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Feminizing Asianness through Soundtracks


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  2. Anon. c. 1970s. “Ancient Chinese Secret, Huh?”
  3. Anon. 1991. “Super Bowl XXV.” Super Bowl.
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  5. Anon. 2015. “Istanbul Xist 16” ION China Cymbal". soundattak.
  6. Anon. 2018. “Ratchet.” Mister Q LIVE!
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  8. Bancroft, Tony, and Barry Cook. 1998. Mulan. Walt Disney Animation Studios.
  9. Caro, Niki. 2019. “Mulan - Official Trailer.” Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.
  10. Cukor, George. 1964. My Fair Lady. Warner Bros.
  11. Hand, David. 1938. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Walt Disney Animation Studios.
  12. Hara, Kunio. 2003. “Puccini’s Use of Japanese Melodies in Madama Butterfly.” MA, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, Ohio.
  13. Jackson, Paul. 1980. “Turning Japanese.” Top of the Pops.
  14. Keene, Elodie. 1999. “Pyramids on the Nile.” Ally McBeal.
  15. Langford, Jerry. 2011. “Tiegs for Two.” Family Guy.
  16. Lee Lenker, Maureen. 2018. “Mulan: The Story behind ‘I’ll Make a Man Out of You’ and Its Other Hit Songs.” Entertainment, June 19.
  17. Lichtenwanger, William. 1977. “The Music of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’: From Ludgate Hill to Capitol Hill.” The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 34(3):136–70.
  18. Mitterrand, Frédéric. 1995. Madame Butterfly. Erato Films, Idéale Audience.
  19. Potter, Tom. 2006. “Japanese Songs in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.” http://daisyfield.com/music/htm/-colls/Puccini.htm.
  20. Prasso, Sheridan. 2009. The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls, and Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient. PublicAffairs.
  21. Reitherman, Wolfgang. 1970. The Aristocats. Walt Disney Animation Studios.
  22. Rooney, Darrell, and Lynne Southerland. 2004. Mulan II. Walt Disney Animation Studios.
  23. Salles, Danny. 1998. “Movie Surfers Go Inside Mulan.” Walt Disney Pictures.
  24. Sasaki, Yumi, and Matsubara Akira. 2006. “Against Coercion” Japanese Anti-War Teachers Fight Militarization Of Schools. Labor Video Project.
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  27. Van Khe, Tran. 1977. “Is the Pentatonic Universal? A Few Reflections on Pentatonism.” The World of Music 19(1/2):76–84.
  28. Wise, Robert. 1965. The Sound of Music. 20th Century Fox.



There are tons of books, articles, and, yes, YouTube videos about gender stereotypes in Disney films, including their soundtracks. We all know about Snow White’s domestic yearning and Gaston’s braggadocio. But those are communicated explicitly in the lyrics, not the instrumental part.

Stereotypes of “the Orient” are also ever-present in music. One of the most famous is the so-called Oriental Riff, heard in everything from The Aristocats to The Vapors’ “Turning Japanese.”

Another set of stereotypes has floated around for centuries, especially in America: the equation of the Asian with the feminine. Part of this relationship has its origins in racist legislation put in place to ward against Chinese immigrating to America in the 19th century. In addition to being forced into essential slave-labor working on the railroad, the government barred Chinese immigrants from owning most types of establishments.7 That’s why there’s the association between Asian people, dry cleaners, and beauty salons today. This connection has mostly feminized men because they were the ones mainly running these businesses.

For women, these stereotypes usually take the form of the up-for-grabs geisha (also called the China Doll stereotype) and the domineering dragon lady.20 Although these depictions are still popular today, they have their roots in colonialism that’s lasted for hundreds of years.

For example, after Japan stopped having its borders be closed in the mid-19th century, there was wide dissemination of Japanese cultural products. Europeans become fascinated with this new “exotic” art, which became the movement Japonism. From art, to furniture, to opera, they appropriated it all.

Madama Butterfly



And it’s that last item that brings us to the beginning of our story: Madama Butterfly. If you know anything about opera, you know about this one. This selection by Puccini is the seventh most performed opera from 1996 to 2020.

