Mulan and Masculinity: Challenging Gender Roles in Disney’s Mulan (1998)
Movies created by Walt Disney often have a reputation for being upbeat, happy, family-friendly movies. While this is undoubtedly true, most Disney films have underwritten, subliminal messages surrounding gender and stereotyping within a multicultural spectrum. The film, Mulan (1998), is unique in the fact that the female character, usually seen as the less-powerful sex, is empowered through military service, which was reserved for only men at the time (San Souci). Mulan first breaks the ideal of a stereotypical woman of her time period, Janey Place’s “nurturing woman”, then she further clarifies her position as a masculine, non-stereotypical woman by juxtaposing herself next to her ailing father, and finally she dispels the idea of the opposite of a “nurturing woman” by embracing a “warrior woman” stance (Bennion-Nixon 360; Place 107). Clearly, the Disney film Mulan (1998) challenges the general stereotype of a woman as a “nurturing woman” often found in the genre of film noir by embracing more masculine characteristics of a “warrior woman” in order to save her country (Bennion-Nixon 360; Place 107; San Souci).
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Primarily, the film, Mulan (1998), is set in the dynastic period of Chinese history where women were viewed as the homemakers and expected to follow the stereotype of the “nurturing woman” who is commonly portrayed as “generally visually passive and static” (Place 107; San Souci). Moreover, a nurturing woman is redemptive and has a primal instinct to be with the past, making her secure and stagnant rather than active as a character (Place 107). However, Mulan, as a character, was never this type of woman. In this period, women were expected to be docile and good wives to their husbands, the more respected sex at the time. In the opening of the movie, Mulan is set to be married and has to get dressed up and take a test to see if she’s fit to marry into a well-off household with a husband that will take care of her and bring honor to her family, which she fails miserably (San Souci). This scene begins to show how she is clearly not a “nurturing woman” or stereotypical Chinese housewife by definition and more of a tomboy (Place 107). At this point, one can see how the movie is beginning to set up Mulan as a more masculine female lead character by not having her be prim and proper for an observably important part of life in China at the time. It also juxtaposes her against other Chinese women of that time period who have noticeably spent hours and hours of preparation to find the perfect husband while she does not really care too much about having a male counterpart take care of her. Mulan (1998) uniquely challenges to stereotype of a “nurturing woman” from the start by establishing the fact that she has other priorities than finding a good husband and being a stereotypical woman in Chinese society (Place 107; San Souci).
Moreover, as the plot thickens, the Hun army begins to invade China and all men are drafted into the military to fight the invaders. Mulan’s father, once a very prominent military man, is now crippled, disabled, and in no condition to fight in a war. Mulan recognizes this and decides to go undercover as her father’s replacement, even though women were traditionally not allowed to fight in the army given their lesser status (San Souci). This scene is significant in developing Mulan as a masculine character because it places her father, the stereotypically masculine character, as a weaker character because he cannot fight in a war, a sex role reserved for the male sex. Schrock and Schwalbe best describe this strategic section of Mulan (1998) as part of establishing the credibility of a man by his “male body” as “a symbolic asset” (San Souci; Schrock and Schwalbe 149). Since Mulan’s father was disabled and frail, he did not have the strong male body that is an established asset of manhood. In the film, once Mulan learns that her father has been called to serve and she makes the decision to leave her home, the scene comes about where Mulan takes her father’s good sword and cuts her long hair transforming it into short, male-length hair, showing a physical transformation she makes to commit to a male sex role of being a soldier (San Souci). Following this further, Schrock and Schwalbe also highlight that a female can attempt to be a male and provide resolution of a manhood act, defined as “aimed at claiming privilege, eliciting deference, and resisting exploitation” (Schrock and Schwalbe 151). In the case of Mulan (1998), Mulan goes to war for her father, a manhood act reserved for biological males, further solidifying her character as divergent to the female stereotype of a nurturing woman (San Souci; Schrock and Schwalbe 151).
