"I See You Are Only Interested in the Exceptionally Rare": An Inquiry into Disney's Participation in the Orientalist Discourse

As much as I would like to see Disney as perfect, there is a point that even I cannot deny: Disney animated features contain racist imagery. This is a fact. Google “Disney racism.” The query produces 667,000 hits in 0.13 seconds. Disney films have race issues. We know. Let us move on.

Rather than banging heads against the wall by listing all of Disney’s racial faults, it may be healthier for our skulls and more profitable for our minds to inquire as to what inspired these images. Cultural artifacts such as Disney films do not appear out of thin air. They are the product of cultural identity; they reflect society’s ideological discourses. Of course, these artifacts in turn shape the culture as well, by validating the discourses they reflect. For example, a film like Dumbo which contains outdated imagery is still consumed today. Thus, we continue to see such lovely images as a band of jive-talking, cigar smoking, minstrel-like crows led by a fellow named “Jim Crow” voiced by Cliff Edwards, the same white actor who lent his voice to the timeless Jiminy Cricket. In their continued circulation rather than static preservation in the vault, such films continue reinforcing stereotypes despite their antiquity. Before we send our DVDs to the museum, it would be fruitful to examine the evolution of Disney’s racist imagery and identify the discourses from which it arises. In doing so, debunking the myth of these stereotypes’ truth is possible. Racist imagery, after all, is a symptom of something larger: power. It is used to ensure one group’s superiority over another through mockery. As a result, conflict of competing ideas, or discourse, arises. In the case of racist imagery, the discourse concerns truth and fable. While tackling the manifold issues relating to power and racism as a whole may be too sweeping a project for the confines of this inquiry into Disney’s participation, one particular discussion of power narrows the playing field and focuses the discussion: Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism.

Said’s Orientalism is a productive theory for illuminating Disney’s racist imagery because it demonstrates how it is produced and how to identify it within a larger context. Where many articles on the subject simply identify and condemn Disney’s images, Said’s theory focuses more on delving into the images’ greater meanings rather than simply denouncing them as racist. In giving our pursuit room measure the images’ degree of racism, rather than rebuke it entirely, we may discern stylistic subtleties that complicate the images’ racism. Said identifies Joseph Conrad’s style in Heart of Darkness, a notoriously racist novella set in imperialist Africa, as an example of these compensatory subtleties.  Despite depicting Africa and its inhabitants as a savage, corrupting abyss, Conrad complicates its imperialist content by identifying his flawed perspective and instructing readers to be conscious of it. In the words of Amardeep Singh: “Conrad was sophisticated enough to acknowledge that he did indeed have a blind spot. Conrad recognized that the idea of imperialism was an illusion, built entirely on very fragile, mythic rhetoric” (Singh). Few of Disney’s critics have acknowledged such contextual nuances, and simply write off many films as racist. In distinguishing Orientalism as a nuanced discourse, rather than a “racist or not racist” litmus test, Said allows for deeper and more productive inquiry by acknowledging the images’ context. Crediting inspiration from Michel Foucault’s work, Orientalism discuses the Western Europe and America’s, the Occident’s, subjugation of Asia and the Middle East, the Orient. As the dominating power, the Occident created a mythical, romanticized, subordinate image of the Orient -- the Occident’s Other. It did so by constructing images, ideas, and “facts” about the Orient through scholarship known as Oriental studies. Orientalism’s intellectual and political effort is a complex, many-layered system by which the Occident defines itself in counterpoint to the Orient.  In Said’s own words, Orientalist discourse is 
a way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient’s special place in European Western experience. The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other. In addition, the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience (Said 1370). 
Notice the emphasis on the Occident’s perspective in the discourse; the Orient does not speak for itself. Occident created a reified Orient for its consumption and understanding according to Occidental terms and perspective. As scholar Amardeep Singh recounts, “A person who dominates another is the only one in position to write a book about it, to establish it, to define it” (Singh). Said notes, however, the importance of recognizing the Orient’s construct as more than a simple romanticization:
Orientalism, therefore, is not an airy European fantasy about the Orient but a created body of theory and practice in which, for many generations, there has been a considerable material investment. Continued investment made Orientalism, as a system of knowledge about the Orient, an accepted grid for filtering through the Orient into Western consciousness, just as that same investment multiplied -- indeed made truly productive -- the statements proliferation out from Orientalism into the general culture (Orientalism 1372).
In other words, Orientalism’s images are the result of systematic study and construction rather than breezy daydream. The images relevant to this discussion concern ideas of Oriental splendor and gender construction. Oriental splendor refers to the notion of the Orient as an exotic commodity, exhibiting beauty and allure foreign to Occidental aesthetic. Goods, stories, and places are coveted because of this allure. Gender construction is somewhat related to Oriental splendor because it too relates to Occidental desire for ownership of the Orient. Oriental women, according to this discourse, are exotic commodities themselves -- weak “both eager to be dominated and strikingly exotic” (Sered). Oriental men are framed similarly, as they are considered weak and effeminate. However, they are portrayed with a sinister edge, being sex-crazed and threatening. Though such flagrant reification gives Orientalism the illusion of romantic fantasy, it is something much more robust. This is evident in the Orientalist images that appear in Disney films, as Walt was never interested in making political statements. As biographer Neal Gabler discusses, “Walt hated politics. He just wanted to make his films and not be bothered with the rest of the world” (iTunesU). The Orientalist images his studio produced were not a conscious attempt to romanticize or demonize the Orient, but reflected cultural norms of their time. What becomes increasingly evident is the fundamental conflict within the Orientalist discourse itself: the inability to remove the gazer’s perspective.

