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Cultural Significance

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, Sept. 26, 2020

So the other day I watched a very interesting video about the new Mulan movie. It was by a Chinese person, explaining why several things were done in a way that is inherently alien to the Chinese culture.

I also recall that the original Mulan was not a hit in China for similar reasons, though the live action remake seems to be doing even worse.

Personally, I love the original Mulan animated feature, just like I like the Chinese ballad (what I have read of it). I remember finding it odd when I heard that Chinese people didn't like it.

The same seems to have happened with Moana, and I assume similar complaints will have been made for Pocahontas, though I'm too lazy to research that right now.

When Hercules came out, I also joined the group of ethnically matched people that didn't like the representation done in the movie that was ethnically relevant. I later habituated enough to look past the blatant disregard for everything that defines the identity of my heritage to enjoy Hercules for what it is. But at first, I felt distress and deep dislike, and wished so badly that Ancient Greece had gotten at least half the love I thought I was seeing in Mulan's Ancient China.

This doesn't always happen. Though it does happen frequently. For example, there is an episode of M*A*S*H where a Greek unit comes around Easter time, and shenanigans ensue with a live goat. This made me grin, and laugh, and feel so happy that a production which was not Greek managed to represent my culture so well. The sheer joy I got from that one episode is something I almost never get from how Greeks are represented in non-Greek media.

So it occurs to me, having now also watched the video the Chinese lady made, that there's a good argument to be had when it comes to cultural appropriation that doesn't necessarily stem from a desire to belittle a different culture. It comes from a lack of concern.

And while I believe that someone seeking to just dress up in something fancy in Halloween is not supposed to be held accountable as appropriating cultures (unless they are clearly aiming to ridicule the culture), a company that takes up the task to represent a culture to large audiences should.

For many reasons. First off, because a big part of those audiences are likely to first come in contact with this culture through that company's piece. Stereotypes will be taken at face value, patterns and impressions also will be associated with that culture for a long period of time. The sheer damage that can be done if a culture is misrepresented in a piece of work intended at large audiences is likely to be massive.

Second off, seeing your culture misrepresented for everyone to see is a very unhappy experience. It can also be hurtful if you think to yourself “is this really how foreigners see us?” Even worse when something sacred or important, or otherwise significant to you is displayed in wrong ways.

Third off, it shows that though effort was put in other aspects of the film, no effort or concern was shown for the people the culture of whom the company is using to make money. It teaches the corporate world not to care about representation, because a sloppy smear of that culture's veneer is enough to make them money.

So what I'm saying is, when drawing from a culture that isn't yours, put in the effort necessary to represent them as best you can. It doesn't all have to be right. All there needs to be is effort. And a bit of love. The respect will show if you do that.

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Tantz_Aerine at 5:09PM, Sept. 27, 2020

PaulEberhardt: That's fascinating, and actually might explain that I still, after ten whole years of making WM, haven't found a German person willing to write me an essay on German culture in a nutshell as I've done for the Greek one. It's fascinating and telltale, I think, in how important it is to have people who are part of the culture (or cultural spectrum if you like) sort of introduce and put a framework in place that will give better chances at good representation.

PaulEberhardt at 3:45PM, Sept. 27, 2020

hushicho mentioned regional differences a while back, and that's a crucial thing to consider with "German" stereotypes. Being German is probably best described as a grudging acceptance of being grouped with some others who speak your language, but in a weird way. Everyone cherishes their prejudices against everyone else, usually restricts patriotism to their own small region and we all LOVE picking on each other – not to mention the rift between Easterners and Westerners that still exists after thirty years. There is no such thing as ONE German culture, really, not a traditional one anyway. The cultural aspects we have in common are very recent. In practical terms that means if you present anything as “German culture”, you are likely to fail with German audiences, no matter how well-researched it is. If you present the same thing as typical for, say, Berlin you’ll likely get applause even if your research is a bit sloppy here or there - it'll trigger regional pride.

PaulEberhardt at 3:01PM, Sept. 27, 2020

Being German, I know that feeling very well, because there are so many stereotypes around that are admittedly really fun to play with and of course our history has a certain tendency to inspire great movie villains. Most of us are kind of used to it, actually, and in the case of Hollywood it usually backfires on whoever made the movie. The typical reaction to brass bands, beer, dirndls, maniacal political leaders and whatnot will probably be along the lines of: "Look at these stupid Americans! They really think it's like this around here, don't they?" This is also very much the case when it's actually played for laughs, or when the movie isn't even American - because some of us really don't have a sense of humour, but (which is even worse) nonetheless delude themselves into thinking they have. This kind of person probably exists everywhere, but I’ve known some bad cases here. Yes, it does sometimes hurt, especially if it's stereotypes you take pains to avoid (no pun intended).

