As a young-ish Asian American girl when Mulan first came out in the early 2000s, I distinctly remember not liking Mulan's appearance. I never really pinned down why exactly this was until recently.
I mean, what was up with those slanty eyes? I remember arguing with white kids on the playground when I was younger and the only Asian in my class that Asians didn't have slanty eyes, see how I did not; I really resented that Mulan had slanty eyes and here Disney was winning the battle over that stereotype.
I just remember thinking: she is Asian and ethnically Han Chinese, like me (though my family is more Taiwanese than Chinese at this point)...but I don't look like that, do I?
And I can appreciate Disney basing her appearance on ancient Chinese standards of beauty with the round face and thick eyebrows and defined features, because that is a thing, but still...working on the Racebending protest I really, really began to resent Mulan.
Rage resent. Because people would say things like, "If Aang is supposed to be Asian, why doesn't he have slanty eyes, why doesn't he look more like Mulan." And even if I had contextual proof (eg. the Avatar creators have stated that they decided to use the Korean animated art style to draw faces since that was what those artists were good at, etc.) there was still this mental disconnect...because Aang did not look like what white people (and really all Americans via osmosis) EXPECTED Asians to look like. Because these stereotypes are so ingrained.
Early on in the Airbender protest, I remember giving a long ass PowerPoint presentation on the Asian elements of Avatar: The Last Airbender to a prominent Asian American advocacy group in order to convince them that Avatar was in fact being whitewashed. The leaders of the organization told us that Aaang and co. had round blue eyes and they were confused, until I reminded them that this was the case in anime as well.
I remember protesting the Runaways casting calls because Marvel was seriously, seriously considering whitewashing the Japanese American character of Nico Minoru. I remember approaching other longstanding Asian American groups with this news to ask for their support in pursuing the issue. I would send out these briefing sheet emails and attach images of Jo Chen's beautiful covers featuring Nico. I encountered so much resistance because to these older non-comic book, non-anime savvy Asian American advocates, Nico "didn't really look that Asian" to them. Instead of being happy that for once, we were not being drawn with exaggerated, stereotypical features, they doubted that Nico was Asian at all.
We got the same questions from mainstream geek press. "She doesn't look Asian to me." So I began to cull images of Nico from all of the different artists who worked in the book. And I noticed that the Asian, Asian American and Asian Canadian artists would draw Nico looking, well, "normal" ...and the non-Asian artists were more likely to, well...draw her as looking like Mulan. Because that is what we are accustomed to imagining cartoon Asians as "looking like."
My love-hate relationship with Mulan is really impacted by the way she was depicted, to the point where I still can't stand Mulan merchandise. I've been looking for an Asian Barbie doll for a long time but I feel like the Mulan doll isn't a good substitute because of her exaggerated racialized features. I don't know if I am the only Asian who feels this way or not. I simply experience a lot of cognitive dissonance between how I feel Mulan should look like and how she does look like. I PARTICULARLY resent Disney for always marketing her in the same goddamn outfit she sings about as oppressing her in the movie, and for calling it a freaking "kimono" last Halloween, etc.
And for me, it isn't about wanting Mulan to look more "white" even though yes, I grew up in a culture that taught me that white beauty was normative and to have her not look like the other princesses is kind of othering, etc...It's just about her not looking like an alien. Because I'm pretty sure part of the reason why aliens are drawn with slanted eyes is because in the early and late 1800s Asian immigrants were referred to as celestials and aliens because we looked so different. (citation needed.)
To me, Mulan looks like what white people expect Asian people to look like, and not what I felt Asian people should look like--or do look like. While I don't think the first picture is perfect either, it is closer to how I would have drawn Mulan.