"Mulan": Feminism with a Twist

Sixteen years before Frozen's Elsa and Anna were being touted as the only Disney princesses who didn't need a man to save them, Mulan was saving a military general's son and all of China with nothing more than a shoe and some fireworks. While she may not technically be a princess (but, let's face it, neither are Cinderella, Belle, or Tiana), Mulan has stood in almost unnoticed opposition to the all-too-common complaint that Disney heroines are stereotypically helpless beauty queens. So why has she been forgotten or ignored by the majority of female Disney fans who have apparently been dying for a heroine that could stand up for herself against her male counterparts? I think there are two reasons for this: 1) she's not power-hungry enough to satisfy the neo-feminists; 2) she's not boy-crazy enough to satisfy the girly-girls. Mulan is not out to prove that women are equal to or better than men; she's not out to impress the guys and win their undying admiration, either. Despite all the gender-bending possibilities presented by a heroine who dresses as a boy and Chinese warriors who dress as girls to save the Emperor from Hun invaders, Mulan is a film principally about the relationship between a father and his daughter. It's about the difficulty of not knowing your place in the world and feeling like you are letting down the people you love most. It's about loving someone so much that you'd be willing to risk a shameful death for him, and being so committed to your ideals that you'd defy anyone to uphold them. It's about discovering your inner strength and accepting yourself for who you are. Apparently, none of this really counts as being an image of a strong female figure to modern Disney acolytes; what matters most is being able to punch one guy in the face, while kissing the next.

Mulan's experience with the matchmaker in the beginning of the film set the tone for what is principally important to her. As her mother and grandmother prepare her for the meeting in which a husband will be prescribed for her, Mulan (in song, of course) prays to her ancestors for help in this matter: "Ancestors, / Hear my plea, / Help me not to make a fool of me, / And to not uproot my family tree, / Keep my father standing tall". Her three desires are intrinsically linked to each other: her love for her father encourages her to want to love what he loves and uphold what he upholds, specifically, the honor of her family's name and history. In order for her to uphold the family's honor, she must fulfill her societal role worthily by making a good match with an honorable man, being a model wife for him, and bearing sons to carry on the family's honor and to serve the Emperor. None of these things are necessarily bad; it's not a bad thing to marry an honorable man, nor to be a good wife, nor to have children. What is problematic, especially in Mulan's case, is that the societal definition of femininity is so extremely limiting: "Men want girls / With good taste, / Calm, obedient, / Who work fast-paced. / With good breeding / And a tiny waist, / You'll bring honor to us all". Other words used to describe the perfect, honorable, match-worthy woman are: "soft", "pale", "serenity", "balance", "beauty", "cultured pearls", "silk purse", "perfect porcelain doll". Mulan herself at the beginning of the film lists off the necessary female virtues: "Quiet and demure, graceful, polite, delicate, refined, poised". The matchmaker adds to these: "To please your future in-laws, you must demonstrate a sense of dignity and refinement. You must also be poised ... and silent." None of these traits are bad things in and of themselves -- politeness and obedience are actually very valuable things -- but, when they become the only acceptable features of femininity, social acceptance and honor become things near impossible for women with outgoing, gregarious, confident, and assertive personalities to obtain. Mulan, who possesses most of these latter qualities and few of the former, is deemed unfit for any of the eligible matches and is sent home from the matchmaker in disgrace.

It is not this disgrace, however, that drives her to dress as a man and join the Chinese army. Although Mulan is ashamed of disappointing her family, especially her father, his reaction is to remind her that she is still young and still has time to discover her true talents and abilities. Using an analogy to cherry blossoms, Fa Zhou points to a late bloomer and predicts that, "when it blooms, it will be the most beautiful of all". Far from encouraging Mulan to seek out fame in battle as an alternative form of honor for her family, her father encourages her to allow herself time to discover herself and find her place in life. Mulan is content to do this until Fa Zhou is conscripted into the army to fight the Huns. Having already fought in many battles and having retired due to a war injury, there is little hope that he will survive. It is this love for her father that spurs Mulan into action by taking her father's armor and conscription notice in order to take his place. Suddenly, Mulan's story becomes one of of self-sacrifice instead of self-discovery. Rather than running away in order to prove that she is a valuable member of society, or closing in on herself and rejecting the demands of society, Mulan's aims are for the good of others and are steeped in self-giving, though impetuous, love. This is what makes Mulan stand out as a Disney heroine: her aim is not to prove that she can best the boys at their own game; her aim is to preserve the life of those she loves regardless of the cost to herself. Although her father insists on following the social norms for honor and encourages Mulan to understand her place within those norms, Mulan's love defies place, time, norms, culture, and gender, declaring dramatically that the law of love is more binding than any other human imposition.