Tantz_Aerine at 10:46AM, Sept. 27, 2020

Entropy0013: I'm not the person to answer that. I'd refer you to the video I linked to in the article, the lady that can speak for the Chinese at all does make relevant comments. // Bravo1102: actually, "a population" is not necessarily an "ethnic group" sharing a common culture. The rule of thumb in the study of human culture and ethnography is not to try to superimpose your own expecations or cultural biases when you describe/interpret what you will be examining. Including whether there is variation or not.

Tantz_Aerine at 10:42AM, Sept. 27, 2020

Hushicho: actually, it's not apples to oranges because modern Greek society is informed by the ancient Greek one to a great extent. Even our language (modern Greek) is such that we still use a ton of turns of phrase, expressions and idioms from that era *in the exact same context*. And while there are outliers in every society, we're going for the mean (or even better, the median if you like) when we represent a culture. It also goes to show that the only remotely accurate representation I could think of was MASH, and nothing that referenced the Ancient Greek stage of our culture. Peoples is peoples, but there's a reason why I can tell who is a Greek almost by sight alone. Localized idiosyncracies don't trump the overall feel of a culture.

bravo1102 at 7:33AM, Sept. 27, 2020

One of the rules of thumb about the study of human culture and ethnography is that there is more variation within a population than between populations.

Gunwallace at 12:21AM, Sept. 27, 2020


entropy0013 at 3:40PM, Sept. 26, 2020

You have a company trying to make a buck and trying to get it through the Chinese governmental approval for access to the market. How much of it was cultural ignorance/apathy or them being advised to avoid certain themes and ideas from the government's representative at the site of filming? The government had issued guidelines that disallowed certain genres of games that they felt were culturally and politically inappropriate.

hushicho at 1:40PM, Sept. 26, 2020

It's also worth noting that regional differences and regional affectations and idiosyncrasies, even in the place a story is from, will never fit. Especially a place as large as China. That's like any random American decrying Sally Bowles in Cabaret as not being American enough. Do you mean New York City American, or do you mean Boston American, or Deep South American, or California American, or Pacific Northwest American, or...? Peoples is peoples, as bravo1102 said, and thus you can't really say "people from this country would never do that". Maybe people from right now in your specific region of your country wouldn't, but across the country, they certainly might.

hushicho at 1:36PM, Sept. 26, 2020

When you get down to it, Disney only gives the faintest fraction of a care because they want money out of China. They don't really care about the American viewing public, and their intention is not to celebrate any culture or group of people. They've already thrown their masses of gay supporters under a bus in favor of Chinabux. That said, however, modern Chinese culture and society is nothing remotely like the day of Mulan's popularity as a story, just like modern Greek society is not really that close to Herakles's Ancient Greece. It's apples and oranges to compare a story that was supposed to be contemporary, like M*A*S*H, and something so far removed that it's just a folk tale, meant to be applied to one's life regardless of location or upbringing, because its original sociocultural context does not exist anymore. Ultimately, though, don't look for accurate representation in something created to make money. You will always be disappointed.

Genejoke at 8:52AM, Sept. 26, 2020

Ozone, I read that they had, or I guess tried to and failed.

bravo1102 at 5:08AM, Sept. 26, 2020

When dealing with groups outside your oen, try to approach them the way they see themselves and the world, not the way you see them. But first, they're people and as a great ethnic character put it in the Muppets Take Manhattan, "peoples is peoples" The simplest seemingly meanless expression can mean so much. Also, some things are so subtle that people just don't notice.

bravo1102 at 5:03AM, Sept. 26, 2020

Like with all the great Chinese historical movies with all the action and getting the culture right, why should anyone watch Mulan? Really? I remember the Greek episode in M*A*S*H. The show really made an effort to portray other cultures right. They did great job with Koreans (even if most of the actors used weren't Korean just Japanese and Chinese) They even got the British right rather than stereotyped (according to British who watched those episodes) An important bit about doing ethnic characters is to write them as people first and not obsess over their heritage, unless that is part of who they are. I have a co-worker who never stops talking about Cuba. That's who he is. Ive also noticed that Hispanics are very aware of all the differences between their subgroups that gringos have no conception. It's enlightening to see them going on about Mexican versus Puerto Ricans and Dominicans where to a clueless gringo they're all Latins and Latinas.

usedbooks at 4:56AM, Sept. 26, 2020

Make up your own cultures and you can be as racist and insensitive as you want! (Star Wars/Trek, Tolkien, Harry Potter...)

Ozoneocean at 2:23AM, Sept. 26, 2020

You'd think they'd be trying extra hard to make the Chinese happy with Mulan

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