Honoring the Heroine: Mulan

Usually when I write this articles I try to find a way to point out what makes the characters in question so great without spoiling the movie or show in question too much. This time around though, I will be very detailed, so consider yourself warned.

“Mulan” is a special case because here we are dealing with a movie which doesn’t just feature an interesting character, but actively discusses gender roles. This partly comes with the material. A story about a woman who pretends to be a man and fights in the army can’t be told without addressing the theme. Interesting though is the way Disney approaches it. Usually a movie about this theme is about a woman trying to prove that she is just as good as a man. But is that really such a good thing?

When it comes to questions like this, I remember a brief scene from a “Cagney & Lacey” episode. The episode starts with some sort of celebration at the precinct which involves a stripper. Lacey is staying away, full of disapproval of the way her colleagues act. Cagney not only goes to the party, she also acts like her male colleagues, cheering the stripper on. During the discussion afterwards, Lacey doesn’t understand why Cagney participated in something like that. And Cagney reminds her that in the past, they wouldn’t even have gotten an invitation to the party, revealing that she enjoyed to be part of the group.

The interesting aspect is that both are somewhat right. I keep thinking though that if I had to agree with one of them, it would be Lacey. It is great to be accepted in a group. It is not so great if it comes for the expense of your own identity. There is a fine line between delving into a different “culture” so to speak and loosing yourself in order to get acceptance. Most movies which deal with female’s in a male domain sadly end up being more of the latter than the former.

Not so “Mulan”, though. The sad thing about this movie is that it often only gets a cursory watch. It’s “one of those princess movie” and Mulan herself often ends up tossed in with the “I want” princesses of the early Disney renaissance, the fifth version of the same archetype and therefor not worth a closer look. What Mulan really is, is the first of the “modern” princesses.

But let’s start at the beginning. The most important thing you have to know about Mulan is that she is not a tomboy. She is slightly more outspoken than the society she lives in condones, and she tends to procrastinate which in turn ensures that she ends up in trouble all the time. But she is not particularly good at “male” pastimes nor is she a rebel. In fact she tries her very best to fulfil the role society expects her play – and fails. This failure leads to the usual “I want” song which reveals that Mulan doesn’t even know what she wants. She doesn’t understand herself but what she does know is that she can’t be that perfect little bride she is supposed to be, no matter how hard she tries.

The interesting thing is, though, that when she goes to the army and tries to act “manly”, she fails too. Since she is a woman with no prior training, she does struggle physically, and she has trouble to adjust to the strict regiment because she was not big on discipline beforehand. You really can’t blame Shang that he finally tries to send her home – which leads to the key scene of the move, in which Mulan raises to the challenge Shang issued at the start of the training and manages to climb the pillar in order to fetch the arrow on the top.

The important part is not that she does it, but how she does it. She doesn’t suddenly develop a lot of muscles. Instead she uses her intelligence to solve the problem. After having tried (and failed) to be the perfect woman, tried (and failed) to be the perfect man, she now basically says “screw gender expectations”, simply does something typical for her – and succeeds. While she does catch up in the physical training after that, every heroic act she manages from this point onward is based on her ability to think on her feet and come up with unusual solutions. A pattern which comes to a highly symbolic conclusion when she uses a fan to disarm the villain at the very end.

For me that is what feminism really about. It is not about “proving to be as good as a man” or having a career. It is about being judged based on the abilities you have, regardless of gender. And that’s what “Mulan” is about. This movie nevertheless gets flak from the Disney Princess critics on the ground that Mulan doesn’t accept the position she is offered and instead goes back home and (presumably) marries Shang eventually. It is a shallow argument, which only holds up if you look at the surface of the movie with the intention to find something to criticise.

First of all, it was never Mulan’s goal to have a career. She wanted to protect her father and maybe prove that she is worth something in the process. She reached both goals. And, even more important, in the end her achievements aren’t really what matters. Her father loves her exactly how she is, and is proud of her, no matter what honours she bring to the house. So when she declines the position, it is not a matter of being “satisfied with less”, it is a matter of getting exactly what she wants, and that is being with her family instead of living far away from them.

Second, while the romance is not the focus of the movie (none of the decision Mulan makes is based on her love for Shang) in this case I think it is kind of important that she finds true love in the end. It is important because of the speech of the matchmaker, who says that Mulan will never worth anything because she can’t behave like a perfect bride. But in the end, Mulan not only is worth so much that China bows for her, she also finds someone who loves her exactly like she is. In fact, her being different is framed as something which makes her unique rather than unsuitable.

If anything this movie encourages girls to follow their dreams without worrying about the question if perusing them makes them somehow undesirable.  Considering that in a male partner a good job with a high income is (and has always been) seen as a big plus, while in a female partner  being career-oriented tends to be translated into “she won’t have enough time for family”, I think it is important to put the message out there that success does make a woman desirable, too.

mulan

Mulan is one of the best animated heroines which were ever created. What makes her so great, though, is not the fact that she fights in a war or uses a sword. Starting out as girl unsure of herself and her position in live, she becomes a confident woman, thus defying the notion that Disney Princesses lack character development.

