Disney’s 1998 classic tale,
Mulan, is renowned as a timeless film, one that inspires young girls
everywhere. It is by far the most girl-power filled film in the
Disney Princess franchise due to its eponymous heroine who goes to
war in place of her father by impersonating a male soldier. Not only
does she single handedly save the whole country of China, but she
also manages to get a husband in the process, with whom she lives
happily ever after. Although this sounds like the perfect tale of
girl power, some more sinister themes lay beneath the innocuous,
picturesque surface.

Set in the Northern Wei dynasty of
China, the gender roles of China were simple as depicted through song
in Mulan. “We all must serve our Emperor… a man by bearing arms,
a girl by bearing sons.” Mulan’s one and only role in life is to
marry a man, who she is deemed fit for and to bear many sons and tend
to the home. She is to live a life of homely domesticity. This is
perhaps one of the most obvious motifs that don’t shine a nice
pretty light on Mulan. Mulan has to go to a beauty salon in order to
meet the matchmaker and “bring honour” to her family. At the
salon, Mulan is mercilessly soaked in a freezing bath, has her hair
tied up neatly, her waist laced up, and is overloaded with excessive
make-up and jewels. The potential brides, Mulan included, are thus
made to look like “cultured pearls, each a perfect porcelain doll.”
According to the beauty specialists, “A girl can bring her family
great honour in one way, by striking a good match.” They preach
that “Men want girls with good taste, calm, obedient, who work
fast-paced, with good breeding and a tiny waist.” This demonstrates
hegemony as Mulan willingly gives power to the beauty specialists,
the matchmaker and her future husband as she goes through the
gruelling process of looking like a “perfect bride.” However,
even though Mulan looks like a perfect bride, she is far from one as
she demonstrates her clumsiness through the matchmaker interview, as
well as her impudence speaking without permission and her lack of
punctuality as her mother remarks that she’s “late” to the
beauty salon. The matchmaker interview ends up a bust and she gets
thrown out remarking that she “may look like a bride but will never
bring her family honour.”

The second motif present in Mulan
is identity or Mulan’s lack thereof. After the botched matchmaker
interview, Mulan sings eloquently, “Look at me, I will never pass
for the perfect bride, or the perfect daughter.” Mulan is
desperately searching for her identity, her “part to play” in a
society that doesn’t accept her as herself “now I see, if I were
truly to be myself, I would break my family’s heart.” She cries
“who is that girl I see, staring straight back at me” asking when
her reflection will show who she really is. As she stares into the
mirror, she wipes off the left side of her make-up caked face,
perhaps revealing that she is left-brained typical for men. Mulan is
a strong, independent, intelligent lady, but everyone around her only
sees her for her beauty her long black hair, big lips and dark eyes a
visage of beauty, but she would be unhappy in her role as dutiful
housewife. “Reflection” serves as a turning point for Mulan:
afterwards, she openly protests against her father. In doing so, she
disobeys important rules; she faces men outside of the farm and even
addresses them directly in objecting that her father has already
fought bravely in previous wars. Her temper is anything but subdued,
and she openly disagrees with her father: “You shouldn’t have to
go! There are plenty of young men to fight for China!” While her
rejection of her father’s authority could be considered juvenile,
it should be noted that she primarily acts out of concern for her
aged father, who is withered and unfit for the tolls and stresses of
war. Still, Fa Zhou, who has taken offense at Mulan’s protest,
claims that she has dishonoured him. It is only now that he angrily
reprimands her: “I know my place, it is time you learned yours!”
Mulan begins to openly show who she is after accepting the fact that
she “can’t hide” who she is even though she’s tried. She is
oppressed because she lacks power and privilege as the youngest women
in her household.
severe problem with the film is that everyone seems to adopt an
essentialist perspective about women and men. Though this problem is
not the film itself but also a problem that looms over China. The
essentialist perspective assumes that people are their personalities
(Warren & Fasset, 2011). In this case, the essentialist
perspective is pushed onto Mulan and all women of her time. They
believe that all women are satisfied with being married to a man who
is chosen for them and that they are content living a life of
domesticity. Mulan’s mother and father believe this, Mulan’s
grandmother believes this, even Ling, Yao and Chen Po believe in the
conservative values of ancient China. Ling sings “I want her paler
than the moon, with eyes that shine like stars” where Yao goes on
to sing “My girl will marvel at my strength, adore my battle scars”
where Chen Po doesn’t care what she looks like, he simply cares
what she “cooks like.” They want the girl to think they have no
faults, that they’re major finds and will adore that they’re
soldiers. It’s all very traditional “seen not heard” Chinese
values of a woman. When Mulan (as Ping) goes on to say “How ’bout
a girl who’s got a brain and always speaks her mind” the boys all
say in unison “Nah!” making it known that Mulan would once again
not be accepted were she to truly be herself as she has a brain and
speaks her mind constantly. It makes it clear to Mulan that she would
not be a girl worth fighting for and that her worst fears are coming
to life, that she’ll never bring her family honour. She, as a woman
light years ahead of her time, can only be heard when she’s dressed
up in her armour with her hair sheathed off by what China considers
the epitome of masculinity a soldier’s sword. Even Mushu has the
traditional male mindset. When she is discovered by the soldiers to
be a woman, her power is instantly gone and she is left alone in the
snow with her horse, Khan, and Mushu. She monologues, “Maybe I
didn’t go for my father, maybe I went for myself. Maybe what I
really wanted was to prove I could do things right. So when I looked
in the mirror, I’d see someone worthwhile, but I was wrong. I see
nothing.” Mushu cleans off the helmet and tells her “Look at you,
you look so pretty” in a pretty sad attempt to cheer her up. Though
this does nothing but make Mulan more sad as she thinks of her family
back home and how she shamed them even more than before. Though
“Ping” was praised for his bravery and ability, once the sham is
revealed and that she was a woman, she is instantly called a snake
and spit upon for even daring to take a man’s place in the army.
Chi Fu asserts “You know the law” and orders Shang to kill Mulan
for her treason. But he allows her to roam free, because she saved
his life and risked hers, whether she was a man or not. Isn’t it
rather ironic that when Mulan dresses up as a man, she is more able
to be herself? Suffocated by the role that the society in which she
was born prescribes to her, Mulan is more at ease and more
comfortable playing a man (mind you, this is after she gets used to
it). She keeps up with the training in order to become a man, and
even begins to surpass her other, actually male counterparts. This
demonstrates the application of one’s front and back stage selves.
Mulan, in this case, has many different sides. The self she is afraid
to show her family, the self that struggles to blend into what her
society says she should, the self that longs to be her own woman and
not live a life of homely domesticity and finally the self where she
is completely allowed to do all the things she wants in life, simply
because the people surrounding her believe she is a man. Because of
that privilege, “Ping” gets to live without restraint whereas
Mulan is always restrained in her society. They tell her to “Fulfil
your duties calmly and respectfully. Reflect before you act. You must
demonstrate a sense of dignity and refinement. You must also be
poised and silent!” Mulan is told that these key components
implemented correctly will bring her honour and glory. To put it
simply, everything that she has ever been told goes against every
fibre of who she is. They tell her to suffocate this want to be free
and her own person because she can’t do that unless she wants to
shame her family. Basically, Mulan’s only choices in her time would
have been to become a stripper or to hide in obscurity for the rest
of her life. Neither of which would satisfy Mulan’s need for

