Quick, my brethren of the nineties: What did you learn from Disney princesses?
Snow White (1937): Beauty is everything, women are good at housework, the only way out of your terrible life is for a man (or 7) to save you
Cinderella (1950): The only way out of your terrible life is for a (rich) man to save you
Sleeping Beauty (1959): Necrophilia? Totally cool. (Also terrible life, man saving you, etc)
The Little Mermaid (1989): A man won’t like you unless you get your lady parts and shut up, and it’s important he likes you because he’ll be replacing your culture, lifestyle, and everyone you’ve ever known or loved
Beauty and the Beast (1991): Don’t worry about that abusive relationship, girls, you can totally change him. Also, beauty is a reward, both literally and figuratively, because only pretty people can be good.
Aladdin – Jasmine (1992): Seriously, all you’re good for is marriage.
Pocahontas (1995): There are cliffs in southeastern Virginia.
Okay, that last one only makes sense if you go to William and Mary, and all of these are obviously gross oversimplifications of movies I spent a lot of years adoring. I also didn’t even bother getting into the more recent movies, for the very good reason that I have not yet seen them. But these are supposed to be role models for little girls, and they’re all massively problematic characters, and it’s seriously depressing to look back at them from a slightly older perspective. I’m not saying that none of these characters have any agency (you’ll notice I didn’t even try to get into the complexities of the Pocahontas Ambivalence), but I am saying that, in Aladdin, which of the two main characters did you want to be?
But Mulan…oh, Mulan cuts right through all that crap and throws it right back in Walt Disney’s cryogenically frozen face. How is this movie perfect and wonderful? Let me count the ways…
1. Without preferencing one gender over another…
First of all, is that not the best Disney song ever? (The answer is of course it is, don’t ask stupid questions, Rachelle.) But people still manage to misunderstand it. I saw a video recently – which I’m going to link, but not embed, because it made me angry – which argues that Mulan teaches that masculinity is defined by physical strength and prowess. But this video misses one very critical point of this song, which is its overwhelmingly total parodic nature. Yes, strength is important – indeed, one of the first times Mulan truly succeeds is when she masters the tasks Shang sets, and we are meant to be proud of her. But take a look at what happens later in the movie:
Yes, the soldiers here look ridiculous – because they’re supposed to. Brute force – the worst expression of the strength espoused by “Be a Man” – is ineffective in this situation. Instead, Mulan realizes that she has to return to a system she rejected at the beginning of the movie:
Can we just take a moment to appreciate how revolutionary this is? Girls are told repeatedly throughout media that the things they learn are less important than the things boys learn (think playing catch and putting on makeup becoming the World Series verses the Miss America Pageant). Mulan demonstrates that conventionally feminine skills are not only equally valid, but can also be more useful. And, sure, argue with me that it’s only the comic relief characters who are put in drag, and that the love interest remains conventionally masculine – you’d be absolutely correct, and all I can say is that this stuff is complex and it’s really hard to get it perfectly right. But the fact remains that this movie is teaching little girls and little boys that you don’t have to wear a dress or shoot an arrow, but it’s okay if you want to, and it even encourages them to do both.
2. …it blurs gender roles.
Putting aside for a moment the fact that it’s probably harder to find characters in this movie who don’t cross-dress at some point or another than those who do, I’d like to take a moment to look at the songs in Mulan. I’ve always found it interesting that Mulan stops being a musical when shit gets real. There are five “Disney Musical” songs, and then they hit the burned out village and it all stops. But what I think is really interesting is that all of these songs (except for one, which I’ll get to in a moment) play with and ultimately reject gender tropes.
“Honor to Us All” exaggerates and, in doing so, deconstructs, the idea (which Disney is all-to-frequently in love with) that all women are good for is to be pretty and get married.
“I’ll Make a Man Out Of You” is bombastic and ridiculous, and mocks the hyper-masculinity of warfare.
(I know I already included it, but seriously guys, this song is awesome.)
“A Girl Worth Fighting For” demonstrates the absurdity of the “woman as a reward for the man’s success” trope. Mulan is uncomfortable and a little insulted the entire song, and it’s also the only song to be outright interrupted – by a burnt out village, which deromanticizes the entire idea of the song.
So, this leaves us with one more song – “Reflection.” Now, this is your basic “I Wish” song, but the angle it takes in doing that is particularly significant.
