When people today talk about strong female characters in Disney animation, Merida's, Anna's and Elsa's names are often thrown around.
Now, don't get me wrong. These three women were definitely strong characters that broke away from stereotypical molds, but there is one Disney heroine that far predates them - Mulan.
Mulan is not only one of the best animated Disney movies to ever grace the silver screen, but it set the standard for strong independent female leads in Western animation. While Mulan is the first Disney movie to feature a strong female protagonist, the film itself may hold another Disney first: its first gay character!
According to this compelling fan theory, even though Shang is the love interest of the movie, you can actually see his character come to grips with his own sexuality over the course of the film. Let's take a closer look at the clues shall we?
Mulan and Shang have probably the most complicated courtship of any Disney pairing ever. At first, you can tell that Shang has a clear frustration with Ping (Mulan's male alter ego) but over time they grow to respect and even admire each other. Some might say that this was just a budding bromance, but was it so simple?
This is a good excuse as any to re-watch to one of the best Disney montages ever.
Did you catch that smile Shang had after being kicked by Mulan in the end? The tension is palpable.
How Shang handles the truth.
When Shang discovers Mulan's secret, he isn't just angry, he looks to be in a complete state of disbelief!
When Shang makes this realization, he explains that his anger is because Mulan lied to him and to her peers. In reality though, Shang is actually angry because he had fallen in love with Ping and is now feeling a myriad of emotions upon discovering the truth. Shang's feeling of shame and betrayal turns to anger and this results in his temper tantrum that exposes Mulan to everyone. It can be argued that Shang spared Mulan's life because she had saved his earlier, but it can also be argued that he didn't choose to save her, but to save Ping.
The kiss that never was
In the end, Shang makes a trip to Mulan's home to meet with her. The two share longing gazes with each other and soon the end credits start to roll. Never do they reconcile with a kiss to signify the acceptance of their relationship. Shang is confused by his feelings, but he knows he can also no longer ignore them. He's willing to give it a shot to make things work with Mulan, and you can tell that she understands his feelings without him having to explain them.
To answer the original question posed in the title, no, Shang is not the first gay Disney character. He is the first bisexual Disney character. After all, 'gay' and 'straight' are not the only two labels that people can fall under. Human emotions and attraction are so complex and varied that it would be ignorant to label his character as strictly one thing or the other.
Shang is a complex man that comes to terms with his sexuality over the course of the movie. He fell in love with Ping, but his emotions remained even after finding out the truth. Thus, he was willing to attempt a relationship with Mulan even though it felt strange for him. As if you didn't have enough reason to love this movie, right?