She was never a princess, and it was not necessary for her. Mulán started two decades ago his category at Disney: that of the warrior princess. A young woman who, instead of honouring her family with an advantageous marriage and well-made makeup, decided to cut her hair and join the army was posing as a man. To save his father? Sure, but it wasn’t the only reason: Mulan also wanted to prove to herself – and to the world – that it could be more than just a vase. And, by the way, that femininity and masculinity, like gender identities dissociated from sex, can coexist in the same body.
Although routinely undervalued in Disney’s legacy, perhaps for not wearing a crown, Mulan has become a feminist icon. It is not a perfect one, still tied to certain stereotypes and bathed in the commerciality of the company’s children’s cinema, but its transgressions are indisputable. And they are many. We analyze why, twenty years later, the Chinese warrior continues to inspire us.
THE ORIGIN AND FEMINISM
Few probably know that the story of Mulan is not a Disney invention, but a very classic tale. It dates back to around the 5th and 6th centuries, at the time of the Three Kingdoms. At some point in that stage, the word began to spread about a story that would later become a legend, and then in poems, plays and Disney movies. It is the natural route. The myth of the character was titled The Ballad of Hua Mulan, which throughout its history has been rewritten while maintaining the same story, which, of course, is not too far from that of the 1998 film.
The story begins with Mulan washing clothes in the river, when she hears that the army is recruiting new soldiers. Her father, Huan Hu, could be one of them. To save him, she decides to enlist herself by posing as a man, taking with her the ancestral sword of her family. The young woman fought with the Chinese army for more than a decade and became one of the most outstanding warriors. Although, as in the movie, he never accepted the rewards of his merits and, also, fell in love with an officer, Jin Yong. Legend has it that one day, Mulán decided to appear on the battlefield in women’s clothing to reveal his true identity to his companions finally.
Against all the odds, the soldiers’ reaction was one of admiration and respect. Being a woman did not change all those years in which she showed extraordinary bravery and wisdom. He did not get a rejection but instead breathed courage into the next battle. When he finished, he again rejected the offers of the emperor himself and only asked for a horse to return home. From here, the heroic story becomes blurred: upon returning, he discovers that his father has died. The sadness for the loss and the traumas of the war is consuming her, until, according to classical history, she decides to commit suicide. Not an ideal ending to a children’s movie, is it?
Disney took this story and made it a commercial success, but not before taking away the final drama and adding a bit of comedy through iconic sidelines. But why this story? Why in 1998? It is not trivial that that decade was the third wave of feminism, a new boost to a movement that had been fighting for women’s rights for more than a century. At this time, precisely, two debates stood out whose influence we will end up seeing reflected in the images of the film: the need for more women in positions of responsibility and power, as well as in the traditionally male professions that little by little opened up to greater diversity, and, above all, to the theories elaborated by Judith Butler on the differences between gender and sex. The feminist theorist argued that gender – the feminine, the masculine – is something performative and not anchored to being physically male or female. Going into the intricacies of the film, we will see how this becomes, in a subtle way, an essential question.
THE PERFECT WOMAN
“I know where I am. It’s time for you to learn yours,” says the Fa patriarch to his daughter Mulan, who has just exploded with rage during dinner to see how, still lame and old, he has accepted the army’s call how you have signed your death warrant. The wife’s place implies that father’s warning, is at home, doing housework and looking for a good husband. We were already described at the beginning of the film how she should be that perfect woman who will bring honour to the family. In the song Honor you will give us you hear:
Unfortunately, Mulán is not like that. It doesn’t take too many scenes to realize that she has butter on her hands, she is filthy when she eats, and she spends the day daydreaming. She is a young woman to identify with because her problem is that of any post-adolescent: she still doesn’t know who she is. The Reflection song delves into this:
The protagonist falsely proves that theory that the only way to bring honour to the family is by marrying well. Mulan teaches us that courage also brings recognition, and is not something exclusive to men. It shows us that the rules if they are unjust and patriarchal, must be broken. At that time (and, in some sectors, even today), it is argued that women do not serve specific jobs. This is dismantled in the military camp, where we find that, although she is still as clumsy as ever, she is not the only one. Because, and therein lies the message, we all need learning, regardless of what we have between our legs. With a little training and motivation, Mulan quickly catches up to anyone. Moral? Women are not weaker than men; they are not inferior or incapable of doing what they do.
