A Movie Worth Fighting For

People used to make fun of me by walking up to me and saying some variation of “ching chong.” It hurt, of course, but I had seen this type of mockery before in my favorite Disney movie, Mulan.

I used to think that Disney committed its own version of ching chong with this scene. In order to calm an infuriated Yao, Chien-Po picks him up and chants: “Yaaaaaaa Moouuuu Ahhhhhh Doooou Fuuuu Daaaaa.” What I found most offensive was not Chien-Po’s chant (which, I think, is based off of this), but the way it was repeated by Yao felt like the mockery I used to receive. He begins the phrase, but it trails off into gibberish.

Yao’s failed attempt at repeating the phrase is seen as acceptable because it plays on the consensus that Asian languages are hard for English speakers to learn. In this way, Disney is able to index the more foreign character. Indexicality works by using the viewer’s knowledge about linguistic forms and their social meanings. Chien-po’s knowledge of the chant, coupled with his softer accent allows viewers to conclude that he’s noticeably foreign, or not American. Yao, on the other hand, is portrayed with a harsh, working class American accent. Therefore, it makes sense to viewers that he is extremely confrontational, as it is generally accepted that people who have that accent are tough, and not going to be pushed around.

This may appear to be inconsequential. After all, Yao and Chien-Po are supporting characters. However, it must be noted that between Yao and Chien-Po, Yao has a greater role in the movie. Though Yao’s variety of English is not the standard that Lippi-Green discusses, we can see that even among the minor, supporting characters, the more “American” character gets greater screen time (109 mentions for Yao, 70 for Chien-Po). Chien-Po, the less American character, gets marginalized, despite the fact the setting of Mulan is ancient China.

Another character, and perhaps, the one with the most noticeable Chinese accent is Chi Fu. In the movie, he’s portrayed as the Emperor’s loyal, but ruthless assistant. Perhaps his most villainous scene occurs in this scene, after Mulan is injured by Shan Yu and is revealed to be a woman. He is the one that reminds the Captain what must be done, and he is the one that stops Yao, Chien-Po, and Ling from interrupting what appears to be Mulan’s execution. Despite the fact that Mulan heroically saved them all, Chi Fu shows no mercy.

When we consider the standard language ideology (SLI), we can make better sense of Chi Fu’s indexicality. The standard language ideology (SLI) states that non-dominant groups are marginalized through disinformation and misrepresentation in order promote the interests of the dominant group. Here, the misrepresentation occurs through Chi Fu’s characterization—evil and speaks with an accent. But it is in the interest of the dominant group to do so. Portraying foreigners as villains sends viewers the message that you can’t be evil if you speak English the way Mulan or Shang does—a version that is closest to the Standard American English (*SAE). While it is easy to dismiss Chi Fu’s characterization as a consequence of casting, Lippi-Green reminds us that the body of research regarding Disney’s use of race and ethnicity to depict good and evil is growing, with “the manipulation of accent [as a] part of that process…” (126).

No child should be marginalized by their favorite Disney films. When they hear different languages on film, Disney needs to make sure they are accurate. Accents cannot be intentionally discriminatory, and stereotypes cannot be harmfully perpetuated. I think all of us needs to play a role in helping Disney make films that are not harmful. If you were the CEO of Disney, what would you do to make sure things your movies are racially and ethnically sensitive?

Print Friendly

6 thoughts on “A Movie Worth Fighting For

  1. This is a great post, CLINTHNG. I always think that Mulan is a very interesting video from a race/linguistic perspective. When I was getting ready to write my blog, I almost wrote about Mulan and how compelling the accents are. I thought it was really interesting that you pointed out that the characters with more Americanized accents had more screen time. As for what I would do, that is a very difficult question. I think that Disney is making progress towards becoming less racially and ethnically insensitive. They are becoming more diverse with their protagonists, such as in Princess and the Frog, however, this has also created a new myriad of problems. My solution, though not realistic, would be to include people of all genders and races and depict them in the way that actual individuals of those genders and races would want to be portrayed.

  2. Really good analysis in this blog posts, I especially appreciated your discussion of the way Chi Fu is portrayed as a ruthless assistant in certain parts, and how children can connect his Asian accent to his actions. I want to add that even when Chi Fu is not portrayed as a ruthless assistant, he is portrayed as someone goofy, like when he complains about getting his slippers wet. All of his contributions to the film make the viewer not too fond of him and I can see how that can cause a child who has no other exposure to Asian culture to make some false assumptions about Asians.

  3. I really like your post and I think one can draw interesting analysis from viewing Disney movies in this perspective. If I am to look at Disney’s point-of-view, the focus of any productions and movies is to make profit. I believe the company does a great job in distributing various personalities in each character in the movie, Mulan, making the film entertaining and fun to watch. At the same time, I can understand how some Asian people may be sensitive to some of the cultural and stereotypical character depictions in the movie. If I was in charge of directing a movie that similarly exposes a foreign culture, I think I would also opt to do the same by adding many characters that portray different personalities. This way, the audience will not be compelled to focus on one character and accuse the movie as being offensive to any particular stereotype.

  4. Awesome post! Mulan is one of my favorite Disney movies, but I haven’t seen it since I was younger, so after taking this class I definitely see all of these linguistic intricacies which denote character personality.I agree with JOEYHONG that one of the best ways to counter these negative stereotypes is to have more “good” characters with a foreign accent. Although, looking back, one of the other villains was the Matchmaker from this scene:

    She speaks in SLI and I can’t seem to put a finger on her accent. Does anybody else notice a certain accent to the matchmaker that perpetuates foreign as “evil”?

    1. Thanks for replying! I did notice an accent with the Matchmaker.

      Her case is actually even more illuminating because her accent is intentional by the actor. The voice actor is actually Miriam Margolyes, who is from England. The accent she chooses to use makes her appear very stern and intolerant.

      I’m not sure if this was a choice by the actor herself, or if production wanted her to use an accent with this character. It would definitely be more telling if it were the latter of the two.

  5. Very interesting post. I have never seen Mulan, but I have many other Disney movies and I can see how this issue of portraying characters of different backgrounds in racially and ethnically sensitive ways presents a problem in these many Disney movies. Something that is important to consider, I think, is that if Disney were to try and point less to racial differences and stray away from stereotypes, maybe it would seem as if Disney was trying to suppress racial variation completely? I think this presents a problem for Disney, and there is a fine line between highlighting cultural diversity and stepping into stereotypes. This line, however, is hard to define.

Comments are closed.