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Featuring intense action sequences and sweeping cinematography, the latest Mulan trailer shows the titular heroine vowing to “bring honor to us all,” leading an army of men into battle against fierce opponents. The live-action movie has faced a battle of its own: originally scheduled for cinematic release in March, Mulan was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and is now set to release on Disney’s streaming service Disney+ for $29.99, on Sept. 4, on top of a $6.99 subscription.

Initial reactions to the film after its premiere in L.A. in March were largely positive, with critics calling it Disney’s best live-action offering to date. And in an era where Hollywood is backing more Asian and Asian-American stories, Mulan is notably the first Disney-branded film to feature an all-Asian cast, with well-known Chinese and Hong Kong-born actors Liu Yifei, Jet Li and Tzi Ma in leading roles. Director Nikki Caro’s version of the traditional ballad has been celebrated as a feminist retelling, cutting out a romantic subplot from the animated film and focusing on Mulan’s character as a formidable woman warrior. Caro is also one of only four women ever to have directed a live action film with a budget of more than $100 million, with Mulan‘s budget at more than $200 million.

Yet the film has also faced controversy since its first trailer dropped in August 2019. Liu Yifei, its principal star, voiced support for the Hong Kong police on social media during the height of last year’s pro-democracy protests in the city, prompting calls to boycott the film. At the film’s European premiere in central London in March, days before its release was postponed, masked protesters gathered outside the screening venue holding signs calling for a boycott and mocking up the film’s promotional poster as an advert for the Hong Kong police.

While campaigns to both support and boycott Mulan took off on social media, other observers were quick to point out the historical inaccuracies of the trailer, particularly in its costume design and architectural setting, which appear to be mismatched for the time period and geographical location of the original story.

The question of historical accuracy, and whether the film should strive to be completely faithful to the original legend, is not so simple to answer. Mulan is based on a tale that’s been adapted over more than a thousand years, and that has contested origins to begin with. Here, we lay out the film’s complex origins, how the story has changed over time, and what the new adaptation says about representation.
Origins of the legend

The original Mulan story is quite different from both Disney’s 1998 animated film and the new live-action movie. The earliest printed version of the story still in existence today was first featured in an anthology from the 12th century, known as the Ballad of Mulan. It’s a short poem thought to have originated as a folk tale in the fourth or fifth century because of references to the period, known as the Northern Wei dynasty, which lasted from the fourth through the early sixth centuries.

“Anything not contained in this original poem has been made up by much later authors, and cannot be historically substantiated,” says Sanping Chen, an independent scholar and author of Multicultural China in the Early Middle Ages. This original version follows a simplified storyline of the tale many are familiar with (without the talking dragon introduced in the animated film, of course). In the tale, Mulan’s father is called to battle, and she volunteers to go in his place. While the original poem doesn’t describe her father as old or ailing, as later versions did, it says that there were no adult sons in the household to take his place. After 12 years of war, Mulan returns to her hometown along with her comrades, who are shocked to learn that she is a woman.

This first version ends with the quatrain:

The male hare wildly kicks its feet;
The female hare has shifty eyes,

But when a pair of hares run side by side,
Who can distinguish whether I in fact am male or female?

Overall, this version is about Mulan “just getting the job done,” says Shiamin Kwa, associate professor of East Asian languages and cultures and comparative literature at Bryn Mawr College and co-author of Mulan: Five Versions of a Classic Chinese Legend. This version emphasizes the aspects of gender, such as starting by Mulan doing weaving work, which was traditionally a task for women—a facet of the story that would evolve in later iterations.

The character’s ethnic origins

The Northern Wei dynasty was established by a formerly nomadic group named the Tuoba, a clan of the Xianbei people, who came from northern China and likely spoke either a Turkic or proto-Mongolian language, rather than a native Chinese dialect. The Tuoba conquest of northern China was of huge historical significance, akin to the Norman Conquest of England, says Chen. “The emperor is an important person in [The Ballad of Mulan], but he’s not called by his Chinese name,” says Chen. Rather than the Chinese title of huangdi, the emperor is referred to as “Khan,” “Kehan” or “Kaghan,” depending on the translation—a title used to refer to Genghis Khan and other Mongol leaders. Chen also says that the title of the poem and the fact that it is named for the female character reflects the respected status that women held in these nomadic societies.

