The music builds. “Be a man,” a male voice sings out. Mulan, dressed as her alter ego Ping, climbs a wooden pole with two weights on her wrists. Dozens of recruits have attempted to summit the pole, only to fall on their butts. As she, dressed as he, crests the top, even her dissenters cheer.
The dashing Captain Li Shang exits his tent at dawn and is surprised by an arrow landing at his feet. He looks up to behold Ping at the top of the pole with a bow resting across his knees. They exchange a look pregnant with tension and respect. From there, the relationship between the two only deepens as Li Shang witnesses Ping’s growth from troublemaker to leader to savior of their entire unit.
Growing up, I was masculine, queer, and generally felt like my life and my body was not my own. Disney’s Mulan was released shortly after I turned 12, and I remember feeling understood in a whole new way. It wasn’t just the look of determination on Ping’s face at the top of that pole that felt familiar, that made me feel like home. It was also the look of admiration, respect, and attraction on Li Shang’s face as he beheld the man before him.
Later, when Li Shang finds out that Ping is actually Mulan, after she saves his life and singlehandedly (nearly) destroys the Hun army, the look on Li Shang’s face is not disgust, but rather shock and disappointment. The man he had been attracted to and who had sacrificed himself for Li Shang was actually a woman, during a time when impersonating a man was treasonous.
Disney’s Mulan turns 20 this year, and the live-action adaptation is slated to premiere in 2020. Since the announcement of the adaptation, fans have expressed frustration with some of the changes. First, it was revealed that the original songs from the animated film would be cut—what the hell kind of Mulan film could this be without the queer, double entendre-filled anthem, “I’ll Make a Man Out of You?" Shortly thereafter when the live action adaptation’s casting call was released, there was a noticeable removal of Mulan’s love interest, Li Shang.
Fans took to Twitter to mourn the loss of our bisexual icon and to complain about Mulan’s new love interest: Chen Honghui, who will bully Ping until he finds out Ping is Mulan, a woman, and then he will soften up and decide to love her. Yawn.
Fans have also rightly pointed out that while Li Shang may have been hard on Ping, as soon as he saw potential in the new recruit, he accepted him and just went ahead and fell in love.
At a time when Disney has teased Frozen’s Elsa possibly having a girlfriend in the sequel and gave Beauty and the Beast’s LeFou an "exclusively gay scene," the removal of Li Shang represents a real slap in the face of bisexual people, particularly bisexual people of color.
Bisexual folks make up 52 percent of the LGBTQ+ community, yet according to GLAAD’s Studio Responsibility Index, bisexual characters account for only 14 percent of the characters in mainstream films in 2017. At the same time, there were zero queer Asian or Pacific Islander characters in mainstream releases in the same year. Zero.
When I was a kid, Mulan taught me that I could be proud of being strong, that gender could be malleable, and that people who are attracted to multiple genders could exist and be happy, if not really good at flirting. My sincere hope, however unlikely it may be, is that Disney will reconsider their current tack and return Li Shang to his rightful place as a badass bisexual captain and supporter of Mulan. I only have one more thing to say to Disney:
Bring Li Shang back or, in the words of Mushu: dishonor. Dishonor on you. Dishonor on your cow.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.