Who Is This Girl I See?: Reflecting on Female Representation in Disney’s MULAN
22 June 2014
When it comes to Disney’s Mulan, one thing is true: the representation of girls and women to young audiences is just as negative in 1998 as it was in the 1930s when Disney began making animated features.
What is not true: Disney’s bizarre depiction of strong women in Mulan.
It appears Disney assumes Mulan to be a forward-thinking, strong young woman; a role model to the young girls watching the film. But why is that? Because Mulan goes to war? Because she overcomes psychical and mental obstacles and plays a large role in saving China from invasion? Perhaps. Going to war and challenging one’s self does require bravery, a type of bravery traditionally associated with men, not women. Yet, Mulan is not as forward-thinking or strong as she is lucky. It is lucky for Mulan that she is surrounded by weak men: her father is frail, her fellow warriors are uncoordinated and unfocused, and her leader/love interest (Li Shang) is not observant, articulate, or all that intelligent. Mulan is fortunate that the men around her set a low bar and, by flukes, she is able to take advantage of situations that present themselves. For example, when initially fighting Shan Yu’s Hun army in the snowy mountains of China, Mulan single-handedly defeats the invading army by causing an avalanche. Of course, Mulan does not communicate her plan with any of her fellow soldiers or have this plan entirely worked out before she attempts it; inadvertently, she puts her fellow soldiers in the avalanche’s path. Again, she is not a good soldier; she is lucky.
Actually, strike that. Mulan is not lucky; the cricket traveling with Mulan is what is lucky, at least that is what the audience is told. Interestingly, Mulan cannot ever find herself in her own reflection, and at one point she claims that she sees “nothing” when she looks at herself. (That is pretty accurate, Mulan.) She is not a strong heroine; she is simply not as weak as the men around her. And, remembering the cricket is the luck, she is not even lucky. Add to this for the majority of the film Mulan lives a lie, surrendering her identify, it is fair to say Mulan is nothing.
And, even if viewers want to overlook Mulan’s nothingness and see her as daring young woman unafraid to challenge traditional gender roles and prove girls are capable of everything boys are capable of, the film, in its conclusion, does not allow it. Mulan sacrifices her identity to fight, and she does this to protect her father and serve her country. It seems as though disguising herself as a man is a valiant, loyal sacrifice. For the first three-quarters of the film, viewers take Mulan’s transformation seriously, recognizing the danger and significance of her gender swap. Yet, in the film’s climax, three of Mulan’s fellow soldiers gender swap as well to try holding off Shan Yu and his army; yet, when they do it, the swap is for comedic relief. Dressed as women, the men prance around, one asking, “Does this dress make me look fat?”
So, after viewers are expected to recognize Mulan sacrificing her identify to show valiance and loyalty in the face of danger, the film undercuts Mulan’s sacrifice by depicting the same sacrifice as a joke. The soldiers’ cross-dressing is a mockery of Mulan’s actions. Just as Mulan faces her greatest danger (Shan Yu), the film indirectly makes fun of her and reduces her sacrifice and daringness.
Also, in doing so, the film also gets in another cheap shot at women. “Does this dress make me look fat?” is just another dig at the stereotypical representation of women as the vain and self-conscious gender.
And so, this is Mulan. The young woman who, according to Dinsey’s late-1990’s standards, is the strongest female representation yet, a positive one for young audiences. Disney just did not understand. Having their female become male does nothing to improve the representation of women, it only further perpetuates the suggestions that women are inferior or lesser.
Furthermore, in Mulan, Disney falls back into its bad habit of creating negative relationships between women. Females do not have positive relationships with other women in most Disney films, including Mulan.
Mulan has a mother and a grandmother, but they are only interested in her “bringing honor” to them by marrying well. In fact, Mulan’s grandmother introduces Mulan to the audience by saying, “We’re going to turn this sow’s ear into a silk purse.” In that statement, Mulan’s grandmother calls Mulan a female pig and suggests that Mulan is inferior, the opposite of something fine and/or desirable. Also, Mulan’s mother, largely silent in this film, has absolutely no relationship with her daughter. It seems Mulan’s mother appears in the film as the antithesis of Mulan because the mother is the submissive, devoted wife to Mulan’s father; mother seems a secondary role to wife in this character’s depiction.
In the end, when Mulan returns from war, she does not run and greet either of these women, suggesting indifference in the film’s female relationships. And, when her grandmother sees Mulan has returned with gifts to offer her father, the grandmother says she would have rather Mulan return with a man instead. Evidently, Mulan’s grandmother is not satisfied Mulan has returned safely, or impressed that Mulan defeated an army; none of Mulan’s accomplishments will every matter to her grandmother (or mother, by association) unless it is marrying a man, suggesting a lack of emotional connectedness between the women in the film.
The only other speaking female in Mulan is the matchmaker, and the relationship between Mulan and this “angel in the house” is far from positive. The matchmaker judges Mulan; literally she is scoring Mulan’s performance, and she is also passing judgment on Mulan’s appearance, behavior, and overall ability to meet her own demanding expectations on young women.
Long before Mulan “becomes” a man to fight in war, the matchmaker unknowingly takes on a masculine appearance during Mulan’s assessment. Smearing black paint on her face, giving the appearance of facial hair, the matchmaker, who already lacks a traditional feminine shape, transforms into a man right before the audience’s eyes. Like the soldiers who do this in the end, this is done for comedic value. Even before Mulan’s sacrifice, the matchmaker’s transformation sets up gender swapping as ridiculous, criticizing Mulan’s sacrifice before she even makes it.
Disney manipulates what it means to be a strong woman. According to Mulan, strong women are really those who act like men; therefore, there is no strong woman, no feminine strength. As Mulan says, she looks in the mirror and sees nothing because, according to the film, when a woman looks in the mirror to see a reflection the only options she has are seeing a man staring back or, as in the case of Mulan, seeing nothing.
It is not until recently Disney made a necessary realization. Representing female strength in film does not mean creating female characters who are masculine, or women who do what men do. Females have strength all on their own, feminine and female strength. Representing strong women means creating strong, positive female relationships in film. Creating dynamic female characters who have identities they do not hide or change, relationships with men, and relationships with other women. Moreover, one woman as antagonist to another woman only perpetuates a problem, as is the case with Mulan and the matchmaker (and so many other Disney princesses who encounter female villains). Creating female alliances offers a solution to the poor, inaccurate representation of women in film. Mulan had the opportunity to establish strong female relationships within its story; however, this film, like so many others in the Disney lineage, dismisses the value of strong female relationships and creates yet another negative, antagonistic relationship between its female characters.
Ironically, for a movie that spends so much time discussing honor, Mulan is a real shame.