Saturday, December 9, 2017

Cultural Communication in Popular Media: A Dialectical Approach to Disney’s Mulan

Cultural Communication in Popular Media: A Dialectical Approach to Disney’s Mulan

Communication can be understood as the process of understanding and sharing ideas. We transmit a message not only through what we say, but how we say it, either verbally or in writing. By extension, intercultural communication can help create an atmosphere that promotes cooperation and understanding between different cultures. These characteristics are: sensitivity to cultural differences and an appreciation to cultural uniqueness; tolerance for ambiguous communication and behaviors; willingness to accept the unexpected; flexibility to change or adopt alternatives; and reduced expectations and stereotypes (Nakayama and Martin, 2013).
Intercultural communication means different things for different people; however, the variety of interpretations does not diminish its importance as a subject of study. Instead, it reflects its interdisciplinary nature. Studies on intercultural communication include traditions and contemporary concerns from both social and human sciences. At its core, it shows contributions made by the disciplines of cultural anthropology, communication, linguistics, psychology, and intercultural and social sociology. This multidisciplinary base provides ample resources for its development.
Among this resources is cinematography; a form of communication through images and narrative richness, modern art and means of expression characteristic of the 20th century. Cinema is a language - it communicates and expresses something; it’s an aesthetic and often heterogeneous system. For these reasons we can consider cinema as a means of communication (which, in political history, has found its way to defend, persuade and spread totalitarian ideas). It’s necessary to pay attention to social contexts, since they develop in a cultural environment from which it receives notable influences, creating wrongful perceptions. However, the very nature of cinema transcends barriers and, therefore, the contact between cultures is inevitable. The adaptation of stories and other media products to cinematography brings with it an interesting reflection on intercultural relations.
Disney films are known worldwide and, although they are aimed at children, young people and adults enjoy the stories and animations that this American company offer. Since the 90s, Disney has tried to capture the multiculturalism that exists today. Some examples are Beauty and the Beast (17th century France), Aladdin (Central Asia), The Lion King (Africa), Pocahontas (North America), The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (France in the Middle Ages), Hercules (Greece) and Mulan (China) (Disney History). These films try to represent the culture of the countries in which the story takes place, a key element to study in relation to intercultural communication.
Mulan is based on an ancient legend of China, collected in the poem “Ode to Mulan” where Mulan disguises as a man to go to fight in the war in place of her father, who is very old and frail. After fighting in the army for twelve years, the Emperor offers him great honors, but she only asks for a donkey to return home. When her former army comrades go to visit her, they discover that she is a woman. The poem ends with the image of a hare (Mulan) and a rabbit (her companions) running together, and with the narrator's question: "Who can distinguish the hare from the rabbit?” The age of the legend is not known exactly, but it is believed to date back to the Wei Dynasty (184-283 AD) (Frankel, 1976).
The Disney film based on this legend was released in 1998 worldwide and describes this same story, with some colorful elements to attract children such as the dragon Mushu and the cricket which in Chinese culture have the spiritual and symbolic significances of strength and luck, respectively; and even the handsome general who ends up falling in love with Mulan. This film made history: a hidden story and legend became known thanks to Disney.
Roy Disney and Walt Disney founded the Disney Company on October 16, 1923. In 1937 they produced their first film: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. During this time, Disney also began working on 8 other projects. However, the Warner Brothers company began to gain popularity and began to compete with Disney. In the 50s and 60s, the company grew a lot - setting the strong foundation of its present media imperialism- and expanded to other sectors such as children's literature, comics, toys and theme parks, making it a perfect example of culture industry. In the 60s, Walt Disney had become a well-known figure around the world and other companies struggled to succeed him. After both brothers had passed away, the company went through a difficult time until the 90s - which are known for the great success of Disney (Disney History).
Although Mulan wasn’t the most famous or most successful movie, it’s one that stands out for its cultural aspects and its original theme.With the successful references of the approach of a foreign culture to the world in Beauty and the Beast (1991) and the stampede of The Lion King (1993); for the battle against the Huns in Mulan, Disney took the next step. The producers embarked on a 5-year project to produce a film based on the Ode to Mulan, something very different to what the Western public was accustomed.
Mulan is partly Americanized - a Chinese story adapted to an audience of American/Western culture. By extension, because it is a Disney production, it has expanded to others countries and translated into many languages. There are several aspects that make Mulan a unique film, such as linguistic variations, the story, and the songs. All these elements have a cultural touch that allows the viewer to immerse him/herself in the Chinese culture without even realizing it.