It cannot be denied that, after joining the other recruits at the Moo-Shung camp, Mulan does feel the need to prove herself to her fellow soldiers, especially to Captain Li Shang. However, despite her own reflections on her reasons for joining the army after it is discovered that she is a woman, gender equality is never the first thing that is on her mind. Instead, Mulan draws on a heated conversation with her father before her decision to take his place in the army. Mulan argues vehemently for all of the very understandable reasons why her father should not have to fight: he has already fought for China and done his duty, he has an injury, and there are plenty of young men to fight for China. Fa Zhou responds that it is an honor to fight for his country and his family, and Mulan is outraged that he will die for something like honor. Her father responds with one of the most integral lines in the film: "I will die doing what's right". Despite the fact that this line is uttered in a heated argument between father and daughter, this is what is at the heart of all Mulan's actions. She leaves to join the military, and risks death and dishonor for doing so, in order to do what is right for her father. Mulan stops Shan Yu's army in the Tung Chow Pass, not for her own honor or to strike a blow for equality, but to protect the comrades she has come to know and love. She flies to the Imperial City to warn the Emperor of Shan Yu's impending attack, not in order to receive any reward or so that women will be recognized for anything more than wives, but because it is the right thing to do. She reveals herself to Shan Yu as the soldier who took away his victory in the Tung Chow Pass, not because she wanted to show that women could be successful military leaders or so that everyone would recognize her personally for her deeds, but in order to save Li Shang from the Hun's wrath. Mulan does not stand any more chance against Shan Yu than Shang does; she just happens to have a dragon guardian and a lucky cricket helping her get things done. In all of Mulan's actions, what is emphasized is that doing what is right and just, like love, are also actions that transcend time, place, laws, cultures, and genders. No one has a monopoly on love, justice, or goodness; we are all called to uphold these virtues and live them out in all aspects of our lives.

The film does promote the right of women to have their voices heard in equal proportion to that of men. Mulan is told multiple times to remain silent, when she speaks out in favor of her father and when she tries to warn the army of the imminent attack on Imperial City. Chi Fu, the misogynistic chief advisor to the Emperor, interrupts Mulan's plea on behalf of her father and encourages Fa Zhou to teach her to "hold her tongue in a man's presence". Li Shang, hurt, angry, and most likely embarrassed over the discovery that his friend Ping is actually a girl, refuses to listen to Mulan's warning about the Huns because her lie about her gender proves her to be untrustworthy. Even though Mulan insists that she and Ping are the same person and both worthy of trust, Shang tell her that she doesn't belong there and to go home. When Mulan tries to warn the male citizens of the Imperial City, none of them will listen to her because of her gender. At the end of the film, the Emperor strikes a blow in favor of equality by bowing to Mulan in gratitude for saving the city, offering her a position on his council, including Chi Fu's own job as chief advisor, and grants her gifts acknowledging her service to the Emperor and to China. What might make many neo-feminists squirm in their seats is Mulan's refusal of a place of political and social power in favor of simply going home to her family. One could argue that Mulan denies herself the opportunity to give other Chinese women a voice in the political and social realms of her nation, thereby keeping women trapped within the same roles that originally caused her so much distress herself. But Mulan's aim has never been to fight for gender equality; her aim was to preserve the father she loved. She has done that, and so she can return home to that father in peace. Mulan's actions have never been self-serving, but have constantly been other-oriented; her entire work as a soldier and hero of China has been a true labor of love.

The question of where Mulan fits in her family and in her social circles is left open-ended; despite all of her accomplishments, she is still on the road to self-discovery. Mulan's return home to face her father is one of uncertainty. She is the young girl again, rather than the warrior, afraid of her father's disappointment and anger at her dishonorable actions. She approaches him hesitantly and, when he sees her, throws herself at his feet and offers the Emperor's gifts to him, seeking his approval. In this most beautiful moment in the film, Fa Zhou pushes the Emperor's honors aside and takes his daughter in his arms, saying: "The greatest gift and honor is having you for a daughter". Mulan and Fa Zhou both come to understand that it is not our social status, our political connections, or our reputations that make us valuable. It is our very persons. The fact that we are human persons, capable of loving and being loved, is what makes us intrinsically valuable and worthy of honor. Of course, Mulan's gendered societal honor is still greatly assured, as Captain Li Shang follows her home and gets an invitation to dinner, signifying the beginning of a romantic courtship. But what is most important for Mulan, as a character and as a film, is the universal importance of doing what is right, even in the face of untold opposition.

Mulan stands out from almost all the other Disney films that purport to make a statement to girls about the value of being girls in that its focus is on the girl herself. Rather than watching supposedly strong heroines get sidetracked by one romantic affair after another, the story of Mulan remains firmly rooted in the heroine's own motivations and self-reflections. She has purpose and motivation outside of those of the principal male; she acts on her own initiative and for her own initiatives; and most, if not all, of her actions are rooted in objective virtues. She is also the only heroine who presents a positive and maturing relationship with her father, something that is desperately needed by this generation of women. But she doesn't get to rule a kingdom in the end or kiss a boy, so I guess she has little value as a prominent female role model.


The point of this blog is not to tell anyone what they should or should not consider entertaining, nor what films, books, lyrics, or television shows are morally or artistically good or bad. The point is to engage with the stories that are creating our culture on an intellectual level, to meet the morals with our minds before they go to our hearts. Once you know what's in the entertainment you imbibe and you're aware of how it may be shaping your perceptions of the world around you, well then, imbibe away!

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