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How I Finally Saw Myself Reflected in the Original ‘Mulan’ (Guest Column)

MULAN, Mulan (voice: Ming-Na), 1998. ©Buena
Buena Vista Pictures/Courtesy

There’s a moment 19 minutes into Disney’s 1998 film “Mulan” where the heroine takes a sword to her long black hair, cutting it short in one fluid motion without hesitation. It’s part of a montage where Mulan, spurred by her father’s decision to fight for China despite old war injuries, quickly decides on her own that she will dress as a man and take her father’s place in the army. She prays, steals her father’s armor and rides off in the rain. Only once does she pause to gaze wistfully at her sleeping parents.

Seeing this montage in the theaters, at 9 years old, was the first moment I remembered feeling inspired by a film. Because of an early diagnosis of alopecia, an autoimmune disease that causes hair loss, I had gotten it into my head that I was an “ugly duckling,” but not the kind who’d grow into any sort of metaphorical swan. I was convinced I was destined to look different my entire life – and “different,” when you’re nine, is a terrible thing.

My sister and I grew up watching and loving Disney films, although I never identified with any of the princesses on screen. When we’d play pretend, I searched for aprons and books to dress up as Cinderella before the Fairy Godmother came or as Belle before she donned the yellow ball gown. I liked the “happily ever after” moments, but I never thought too much about them either. I wanted to be the heroine on a journey, not just the princess who was done being saved.

And then came Mulan, a character I was excited to see because she was someone who looked like me. Not only did I identify with the culture I saw on screen – a culture I wasn’t used to seeing put on screen at all – but I didn’t feel self-conscious watching her. In the first few minutes of the film, it becomes incredibly clear that she’s not the “good” daughter she’s expected to be: She’s writing answers to an upcoming verbal test with the matchmaker on her arm and she’s taking shortcuts to finish her chores. When it’s time to see the matchmaker, she’s unenthusiastic about the primping and the polishing her mother and grandmother put her through in an attempt to make her a desirable bride.

It’s something she also struggles with later when she returns home after an embarrassing afternoon with the matchmaker. And it’s something that felt familiar to me too, despite being only 9 years old. That weight of looking in the mirror and only seeing your family’s disappointment? I felt it with every fistful of hair that would come out with each stroke of the hairbrush. I felt like a burden to my family with every doctor’s visit and new purchases to try and hide the hair loss. I felt like a burden because there was something “wrong” with me.

But in her situation, Mulan didn’t mope. She took a moment to cry and then she made a plan and got to work. Unlike the Disney princesses who came before her, she didn’t wait for things to happen to her. Instead, she acts with agency, going against what society tells her is acceptable for a woman.

And, more importantly, her actions aren’t driven by a man. She dresses as a boy, takes her father’s place, and proves her strength in order to protect her own family. While she initially chose to do what she did for her family, she also realizes what really drove her halfway through the film: “Maybe I didn’t go for my father. Maybe what I really wanted was to prove I could do things right, so when I looked in the mirror, I’d see someone worthwhile.”

That search for fulfillment and identity can only happen for Mulan when she sheds everything that’s kept her in that box of needing to be “the good daughter.” It’s a lesson I needed to learn too.

Growing up, I lived my life according to what I was unable to do because of the hair loss: When my friends had pool parties, I was too embarrassed to get in the water (with or without anything to cover my head). When auditions for the school musicals and plays came around, I never tried for anything but a background role (until junior high when I started wearing a wig daily and got the lead in “Much Ado About Nothing”). For high school dances and proms, I tried to always be the one behind the camera for my friends instead of in front of it.

In 1998, when “Mulan” came out, my eyebrows were starting to disappear. Two years later, about 50% of my hair fell out. I went through various stages of grief in the process until I began to wear wigs daily. But I tried not to see those wigs as a disguise. Instead, every morning when I would wake up and my mother would place the hair on my head, I pretended like it was armor for the day: armor to protect me from bullies and gossip, and armor to help me hold my head a little higher in the school hallways.

I wish I could say this hour and a half-long film completely changed my perspective on my alopecia. Truthfully, it would be almost a decade before I really accepted my hair loss as my new reality. But it was a start, and watching it back now in my 30s, as I wait for the live-action “Mulan” release, I realize how influential it was to see this heroine through her journey.

At the end of “Mulan,” she returns home, not because she feels obligated to but because she feels like she’s finally ready to face her family. She walks in with gifts, thinking it’s the only way they’ll see her and what she did as worthy. It’s the same way I try to present my accomplishments to my own family in order to make up for the burden I feel I placed on them with my alopecia.

But Mulan’s father accepts her home as she is. It’s the kind of acceptance that I now understand my family had for me even in the moments where I felt like a burden, because ultimately it all comes down to love. And it’s the acceptance I needed to have for myself, too: No matter how I look, I know there’s no limit to what I can do.

Traci G. Lee is a Los Angeles-based journalist with experience covering breaking news, politics, and the intersection of race and culture.