The Movie Mulan: Symbolic Interactionism

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The movie Mulan is a Disney animated film released in 1998, which portrays a Chinese girl of the same name who disguises herself as a male soldier named “Ping” in order to take her father’s place in the war. While tradition demands that she becomes a bride and has children, she remains unafraid to fight for what she believes in and live her own life. Throughout the movie, she attempts to earn the respect of her fellow sodiers, uphold her family’s honor, and save China all while simultaneously falling in love with her captain. As the plot progresses, one prevalent sociological notion is that of gender roles, which the textbook defines as “Society’s concept of how men and women are expected to look and how they should behave” (OpenStax 259). This continues to play a large role throughout the rest of the movie, and becomes obvious in multiple scenarios. The film Mulan displays a variety of sociological concepts, including gender roles, cultural norms, and structural functionalism.

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The first concept that is blatantly obvious in this film is gender roles. In the beginning of the movie, a song titled “Honor to Us All” unveils the Chinese view of women, where the only way they can bring honor to their family is to marry well and bear sons (Mulan, 1998). As Mulan prepares to meet the matchmaker of her village with the help of several women and her mother, she is told that “a girl can bring her family great honor in one way, by striking a good match” (Mulan, 1998). According to them, the ideal woman is “calm,” “obedient,” can “work fast-paced,” and has “good breeding and a tiny waist” (Mulan, 1998). 

Furthermore, once Mulan has joined the army and is walking to battle with the other soldiers, the men describe their perfect woman. When doing so, they use descriptions such as “paler than the moon, with eyes that shine like stars,” and “[a girl who] will marvel at my strength, adore my battle scars” (Mulan, 1998). This definitively lines up with the textbook definition of gender roles, since this defines how women in this society are supposed to behave. Despite this, Mulan possesses character traits that are more commonly found in her male counterparts, and continuously breaks typical gender norms and stereotypes as she fails the meeting with the matchmaker and dresses up as a man to go to war (Maity 30).

However, women are not the only ones affected by gender roles. In the same song previously mentioned, it declares that “We all must serve our Emperor, who guards us from the Huns, a man by bearing arms, a girl by bearing sons” (Mulan, 1998). This quote reveals that while it is a woman’s duty to have children, it is also a man’s duty to go to war. In the first half of the movie it is declared that one man from every family must join the Imperial Army and go to war, including Mulan’s father despite the fact that he is old and crippled. Though Mulan wants to take his place, she cannot because she is not a man. This is an obvious gender norm because it shows the way that this society demands that a male behaves.

Another concept that can be observed is cultural norms. Norms establish the correct behaviors of a society, and are generally followed by the majority (OpenStax 58). There are two types of norms: formal and informal. (OpenStax 58). Formal norms are the rules that have actually been established and written down, while informal norms are the less serious, everyday behaviors that a society typically adheres to (OpenStax 58). In this movie, formal norms can be seen through the laws of this traditional Chinese society, particularly when Mulan wants to fight in the war but is unable to because it is illegal for women to be soldiers. Breaking a formal norm usually leads to serious punishment, and the scenario in this movie is no different: when Mulan is discovered as a girl after getting wounded, she is almost killed for her crimes.

Additionally, there are plenty of informal norms as well. Towards the beginning of the movie, when Mulan has to go to a meeting with the matchmaker, she is reluctant to go but does anyways. While not going to the matchmaker isn’t necessarily illegal, it is highly frowned upon, meaning that this process is an informal norm. Also, the matchmaker tells her, “You are a disgrace! You may look like a bride, but you will never bring your family honor” (Mulan, 1998). 

By saying that, she informs Mulan that she does not fit the cultural norm of what a bride should be, and therefore cannot fit in with her society. It is not illegal for her to be this way, but it is an informal norm. Later on, when a man comes into her village to announce that one man from every family must go to war, Mulan attempts to argue with him that her father should be spared. In response, he stated, “You will do well to teach your daughter to hold her tongue in a man's presence” (Mulan, 1998). Mulan is not punished for her actions, but it is different from what is expected, making the deferential silence of women an informal norm.

This movie also reveals the role of symbolic interactionism. Symbolic interactionism is a theory that details how individuals communicate through language and symbols in a society (OpenStax 18). People assign certain meanings to objects, and these help to portray messages among people. In Mulan, several objects are used to convey meaning. In the beginning, Mulan’s grandmother is wishing her good luck on her meeting with the matchmaker, and she attempts to help her by giving her several objects: “an apple for serenity,” “a pendant for balance,” “beads of jade for beauty,” and “a cricket, just for luck” (Mulan, 1998). 

Furthermore, the matchmaker herself is a symbol of the importance of marriage in this culture, since her opinion is of such import. The idea of being a bride also becomes a symbol here, since it is not only the textbook definition of a wife that makes a woman become the kind of “bride” that is discussed. In this case, a perfect bride is seen as a beautiful, quiet, obedient lady, which proves to be quite different from Mulan’s personality. Consequently, brides become a prevalent symbol of the female stereotype in the traditional Chinese culture found in this film. Mulan understands the importance of marriage and what is expected of her by observing these symbols, and by doing so allows symbolic interactionism to become apparent.

In conclusion, the film Mulan is rich with sociological concepts that are fairly easy to grasp. In this movie, Mulan defies what is expected of her as a woman and fights in the war, while saving China and falling in love at the same time. Through the course of the movie, the plot displays concepts such as gender roles, cultural norms, and structural functionalism, with gender roles remaining the most prevalent of the three.    

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