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Mulan’s gender politics haven’t aged so gracefully

Screenshot: Mulan trailer

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases or premieres, or occasionally our own inscrutable whims. Because it’s 1998 Week here at The A.V. Club, we’re looking back at some of the movies of that bygone year.


Mulan (1998)

It’s been 20 years since Mulan got down to business to defeat [gender norms with its tale of a young Chinese woman who disguises herself as a male soldier to take her father’s place in the battle against] the Huns. The Disney classic was widely lauded as a celebration of girl power that showed its heroine proving to an oppressive patriarchal society—and to herself—that she was far more than the demure, passive citizen her country demanded she be. It presented Mulan’s failures as the result of sabotage by the men around her, and her victories as the product of her own discipline, strength, courage, and wit. It showed little girls they had more to aspire to than snow-white skin and marrying up. And it turned out a couple of bangers in the process. But in a new era with new representation standards, does the film still look like a trailblazing feminist blockbuster?

To its credit, Mulan avoids the all-too-common pitfall of a lead female character who’s a sort of blank canvas on which men can project themselves. Instead, it outfits its heroine (voiced by Ming-Na Wen) with both stereotypically masculine and feminine traits: She’s passionate, brave, and strong, but she also has a softer side, one that moves her to save her father’s life while risking her own and to rescue a little girl from her male bullies. While she does have to (literally) disguise her femininity in order to get down to business, it’s done as a mockery of the notion that women have to become like men to earn their respect. Through all of that, Mulan follows her instincts and never once loses sight of who she is, instead discovering who she can be when she isn’t restricted by gender roles.

But while Mulan herself is a wonderful role model, there are some elements of the film that don’t hold up today. With the song “A Girl Worth Fighting For,” Mulan implies that while a woman must be “one of the guys” to earn respect from a man, she must dumb herself down to a submissive, gracious housewife type to be desired by one. During the number, the men swiftly brush off Mulan’s suggestion that a smart, outspoken girl is also worthy of love, while the meek women working in the fields giggle at the gawking men, perpetuating and affirming the norm.


And that is precisely what the film’s predominately white-male creative team ends up doing. Though Mulan has proven she’s capable of greatness and worthy of high honor, she ultimately makes the decision to go back home to societal expectations, and to court a man who’s only just (reluctantly) come around to her. Nothing changes for the women of China. In fact, the emperor (Pat Morita) makes a point of saying that Mulan is exceptional rather than that she’s proof that something needs to change when he tells her love interest, Shang (voiced by B.D Wong, songs by Donny Osmond), to go after her: “You don’t meet a girl like that every dynasty.” The implication arguably discourages young women watching the film from believing they can be like her, because they’re told she’s a rare specimen. The door closes behind Mulan just as soon as she’s opened it, but the audience is too washed up in the thrill of seeing all of China bow to her to notice.

Mulan also perpetuates the status quo by surrounding its female lead with men who are sold as likable but who are actually blatantly misogynistic. The least apparent of these is Mushu (Eddie Murphy), a walking metaphor for fragile masculinity, given the number of cracks made about his size, his defensiveness regarding it, and his inflated ego. Mushu is presented as a parallel to Mulan, an outcast who has to lie to get his chance at greatness. But while he does seem to genuinely support Mulan, he also assumes credit for her success before she’s even found it, turns the camp against her, and boasts personal victory when she saves the day all on her own. Plus, he’s kind of a perv. When he first meets Mulan, he makes a skeevy joke about being able to see through her armor. And when she, scandalized and angered, slaps him, he threatens to curse her family, forcing her to submit and apologize to him, the man who harassed her, because he’s in a position of power over her. Naturally, the two become friends.


Like most hegemonic works, Mulan just doesn’t hold up to a lot of scrutiny: Its tiny flaws start to manifest themselves over time, becoming more and more apparent as the world moves forward. That said, it’s still, in a lot of ways, more successful even than many #MeToo-era Hollywood entertainments, offering a strong female lead with a purpose, one that furthers the plot and contributes to a clear, critical stance on misogyny and gender roles, rather than simply acting as a hegemonic checkpoint designed to assuage liberal audience members. So maybe the time is right for a Mulan remake. Niki Caro’s upcoming live-action version has the opportunity—and the responsibility—to update the story according to today’s politics, to reshape the message in a way that better empowers young women to show the world what they can do.

Availability: Mulan is available to rent or purchase from the major digital providers. It can also be obtained on Blu-ray and DVD from Netflix, Amazon, or possibly your local video store/library.

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