Mulan: Defying and Changing Notions of Gender in Disney
Disney Studios is currently one of the largest companies in the entertainment industry. One of the prominent productions is their animation studio works. Disney has been producing animation since 1937 with its debut animation, Snow White. Snow White has now become part of a long line of feature films known as the “Princess Franchise”. The Princess Franchise is known for creating a series of Disney princesses, who feature as the female protagonists in the film. This was a milestone in the representation of females as protagonists. However, it is notably problematic as several of these princesses are characterised as victims and are rescued by a “handsome prince”. This notion was built on the idiom “a damsel in distress”. Most of these princesses were constructed in the same storyline, where a fair, slim, caucasian girl is rescued.
This notion was built to please the views of conservative, mostly white, audiences in the patriarchal society. This image began to change with Jasmine, being the first non-caucasian princess and Pocahontas, being the first princess to save her prince, both princesses are still known for their story of women being love interests to men. However, the first film to challenge gender roles, break stereotypes, and the “typical” Disney princess is Mulan. Despite not being a real princess, she was initially added for Asian representation. However, she has become to be a legendary figure in the franchise. She is viewed as a legend for defying gender roles, destroying the notion of “a damsel” in distress and challenging the patriarchy. The following article looks at depictions of honour, gender roles and feminist approaches to analyse the film.
The 1998 film Mulan, is set in China where the Huns along with their leader, Shan Yu, are invading China. The fear of her injured father going to war prompts her to go to war in his place disguised as a man (Ping) despite the potential consequences of being killed for being a woman. Mulan’s ancestors send her a companion, a Dragon named Mushu to keep her company. Her commanding officer Li Shang initially asks her to leave, but through her perseverance, Mulan learns to fight, befriends some soldiers and destroys the Hun army. However, upon being discovered as a woman, Li Shang doesn’t kill her for treason despite the Emperor’s advisor Chi-Fu insisting on the punishment, as she saved him in an avalanche. Hence, Li Shang abandons her in the Mountains. However, Mulan hears Shan Yu, upon the realisation that the Huns are alive, she returns to the city to fight the Huns and saves China.
Notion of Honour
Collectivistic cultures such as China and several other countries across Asia are consciously aware of ensuring the honour of the family is preserved in society. In India and most collectivistic cultures, a woman is expected to uphold family honour by remaining pure until she is married off. Mulan highlights this in the form of impressing the matchmaker to find a man. The movie spells out notions of honour in a song, aptly titled “Honour to Us All”.
The song features lyrics that define the only way of bringing honour (“A girl can bring her family great honour in one way, by striking a good match), defines what men want from a “good woman” (“Men want girls with good taste, calm, obedient, who work fast-paced with good breeding and a tiny waist) and defines how a man and woman can serve the Emperor (“A man by bearing arms, A girl by bearing sons). This defines the roles of men and women, which is used to introduce the patriarchial society to the viewers. Women are expected to “fulfil their duties calmly and respectfully, reflect before acting which shall bring honour and glory”. Mulan fails to impress the matchmaker and is hence “will never bring her family honour”. Mulan believes she will never bring her family honour for being herself.
However, when her father is commanded to serve, Mulan speaks up for him which causes her father to accuse her of dishonouring him for talking to Chi Fu as women are not to speak over a man. While Mulan argues with her father that he will die, he says it’s for honour, and she should do her part by marriage. Mulan challenges this by taking his place in the war. She is determined and fights to save her country. Despite her victory, Chi-Fu reiterates she is worthless for being a woman. However, she brings her country and her family honour by taking over what is considered a man’s way of bringing honour.
Gender roles are very prominent in Disney films where typically women are portrayed as a princess, queen, or homemaker. A Disney princess is an idol for most young children to look up to as role models. Mulan, however, embodies masculine characteristics such as bravery, independence, perseverance, unlike Disney princesses who preceded. Mulan transforms herself into a man (Ping) to enter the army in her ailing father’s place. She cuts her hair, and dresses as a man and through discipline and determination is able to become one of the best soldiers in the army. Looking back at the Damsel in Distress notion, Mulan fights for herself and her country embodying the saviours ideal previously given solely to men. Looking at Disney princesses through history, all except Mulan, all other princesses present themselves in traditionally feminine clothing. Mulan is notably the only Disney princess to dress as a man. She is also the only female character to fight a man physically. While Mulan updos gender expectations for women, it also introduces the concept of fluidity in gender expression.
To create an example, Mulan uses lyrics in songs to create an idea of gender expectations. As mentioned before “Honour to Us All” dictates expectations of an ideal woman. The depiction of an ideal woman is shown at the beginning where Mulan is dressed in women’s clothing and made to wear traditional makeup. The movie also features “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You” where the ideal man is defined. The incompetency of the men is compared to a woman (did they send me daughters and I asked for sons). The song uses the common phrase “be a man” repetitively to define what an “ideal” man must be. It states that a man must be swift as a coursing river, with all the force of a great typhoon and the strength of raging fire, which are traditional masculine characters. While Mulan is told to leave she is keen on staying and learns to become a soldier where she physically fights Li Shang who she had previously lost to and defeats him. Mulan is a determined on fighting but is uncomfortable with the men singing “A Girl Worth Fighting For” as they travel, as it features men stating what they would want their wives to do (and serve them). The song features lyrics such as “want her paler than the moon with eyes that shine like the stars”, “My girl will think I have no faults”. When Mulan is asked, she says “How ’bout a girl who’s got a brain, who always speaks her mind?” which the other men find boring as it traces back to the notion women being submissive and meant to be looked at.