The social construction of gender
as depicted in dynastic China is summed up in the song “Honour to
Us All” & “Make A Man Out Of You.” Mulan must be “primped
and polished” till she glows with pride to be a woman, she must
have a tiny waist, be calm, obedient, work fast paced, be a good
breeder and have good taste whereas men on the other hand must “be
as swift as the coursing river with all the force of a great typhoon,
with all the strength of a raging fire” and be equally as
mysterious as the dark side of the moon. Dynastic China would very
much so hold these values of what makes a man and a woman dearly. It
is for this same reason that Mulan is almost executed for
impersonating a soldier in the war she overstepped her bounds as a
woman. Women are to tend to the home and to the kids while the men
fight the wars and are the typical breadwinners of the family. Any
deviation from that is ludicrous and asinine. This social
construction is hammered in almost at birth as a woman’s job during
that time was to primp their daughters to eventually be married off
to some man she doesn’t know. While completely commonplace at the
time, Mulan does not find satisfaction in doing her household chores
and tends to exhibit more “tomboyish” habits than anything. Even
Mulan, who so desperately fought the social norms, still got a man in
the end. This raises some issues as she was a revolutionary who broke
away from what she was told to be yet, still does her part in
bringing honour to her family by marrying a “good match.”
in all, Mulan is a movie that children and adults will continue to
cherish and adore. However, next time, do not let yourself be so
easily grabbed by the catchy musical numbers and seemingly
revolutionary story that is told. Yes, Mulan is an unorthodox heroine
who changes all the rules, but she does so by conforming to a flawed
system and affecting change from the inside, under the guise of a
man. In lieu of doing it as a woman, it is not as girl power filled
as many of us would like to believe. She, for the most part, affects
all of this change as a man. Once she’s discovered, all her hard
work in the training and the relationships she’s forged are all
tossed to the wind and she’s quickly relegated back to her place as
a lowly woman. However, despite its flawed execution in being a girl
power story, it embodies a quintessential feel-good, be true to your
heart film that will leave you wanting to affect change in the world
around you.?

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