The renaissance era of Disney princesses — which spanned from the late 1980s to the 1990s — gave us such childhood icons as Beauty and the Beast’s Belle, The Little Mermaid’s Ariel, Aladdin’s Jasmine, and the eponymous Pocahontas and Mulan. It also gave us banger soundtracks to go along with them, including Aladdin’s love song “A Whole New World,” “Colors of the Wind” from Pocahontas (sung by ’90s icon Vanessa Williams), and pretty much the entire track listings from Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. Mulan, which celebrates its 25th anniversary on June 19, has some pretty stiff competition for its best song, including “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” and “A Girl Worth Fighting For,” but the one that endures all these years later is “Reflection,” the lead track from the movie.
“Reflection” comes at an inflection point in the movie for the titular Mulan (voiced by Ming-Na Wen with vocals by Lea Salonga) after she’s failed her matchmaker assessment and just prior to her aging father being drafted into the imperial Chinese army. Mulan feels stuck between two worlds: the traditional one of her family and culture, and wanting to be a good daughter and marry well, versus her innermost desire of wanting something more.
“Reflection” is a version of what Bobbi Miller of The Afternoon Special podcast calls the “I Want” song, a marker of modern Disney princesses expressing their desires rather than having the action thrust upon them, as we previously saw with more passive princesses such as Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. Cinderella wants to go to the ball, Belle wants to escape her provincial town in pursuit of adventure and knowledge, and Ariel wants to be where the people are. Mulan, however, is less sure of what she wants, other than not wanting to let her family down. In Mulan, the expectations and honor of family and heritage are stronger than for any Disney princess before her, not only because both of her parents are alive but also due to the presence of Mulan’s oft-mentioned ancestors and the rich setting of China.
“Reflection” is not only a song of female empowerment but is also seen by some fans as a trans allegory based on the lyrics:
Who is that girl I see
Staring straight back at me?
Why is my reflection
Someone I don’t know?
Must I pretend that I’m
Someone else for all time?
When will my reflection show
Who I am inside?
It certainly appears as though many people read Mulan that way, with some viral tweets in 2017 likening Mulan’s passing as a man to Donald Trump’s anti-transgender military policy. To be sure, Mulan is not an explicitly trans character, but gender-diverse viewers have long felt a kinship with her prior to openly trans characters appearing in pop culture to the extent that they are today.
Adding more gravitas to “Reflection” is the fact that before hitting the big time with “Genie in a Bottle” in 1999, Christina Aguilera released the song as her debut single in 1998. The track soon reached No. 19 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart. While the aforementioned Lea Salonga, who also played the singing voice of Jasmine in Aladdin, sang “Reflection” for the movie, Aguilera recorded her version for the soundtrack.
“When we heard her sing, it was like, ‘Oh, my God. This kid sounds like she had the phrasing and understanding of lyrics of someone who had been singing for 25 years,’” lyricist David Zippel said in 2020. “Even then it was so palpable. She was a perfectionist even as a 17-year-old.”
Aguilera had long been affiliated with Disney, performing alongside Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and Ryan Gosling in The Mickey Mouse Club. In the ’90s and 2000s, Aguilera was often perceived as second fiddle to Spears, whose debut single and album of the same name, … Baby One More Time, set the tone for the year and indeed much of pop culture for the next 20 years. Viewed this way, “Reflection” could be read as a personal anthem of sorts for Aguilera. “But somehow I will show the world … and be loved for who I am” certainly reads like someone looking to break out of others’ shadows and move into the reflective light.
Though Aguilera was not available for comment for this article, it appears as though “Reflection” has stayed in her heart all these years, with Aguilera rerecording a new version of the song for the soundtrack of the 2020 live-action remake.
Despite the clear meaning it holds for many, “Reflection” almost didn’t make it into Mulan at all, according to Insider. “Word came down from on high that they wanted us to cut the song from the score,” composer Matthew Wilder told the site. Test audiences apparently felt that “Reflection” “overstayed its welcome” and was conducive to a “popcorn moment”— when viewers would tune out and break for snacks.
“We believed so strongly in the song, and the compromise that we came to with the powers that be was that we were only going to showcase half the song in the movie,” Wilder said.
Salonga recorded that version in 1995 and was asked to rerecord the shorter one in 1996.
“Every time I sing it in concert, it’s always the longer one,” she said.
Yet for some reason, the 2020 live-action Mulan subbed out the iconic music, including “Reflection,” in favor of scenes that angered viewers and bloated the movie out to more than two hours. “She knew in her heart of hearts that she just wanted this movie to be different and not necessarily be a rubber-stamped version, if you will, of the animated film,” Wilder told Insider in a different article about director Niki Caro’s decision not to make the 2020 Mulan a musical.
Instead we get instrumental hints at “Reflection” and “Honor to Us All” played in the background, and “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” is mentioned in a passing line of dialogue. A Mandarin version of “Reflection,” sung by the film’s star, Liu Yifei, plays over the credits.
“I’d be lying if I told you that there wasn’t an element of disappointment there,” Wilder said. From the critical and fan response to the remake, it would appear he wasn’t the only one.
At least we’ll always have the original “Reflection.”
Scarlett Harris is a culture critic and author of A Diva Was a Female Version of a Wrestler: An Abbreviated Herstory of World Wrestling Entertainment. You can follow her on Twitter @ScarlettEHarris.
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