Traced chronologically, the films progressively display less Orientalist content with time. Beginning with flagrant, crude racism in 1955’s Lady and the Tramp, proceeding to the full-fledged Orientalist discourse in The Jungle Book and Aladdin, and ending with conscious political-correctness in 1998’s Mulan, no film escapes framing the Orient within an Occidental perspective. The films document the Occident’s interpretation of the Orient rather than the Orient itself. The pattern raises a question: can the Occident ever represent the Orient truly? Said never provides an answer. Karlis Raceviskis, in an essay analyzing Said’s vacillating relationship with Foucaultian theory, points out that Said identified this deterministic note in the Occident’s and Orient’s power dynamics, but he could not determine if it could be combated or not. Raceviskis recounts that his position oscillates “between the idea that true representation is theoretically possible and the opposite position that all representation is necessarily misrepresentation” (Raceviskis 29). Viewing the films in which it appears, Orientalism reveals itself to be inevitable. Not because of some moral failing on Disney’s part, but because the films will always be created based on the artists’ perception. In Said’s words:
No one has ever devised a method for detaching the scholar from the circumstances of life, from the fact of his involvement (conscious or unconscious) with a class, a set of beliefs, a social position, or from the mere activity or being a member of a society. These continue to bear on what he does professionally, even though naturally enough his research and its fruits do attempt to reach a level of relative freedom from the inhibitions and the restrictions of brute, everyday reality (Said 1374). 
Much of this inevitability hinges on art form’s nature. Animation is not about strict mimesis, or mimicking reality; cartooning is an artist’s impression of a given subject. Given the subjective nature of the art form, the films will always be filtered through the filmmakers’ worldview -- which is Occidental. In the end, Disney films will always frame the Orient in an Occidental context because their medium is impressionistic.

The 1954 film Lady and the Tramp marks Walt Disney Feature Animation’s first encounter with the Orient -- and it shows. Unsurprisingly, this film is Orientalism at its most crude. The Siamese cats, Si and Am, are designed with stereotypical slanted eyes, buck teeth, and yellow coloring. They chant in high-pitched, tinny voices, frequently confusing their “L”s and “R”s. Sinister and mysterious, they are markedly demonized rather than seductive. They starkly contrast with Lady’s honey colored tresses, round eyes, straight orthodontia, and sweetness. No subtlety with these felines: they affirm Occidental superiority over Oriental. Their scene definitely reads “racist” on the proverbial litmus test, and there is no stylistic subtlety to them that indicates any awareness on the filmmakers’ part. Rather, they fully adhere to and express Orientalist ideas. As such, they provide a good illustration of Orientalism at its most basic and crude. Si and Am serve as a good introduction to the discourse’s basics and provide a baseline from which to measure Disney’s progress. As will be elucidated later, Disney’s Orientalist images eventually take on those stylistic notes. However, such sophistication is incredibly lacking with these two.

