I have to admit: although I’m not a huge fan of Disney’s thirty-sixth animated feature film, I have an incredibly soft spot for the eighth Disney Princess Mulan. My Honours thesis was on two cross-dressing Shakespeare plays, where young women dress up as boys for various reasons – one to protect her virginity, and the other to rescue her new husband’s friend… well, actually, you can read heaps of reason why they did it, but those are the main reasons boiled down. Those plays were The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night (there are other cross-dressing plays, but I was looking at modern film adaptations). I learned a lot about women’s power and subversion and the history of disguise, even if I didn’t end up writing about it.
Mulan’s story is about her dressing as a boy to take her father’s place in the army, and I tell you my great big ‘ole heart fairly galumphs when I watch it. I have a thing for strong women; especially strong women who immerse themselves in a man’s world and still manage to retain their sense of self (i.e. femininity, independence – as in don’t become overly ‘masculine’ themselves); especially strong women who immerse themselves in a man’s world disguising themselves as one of them. There’s just something about the inherent conflict of a woman posing as a man in a masculine environment. I love it.
So now that my gushing background has been revealed, I’ll get on to dissecting Mulan.
Sometimes I cry during ‘Honor To Us All.’ There. I said it. Wanna know why? Because I’m not particularly feminine-looking. I’m six foot tall with broad shoulders, and throughout my entire childhood I was consistently the tallest and therefore the heaviest in the classroom, often including the teacher. When I reached high school, some dickheads decided to bully me because I was often more ‘man’ than them. I didn’t know how to respond, because at age 12 I had no concept of gender roles (my mum and dad were pretty much equals) or knowledge of feminism, and I ended up retreating inside myself and becoming much more ‘girly.’ As in pink and make-up and sitting on the sidelines and faking an interest in boys (that didn’t really kick in until I was 15). And during ‘Honor To Us All’ Mulan is being forced to be all girly and super-conforming to society’s standards in an attempt to be the ‘perfect bride’, because the only way she can bring honour to her family is to marry a good man (chosen by a matchmaker) and provide sons for China (for which she was told she was too skinny to bear good sons). It always makes me terribly sad that she has to go through such a vigorous and standardised beauty routine just to fit in.
Of course, before the song and during it we’re given glances that Mulan is just so much more than simply someone’s future wife. We’re shown she’s innovative and creative when she does her morning chores, we’re shown she’s a bit scatter-brained and clumsy because she’s cheating on the test, and we’re shown she’s a great strategist and a brilliant mind when she wins a checkers game with a single move. Go girl power! Screw being just a wife when there’s so much more out there to do!
Note – that is not to say that I do not believe in marriage. I do (especially gay marriage, y’all!). But in the film, Mulan’s only option is to be a perfect bride or dishonour her family. That’s a lot of pressure for a girl who doesn’t fit in with society’s strict view of femininity.
After her failure at impressing the matchmaker, Mulan shames her family once again by insisting her conscripted father not fight in the upcoming war against the Huns. The Emperor’s advisor, Chi Fu, illustrates a particularly chauvinistic response when he says (and I paraphrase):
“A woman should not speak in front of a man, a woman is worthless, man power rar rar rar!”
(I DID say I paraphrased).
That night, as Mulan contemplates her fate, she realises something: she doesn’t fit in anywhere or is particularly good at anything, and she would do anything to protect her father. So she cuts off her hair, steals her father’s armour, conscription papers, and horse, and runs away to the army. There, she pretends to be a young man named Ping (if you didn’t know that, you shouldn’t be reading this, because Imma spoil the shit out of this baby), showing hopeless ineptitude at the physical aspects of military training. Under the guidance of Li Shang (shirtless) she eventually catches up to the other men in terms of physical ability, and then even surpasses them.
It’s a beautiful, golden moment.
Mulan’s fall from grace happens after she does two of the most heroic things of almost any Disney character, let alone a woman, let alone one of the Princesses: she eliminates almost an entire army and saves Shang’s life while getting injured and actually bleeding from said injury. During her recovery her identity as a woman is revealed to the rest of the recruits, but because she saved Shang’s life, he spares hers. They abandon her on a mountain and continue to the Emperor’s city.
Now Mulan again, she witnesses the Hun army survivors climbing out of the avalanche she caused using the last cannon (Disney really knows how to up the stakes) and follows the army to the city. She tries to warn Shang that the emperor is in danger, but he dismisses her. Now that she’s dressed like a woman, no one will pay any attention to her. When the Huns kidnap the emperor, she manages to get the attention of her three particular friends from the army, and because they trust her they follow her plan to dress like concubines (ugly concubines) and rescue the emperor.
They escape with the emperor while Shang is left to fight the Hun leader. Mulan saves Shang’s life again by throwing her shoe at the Hun leader’s head and declaring that she was the one responsible for his loss on the mountain. I mean, she doesn’t just sit there and let Shang do all the fighting. That is just so totally cool. That’s like Belle throwing a rock at Gaston and him going for her instead of the Beast, or Jasmine throwing her tiara at serpent-Jafar and him going for her instead of Aladdin. Awesome. Then Mulan saves the day, almost entirely by herself because she’s just that awesome.
The only thing that annoys me about the film is that Mulan decides to return home to her family rather than take up a job as the Emperor’s advisor. Look, I understand: in the two Shakespeare films I studied, the women did that, too, and they were from a much more recent historical period than Mulan was. But Disney isn’t always historically accurate: they could have made Mulan a totally awesome role model by having her take up the mantle of her achievement. Instead, they focus on the recurring theme of honour and have her return to her family bearing the gifts of the emperor.
As a bonus, Shang followed her home like a lovesick puppy, and it’s very heavily hinted that their romance has begun. So even though Mulan was dishonoured by her matchmaker, she’s really ending up marrying one of the most decorated war heroes (not to mention hotties) in China. And she only got his attention by being a total kick-ass warrior and just as strong and capable as a man in a very patriarchal society. Awesome!
Mulan is the last of the Disney Renaissance princesses (1989-1999). The next princess in the official line-up is Tiana from The Princess and the Frog.
As a little side note – Lea Salonga, who provided the singing voice for Princess Jasmine also provided the singing voice for Mulan.
Oh, and by the way, there’s no kissing in this film. FAIL. So here’s some fan art a very talented artist called Manon Yapari did.