Feminists in Fiction: Mulan

This post in the fourth in a series of posts on my favourite feminist characters and female role models in books and TV. Other posts in this series talk about Katara of AtLA, Martha Jones of Doctor Who and Tamora Pierce’s Keladry of Mindelan. Go check them out!

Mulan is my favourite Disney movie.

Bet that comes as a surprise, right? I mean, it’s a movie set in ancient China about a young woman who joins the army and saves her country. Apart from some issues around race, it’s one of the more feminist Disney movies. It also doesn’t revolve around romance, which is somewhat rare for Disney movies.

What makes Mulan such a great character? She’s strong, independent, stubborn, and very clever. She doesn’t ever give up, not when she’s told that she is a failure at war, and not when she is found out as a woman and abandoned in the mountains. She has a strong sense of justice and is devoted to her family – so much that she risks her own life (in more ways than one) so that her elderly father doesn’t have to go to war. I really like the way her concern for her family manifests in this movie – usually, family is seen as a feminine concern, while men are off doing the bread-winning and the fighting. Mulan, however, manages to combine both of these values.

Mulan also notably lacks sexual objectification, which most Disney women are subjected to in some way or another. (If anyone is objectified in the movie, it’s actually Shang, whose shirtlessness in the video below is the most skin shown in the movie.) Though she is ‘primped and polished’ when she meets the matchmaker, the focus on her appearance and beauty is openly critiqued. Likewise, Mulan’s story isn’t driven by romance or the need to find a man to fulfill her. She is her own person, and though she develops feelings for Shang, they never take over the main plot of the story, and unfold in a very un-dramatic way at the end of the movie.

mulan sword
Mulan getting her inner warrior on.

At the beginning of the movie, we see Mulan as struggling with the femininity that is expected of her. As the lyrics of ‘Honour to Us All’ remind us, ‘a girl can bring her family great honour in one way: by striking a good match.’ Women are to be obedient, hardworking and attractive, and most of all they need to produce sons (as if some sort of breeding machine). Neither does she fit into the stereotype of masculine behaviour, either, as we see from her comical attempts to ‘act like a man’ in the training camp. While there is definitely some stereotyping of men going on in this movie, I think it manages to be balanced out by Mulan realising that all that spitting and blustering around and bashing each other up is actually just as ridiculous an indicator of masculinity as all the marriage-and-looks is of femininity. In fact, Mulan’s most convincing performance isn’t when she’s punching people around, but when she puts all that stereotypical stuff aside.

All the performance does, however, make for some truly brilliant irony. Take the entire ‘I’ll make a man out of you’ song – Shang is going on about whether people have sent him daughters instead of sons because everyone’s being too wimpy, and yet Mulan is literally a daughter who came in place of her father, and is doing as well as all of them. (Take that, Shang.) It’s glorious.

Mulan pokes fun at a lot of gender stereotypes, whether they are male or female. In the end, it is Mulan who saves the emperor and the kingdom, and although her friends abandon her at first, they eventually realise that the respect they had for Mulan when she was pretending to be a man is unchanged. Ultimately, the message is that your actions, not your gender, are what matter, and that you can do great things and be respected for them regardless of whether you’re male or female.

And all this becomes even more interesting when you consider that this is a movie set in a patriarchal pre-modern society. I’m not for a moment suggesting that the Disney version of ancient China is actually historically accurate, of course. But I do think it stands in Disney’s favour here that they managed to create a film that is set in a society with even more rigid gender expectations than the present day, and still critique them more than many movies set in the twenty-first century. Women are particularly under-represented in many fantasy and historical movies, and often historical context seems to be used as an excuse, along the lines of ‘oh, well we don’t have many dynamic female characters because that’s just what so-and-so historical period/fantasy society was like.’ And I don’t particularly buy that. It’s nice to see Disney not fall into that pattern with Mulan.

To sum up then: Mulan is determined to find her place in the world, sets out on a journey to save her family and kingdom, and dismantles some gender stereotypes along the way. That’s my kind of feminist character.

You deserve that medal, girl!
You deserve that medal, Mulan.

4 thoughts on “Feminists in Fiction: Mulan

  1. Mulan is also my favourite Disney movie, and my favourite Disney princess. She doesn’t wear a poofy dress and waits for a prince. That’s what I love most about her!

  2. If you’re this interested in the Mulan story, you should watch the 1964 movie ‘Lady General Hua Mulan’.

    Obviously, it is an entirely different dynamic vis-a-vis race, since unlike the Disney movie, the 1964 movie was made by ethnically Chinese people, for ethnically Chinese people.

    The 1964 movie does put a stronger emphasis on romance than the Disney movie ,.. on the other hand, it puts much less emphasis on romance than any other 1960s Hong Kong movie I know about featuring a female character (then again, from a feminist standpoint, ‘being better than a typical 1960s Hong Kong movie’ is a low standard).

    What makes the 1964 Mulan movie really interesting, at least from a gender standpoint, is that it came right after the 1963 Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai movie. Both movies share a star (Ivy Ling Po), and Mulan explictly compares herself to Zhu Yingtai. While Mulan disguises herself as a man to get into the army, Zhu Yingtai disguises herself as a man to get into the academy … and in traditional Chinese society, Zhu Yingtai was actually making a bigger ‘trasgression’ and defying gender/social roles harder than Mulan was.

  3. You should also watch Hua Mulan (2009 film). Her personality is much as how she was supposed to be like in the ballad. I adore this film really much. :DD

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