A brief synopsis for the uninitiated: B.F. Pinkerton is a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy stationed in Nagasaki. Chou-Chou-San—“chou-chou” meaning “Butterfly” in Japanese—is enamored with Pinkerton’s Americanness, even converting to Christianity for him. The two are destined to marry. Although Butterfly knows that Pinkerton is to leave soon for a stint back in the states, little does she know that Pinkerton is marrying her for a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am situation thanks to lax Japanese marriage laws.

After three years, Butterfly still pines away for her true love, despite the warnings of everyone around. Pinkerton then comes in tow with his swanky, new, white American wife, Kate, intending to raise the child that Pinkerton so graciously left Butterfly with to take care of in his formative years. Shortsighted Pinkerton didn’t realize the value of commitment all those three years ago, and becomes frightened with the idea of delivering the news to his still faithful and smitten Butterfly. After being informed by the same people who had been warning her for all this time, she decides the only way out is seppuku. The last scene displays Pinkerton seemingly and somewhat confusingly full of regret, holding Butterfly’s corpse while sing-shouting her name.

As you can probably guess, it’s an extremely problematic opera by today’s standards, nonetheless still performed all over the world, all the time. So let’s take a closer look at the score.

Nippon Gakufu

Puccini, not immune to the rampant Japonism at the time, was inspired by multiple Japanese melodies. By the turn-of-the-century, there were already books that documented Japanese melodies in Western notation, one of which was the Nippon Gakufu series by Rudolf Dittrich.12, p. 61

Dittrich was an Austrian musician who worked in Japan during the Meiji period after Japan had been urged open by the Americans. He was in high demand as a teacher of the Western musical tradition for the Japanese people.12, p. 58

During his six-year stint in Japan as the director of the newly formed Tokyo School of Music, he picked up a thing or two about the language and melodies.12, pp. 59-60 Thinking that the similarly Orient-starved Westerners would enjoy some aural Asian-fusion, he decided to release a collection of Japanese melodies. A student of the Vienna Conservatory, he applied contemporary Viennese harmony to make it palatable for the average white listener, resulting in Nippon Gakufu, one and two, colorfully translating to “Japanese Sheet Music.” In total, they contain sixteen songs. Puccini used seven of those in Butterfly.12, p. 61



For my research, I went through the instances marked by the incredibly helpful chart on daisyfield.com.19 I used my judgment to determine if the average audience member could detect if the composer created the music to sound Japanese.

Of course, this process is subjective. I invite the viewer to view the timecodes I used for my research and make their own assessment. But, in general, the melodies I chose are often highlighted by a change in instrumentation. The texture tends to thin out and emphasize these melodies. In other words, fewer instruments play with the theme standing out. The excerpts I chose stick out as opera is known for being thick and lush. Some argue that the Gakufu melodies appear in other spots. But they are often hidden by other voices and get lost in all that’s going on.

After going through the chart, I came out with 16 examples that featured the Gakufu melodies. I then coded for the overall gender of the scene and the race and gender of the speaker.

Regarding subjectivity, rating the gender of a scene is a doozy. So let me explain my methodology. I used traditional gender role standards in my coding (note: ones that I don’t agree with!). For instance, I code exerting power and control as masculine. Furthermore, I code traits like submissiveness and topics like marriage and housekeeping as feminine. Finally, there were some scenes in which characters blatantly gendered the scene, using words like “men,” “women,” “masculinity,” and “femininity.”



Let’s look at some scenes in which the speaker’s gender matches the scene’s gender. We’ve got plenty to choose from for women. Quantitatively speaking, out of the 16 scenes I coded, eight of the ten gendered ones were feminine-coded.

One of the most obvious ones occurs in Act I. Butterfly is laying out some of her possessions to her soon-to-be-husband Pinkerton.

Butterfly refers to her objects as “women’s things.” Furthermore, Pinkerton establishes his dominance in this interaction by not only implicating Butterfly to discard her rouge for some reason but also by his stance; notice how he towers above her seiza sitting position, emphasized by the cinematography in this film edition. In the background, there are two discernible melodies: “Ha-Uta” and “Sakura,” the latter of which you might have recognized.

Another example is the marriage between Butterfly and Pinkerton. “O-Edo-Nihonbashi” is played in the background until the chorus of women behind her join in. Butterfly then simply states, “Madama B.F. Pinkerton,” subsuming her name and her authority to her new husband.