While the social and cultural milieu of the Northern Wei dynasty provided the context for the tale’s origins, there’s no corroborative evidence to confirm that Mulan was ever a real person. Over time, the story and character’s nomadic and tribal origins have significantly changed from the original. Mulan has been depicted as Han Chinese in adaptations over the last century, and this process of “sinification,” or coming under the influence of Han Chinese culture, of the story goes as far back as the Tang dynasty, which spanned from the 7th to the 10th centuries. While the name Mulan translates to “magnolia” in Chinese, Chen’s research traces the name’s roots back to its Touba origins, and suggests that it’s actually a masculine name. “Otherwise, how could Mulan have hidden her true gender for twelve years in the army?” says Chen. “To the educated Chinese gentry, the meaning of ‘Mulan’ is utterly different. One may say the true meaning of the name Mulan is a forgotten legacy of the Tuoba.”

How the story has changed and endured over time

As well as the changing interpretations of Mulan’s ethnicity over the centuries, the narrative has also changed over time. For around a thousand years, the story more or less stayed the same, a simple, easy-to-understand folk poem popular with the Chinese people. The first known adaptation was in the 16th century, by playwright Xu Wei. The Heroine Mulan Goes to War in Her Father’s Place dramatized several aspects of the original poem. It emphasized footbinding, which is not mentioned in the original, as the custom was not widely practiced during the Northern Wei dynasty. “But in the 16th century, that was the major marker of how a woman was different from a man,” says Kwa. “The 16th century play would emphasize that aspect in a way that the original poem would not, and the play transported the setting to the time that seemed relevant.”

The character was later included in a popular 17th-century novel about the Sui and early Tang dynasties, which was a marked departure from the poem. Here, Mulan commits suicide rather than live under a foreign ruler, meeting a tragic end. This emphasis on the ethnic portrayal of the character also came to the fore in portrayals of Mulan during China’s Republican period. Driven by China’s active moving picture industry and a growing nationalism, several film adaptations of the story were produced in the 1920s and ’30s, the most successful being 1939’s Mulan Joins the Army, made during the Japanese occupation of China. This version played on gender as well as ideas of national identity against a complicated political backdrop, and some have argued that the renewed interest it sparked in the Mulan story was partly due to its nationalistic overtones and critique of the occupation. “In addition to these funny scenes where Mulan is now dressing up in her guise as a male soldier, there’s also a lot of playing on this idea of not just telling apart male from female, but telling apart a ‘barbarian’ from a Chinese person,” says Kwa. “That becomes just as important or maybe parallel to the question of other people not being able to tell that she’s a girl.”

Kwa says that looking back over how the character has evolved over the centuries is interesting in the context of today’s idea of what makes China ‘China,’ and the idea of a patriotic heroine who is fighting against invading outsiders. At different points in time, the story’s emphasis on a sense of belonging shifted, encompassing both themes of women’s liberation and feminism and divisions along more overt ethnic identifications. “[These adaptations] speak on a specific level at specific times to different needs from different audiences,” she says, adding that the fundamental appeal of the tale speaks to a universal desire to be recognized for who we are, and also an understanding that we can’t always control how others see us.

Representation and adaptation in the 2020 version

Looking back at the original Mulan legend helps explain the criticism over certain stylistic choices in the film, such as the costume and the architecture. Some argue that adaptations of lots of different historical stories change over time and aren’t always accurate. “I feel like we are surrounded by adaptations of all kinds. Do we get angry at Joyce’s Ulysses for not being the accurate historical representation of Homer’s Odyssey?” asks Kwa.

At the film’s world premiere in March (its general release was postponed soon thereafter due to COVID-19), Mulan‘s costume designer Bina Diageler told Variety that the Tang dynasty was the inspiration for the film’s costumes, adding that the research included trips to European museums with Chinese departments and a three-week visit to China. Her comments immediately sparked backlash on social media and beyond, with some highlighting the role of costume designer in particular as a missed opportunity to hire someone who is more of an expert on the culture to accurately reflect the story’s origins. Others highlighted the architecture of Mulan’s home in the movie, which appeared to be a tǔlóu— a structure used as a communal residence by Hakka people in southern China and built from the 13th to the 20th centuries, which does not align with the historical and geographical setting of the original folk tale. (Time)

 

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ENTERTAINMENT

Behind the Uproar Over Khaali Peeli’s Beyoncé Lyric

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By Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images.

