m kind of oversimplifying it, but that’s the basic thought process that goes into things like the model minority myth, or respectability politics, or accepting any acting roles that come your way, even if they’re gross stereotypes like the sassy black sidekick, Latina maid, or Asian kung fu master. White people more often than not can’t tell different Asian ethnicities apart, and that shows through in movie casting.
For that very reason I don’t blame actors like Chung or Ushkowitz for showing a desire to play Mulan, even if they are actually aware on some level that it should go to a person of Chinese descent. The idea that all Asians are identical and will take whatever is dished out to them without complaint is a stereotype that has persisted for years and permeates the entertainment industry. In Hollywood casting calls are predominantly for white characters, with only a small portion left over for every else. The field is essentially rigged so that Asians, and other people of color, are forced to compete against each other for a handful of roles. The amount of lead roles that go to anyone who falls under the “Asian” category is about 1.8%.
If a role that promises to be a huge career booster suddenly shows itself and the casting call is simply labeled “Asian”, there’s a pretty good chance that actors of every kind of Asian descent are going to show up. And I honestly don’t think that, at that point, the casting agent (who, by the way, are overwhelmingly white) is going to particularly care what the difference between a Chinese person and a Korean person is, and whether their ethnicity matches the character’s. They’re just looking for someone who can act that fits the bill of “Asian”. This can easily explain why Mulan in Once Upon a Time was Korean, why Sulu in the Star Trek reboot was Korean, and why Chiyo in Memoirs of a Geisha was Chinese.
But here’s the thing: we’re not all the same, and more importantly, we know we’re not all the same. We have vastly different cultures, languages, and histories that span centuries. To acknowledge that and express pride in our own cultures is not only an incredible act of self love and acceptance, but a way fighting against a system that is built entirely on white privilege. Asians may only be offered a tiny fraction of roles in Hollywood, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept being stereotyped and same-faced within that small percent. In reality, raising hell about casting and demanding more doors be opened to more POC actors is exactly how change slowly happens. If we always fall back on the “Well, at least they’re Asian, right?” argument, then that justifies Hollywood casting the same people over and over again in a sort of “There’s Only 10 Famous Asians in Hollywood” loop. Eventually we need to become more than just that 1.8%.
As much as I know some of you want to see your fav Asian in this role, I want to encourage you to resist that idea and let Chinese people claim Mulan for themselves. And that goes for non-Chinese Asian actors as well: please hold off from trying out for this role, even for the supporting or minor roles. And in the future, if there’s ever a chance to play a full Japanese or Korean character, I encourage the Chinese American actors to hold off and let the people of that culture get the role. It’s a long and hard road that will require a concerted effort, but if we don’t start combating how Asians are misrepresented in media then we will continue to give permission to white people to see us however they want.