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 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.