The upcoming Bollywood rom-com Khaali Peeli, starring actors Ishaan Khatter and Ananya Panday, isn’t set to be released until Oct. 2, but one of the musical’s songs is already famous—for all the wrong reasons.

After an outcry on social media over a song lyric perceived to rely on colorism—prejudice or discrimination against people with darker skin tones—the filmmakers announced that they will be changing the song slightly. The lyric in question, which roughly translated to “by merely looking at you, oh fair lady, Beyoncé will feel shy,” will be replaced with “the world will be shy after seeing you” dropping the “fair lady” and Beyoncé mentions.

“We have made the film to entertain audiences and not to offend or hurt anyone,” Maqbool Khan, the director, said. “Since our lyrical arrangement did not go well with few people, we thought why not keeping the essence the same while changing the song a little bit.”

Additionally, the song’s title has been changed from “Beyoncé Sharma Jayegi” to “Duniya Sharma Jaayegi” (meaning “the world will feel shy,” instead of “Beyoncé will feel shy”). Earlier, the song title was simply tweaked to “Beyonse Sharma Jayegi,” changing the spelling of Beyoncé’s name for legal reasons. But though the original lyric used the Hindi word goriya, which translates to “fair or light-skinned lady,” the filmmakers and lyricist have said that it was not meant to be taken literally. “The term ‘goriya’ has been so often and traditionally used in Indian songs to address a girl,” said Khan, “that it didn’t occur to any of us to interpret it in the literal manner.”

Though his stated intention did not match the lyrics’ reception, Khan’s statement does get at a deeper truth: the idea of a “fair lady” being a stand-in for a beautiful woman dates back centuries in South Asian culture, as it does in many others. But just in the last year, colorism in South Asian culture has come under fire in a number of ways. In recent months, instances such as Bollywood stars promoting skin-whitening creams while championing Black Lives Matter and the casual colorist statements in the reality dating show Indian Matchmaking have resulted in a heated discourse surrounding the topic, which, at times, has spurred change. Radhika Parameswaran, a professor in the Media School at Indiana University, Bloomington, spoke to TIME about that context.

TIME: What are some different ways in which colorism manifests itself in Bollywood?

Parameswaran: One of the biggest visual reminders and symbols of colorism is who is cast. In Bollywood, the prevalence of the star system is huge—movie stars make the movie. They become national idols, and people are their fans. Not that you don’t have those types of visual cultures and fans in the U.S., but in India, there is a large population who cannot read or write; films transcend those barriers of literacy, and in a country that’s in the Global South, the role that films can play is huge. The movie stars that have been idealized in Bollywood, particularly in terms of women, have been very, very light-skinned, and that continues today. The settings they’re in are usually very lavish, so light-skinned beauty gets tied to issues of class and upward mobility.

What is the underlying message you get from the lyric “by merely looking at you, oh fair lady, Beyoncé will feel shy”?

It’s the hero addressing the heroine, saying, not only are you white and beautiful, but you would put a transnationally beautiful star to shame, arguing that the Indian light-skinned beauty is even more powerful than a celebrity force coming from America. On a more complicated note, it’s nationalist as well as colorist. It suggests a sort of resistance to American supremacy, but on the other hand, it doesn’t get rid of the problem of local hierarchies of skin color.

If colorism has such a deep history in Bollywood, why do you think this particular moment has caused such an outcry?

There are various reasons. One is that there has been an activist movement against colorism that’s been building momentum over the last ten years I would say, getting more and more amplified. Barkha Dutt, the famous Indian journalist, used to host a show called We the People. She had two episodes, years ago, that talked about colorism and racism, and this discussion made the national stage. Nandita Das, a celebrity example, has been speaking up against colorism. Women of Worth is an on-the-ground charity that has been trying to go into schools and ordinary people’s lives, just engaging the public in this pedagogy of how to get rid of colorism. There are also ordinary people making fun of skin-lightening ads by creating spoofs of them. So there has been a societal contestation of colorism coming from various points of view and various agents.

Then you have Black Lives Matter, which went to India in a way it might not have 20 years ago thanks to social media and the Indian diaspora. All of this combined, it is even surprising that this song was composed, performed and made public. It is quite shocking that these movie-makers didn’t realize this.

In general, what is the role of the diaspora in the colorism debate?

I think the diaspora have been quite active. In India, colorism, even 10 years ago, was easily brushed off as “of course light skin is beautiful.” There was an unquestioned solidity to that claim. It was simply not challenged. And there’s the connection to caste too, so these were all just sort of taken at face value.

