Mulan Teaches Us to “Be a Man”… Until You Have to Be a Woman
As a 90s child growing up in America, I was raised on Disney movies.
Now that I am a college student facing the denouement of my teenage years, I find that my attachment to those movies hasn’t really diminished. I spent my last vacation lip syncing and pantomiming “Colors of the Wind” in the back seat while driving through the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee; my mom and I still look through the Walt Disney World vacation planning books, even though it will be years before we can afford to go again; and even my dorm room was laced with Disney paraphernalia like my stuffed Dug from Up! or my roommate’s various princess wall decals.
I think it’s safe to say that as my generation is getting older, we are more and more desperately clinging to the last bits of innocence that we possess as we are ejected into the adult world that none of us are prepared to successfully navigate. The piece of commercialized innocence we turn to first? Disney movies – the one constant and intrinsic part of our childhood that seems as if it will remain, well, forever.
So naturally, when I took one of my first classes in college, a course involving gender in relation to pop culture, the documentary we watched called Mickey Mouse Monopoly was a bit of a game-changer. The documentary addresses serious issues like underlying domestic violence and rape in Beauty and the Beast and painfully obvious racism in The Lion King, Lady and the Tramp, Aladdin, and many more (these are children’s movies, right?). But I think that the most difficult part for me to watch was the brief and blunt criticism of what was considered Mulan’s failed feminist potential:
“Now a more interesting, complex reality is Mulan where this is a very powerful, strong character who almost single-handedly wins the war, and so we do have a real, independent female; however, after the war, and she goes home, those expectations of femininity are exactly the same. It’s as if it never happened.”
- Dr. Gail Dines, Women’s Studies, Wheelock College via Mickey Mouse Monopoly
And the more I think about it, the more real it becomes. Mulan spends virtually the whole movie concealing her sex, but projecting her physical and mental prowess all while having to listen to locker-room talk that depicts women as subservient and passive (most prevalent in all the musical numbers) – and for the audience, this is a great source of humor and dramatic irony. What resolves this irony in the end is that Mulan leads the effort that defeats the Huns and saves the emperor and China; therefore, she overcomes gender stereotypes and proves the worth of women in a society that demeans their existence to nothing more than child-bearing and domestic servitude.
Or rather, this might resolve the irony if she accepted the importance and validity of her actions. But instead, Mulan declines the emperor’s offer for her to live in the palace and consult with him in making significant military decisions; she opts to return to her domestic lifestyle because she’s “been away from home long enough.” She’s had her fill of adventure and showing her capabilities, now it’s time to go home where she can return to normalcy and forget her vocational hiatus. When Mulan sees her father at home, he lovingly welcomes her back into the family; she gives him the only tokens she has of her deeds as if to say, “Here, daddy, take my sword and medal – I don’t need them anymore considering the fact that I’m done playing dress-up and am ready to take my rightful place in society. And, after all, you’re the patriarch; it’s only right that I hand over my symbols of dominance to you!”
Flashback to my recent high school years when I was trying to figure out not just who I was or who I was going to be, but what I was supposed to do with the rest of my life. I’ve always had a love of reading, writing, and grammar, and for years I thought I was going to be an editor for a publishing company.
Now, in college, I find myself studying secondary English education to pursue a much tamer career: teaching high school language arts. There were a couple factors going into my decision, but the greatest was probably that having a job like editing would exponentially delay my inevitable family life. Being career-oriented, to me in high school, meant sacrificing other time-consuming aspects of life – including getting married and having children. And while I still think I want those things, does that mean I should have surrendered my dream job?
Although Mulan may not have been the reason for changing my mind about my future, there are a lot of parallels with the movie and my life. Mulan spent her life living with her family until she snuck off to war where she had new experiences and got to know what she could do and who she was; however, she simply returned home and picked up where she left off. I have lived my life at home under my parents’ rules where I learned morals and what my place in a family is supposed to be. Then, I was thrown out into the college world; a scary, challenging place where we meet new people and find out what our true capabilities are, what we are good at, and who we are. But for me, there was always an expectation of marrying right out of college. When my female peers would discuss marriage, they would always make comments like “I just want to settle down while I’m still young. I’d definitely want to be married before 27.”
Looking back, I realize how absolutely ridiculous we were to say things like that. I’m not going to become utterly repulsive in my 20s, and my ovaries aren’t going to shrivel up at 30 and make me barren. So why is there so much pressure for women to settle down when they are just figuring out their purpose? Why do we deny ourselves the opportunity to enjoy our own lives and learn more about ourselves?
Yeah, Mulan helped the Chinese win the war, but did she just waste all of her consequent potential because it was time to go home and embody what it means to be a woman in her society? Imagine what she could have accomplished if she had taken that job – everything she did give up in the end. Now imagine a whole world full of women not reaching their potential either, never contributing everything they could to society, never feeling truly fulfilled because they feel social pressure to settle down.
Just because Mulan didn’t continue her military career doesn’t make her any less capable, and it doesn’t mean she won’t live a fulfilling life. Many women consider having children to be the most rewarding part of their lives, and it is undoubtedly an experience unmatched by any other. However, the problem arises when women decide to embrace that domestic lifestyle because they are expected to do so. Women should not forfeit their aspirations to be considered normal; when society lumps them into one category, they are stripped of their individual competencies, dreams, goals, experiences, and are ultimately dehumanized and given less opportunity. We deserve opportunity. We can take that opportunity and turn it into something incredible, but that seems like such a daunting task when we’ve all been forced to fit into the housewife mold which obviously doesn’t accommodate all of our unique shapes.
Mulan may have a shitty ending, but that doesn’t mean that the movie holds no feminist merit. Mulan is such a progressive, capable, independent, clever character who can hold her own among and even rise above the men, and she is a wonderful role model for young women; she is the girl who tells us we can when society says we can’t. Mulan will always be the resident badass of my childhood.
All I know is that my time isn’t running out – I have a world of promise ahead of me, and that will include domesticity if and when I want it to. I can make my life whatever I want it to be, and the masculinity I embody through a career does not have a shelf-life just because I am a woman.
Written by Jillian Schmidt