One of the keys to the success of Disney films is that, through vocal qualities, many can feel identified with the characters which can be challenging to achieve due to cultural differences. Disney assigns specific accents to characters based on their status. Mulán, Mushu, Shang, Yao, Ling and Chien Po are protagonists and they have an American accent with which the majority can relate. Shangyu and the Huns, the antagonists, speak in a British accent - as in other films like Sleeping Beauty or 101 Dalmatians. This curious aspect of the British accent on Disney’s villains, has no clear explanation, but historically the British have been the invaders in American culture; it’s possible that they associate the British accent with villainy and, thus, portray this stereotype in most Disney movies. The Emperor, the general, the soldiers and the parents of Mulán are secondary characters. They speak English with a Chinese accent. From these characters, we can establish clear differences between Chinese and English tonal variations too.
Chinese is a tonal language. This means that there are tones through which different concepts are distinguished according to the tone used. This phenomenon doesn’t occur in English, so when speaking our language some Chinese tend to add tones to certain words. This linguistic variation can be seen in the scene in which Mulán's father, Fa Zu, talks to his daughter after the meeting with the matchmaker. On the other hand, the vowels between the two languages do not coincide, so the Chinese find it difficult to distinguish the pronunciation of certain words in English; for example: full/fool, ship/sheep, it/eat. Another characteristic feature of the Chinese accent is the difficulty in distinguishing the sound "r" from "l". An example of this difficulty in the movie is when Chi-fu arrives at the town of Mulan and proclaim that one man from every family has to serve in the Imperial Army.  This feature is lost in the Spanish version, however, since the characters have no accent. One possible explanation for this is that U.S. society is more multicultural than most Spanish-speaking societies (including my own: Puerto Rican) and, therefore, more accustomed to hearing different accents in English from various parts of the world. In Puerto Rico, despite becoming an increasing intercultural society, most people are not so accustomed to this cultural diversity, so if the characters exhibit these variations it could be considered a form of racism and the film wouldn’t connect so much with some of the Puerto Ricans, possibly enforcing cultural barriers.
Linguistic variation characterizes the characters and helps us get closer or away from them. In general, older characters such as the Emperor and Fa Zu speak with expressions or sayings, so we identify those characters as wise - an example of age identity - as when the Emperor enunciates the plot of the story as if it were a poem: "A single grain of rice can tip the scale; one man may be the difference between victory and defeat”; or the father, in an attempt to encourage his daughter: “My, my, what beautiful blossoms we have this year. But look, this one's late. I bet when it blooms, it will be the most beautiful of all”.
Aside from textual analyses, directors Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook along with producer Pam Coats, traveled to China to better acculturate and assimilate in order to get inspired and accurately represent the Chinese culture. This trip was decisive when deciding Mulan's visual elements such as the Great Wall of China, the flags, the architecture, the palace, the mountains, the training field, etc. It also influenced the history and cultural details of the film (Disney History).
The difficulty of adaptation lies in the great differences between Asian and Western culture. The adaptations that appear in Mulan, are intended to bring the viewer to the story, to make you feel identified with it. Clear examples of this are the appearances of a modern newspaper, porridge, a toothbrush, a hug to the Emperor by Mulan and the final dance of the ancestors to the sound of modern music.
In addition to these cultural references external to the Chinese culture on screen, we can detect the location/localization of the dubbing. When Mulan arrives at the camp and Yao calls Mulan/Ping "chicken boy", Mushu responds with "limp noodle". It’s striking that in the original version it’s a very colloquial insult used in some communities in the United States, but it manages to make reference at the same time to Chinese culture. In Spanish, however, this interaction fails to maintain any reference to Chinese culture. Another scene in which something similar happens is when Shang asks Mulan ‘his’ name, Mushu is hidden on her back and he suddenly sneezes; in the version English he immediately says gesundheit and in Spanish salud. In this case, there is no translation equivalent in Chinese because, in fact, there is no such expression. When a person sneezes nothing is said, if they sneeze a second time it is said that someone is missing (or cursing) them, and if they sneeze a third time they say that person is or is going to get sick (Zhu, 2009).
Another idea that is not usual in Chinese culture is the transformation of a man into a woman or vice versa. As we know, Chi-fu sentenced Mulan to death for impersonating a man to enter the army and save his father. However, Yao, Ling and Chien-Po disguise themselves as women to mislead the Huns and save the Emperor. In this context, men are superior to women, so if a woman disguises herself as a man, they rise in the hierarchy of society and have privileges. If, on the other hand, a man disguises himself as a woman, society sees him as a man who is lowering himself to the status of a woman and is also taken as a humorous touch, as when Yao says "Does this dress make me look fat?" / "Does not this dress make me fat? » In this film, Disney allows the role of women and men to diffuse, breaking the barriers of gender identity and masculinity/femininity value (Li, 2014; Martin and Nakayama, 2013).