Quote: “ The flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of all.”

This is another “must see” movie for every Disney fan. It has layered characters, a good story, an outstanding score (especially the “hair-cut score”), the usual high quality Disney animation and a lot of humour. One problem in the English dubbing is Eddie Murphy as Mushu, though. He doesn’t really fit that well into the tone of the movie. But otherwise it is one of those nearly perfect works of Disney.

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38 thoughts on “Honoring the Heroine: Mulan

  1. Ok, I know this one 😀 !

    I never liked this movie (as you’ve known) and at the same time never disliked it. And I never really got into the character of Mulan because I guess she seemed to be “uber-girlpower” and nothing else.

    But you make an amazing arguments for her saying that she’s not trying to become a man, rather she does like being feminine, taking care of her father, etc. But she fails in the roles just as she fails in the male roles. And in the end, she just does best what she can do which is what she succeeds at. I never thought about it that way before, so thanks!

    • Yeah, I know, the movie isn’t really flashy, so it is easy to overlook how thoughtful it actually is.

      Either way that’s the reason I like Mulan so much. She was the first Disney Princess with real, tangible character development.

  2. “If anything this movie encourages girls to follow their dreams without worrying about the question if perusing them makes them somehow undesirable.” A thousand times, YES!

    Brilliant post! I think “Mulan” is the most underrated of the Disney Princesses. The film is amazing with modernizing the definition of a “Disney Princess,” but the film’s messages have gotten so lost and damaged over the years. It’s incredibly frustrating.

    • I think she has become increasingly popular in the last years. Initially the whole movie was mostly overlooked, but more and more people rediscover it now. And I admit…despite watching it in theatres, it didn’t leave that much of an impact. I guess mostly because it’s not particularly flashy. But it really grew on me and is by now one of my favourite Disney movies. While big hits like “The Lion King” don’t age that well…still impressive, but in the end, it’s a lot of effects build around a fairly simple story. I wonder if it will be seen at one point the same way we see Bambi nowadays.

      • My issue big issue with “Mulan” these days is not so much the film, but her image on the Disney Princess line. I think it is a missed opportunity not to have her dressed in her uniform. It’s great how more people are discovering the strong themes presented in the film, but I still feel like it’s not translating into the market very well. Hopefully, it will have a lasting impact like Bambi in later years! 🙂

      • I actually like her the best in the blue dress she wears at the very end (and with short, open hair). I guess I can life with the green one, because it colour codes with the uniform…the uniform itself is not really her the same way the matchmaker dress isn’t her. But in the blue dress, that’s Mulan, a female fighter, not a woman who pretends to be a soldier (and with the proof of her heroism around her neck).

      • True, I do like her in that dress since it blends both her warrior and feminine side, which best represents her as a character. The matchmaker dress is where I have a problem mostly since that was the image she tries to defy throughout the film. And I hope “Mulan” does gain the recognition it serves overtime like “Fantasia” too 🙂

      • Yeah, though I don’t mind her seeing dressed up – just that this is the dominating picture of her. If it were a “sometimes” thing, it would be okay in my book. But that’s true for all of them. I love Cinderella’s Ball dress, but I like her servant dress, too.

      • Yeah, since it is the dominating picture of Mulan, I think that’s what makes it more irritating to me. It’s interesting though with Cinderella cause I don’t mind the image of her in the ball gown as the dominating one, since her story is about rags to riches. She’s always been more than a servant girl. But, my feelings for Mulan are completely different because her story looks more to the discovery of her true self. The pink dress doesn’t work, the uniform is better, but still not quite the right fit. Yet, the blue dress works probably the best because it’s the perfect balance. I love how it changes as she learns more about herself, so the presentation of Mulan in her original pink dress seems to ignore that discovery.

      • Yeah, good point…you are right, picking this dress for Mulan is worse than for all the other princesses.
        I also think that it’s unfair that Merida is allowed to wear her bow while Mulan never wears her sword.

      • Yes, good point too with Merida! I’ve been writing about Sleeping Beauty and dresses, so it’s been on my mind how all the Disney Princess are presented.

      • Oh, and I actually mean the Lion King with the Bambi example…a movie, which is mostly remembered for its artistry. For Mulan, I hope that it will one of those sleeper hits Disney has from time to time, a movie which is overlooked in it’s own time but gains popularity later on. Like Fantasia.

  3. Nice observations. I’ve always felt the critics (particularly feminists) of the Disney princesses put female protagonists under the microscope much more than male protagonists, which directly contradicts the belief in gender equality. In fact, in a movie landscape primarily dominated by males (filmmakers and movie characters), it’s awesome that children films from such an influential studio feature female protagonists, something Pixar can’t even brag about. I presume you consider yourself a feminist, and if so, I’m pleased to meet one who is able to read into subtext as you’ve done in this post.

    • I’m not sure if I consider myself a “feminist”…nowadays it is such a loaded term. I’m more someone who does think that gender equality is important and who has a deep respect for the feminists of the past who made sure that I have nowadays the right to vote, go to university and whatever else I want – but I really don’t like to be labelled.