Also, something is exciting in Mulán, and that is that he does not have to give up his femininity to embrace his masculinity. Both can coexist in it, and nothing happens. He tells us in his way that makeup and dresses are not inferior to swords and shields, just different. That the feminine is not inferior to the masculine: it is equally useful when the situation requires it, and if it involves enough intelligence to use it. At the end of the film, after spending time learning combat techniques with the men, Mulan must return to what she rejected at the beginning of the film to save the emperor. And she ends up doing it alone with a pair pai. WITH A PAI PAI, SIRS. Without ignoring that excellent Freudian reading what can we do when we see a phallic object go through a vee-shaped fan, which traps it until it loses its possession.
SHANG AND MASCULINITY
It is as important to speak of feminism as of masculinity. And in Mulán there is a lot of fabric to cut. Although the interpretations will always be subjective and questionable, it seems quite evident that the entire section of military training -especially the two songs that occupy it- is a covert parody of what it means to be a man. And, as we said, that a woman can also adopt this concept of masculinity. This is not about penises.
The most famous male character, of course, is Officer Shang, Mulan’s squad coach and romantic interest. He embraces all the characteristics of traditional masculinity: he has a powerful musculature, a leader’s soul, admirable tenacity, and an unsolved emotional problem with his father. “Passion, duty, courage, virtue”. However, in the film, we also see him endure the pressure of the position, feel insecure about his actions, show sympathy towards his subordinates and, in the end, accept the intellectual superiority of a woman. When he gets rid of his prejudices, encouraged by looking bad in front of his troops, he listens to her. He follows her, helps her and becomes nervous before her and her power—Shang, feminist. And, uh, nothing happens. The character makes an extraordinary journey that many times we miss when watching the movie. It is understandable: how not to be blinded by the great song that is will make a man out of you.
The dynamic trio is another song. The highlight of Chien-Po, Ling and Yao we see in the song My sweet and cute flower, where they exhibit what they understand femininity to be. This is: cooking well, being very good and dying of admiration for the strength of man. We should note that being three comic characters taken to the absurd from the first minute they appear, this song does not glorify their opinion: the parody. It is something that we confirm more forcefully when it is Mulan’s turn – well, Ping – to say his phrase in the song. How is the perfect woman? “Sharp head and great knowledge, judicious to speak,” he replies. They dismiss it, but there is no doubt which of the two sides has more credibility in the eyes of the viewer. It is a criticism, compressed into the verse of a song, like someone who does not want the thing. It is brilliant.
Beyond the concrete cases, of the characters whose vision of masculinity and femininity is most clearly presented to us (except for the villain, Shan Yu, who is entirely one-dimensional), almost all men in Mulán learn and share. They even adopt the traditional elements of femininity – and cross! – to follow their partner’s plan. They are not as brave as they may seem at first, and they are certainly neither better nor worse than a woman. We all need a little training before we save China.
MULAN IS NOT PERFECT, NOR IS IT MISSING
Indeed, some criticisms can be made to Mulan. Some have not read the irony in the lyrics of their songs and consider that it perpetuates that men have to be healthy and courageous. You may also think that Jane Austen encouraged young women of the time to marry because it is a universally recognized truth that this is what everyone should want. The magic of subtleties. Now seriously: what the Disney film claims is not strength, but intelligence. Every one of the dangerous situations presented to the protagonists must be solved with cunning and ingenuity. For example, when the troop tries to reach the arrow at the end of the post by leaving their nails or knocking down the palace door with a gigantic statue. Better skill than strength.
Indeed, Mulán is very revolutionary in his way, although he may fall short in some of his transgressions. In the end, this is a Disney movie intended for childhood. And, despite staying comfortably in this field, her heroism consists in sending a message of feminine empowerment to the girls who had always identified femininity with chasing men ( The Little Mermaid ), waiting for them to arrive to save you from all your economic problems ( Cinderella ), accept the task of changing them if they are aggressive ( Beauty and the beast ) or merely be waiting princesses ( Sleeping beauty). Finally, they are told that femininity not only has a face, that they can be strong, warrior and brave, and still have a romantic interest. The mantra fell against the second wave of feminism that said they were all ugly and unhaired! The issue of romance is more important than ever: it is not something that is the result of the innate beauty of the previous princesses, with whom they fell in love at first sight, but a relationship that is built on Shang’s admiration for Mulan.
Twenty years have passed, and this story has not aged a day. Feminist icon? Everyone calls her whatever she pleases, but her connections to gender theories are indisputable. Beyond that, it is curious to know that in China, it is still, more than anywhere else, a symbol of hope and inspiration. Perhaps her story was real, after all. Probably Hua Mulan is not a product of the epic fictions of the time, and it did exist about sixteen centuries ago. It doesn’t matter too much: it is and will continue to be a symbol of rebellion, bravery and teacher of the pai pai.