In order to further signify the divergence between Mulan as a contrasting character to the typical role of a woman as a passive woman, one sees Mulan blossom into a “warrior woman” (Bennion-Nixon 359). As defined by Bennion-Nixon in her essay We (Still) Need a Woman for the Job: The Warrior Woman, Feminism, and Cinema in the Digital Age, a “warrior woman” can be recognized by “her propensity towards violence” and “the physical and/or mental strength she displays in the face of adversity” (Bennion-Nixon 360). Furthermore, a warrior woman is one who “is also a highly effective ‘soldier’ whose adept use of weaponry and technology or capacity for strategy and leadership is as good as any man’s. (Bennion-Nixon 360)” Clearly, Mulan’s character perfectly exemplifies these traits. A specific example of these traits from the film is when Mulan goes through basic training as a soldier, yet in the end becomes one of the best fighters in the Chinese army. Throughout her training, she was physically on-par with the rest of her peers, however as she got stronger, stealthier, and more highly skilled in war techniques, she surpassed her male counterparts (San Souci). To further support this claim, Bennion-Nixon includes a very important synonym for the “warrior woman”: the “action girl” (Bennion-Nixon 360). This ties into the first claim made that Mulan was the complete opposite of Place’s “nurturing woman” because to be a “nurturing woman” is to be passive and a character that does not include much action whatsoever (Bennion-Nixon 360; Place 107). As Mulan is both the central character and character with the most action, it is difficult to pick just one scene that exemplifies her as an action character; yet, the song Reflection, which is sung by Mulan after her failure of her bridal exam, is one of the most emotional scenes that Mulan is in (San Souci). Emotionally, the action portrayed by Mulan as upset that she will “never be the perfect bride or the perfect daughter” shows that, even though she is not in a full fighting scene with the Hun army, she is still drawing the most attention to herself as a woman and how she can bring honor to her family, which she finds in serving for the Chinese army (San Souci). Also, in the opening song Honor to Us All, the woman preparing Mulan for the exam sings “boys will gladly go to war for you”; little do they know, Mulan will go to war for herself and become her own warrior. Referring to Mulan as both a “warrior woman” and as an “action woman” further exemplifies that the gender stereotype of a submissive woman in a feudal society has been destroyed by Disney’s Mulan (1998) (Bennion-Nixon 360; San Souci).
In contrast, it can also be said that Mulan (1998) does also support some gender stereotypes, particularly in the segments covering the bridal exam and song Honor to Us All and the song A Girl Worth Fighting For (San Souci). Honor to Us All introduces Mulan and how she is to be perfect to bring honor to her family by marrying a good husband who will take care of Mulan and her family. Although Mulan does not do well throughout this exam, the women are all lined up and perfect to hopefully fit into the stereotype of a nurturing woman who, as the song says, are “calm, obedient, and work fast-paced” (Place 107; San Souci). While all of these women are very worried about attracting a good husband, Mulan is preoccupied with other things and finding a husband is not necessarily at the top of her list, challenging her role as a “nurturing woman” (Place 107; San Souci). Moreover, at the time of the song A Girl Worth Fighting For, Mulan is already undercover in the Chinese army and overhears some of her peers talking about finding the perfect woman worth fighting, or even dying, for. One line from the song goes “And I’ll bet the ladies love a man in armor” (San Souci). As stated by Schrock and Schwalbe, for a man to truly be a masculine character, he must look the part (Schrock and Schwalbe 149). Traditionally, women are more attracted to men in armor or military uniform, so this line upholds the male stereotype of a strong man; however, Mulan wears the same armor as a man and therefore breaks the typecast of loving a “man in armor” because she is a female (San Souci). Evidently, Disney’s Mulan (1998) does uphold some traditional male and female sex roles, nevertheless, Mulan, as a character, breaks each and every one (San Souci).
Conclusively, it is more than clear that the Disney film Mulan (1998) presents female stereotypes that are challenged by the “warrior woman” female lead, Mulan Fa (Bennion-Nixon 360; San Souci). Firstly, Mulan does not uphold the traditional stereotype of Janey Place’s “nurturing woman” which is seen mostly in dynastic China (Place 107). Then, she places her father, the traditionally more powerful biological sex, in a position of disadvantage as she must go to war in his place or he will surely perish. Finally, the character of Mulan is recognized as Bennion-Nixon’s “warrior woman” crushing the argument of an archetypally stereotypical female character (Bennion-Nixon 359). Mulan (1998) is a multicultural film that perfectly exemplifies a challenged female stereotype (San Souci).