The diaspora grew up in a different environment where discrimination is being spoken about, it’s not going away—but it has been spoken about through the language of race. I also think the diaspora, who may have gone to schools and participated in other kinds of experiences in institutions, where perhaps they were a minority and faced racism, are very quick to see this and understand it in a way that perhaps in India, it has taken some time for people to grapple with and understand.

How does colorism move from the screen into the everyday lives of people?

Media messages are not like a hypodermic needle, where you inject it into people’s bodies, and it just becomes part of them. I think it’s a more subtle process and depends on class, education, all of those factors. It’s not to suggest that lower classes and less educated people are more susceptible and practice more colorism, it’s not that simple. I do think in some ways upper classes may be doing it more. But still, it does shape the norms of society. Women in particular keep getting measured against these norms. Can there be cracks in the norms? Sure, but those will be unusual.

The filmmakers decided to change the lyric entirely. Is it rare for backlash to cause such a change?

In some films, there’s nothing to be done. The film is out, it’s released, like Bala, which was a story that featured a dark-skinned heroine, but the actor cast was light-skinned and wore brownface. But I do this is going to be more of the trend, especially with issues surrounding skin color. This type of colorism, it’s going to get challenged.

Do you think this continued challenging of colorism will result in deeper change?

Here is the thing. It’s one thing to lose the language of “goriya” and the reference to Beyoncé. But does this mean the heroines are going to start being dark-skinned? No. In terms of casting and representation, it’s going to take a long, long time for that to change. Changing a word is fairly easy to do, and cosmetic, and makes the film producers look socially responsible, but changing how the heroines look, that will not be immediate.

This incident comes not long after the skin-whitening cream Fair & Lovely changed its name to Glow & Lovely, though it kept its product the same, again following a social media fallout tied to Bollywood. Do you think companies will begin to make changes even before a controversy comes up?

I think they will tend to wait until an outcry happens first. Bollywood is a mass, popular industry, so they’re going to count on catering to what they think are mass, popular tastes, and I’m sure they’re going to consider whether protests from what they view as a small, elite population that may not even go to their movies are worth it. If a movie is going to be broadcast in the Hindi heartland and all sorts of rural areas and small towns, how much is this type of issue going to be contested in those spaces? We have to ask, who has access to the English language internet, given India’s vast class divisions and rural-urban divisions? Is this a small minority speaking to themselves? In [that] case, Bollywood is going to make cosmetic changes, and I don’t think they’re really going to take this into account in a careful way.

With reporting by Arpita Aneja

Write to Anna Purna Kambhampaty at [email protected].

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Here’s How To Block Problematic Artists in Your Music App

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If you’re a fan of streaming music, personalized playlists, and mixes made “just for you,” you’ve no doubt run into some boring, bad and even downright offensive songs you’d rather not hear again. And if you’re familiar with the news surrounding today’s most popular artists, you probably have a running list of artists who you’d rather never hear again—no matter how good their newest single may be—because of their misogyny, or racism, or other problematic behavior.

While you can’t hit fast-forward on your car radio, you can alter how your streaming service recommends songs to you and force it to never again play the tracks or artists you want out of your life—the extent of that control depends, though, on which streaming service you choose. Here’s how each major streaming service handles blocking and filtering artists from reaching your ears.

Amazon Music

Amazon Music, the default music service on its Echo devices, offers you both customized playlists and radio stations based on an artist or song you pick. It doesn’t let you filter or block artists from said playlists or stations, but you can upvote or downvote songs in radio stations to better personalize your listening experience.

You can, however, block songs with explicit language in them by hitting the three-dot menu icon in the “My Music” tab and enabling the “Block Explicit Songs” option. Amazon did not respond to TIME’s inquiry about blocking or filtering artists any further.

Tidal

Tidal, known for its catalog of high-bitrate music (for better audio quality) and Beyoncé’s visual albums, makes it relatively easy to block artists or even particular songs, and gives you an easy way to manage your list of expunged musicians once you’ve made one.

While you can’t block an artist directly from their artist page, you can block them (or a particular song) from their Artist or Track radio playlists, or from your “My Mix” playlist. If you know exactly who you want to cull from your listening experience, the quickest way to get it done is to visit the artist’s profile anyway, hit the radio button next to the artist name, tap one of their songs, and hit the block button at the bottom of the Now Playing screen.