     Unlike the majority of Disney’s canon, Lady and the Tramp is an original story conceived by legendary storyboard artist Joe Grant. Without a source material, Disney could have easily avoided the Orientalist discourse in this film. Their involvement, thus, is very interesting. By introducing these Oriental cats, Grant provides a demonic scapegoat in a story that does not easily offer a villain. They alter the plot and destroy Lady’s world despite appearing in only one scene. Grant conceived the story when he and his wife had their first child. Their springer spaniel, Lady, was frequently brushed aside because of all the attention the baby required. The natural villain of the story, then, would be the baby. As the Tramp notes, “Just a cute little bundle of trouble. They scratch, pinch, pull ears . . . Homewreckers! That’s what they are.” An innocent baby, however, does not a suitable Disney villain make. Not to mention, Lady’s family, Jim Dear and Darling, could not turn on their beloved pup. A clear-cut villain was needed to disenfranchise Lady and send her running to the Tramp for sanctuary. Thus, the filmmakers conceived of maiden Aunt Sarah and her brood of demonic kitties to terrorize Lady when Jim Dear and Darling go on holiday. Aunt Sarah is a dog-hating, strict, stuffy old grouch who muzzles Lady. Si and Am, however, facilitate Lady’s fall from grace by wrecking the living room. When Lady chases them away to halt their rampage, the cats pretend Lady attacked them. As doting Aunt Sarah carries them away, they deviously “shake tails” with each other behind her back in pernicious victory. These Oriental brutes infect Lady’s home, turning her believed ally, humanity, against her.  They shirk their “cat duties” and allow a rat to get into the baby’s room. When the Tramp goes after the rat, Sarah accuses him of attacking the baby and sends him to the pound. Despite their short appearance, they do an incredible amount of damage. Such influence has cautionary connotations, warning of the Orient’s sinister, consumptive nature. Si and Am’s deleterious, sneaky, hungry persona is very much in line with the Oriental man’s stereotype, but their gender is ambiguous. Though they display consumptive “masculine” personalities, they portray the Oriental woman’s stereotype in their voice and body language. Though they are anthropomorphized, this obfuscating gender blend removes the humanity from their human attributes and marks them distinctly alien. They are not subjective identities, but a uniform infection on Lady’s home. In the end, they affirm the Orient’s threat. Thus, they justify the Occident’s superiority.

