Finding Correlations Between Grant Wood’s American Gothic and Walt Disney's Mulan

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American Gothic and Mulan

American Gothic is a painting made by Grant Wood in 1930. Wood decided to make this painting in order to captivate the struggles that Americans were facing on an everyday basis during the height of the Depression. He used oil on beaverboard in order to paint with tight and descriptive detail. This was the style that he admired so much in the paintings of the Flemish Renaissance era (Stokstad 1067). The painting received high appraisal and is now located at the Art Institute of Chicago. A version of this painting can be found in a scene in the 1998 Walt Disney Animations’ movie Mulan. In this scene Mulan wakes the ancestors for advice on problems in her life. Two of the people she awakens resemble the people depicted in Wood’s American Gothic. They later state that they are worried that Mulan will make them lose their farm. The director had a clear purpose for incorporating this version of the painting/scene in the movie. When watching the movie as a child, I would have never been able to see the correlation between that scene and a famous piece of artwork. Now that I have the assets and ability to see the correlation, I can only get more and more excited about art in our everyday lives.

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American Gothic embodies the struggles that the Midwest faced in the down years during the Depression. Depicted in the work is a middle aged man who has the look of burden on his face. Grant Wood uses thin strokes to show the wrinkles on the slender man’s face. The bald man’s glasses rest simply on the bridge of his nose. The clothes that the skinny man wears are humble, yet odd. He seems to be wearing light blue overalls underneath of a simple black suit jacket that rests on his burdened shoulders. All of this while tightly holding a three-pronged pitchfork in his right hand. The woman on his side seems to be younger, but has the same distant look on her face. Unlike the man who is staring directly at the viewer, she is staring towards the side and out into the distance.

The scene in Mulan depicts the two figures in a different, but very similar way. The most obvious difference is in the color. The ancestors in the movie are all depicted in various shades of blue. Secondly, the two people in the movie have a different style about them. Instead of being white Americans, they are Chinese. Therefore, the clothing that is worn is depicted very differently. The man and woman in the movie are both wearing a robe type of garment that is linked to Chinese society. On a similarity note the man in the movie scene is depicted as wearing a piece of clothing on top of his robe that looks very similar to the suit jacket that the farmer in American Gothic is wearing. The man depicted in both the painting and in the scene in Mulan is bald with glasses. Both are rather skinny as well. The depictions of the woman hold true in the way that they both have the same hair style and distant glare. Just by changing the color of the figures and changing the figures’ nationalities to coincide with the film shows how the director was able to incorporate them in the movie. By passing the two figures up as mere cartoons in a movie, the director is disguising the meaning and purpose that the characters show and that he is trying to get across.

The purpose of Grant Wood’s painting was to depict the struggling families of the Midwest. The middle aged farmer is standing next to his aging daughter who cannot find a husband. Stokstad and Cothren state that “the daughter’s long and sad face echoes her father’s – she is unmarried and is likely to stay that way… [due to] many young men had fled the farms for jobs in Chicago” (Stokstad 1067). The long and serious faces of the figures show the hardships that the pair are dealing with. These hardships show externally and even internally. The skinny father farmer is probably having trouble with the harvest and selling his crop due to the Depression. This may cause a lack in ability to feed himself and his family. The problem at hand shows externally with his skinny frame. In turn this represents the hardships that all farmers in the Midwest had to deal with during this time period. The stare of the aging daughter is looking out into the distance. As opposed to her father, she has an internal battle to deal with. One that she dreads of – the fear of never having the chance to love. She may be daydreaming about the husband that she may never get due to the lack of men who moved away for more stable jobs in the cities.

In the movie the two figures take on a different, yet similar meaning. When Mulan wakes the ancestors in the movie and asks them for their advice these two figures critique her harshly. They say that if she continues her ways that Mulan will make them lose their family farm. This echoes the uncertainty in the painting because the families in the Midwest were also afraid of potentially losing their farms. On the other hand the movie does not have that drastic quality to it. The ancestor farmers are not struggling and are not dealing with current hardships. They are just there to support Mulan and give her advice. I think that this work was incorporated in the movie because the director wanted to connect to the American people in a different way. Yes, it gets the point across that Mulan cannot continue her ways or the farm will go under. On another note the scene shows that the two figures may have also dealt with their own hardships at points in their past life. Grant Wood was trying to depict the hard conditions that families in the Midwest had to go through during the Great Depression. The director of Mulan was trying to make a correlation between that and put a nice little Disney cartoon twist on it, which is pretty remarkable to say the least.

Grant Wood’s American Gothic as well as the scene in Mulan have a very similar style. The underlying meaning of the director was to get the point across to Mulan that she needed to change her ways. It was also a way to reach back in time and elude to American history. Without this extra credit assignment I would have never been able to delve into this topic which I thoroughly enjoyed writing and learning about.

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