Should you change your mind, you can hit the Settings icon in your “My Collection” tab, then scroll down to view and unblock all your selected artists and songs.

Tidal lets you block both tracks and artists, though you can only do it from the Now Playing screen in playlists or radio stations.

Apple Music

Apple Music, the company’s streaming-service alternative to its iTunes Store, features both Apple-curated playlists and custom radio stations that pick songs based on your listening history. But Apple Music won’t let you block an artist or filter their songs out of playlists; it does, however, enable you to adjust the app’s recommendation system based on how you rate songs.

You can vote to “love” or “dislike” songs in Apple Music, which it takes into account when building playlists based on your listening history. Apple did not respond to TIME’s inquiry about blocking or filtering artists any further.

Spotify

Of all the streaming services we looked at, Spotify has the most straightforward method of blocking artists from appearing on playlists and radio stations. While you can’t block specific songs, you can block an artist’s work by visiting their profile, hitting the three-dot menu icon, and selecting “Don’t play this artist.” After that, you won’t encounter them in any playlists or radio stations.

A Spotify artist page, where you can block an artist from appearing in playlists and radio stations.

A Spotify artist page, where you can block an artist from appearing in playlists and radio stations.

Patrick Lucas Austin

Pandora

Pandora’s personalized radio stations are perfect for discovering new artists and songs for your socially distant summer fun. But when it comes to dismissing artists you no longer want to hear, you only have one option: downvote them. That won’t entirely block the artist (or even that specific track), but it will reduce how often the artist appears in your radio stations.

In short, if you’re using Pandora, be sure to give the artist you want to avoid a thumbs down rating whenever possible to decrease the likelihood they pop up again in your stations.

YouTube Music

YouTube Music, parent company Alphabet’s replacement for its Google Play Music service (scheduled to shut down completely this December), doesn’t offer much in terms of artist control. Currently, YouTube Music does not allow users to filter or block artists.

Write to Patrick Lucas Austin at [email protected].

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Emily Ratajkowski Makes an Important Point About Consent When It Comes to Your Own Image

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Emily Ratajkowski. GETTY IMAGES

Emily Ratajkowski has been an online fixture in the realms of both modeling and acting for years, ever since her image exploded into the public consciousness with her appearance in the “Blurred Lines” music video. However, the extremely fraught nature of that image is the very subject of an essay written by Ratajkowski that was published yesterday in New York magazine, and which details her struggle to financially and spiritually reclaim artwork and pictures that exploited her body and face.

In the essay, entitled “Buying Myself Back,” Ratajkowski makes the allegation that after a professional photo shoot in 2012 with the photographer Jonathan Leder, he assaulted her by digitally penetrating her without permission when she was extremely intoxicated. Ratajkowski had also only approved the images made during the shoot appear in a magazine spread, but Leder has also gone on to publish them in several books without her consent.

Since then, according to Ratajkowski, Leder has apparently been publishing unauthorized books of photography and staging exhibitions of the explicit photographs he took of her back in 2012, on the same evening during which the alleged assault took place. “For years, while I built a career, he’d kept that Emily in the drawers of his creaky old house, waiting to whore her out,” Ratajkowski writes. “It was intoxicating to see what he’d done with this part of me he’d stolen.”

Emily Ratajkowski. GETTY IMAGES

Additionally, Ratajkowski details other episodes wherein artists have used her image without her consent. One of the most pointed instances of this is her writing about the hypocrisy of the artist Richard Prince, who profited enormously off of recreating images sourced from Instagram in paintings that later sold for tens of thousands of dollars. One of the images Prince used for a painting was pulled directly from Ratajkowski’s Instagram account, and although she later purchased the painting, she also found herself embroiled in a tug-of-war with an ex boyfriend over a black-and-white study of the work after the two had broken up.

Shatteringly, this dispute was occurring in the aftermath of an online photo leak in which numerous nude photographs of Ratajkowski were leaked on 4chan. “I’d been destroyed,” Ratajkowski writes. “I’d lost ten pounds in five days and a chunk of hair fell out a week later, leaving a perfectly round circle of white skin on the back of my head.”

The model and actress also recounts that because many of the photographs Leder took are already online, her lawyers have advised her that there’s little she can do to stop him from continuing to profit off images of her without engaging in a lengthy and draining legal battle. It’s a heartbreaking non-conclusion to a series of indignities that don’t seem to be ending anytime soon. OBSERVER

 

 

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