Disney’s 1966 feature, The Jungle Book, progresses from Lady and the Tramp by introducing commentary. Where Lady and the Tramp ignorantly parrots Oriental stereotypes, The Jungle Book adheres to it with a note of awareness. Amazingly, the film avoids dealing with the Orient for the most part, despite being set in India and drawing its source material from an incredibly Orientalist and imperialist text, Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli stories from The Jungle Books. Considering The Jungle Book’s source material, the film’s minute Orientalist content is impressive. Where Lady and the Tramp could have easily avoided the discourse altogether, The Jungle Book’s avoidance required conscious effort. It would be inaccurate to say that Walt adapted the film in this manner because he intentionally sought to avoid Orientalist imagery. Kipling’s formal, mysterious, Orientalist account was not the story Disney wanted to tell. Bill Peet, a legendary story artist, conceived the initial storyboards, adapting Kipling’s world and stories very closely. Richard Sherman, one of The Jungle Book’s composers, recounts Walt’s dislike for Peet’s interpretation, claiming it was too dark and lacking the whimsy he desired for his films. Thus, Walt decided to start from scratch:
We were at this meeting, and the first thing Walt said was, “How many fellas have read the original Jungle Book story by Rudyard Kipling.” And nobody said anything because nobody had read it. “Good! I don’t want you to read the book. Now here’s the story!” And with that, he launched into a typical Walt Disney storytelling. He was a master storyteller. The greatest storyteller you will ever see. He characterized every single personality with his face and his movements. And he launched into how he wanted to tell the story. And he said, “I want it to be fun. This is going to be a fun story, an adventure with fun. No mysterious, none of this heavy stuff. And I want to have a little heart in it too (The Bare Necessities).
In abandoning the Kipling elements, Disney avoided the worst of the Orientalist elements, shaving it down to one scene: first and last brush with the Orient occurs in the film’s last scene, when Mowgli joins the man-village. The scene itself reads like an instruction guide for “tasteful” Orientalist gender construction: Mowgli is seduced to the village by an exotic, little Indian girl with Western pigtails and a bindi. Ollie Johnston, the animator charged with animating the scene, despised it. Wrestling with what he believed to be a cop-out ending, animator Andreas Deja recounts, “Ollie was telling me later on, he thought about it the way he would do it. Then he really got into it and found a really sensitive way of doing that. You know it’s very casual and I want to say tasteful” (The Bare Necessities) Johnston’s choice: ground their flirtation in shyness. Upon seeing a girl for the first time, Mowgli transforms from a playful young boy to an insecure, covetous creature. Though he is not threatening, as that would not be tasteful, he is clearly “hungry.” Shanti’s “shy and helpless girl” routine coupled with her batting lashes perfectly illustrates the Oriental woman’s “seductive-yet-helpless” persona. When Mowgli fetches and carries Shanti’s water jug, he steps into a girl’s role. Shanti sings, “Father’s hunting in the forest / Mother’s cooking in the home / I must go to fetch the water, ‘till the day that I am grown” (The Jungle Book). Thus, he steps into the Oriental man’s effeminate stereotype. His new Oriental identity, with his punch-drunk walk and crossed eyes, is silly and mockable compared to his Occidental identity. While living in the jungle, his and the jungle creatures’ American and British personas imply that nature is naturally Occidental, which carries its own implications. Mowgli only becomes an Oriental when he is acculturated to human society. In containing the film’s Orientalism within human culture’s bounds, the film illuminates the Orient as cultural construction rather than natural order, as exhibited in Lady and the Tramp. As many scholars have noted, the film contains many other problematic racist images, most notably in the jive-talking clan of monkeys. However, they are also framed in reverent or sophisticated manners that complicate their status as simply racist or not racist. Though these other portrayals lie outside this discussion, they are important to note because they also indicate growing awareness of the stereotypes’ inaccuracies. Unlike Lady and the Tramp’s flagrant alienation of the Other, The Jungle Book starts to acknowledge the flaw in this action.