      I’m not sure if you’ve seen it, but in an earlier article about the Disney Princesses, I did discuss the number of female protagonists in Pixar and DreamWorks movie and pointed out exactly what you just said, that we can thank Disney for the fact that there even are so many animated female protagonists. So yes, I agree, it is awesome.

  4. Haha I liked the earlier article, so I must’ve read it, but I think I figured out about the whole Pixar thing from my sister who brought up the Bechdel test to me.

    I would love to call myself a feminist but the term has been degraded in my mind. I think feminists should start calling themselves masculinist to try to show that they care about (the lack of) men’s right too (although not many of them do). Maybe unsurprisingly, however, it has already been coined, which I find to as hilarious as the feminists who used that term to represent gender equality.

    • “Feminist” is just a badly defined term.

      I guess I’ll call myself an “equalist” – but not in the left wing “everyone is the same” sense, but in the “everyone should have his chances in life and judged by abilities and experiences only”.

      The thing with the Pixar female characters is that they tend to be quirky and interesting – but they also tend to be secondary characters with no character development whatsoever (though I think that character development is overrated…showing the change in a character is a good way to tell a meaningful story, but it is not the only way.) Either way, I think currently it is mostly the audience which needs to learn how to think “equal”. As long as every casting decision and every approach to female heroines is nit-picked to dead, we will never reach an era in which it really doesn’t matter at all.

  5. Mulan is an admirable, honorable character. The movie as a whole lacks the depth of other films, but the main character holds it together.

    • I think it has a lot of depth, but it is less flashy…and it sadly takes some shortcuts. It looks a little bit like the animators had a more limited budget compared to movies like Tarzan.

  6. Just found your blog . It is one of the most thoughtful feminist media blogs I’ve seen. I love Mulan because she is so textured. She’s not just a one note person who is there just to love the men. Nor is she just there to prove how great women are. She’s just a person who tries at things and is smart and thoughtful just like you said. I just reviewed it on my canon blog and really enjoyed it. http://54disneyreviews.wordpress.com/

    • Thank you…I wanted a more positive approach on the subject, though it is sometimes really hard to find characters worth the attention. Mulan certainly deserves it.
      Hope you’ll check out my other articles, too. And thanks for the link.

      • I’m excited to read them. I was reading blogs today and was so discouraged at how cynical the feminist blogs were. It seemed like no character would ever live up to their standards. Yours was so refreshing. Am now following and will definitely read up! Have you done Cinderella? I did a series on ny youtube channel on 5 films about her and she’s taken on so many life forms over the years. It’s interesting.

      • Cinderella is certainly on my list, but characters like her are reserved for December, when I do my “fairy tale month”, meaning that she won’t get a full treatment anytime soon. Not this year for sure, I already picked another fairy tale to discuss (sorry, I am itching to write about a couple of adaptations, but sometimes it is better to spread out certain topics a little bit….do you have a link to your channel?)
        BTW, I have a second WP blog – well, actually I have three, but one shouldn’t interest you unless you are a Sherlock fan. But the other one is more Disney oriented: http://swanpride3.wordpress.com/

      • What annoys me is what I call the instant love like in bambi when the girls are there to look across the lake, bat their eyes and be pretty. That annoys me. I hate the ending of Jungle Book for that reason

  7. The thing about the ending of Jungle Book is that it is the song the girl sings and the comments that Bagheera makes that turns it into instant love. What Mowgli actually does is see another human for the first time in his life and is fascinated and drawn to this world. He can’t understand the song after all. I think it makes sense that he would leave the jungle. We don’t know what happened next and – thinking about what happened to actual wild children who ended up in the civilised world (?) – I don’t really want to. :/

    • Sadly there is a cheapquel, so we kind of know what happened next by now. It’s more than the remarks which put it in the romance context, though. The whole behaviour of the child is very flirty (and I really hate the text of the song, even though I love the tune).

      • I like to pretend sequels like those don’t exist. 🙂 I know what you mean about the song. It is difficult to tell how old she is though and I think children do have ambitions limited by the world they are aware of especially when small, so, it’s probably fairly accurate for that character but, not so good for the children watching.

  8. When I first saw the trailer for this film I thought it looked absolutely fantastic but, I didn’t see the film for years. It was worth it but, I think I would have enjoyed Mushu more when I was younger.

    • Not sure…I adore Mushu, but then, I prefer the German dubbing for him by far. I don’t think that they picked the right voice actor for the English version. I like him nevertheless, because he is a more layered side-kick than usual, having his own selfish desires.

  9. He’s given more agency as well isn’t he? Flounder really is there to help Ariel but, Mushu actually drives a fair amount of the story. I like the character I’m just not so fond of some of his comic relief moments.

    • To be fair, The Little Mermaid has Sebastian, who also has an own agenda (but is way faster ready to abandon his own agenda for Ariel’s sake).
      I know what you mean, but believe me, it’s mostly the voice. The jokes are funnier if they are not screamed at you.

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