Monday, October 22, 2007

This blog is supposed to be about my scholarship, too, right? Here's my midterm on Mulan.

In the End, They're All the Same:
Gender and Sexuality in Disney's Mulan

Animated films are often discounted for not having any substance, and therefore are sometimes deemed unworthy of in-depth academic study. What this generalization neglects is the profound impact animated films can have on children, especially in terms of how youngsters are socialized into societal norms. Furthermore, animation is not just for children. In 1989, with the release of The Little Mermaid, Disney made a concerted effort to try and draw more adults to their films, going as far as to create separate marketing campaigns aimed at adults<1>.

Nine years later, Disney released Mulan, an animated film in which a Chinese girl takes her father's place in a war against the Huns<2>. Compared to the princesses who came before her, Mulan seems to send a message that Disney finally learned the term feminism and tried to make a film with a more independent female protagonist. Critics immediately saw the differences between this Disney films and those that came before, describing it as “a tale of a young woman's struggle to overcome societal stereotypes.”<3> But is Mulan truly transgressive? Disney does allow for the challenging of the essentialism of gender, but only if the end is the same as all previous Disney movies: a heterosexual, monogamous relationship.

Mulan starts out as a movie that challenges gender essentialism. As Mimi Nguyen posits, “the sly acknowledgment that gender norms are socially constructed is amazing - both masculinity and femininity are exposed as elaborate performances.”<4> Both instances that drive home Nguyen's statement regarding the construction of gender occur during song. The first mockery of gender essentialism is the song entitled, “Honor to Us All”, which follows Mulan through the process of preparing for the matchmaker. What is most striking about the scene is the elaborate work that goes into making Mulan a perfect woman; her face is painted, her waist is cinched, and her hair is elaborately coiffed. That Mulan is so uncomfortable being forced into the role of woman is further proof that femininity is not something that comes naturally. Mulan has notes written on her arm in case she “forgets something.” If gender was something a person knew how to do instinctively, would it be something that one could forget? The song shows the way in which gender is a performance, and, furthermore, a performance that Mulan would rather not take part in.

Masculinity proved to be a learned attribute during the song entitled, “I'll Make a Man Out of You.” This piece is sung by the military captain, Shang, and follows the men (and Mulan) through their training. During the chorus of the song, Shang outlines that men must be “Swift as the coursing river, with all the force of a great typhoon, with all the strength of a raging fire, mysterious as the dark side of the moon.” His lyrics are interspersed with the background singers (in a deep, booming voice) reciting “Be a man!” At first, Mulan appears to fail at being a man just as much as she failed at being a girl; she can't shoot an arrow, aim a cannon, or carry a heavy load. But, by the end of the tune, she has succeeded to the point of being better than the men. Similar to the musical number discussed previously, the fact that the men had to be taught how to be manly proves that gender is not innate, and Mulan's ability to learn how to be masculine when she is biologically female is further proof for the point.

Although these two songs are a major departure from the typical Disney production, the end of the film returns to a socially normative presentation of gender. After saving China (twice), Mulan is offered a position in the Emperor's council. However, she declines the position of power so she can return to her family's home. Had the protagonist been male, I doubt he would have refused such an honor to return home to the family. Rather than let Mulan continue her gender transgression, Disney puts her back where she belongs: the home.

Upon her return home, Mulan presents her father with a sword to prove that she saved China. Her grandmother's response is, “She brings home a sword? If you ask me, she should have brought home a man.” Apparently saving China (twice) is not enough to gain the respect of her family's matriarch; even though she has succeeded in winning a war, the accomplishment is empty if she did not succeed at securing a husband. Luckily for her, Shang enters immediately after the grandmother's comment and asks to speak with Mulan. Grandma rejoices and exclaims, “Sign me up for the next war!”

The song that begins as the film fades to the credits is entitled, “True to Your Heart.” It is a song in which a man is telling his (presumably female) subject that she must be “true to her heart.” Unsurprisingly, the man informs the woman that if she listens to her heart, “it's gonna lead you straight to me.” Although most of this song occurs as the credits roll, it is the capstone of the movie, and thus can be seen as the film's overall message. Throughout the movie, Mulan is on a gender journey, during which she experiences being both female and male in an attempt to learn her true identity. She is on a search to be “true to her heart,” and at the end of the movie she finds what it is she supposedly desired the entire time: a stable man and a content life at home.

Although Mulan does allow for the expression of radical views regarding gender, these viewpoints are allowed to be expressed only if the female protagonist ends the film subscribing to traditional feminine ideals. Mulan is praised for portraying an independent female character, but in the end she still finds herself in a relationship with a man. In addition, the man that she becomes attached to is her military captain, a man who by default has more authority than she does. This causes her romantic relationship to have an inherent imbalance of power, even though she has succeeded in becoming a powerful woman. Therefore, although Disney appears to be breaking out of the mold when it comes to Mulan, the film is only one more in a series of heteronormative, sexist productions.

<1> Magiera, Marcy. “'Mermaid' Aims to Reel in Adults.” Advertising Age. October 16, 1989.
<2> Mulan. 1998. Directed by Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook. Produced by Walt Disney Feature Animation.
<3> Wong, Stephen. “History? Close Enough.” Entertainment Insiders. Available:
<4> Nguyen, Mimi. “My Mulan.” [Personal Website]. Available:

Labels: ,


Blogger indil said...

Good essay. I've only seen the film once, but can still remember the scenes you describe and never thought about them that way before.

November 02, 2007 2:27 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home