For those keeping score at home, two of the ten gendered scenes I coded were deemed masculine. In Butterfly, masculinity usually takes its musical form in either the melody “The Star-Spangled Banner” or “Kimigayo.”

Yes, the beloved English-composed17, American-adopted anthem is used multiple times in Butterfly. A couple of times, it is used in a rather neutral way to reference America. However, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is used to assert a type of masculine dominance.

The most repulsive instance is when Pinkerton is confiding in his plans to marry Butterfly and scamper off back to America to marry another woman. You could cut the chauvinism here with a knife.

Depictions of Japanese men, in a separate-but-equal situation, use the “Kimigayo,” the official anthem of Japan. It’s a contentious piece of music in contemporary Japanese society as it has strong connotations to the Empire of Japan. Individuals, especially educators, who have protested the anthem have been reprimanded, for instance, uncovering the authoritarian implications of the piece.24

It’s no wonder that this piece is used in Butterfly to enhance the power of governmental actors, all of which, of course, are men.


It’s worth mentioning that not all instances of Japanese melodies in Madama Butterfly are gendered. In fact, of the 16 cases that I coded, seven I deemed gender-neutral. These were instances where characters were just stating facts or that had no dialogue or clearly gendered behavior occurring.

However, in the four gender-neutral scenes that did not have both men and women speaking, women were the speakers three out of those four times. This tendency reinforces the link between the Japanese melodies and femininity: that is, even in those instances where nothing is gendered in the scene, the speakers are still women, reinforcing the implicit feminine gendering that we do to many Asian or Asian-inspired works today.


Speaking of contemporary works, I know why you’re really here. Hell, it’s one of the reasons I’m here: the live-action version of the film’s imminent arrival lit a fire under my ass to put this prior research of mine into video essay format. Sadly, this version of the film is song-free. So we’ll be relying on the 1998 Disney-animated version.


For those who have been living under a rock, I’ll give a summary of the animated version, which deviates markedly from the original Ballad of Mulan that was initially transcribed in the sixth century (spoiler: the Disney version removes a lot of the progressive parts).

The Huns invade China via the Great Wall, and the Emperor conscripts one man from every family. Fearful of her father’s failing health, Mulan disguises herself as a man to fight in his place. After being painfully socialized into the ways of masculinity during training camp, she becomes a leader in her infantry.

Her interestingly AAVE-speaking dragon sidekick, Mushu, creates a fake order that he lies has come from the father of the leader of the infantry, Mulan’s love interest, and most crushed on Asian man of the Millennial generation, Li Shang, reinforcing that men and women just can’t be friends or even co-workers.

All Mushu wanted was to see his Mulan in action, kicking Hun ass. Unfortunately, when they arrive at their destination, they discover that Shang’s father, along with his army, has been eliminated by the Huns.

Turns out they weren’t finished either as the Huns ambush Shang’s army too. Mulan buries the Huns in an avalanche (at least to our knowledge). But Shen Yu, the leader of the Huns, cuts her chest in the process. This, of course, exposes her womanhood. However, Shang, being the progressive, benevolent person he is, doesn’t execute this woman as he should. He instead expels her to the freezing mountains.

However, little does Shang’s army know that many in Shen Yu’s gang are still alive and kicking. Mulan does, however. As Shang and co. arrive in the Imperial city to spread the gospel of the Hun’s defeat, the Huns do too. Hilarity ensues and, long story short, Mulan saves the day in feats of badassery.

Despite getting honored and requested by the Emperor for her bravery, Mulan decides to her gender roles instead and return home. Shang follows suit, and villifies conventional romance tropes. Spoiler: they get married in the direct-to-video sequel.



Within Mulan, we will be discussing the songs. The instrumental aspects of the score use elements from both Chinese and Western film scoring traditions. But because we’re comparing Mulan to an opera, it makes sense to compare it to the pieces with lyrics. Plus, the songs are the most memorable aspect of the film anyway.

The methodology for Mulan I used is essentially the same as Butterfly’s. More specifically, gender will be assigned using the same criteria. The main difference is that I will, again, focus on the songs rather than the entire soundtrack.

In the film, there’s a simple trend that appears: the more feminine a scene is, the more Chinese it sounds.

