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Analysis: Avoiding Hollywood stereotypes

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter   |   Nov. 23, 2004 at 11:00 AM   |   Comments

LOS ANGELES, Nov. 23 (UPI) -- Although The Walt Disney Co. has been criticized on occasion for misrepresenting ethnic minorities in some of its animated features, the studio's new DVD release of "Mulan" serves as a reminder that Hollywood can tell stories of other cultures without resorting to stereotyping.

"Mulan," which grossed $120.6 million when it played in U.S. theaters in 1998, is a modern re-telling of a Chinese poem about a young woman who disguises herself as a man to take her father's place in the army. It was written during the Northern Dynasties -- a time of civil war in China in the fifth and sixth centuries.

In the Disney version, Mulan is accompanied by Mushu -- a small dragon, played by Eddie Murphy -- as well as a "lucky" cricket and a cast of characters that includes ancient spirits of her ancestors.

The movie combined traditional animation techniques with computer-generated animation, employing a visual style that some critics said was suggestive of authentic Chinese art. One critic dryly praised Disney for creating a lead character "who actually looks Chinese."

When Disney released the $217.3 million animated blockbuster "Aladdin" in 1992, the studio was hit with criticism from Arab-American advocates that the movie reinforced stereotypes about Arab culture -- and that the two main characters, Aladdin and Princess Jasmine, had been given Anglicized facial features and Anglo-American accents.

When the studio released "Aladdin" on video in 1993, it made some changes in response to the complaints. For example, a line in one song -- "Where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face" -- was changed for the home-video release to "Where it's flat and immense and the heat is intense."

By contrast, "Mulan" reached the marketplace with virtually no such criticism. Now, with the title in video stores on DVD -- and Disney planning an upcoming direct-to-video release of "Mulan 2" -- some in the Asian-American community still express relief at the way the movie depicts Chinese culture.

Ken Narasaki, a member of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition, told United Press International the movie's depiction of Asian heroes and heroines was in line with the kinds of images he would want his daughter to see.

"When it came out I had really mixed feelings about what it might turn out to be because I have a daughter who was of an age to be affected by this," he said. "I'm grateful that there aren't stereotypes -- that there is an attractive Asian male and a strong Asian female."

The movie actually breaks one stereotype: that of the Disney princess. Lea Salonga, who sang the title role, told UPI the character was a departure from the traditional Disney animated princess.

"It actually is based on a Chinese legend," she said. "It isn't one Disney picked out of the air and said, 'Hey, let's make a cross-dressing story.'"

The film provided employment opportunities that don't normally come up for Asian Pacific American actors, judging by a recent report by the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium, a Washington, D.C.-based civil-rights organization. The report, which was confined to TV network casting, concluded that although on-screen opportunities for Asian Pacific American performers have grown in recent years, there is considerable room for further expansion.

George Takei, best known for his performance as Sulu in the "Star Trek" TV series and feature films, told UPI diversity is progressing in America, but not as fast as many would prefer.

"Just look at the makeup of our political leadership," he said. "Back then (when 'Star Trek' first came on TV in 1966) I think I can safely say there were no women in the political arena in leadership positions," he said. "Now we have a whole host of women in Congress."

He also pointed out that African-Americans currently head the U.S. departments of State (Colin Powell) and Education (Rod Paige), and Asian-Americans run the departments of Labor (Elaine Chao) and Transportation (Norman Mineta).

The cast of "Mulan" includes several non-Asian performers -- including Murphy, Harvey Fierstein and Donny Osmond. Many in the cast -- including Takei -- played Chinese characters even though they are of Japanese ancestry.

"We are actors," he said, "and we create the illusion of truth -- in the same way that you don't have to be Danish royalty to play Hamlet, who has been played by Englishmen as well as Americans and Italians."

But Takei endorsed the NAPALC recommendation that Hollywood reach out more to create opportunities for Asian Pacific American performers.

"We have to keep pushing it," he said.

Narasaki, an actor and writer who has appeared in such TV series as "Judging Amy" and "The District," said Asian Pacific American actors face two main challenges in getting regular work in Hollywood.

"One is that there are so few depictions of Asian characters in the media," he said. "And the few that are out there are so frequently stereotypical."

Salonga's big career break came when Disney hired her to sing Jasmine in "Aladdin." She called it a life-changing opportunity.

"It kind of gives actors who do these kinds of movies immortality," she said. "These movies will live on well after me."

But even after "Aladdin," Salonga still had to audition for "Mulan."

"I thought, 'Why do I have to audition?'" she joked. "I was already a princess before. Wasn't that enough?"

Some Hollywood conventions must be harder to break than others.

--

(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

© 2004 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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