Aladdin, Disney’s 1992 feature, fully inhabits Orientalism, starkly contrasting with the Jungle Book’s avoidance. Arguably, the imagery is more flagrantly Orientalist than The Jungle Book’s imagery. Some images read “racist” on the proverbial litmus test to the same extent as Lady and the Tramp’s Si and Am. However, Aladdin is considerably more clever and sophisticated than its predecessors because it comments on the audience’s participation in Orientalist discourse as well as their own awareness. Aladdin is introduced and initially narrated by a seedy merchant rather than a decorated book or pretentious narrator, as is the Disney norm. Herein, Disney notes the Orient’s construction as an exotic commodity. Additionally, the merchant makes a very keen observation about the audience: we are only interested in the romanticized Orient, not the reality. As he sifts through various mundane trinkets, such as a “combination hookah and coffee maker” and “Dead Sea tupperware,” the camera pans away, indicating that the audience is not interested. The merchant chases after the camera, and retrieves attention saying, “I see you are only interested in the exceptionally rare. I think you will be most rewarded to consider this.” With a flourish, he pulls the magic lamp out of his sleeve. Our interest in the magical, mystical Orient, rather than the actuality, is the catalyst for the story, as the story literally pours from the lamp. The merchant pours “Disney dust” from the spout, and throws it into the sky. Sparkles turn to stars, and the story begins. 
A confection of rich Orientalisms rise from Aladdin’s “Disney dust,” exhibiting Oriental splendor and Orientalist gender construction. The artists openly admit portraying an exaggerated Orient rather than the actual Orient, as the Genie’s supervising animator, Eric Goldberg, recounts: “There was a lot of development art that had been done by production designer Richard Vander Wende, and he was doing what I would call ‘Hollywood Arabian,’ where it was Arabian design but really exaggerating the s-curves” (A Diamond in the Rough: The Making of Aladdin). Overall production design embodies Oriental splendor by framing Oriental aesthetic in Occidental artistry. Goldberg suggested styling the film based on renowned cartoonist, Al Hirschfeld’s, design aesthetic. His sweeping “thick and thin” lines are reminiscent of Arabic calligraphy. Combined with sweeping S-curves, line and brush strokes that highlight snake-like curves, Hirschfeld’s influence created Agrabah, a city dripping with Oriental splendors like a golden palace and magic carpets. Layout supervisor, Rasoul Azadani, provided photos of his native Iran to make Agrabah’s architecture credible. At the same time, it was colored and styled to fit with the caricatured design. Not only does the caricatured layout provide a suitable setting for the characters, but it distinguishes Agrabah as a fantastic, romantic construct, reflecting the “dichotomy between the reality of the East and the romantic notion of the ‘Orient’” (Dexheimer). Hirschfeld’s influence was extended to the characters, as they too are drawn with smooth, curvy, “thick and thin” lines, which directly influenced their Orientalist construction. In keeping with caricature, Jafar’s construction is very exaggerated and noticeably “ethnic.”

Note his crooked nose, dark-rimmed eyes, and sharp facial hair. Supervising animator, Andreas Deja, notes that a concept sketch influenced him to give Jafar a “monkey quality in his teeth and his mouth” (A Diamond in the Rough: The Making of Aladdin). In personality, he falls directly in line with the Oriental man: sneaky, lusty, and physically weak. His wiry frame is very frail and he has to send lackeys into the the Cave of Wonders to retrieve the lamp for him. He utilizes magic and hypnosis to manipulate the sultan, and he continually lusts after Princess Jasmine. She has none of it. Her personality contrasts with her Oriental design. In designing Jasmine according to Hirschfeldian caricature, her anatomy is exaggeratedly petite. The model sheet below says that she is “five and a half heads tall,” whereas a human is “seven heads tall” in actuality. Note her face is wider than her waist. Also, she is costumed in revealing clothing that emphasizes her extreme curves. Based purely on her looks, Jasmine’s small stature makes her appear easily dominated, her skimpy clothing suggests sex, and her long hair sets her apart from Western women. 

In personality, Jasmine rejects Orientalist construction. There are two scenes in Aladdin, where Jasmine flaunts her sexuality and acts submissive. During the first instance, she saunters to Aladdin swaying her hips and purring about how she is a “fine prize for any prince to marry” -- then proceeds to deride him for considering her to be an object. In the second instance, she pretends to be Jafar’s sexual plaything to distract him from Aladdin’s surprise attack -- which she later joins. In exhibiting the Oriental sexual stereotype as a performance, Jasmine emphasizes the outright falsity of it.

The 1998 feature, Mulan, has a radically different involvement in Orientalism compared to Lady and the Tramp, The Jungle Book, and Aladdin. The Chinese characters and settings are not saturated with “Oriental splendor.” Mulan does not, however, escape Orientalism’s enormous net. It avoids the material aspects of Orientalism, but it collides with the heart of the discourse itself: definition of Occident in reflection to Orient. In light of the incredible backlash following Aladdin’s racist imagery, filmmakers consciously strove to capture China faithfully in aesthetic and personality. They researched Chinese architecture and art on a research trip and hired an Asian artist, Chen-Yi Chang, to design the characters. On an aesthetic level, Mulan escapes Orientalist pitfalls. Characters are not designed or portrayed with racist imagery: men are not weak, effeminate, threatening scum and women are not exotic, seductive, passive commodities. Though author Lan Dong notes the Orientalist images of the Great Wall and the Imperial City appear, they do not appear for the sake of showing off their aesthetics. They appear for the sake of story: the Great Wall is overtaken by the Huns, and the Imperial City is necessary for Mulan’s accomplishment to be noticed. While these portrayals are vastly improved from Aladdin’s, Mulan does not escape judging the Orient according to Occidental standards. Mulan journeys to legitimize her identity in a society that does not accept her. Her society’s eventual reverence for her marks their acceptance of what she represents: American values. 