Honor to Us All

The melody for the first song in the film, “Honor to Us All,” is mostly pentatonic. A little explanation for the uninitiated: the pentatonic scale, both major and minor, is a five-note scale that is often associated with Asian countries. The truth is that cultures all around the world use this scale27; two five-note scales do not nearly account for the variation of Asian music. But, a la the Asian Riff that I mentioned earlier, the pentatonic scale is, nonetheless, often used as a musical signifier of Asia.

Therefore, the melody, along with its instrumentation of Chinese-sounding instruments—like the dizi and gu-zheng—clearly establish it as a Chinese-sounding song, at least to the ears of Western listeners.

The content of the song pertains to how to be an ideal wife, much to the chagrin of Mulan. The women taking care of Mulan explicitly state as such. But they also use evocative imagery, intending to turn Mulan “into a silk purse” and desiring her to exhibit “good breeding capabilities” along with a “tiny waist.” Not a lot left to the imagination here in terms of gendering.


“Reflection” is a little more interesting. Though the song pits Mulan against becoming sole marriage material, it also deals with wanting to be oneself, which leans towards the more feminine side. It’s a mix of Western and Chinese musical elements. The chorus is textbook ballad material, using the Western heptatonic scale, the scale used in most pop music. However, it also utilizes Chinese instruments and sprinkles in the pentatonic scale for some Asian flair.

The decision not to use the pentatonic scale prominently in the melody was a deliberate choice by the composers because they intended to popularize the song. Matthew Wilder, Mulan’s composer, “knew [they] weren’t going to be writing a five-tone scale musical. [His] go-to references were Rodgers & Hammerstein and Lerner & Loewe and Gilbert & Sullivan.”16 Rodgers-&-Hammerstein-esque musicals are much more palatable for white audiences, and pentatonic melodies don’t do well in the American pop circuit, save for the Millennial Whoop.

I’ll Make a Man Out of You

That’s likely one of the reasons why “I’ll Make A Man Out of You” became popular too. Arguably the most popular song from Mulan, it extols the supposed virtues of masculinity—that being confidence, strength, and militarism—and has interestingly become somewhat of a feminist anthem inside and outside the film.

Wilder again agrees, stating, “…it needed to be masculine and muscular and hence the drums, all the military aspects…” using his “very extensive Asian sample library” to create a “Chinese marching American band.”16 Without Wilder saying so, I would never have been able to confirm that there were Chinese instruments in this track. The drums could easily be Western percussion, for example. Despite the composer’s international marching band fantasies, I have to disagree and hold that the orchestration sounds non-Asian.

David Zippel, Mulan’s lyricist, said regarding his depictions of masculinity that he intended it “to be ironic and humorous and in character at all times,” adding it’s “about hyper-masculinity and the whole idea of Mulan punctures that idea.”16 Zippel’s first comment accurately portrays the film’s effect. Regardless, it’s clear that the song is representing, satirizing, or both, depictions of masculinity and hyper-masculinity.

And what does Wilder use to depict this? A big, fat, Western, orchestral sound, devoid of the light, sparse, cute pentatonic melodies that adorn both “Honor To Us All” and “A Girl Worth Fighting For” from which any irony intended towards the instrumentation is lost.

A Girl Worth Fighting For

Yes, the final song in Mulan also contains these pretty pentatonics in the melody. We’ve got the dizi, the China cymbal (its Western name), the ratchet, for some reason.

And what is this supposed Chinese-flavored music tied to? Well, these men want her:

Some may argue that this song, like “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” is meant to be satirical. Even if we assume that’s true and that the audience reads it as such, the satire is not on a musical level, similar to “I’ll Make a Man Out of You.” Some would understand the supposed satire on gender and gender roles. But general audiences don’t have enough musical education to discern these melodic differences. Western audiences, in particular, are not educated in what Chinese music is supposed to sound like. Thus, masculinity and femininity are still attached to the musical elements in the film, even if during the song gender is satirized.


The connection of the Asian with the feminine has stretched across centuries, from turn-of-the-century Europe to the 21st-century’s adaptation of Mulan. This project barely scratched the surface of ways our media reinforces stereotypes, from those targeting gender to those targeting Asians and Asian-Americans. Within music, one of its subsets we tend to overlook are those involving compositional and instrumental choices. They are a more pernicious vehicle for transmitting values as not many people are aware of how to catch them.