Two of the most iconic scenes in Mulan, which deconstructs gender are the cross-dressing scenes. The transformation of Mulan from a woman to a man (Ping) is one such scene. Mulan cutting her hair and dressing up as a man, leaving her flower comb (a feminine object) in place of the order to serve (a masculine object) was the first time Disney portrayed cross-dressing ina amain character. However, the second cross-dressing scene where Mulan’s friends from the army (who sang about what they wanted from a woman (A Girl Worth Fighting For) and were “transformed into the ideal man” at the end of “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You” cross-dress. They dress up as women, to appear similar to Mulan when she dressed up to meet the matchmaker. As the men transition from a masculine war attire to the feminine attire.”I’ll Make a Man Out of You” is heard in the background. This hints at how embodying a feminine attire, that did not make them any less of a “man” as they still upheld masculine traits such as bravery, strength and their role as soldiers. The men wore feminine clothing and makeup, which can be seen as creating “gender trouble” by defying norms of clothing and destroying gender stereotypes.
Philosopher Judith Butler’s notion of performative gender by societal norms that reinforce the idea of gender itself, rather than being women or men, prompting individuals act as women and men, thereby creating the categories of women and men. The adaptation of what Butler calls “Gender Trouble” by defying the binary promotes the liberation of gender norms which is seen towards the end of the film.
Feminist Approaches in Mulan
Mulan became the first-ever Disney princess to embody masculine traits such as clothing, bravery and strength. Before Mulan, there were films such as Pocahontas featured a woman saving a man, but Mulan takes the leap and enters a “man’s world” to fight. In comparison, films that succeeded, such as Brave and Moana took on a more liberal feminist approach. While these films have a strong lead, they focus on enforcing liberal feminist views of gender differences are not based in biology, and therefore that women and men are not all that different. While this promotes films like Moana, where she ventures to save her tribe and Brave where Merida ventures to find help in converting her mother back into a human, these women are embodying and taking on the “saviour” role of the man. Liberal feminism is focused on showing society’s discrimination against women. It fails to look at the intrinsic differences between men and woman, which leads to the thriving of the patriarchy.
However, In the case of Mulan, the film takes a Radical Feminist approach with hints of Liberal Feminism. Mulan looks at men’s pervasive oppression and exploitation of women throughout the film. Throughout the film, the belief that women are different and inferior is seen in the men’s consciousness, right from the lyrics of “A Girl Worth Fighting For” to Chi-Fu dismissing Mulan’s bravery as “that creature is not worth protecting, as she is a woman, she’ll never be worth anything.” Mulan looks at patriarchy and takes on masculine traits, which is frowned upon as they are seen to be the cause of wars and violence. However, to succeed, Mulan uses the patriarchal power of being “Ping” to fight for her country. However, when stripped of her masculine identity, Mulan fights and takes on the masculine role of fighting while being a woman. This is a liberal feminist approach, which encourages men to take on feminine roles, such as nursing, teaching and women to take on masculine roles, in Mulan’s case, fighting in a war and defending her country.
The Legacy of Mulan on Disney
Mulan as a film will remain iconic for its destruction of gender roles and empowerment of women, featuring an Asian woman fighting in place of her father to save his life as well as her country. Mulan’s legacy is yet to be matched as Mulan breaks the glass ceiling set by Disney for its princesses. While the ideal woman’s way of honouring her family is through marriage, Mulan is initially forced into doing so which she does not want. Hence, Mulan upholds her family honour by fighting in place of her father for her country. The film features an array of music and uses lyrics to display traditional gender expectations.
Creating awareness of stereotypes and sexism, the film promotes unconventional gender roles such as a woman physically fighting and defeating a man, excelling at war, fighting the villain. Despite being disguised as a man, she is firm in her beliefs and states that she would want a girl who’s got a brain, who always speaks her mind, which is struck down by other men. The movie introduces gender performativity through clothing where Mulan dresses as a man to fight while her friends from the army dress up in traditional female costumes with makeup to rescue the Emperor from Shan Yu. This can be a form of creating “Gender Trouble” as stated by Philosopher Judith Butler by defying the binary and promoting the liberation of gender norms. Mulan paved the way for more women-centric films such as brave. However, Mulan is still considered to be an icon, for she embodies Radical feminist views with hints of Liberal Feminism. Mulan uses patriarchal power as a tool rather than an oppressor as seen in previous Disney princess films.
Mulan created a legacy, taking the leap by creating a film that destroyed conservative views on gender. Despite the risk of facing criticism, Mulan was released in 1998 and was surprisingly well-received as it introduced children to concepts of gender, feminism and promoted viewers to fight to question patriarchy and definitions of gender within their cultures.
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