Another aspect of Mulan's character is her individualistic mentality.Mulan's behavior is her search for personal identity. In one of the songs, she admits that "she will never be another wife, or a good daughter" and asks herself who she really is. After her comrades turn their backs on her and discriminate her upon discovering that she is really a woman, she confesses that she may have enlisted in the army not because of her father, but to prove something to herself. This highlights individualism which in a woman is particularly something rare in the feudal past of China (Zhu, 2009; Li, 2014). Mulan is not only defiant, she is also very ingenious, heroic and independent - she shows us how one person can make the difference.
Mulan's story centers on "filial love", which in China is considered to be one of the most important ethical principles and traditions. Therefore, in Chinese there is a word to designate this cultural value: Xiaodao. It literally means filial love (xiào) and method or way (dào). This is an important pillar that governs Chinese society and it essence lies in the support and care for parents, respect and obedience, continuation of the ancestral lineage, and upholding the family name and honor while remembering their ancestors (Zhu, 2009; Li, 2014). In addition, religion makes an appearance in Mulan as a means to maintain the character and civil culture of people through communication rituals focused on cults and belief in spirits.
Cinema makes possible the contact between a culture A and a culture B through the cinematographic language and its products. In addition, it often promotes a construction culture that does not always correspond to the authentic reality such culture. The image is interpretive and often only constitutes the reality of the characters represented. Through a medium as powerful as cinema, Disney globalizes the what characterize a society. Most people who watch this movie will keep in their minds the idea that this is how Chinese society works, without questioning it. This is not because Disney gives indications so that these representations are accepted, but because his variables are presented in such a way that they generate consensus in his audience to form a hegemonic code.
It seems certainly after this reflection that it’s possible to establish a first contact between diverse cultures through cinematographic art. However, we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that this must only be like opening the door, the first contact - undoubtedly necessary but, we must not forget, not enough to establish values or judgments, to be satisfied with the knowledge of a foreign culture as it’s presented and which may not always true or practically never a reflection of a much more complex reality.
It is not easy to eliminate the negative stereotypes that each culture has of the other. Throughout history, peoples have dehumanized other peoples in order to create a social consensus against them. Many of these stereotypes are deeply and collectively rooted in some. One does not have to know only other cultures, but also be aware of one's own culture. In many times our communications are full of values that we transmit without being aware of them. Intercultural communication not only means communicating with other cultures but also making the effort to rethink one's own culture, an idea that can be transferred to the analysis and understanding of culture and society through modern media.
For effective intercultural communication it’s necessary to develop communicative competence and a cultural awareness. Interpersonal communication is not simply verbal communication, non-verbal communication (spatial, tactile, etc.). That is, it is not enough to know a language, you have to also know, for example, the meaning of the gestural communication of the speaker. Communication is not a simple exchange of messages that have an unquestionable meaning. The same speech can have different levels of meaning that only those who are familiar with the culture can understand. To understand Mulan well, for example, it’s necessary to attain a certain knowledge of Chinese history, literature and culture. Obviously the film could be watched without this knowledge, but the references get lost.
Finally, I must warn of the danger of falling at the other extreme, which is to globalize or universalize one's own culture. This tendency can lead to ethnocentrism through which, for example, the American model would be considered the universal model of historical evolution and the media. The use of variables as established by a certain culture to explain other cultures can be acceptable if it is used as a metaphor, but it’s unacceptable if the purpose is to dominate a certain type of historical development. Intercultural communication is the delicate balance between the universal and the particular, what’s common and what;s different. Through the media, intercultural communication prompt us to learn to live with the paradox that we are all different, yet all the same.

What other cultural aspects of Mulan do you find interesting? How do other Disney movies portray other cultures? Comment below. 

Thanks for reading.

(N.D.) Disney History. D23: The Official Disney Fan Club. The Walt Disney Company.

Coats, Pam (Producer) Cook, Barry and Bancroft, Tony(Directors). Mulan [DVD] (1998). United States: Buena Vista Home Entertainment (TWDCI, S.L.)

Frankel, Han H. (1976) The Flowering Plum and the Palace Lady: Interpretations of Chinese Poetry. New Haven: Yale University Press. Pages 68-72.
Li, Jinhua (2014 May 20). Mulan (1998) and Hua Mulan (2009) National Myth and Trans-Cultural Intertextuality. Chapter 12; pages 187-205.
Martin, J.N., Nakayama, T.K. (2013). Intercultural Communication in Contexts (6th edition). Boston: McGraw-Hill. ISBN-13: 978-0078036774
Meyer-Hoess, Ines (2017). CAS 271: Intercultural Communication [Online]. The Pennsylvania State University - World Campus. University Park (PA).

Zhu, Judy (2009). Modern Chinese Cultural Encounters: Studying and Traveling in China, Volume 1. ISBN: 978-1-4401-3323-7

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