Mulan’s eurocentric philosophy appears in a number of ways. According to executive producer, Pam Coats, “to thine own self be true” was the film’s driving philosophy -- a line from Hamlet. Dong notes that the Mulan character is distinctly American though she looks and, for the purposes of the film, is Chinese. This is best represented in her song, “Reflection,” which she longs for an accredited personality. Her focus on individualism and self-actualization are characteristic of contemporary American values. She (and by extension America) is cast in an Other role to her culture, as illustrated in her encounter with the matchmaker. Instructing Mulan in her wifely duties, the matchmaker preaches, “Now, pour the tea. To please your future in-laws, you must present a sense of dignity. You must also be poised. And silent” (Mulan). Mulan spills the tea and lights the matchmaker on fire. Her Otherness is further emphasized in the song “A Girl Worth Fighting For”:
Yao: A girl who’ll think I have no faults
Chim Po: That I’m a major find.
Mulan: Uh...? How ‘bout a girl who’s got a brain? Who always speaks her mind...?
All men in unison: Nah
This lyrical section not only casts Mulan as undesirable, but notes that she is not worth fighting for. She is antithetical to her society’s values. In spite of Mulan’s status as Other in her society, aligning the film’s protagonist -- and thus the audience’s loyalty -- with the Occidental episteme casts the Oriental episteme as backwards. Her eventual triumph over her society’s values equates America’s ideological triumph over China’s. Moreover, Mulan’s struggle to define herself within her society speaks to the Occident’s own struggle to define itself in relation to the Orient. In the end, reflecting on the Orient is about reflecting back on the Occident. Despite every measure Disney took against it, they still ended up with an Orientalist piece. Is this a reflection of Disney’s racist predisposition? Some would probably say so. However, such an answer ignores a fundamental conflict in Orientalism: the Occident cannot understand the Orient for what it is because the Occident will always see that Orient as a reflection of itself. 

Tracing Disney’s involvement in Orientalist discourse reveals that, at least for Disney, Orientalism is inevitable. Animation and cartooning, as an artistic medium, is built upon artist’s impressions and interpretations. As a result, they can never escape their Occidental perspective, for they will always filter the films’ content according to their values and understanding. This is not to say that Disney films are doomed to crude racism for all time. Analysis of their Oriental films reveals awareness in their faults. Si and Am of Lady and the Tramp illustrate how far Disney has progressed: they began with ignorant parroting of Orientalist imagery but eventually came to comment on it with their later films. The Jungle Book confines Orientalist imagery to human civilization, illustrating its cultural construct. Aladdin takes The Jungle Book’s commentary to another level, acknowledging the audience’s thirst for romantic Orient rather than realistic in addition to the filmmakers’. Aladdin also parodies Orientalism through Princess Jasmine, who performs the Oriental woman’s persona rather than embodying it. Each of these films participates in the Orientalist discourse, but none comment on its determinism as fundamentally as Mulan. Mulan stands apart because the filmmakers actively tried to disentangle themselves from Orientalism. They succeeded in part, as the film does not contain racist imagery. However, they could not escape framing Mulan’s story in Occidental perspective, reinforcing the Occident’s “superiority” yet again. Their conscious attempt to escape Orientalist discourse reveals how deeply engrained it is in Occidental society, and it reinforces a fundamental truth about Disney films: they are made by Americans for Americans. That is unshakable.

Works Consulted
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