Okay, first of all, that’s the most adorable cricket ever, but that’s neither here nor there. Listen to the language this song uses – “play this part,” “who I am inside” – I mean, that’s straight out of Judith Butler. Mulan’s “I Wish” song grapples with gender performativity; for another example, consider this imagery –
– half neutral, half hyper-feminized, and partially obscured by the writing depicting the forces which will enable her exploration of masculinity. The whole point of this song – and the underlying message of the movie – is that “boy” and “girl” are roles you put on, and not something innate to any one person. Look, obviously it’s a little heavy handed at times, and I point you to the fact that it’s a children’s movie. But Mulan is able to transverse freely between masculine and feminine, and determine what works best for her in any particular situation, making this movie possibly the greatest deconstruction of heternormativity ever shown to six year olds. (And yes, that includes a subtle acceptance of homosexuality; to all the idiots who keep posting this picture…
…that’s kind of the point.)
3. It celebrates intelligence over everything else.
Let’s talk about “Be a Man” one last time (probably. I really, really love this song, guys). I know that I said before that it demonstrates the positive aspects of masculinity, and that we are meant to cheer on Mulan as she masters these skills, but check out the turning point of the song:
Mulan succeeds through her own creativity and intelligence, and she continues doing so throughout the movie. You could argue this happens for other Disney Princesses, and sure, Belle, for instance, is depicted as smart, but her story is ultimately resolved through twoo luv, and her wit sort of becomes irrelevant by the end. Mulan’s brains are a plot point throughout the movie; check out how she wins the battle:
How she defeats Shan Yu:
Mulan succeeds because she’s brilliant and awesome and takes control of a situation in the most creative way possible. There are no fairy godmothers, genies, sea witches, or magic trees helping her along – indeed, her spirit protector is a joke, gently mocking his precursors through his sheer ineffectiveness. Mulan as a movie tells kids that being smart is cool, that it’s better than just being strong or pretty, and that it’ll usually beat both.
4. The romance is earned.
Quick, why did Prince Charming love Cinderella? Why did Prince Eric love Ariel? Why did (and just as evidence of how underdeveloped these two are, I had to look up both their names) Prince Phillip love Aurora? Because plot, I know, but that’s not what happens in Mulan. You can see the relationship in this movie develop, as Mulan gains Shang’s respect and ultimately his trust, as Shang starts to open up to Mulan and prove to her that he can lose his prejudices and hang-ups. You can see that Mulan loves that Shang is strong and brave and loyal and someone other people follow, and you can see that Shang loves that Mulan never quits and is smart and fearless and always going to do the right thing no matter what. Their relationship makes sense, and is based on something more than “They’re both pretty.” More than that (and I fully admit that I’m starting to stretch here), their relationship is a bit of a inversion of the “man gets the girl as his reward trope,” in that Shang is sort of Mulan’s reward for saving China. Now, obviously, both characters are more developed than you usually see in this sort of situation, but the final scene in the movie kind of goes “Hey Dad, I saved China, and I won this sword, this medal, and this guy.”
Maybe this is problematic because it does play into the “women need to get married” ideology. But I think that it mostly averts that, first by making the relationship so well-developed, and second by aligning Shang with the other prizes she brings home. By doing the scene from Mulan’s perspective, the trope is, if perhaps not totally inverted (which is fine, because it’s a lousy trope anyway), at least knocked around a bit.
5. Mulan has a father and a mother (and a grandmother!)
Disney adores orphans, and when it can’t have a full orphan, it at least kills off the mother. To be fair, lots of fictional characters are orphans, because that eliminates having to deal with two often complex and problematic relationships, and gives the character an easy tragic past. But in doing so, you lose the chance to show kids a positive relationship with the parent, and especially to give young female characters a positive female role model (check out the list of Disney Princesses above, and tell me how many of them have a mother). But Mulan not only has two parents; she also has another female role model who is pretty awesome in her own right.
The movie derives its central conflict from the rich, complex relationships Mulan has with her parents, instead of pretending they don’t exist. This is far more valuable to children than an easy tragedy; it shows parents as imperfect people (Mulan’s father’s foolish insistence that he go off to war), who we still respect (Mulan just wants to bring honor to her family), and who always, ultimately, love us.
6. It harshly depicts the stark horrors of war.
Oh God, that doll. THAT DOLL.
Okay, this may seem an odd thing to recommend this movie for children, but I give it a massive amount of credit for actually engaging with its subject matter. To put it in perspective, it would be like Pocahontas dealing with biological warfare and mass genocide, and not forcing American history teachers to resort to Howard Zinn every year. The first third or so of the movie seems to be setting itself up to glorify warfare, and kids need to know that this is terrible, heartbreaking, and not something to fool around with. The message of this movie could have easily been that war is fun and a way to gain honor; instead, it depicts it as a last resort, something to avoid at all costs. Indeed, there’s a bit of pacifist social commentary here, when the horror of war is contrasted with the opulence of the Capital parade.
My brother asked me if I’d noticed any of this stuff at all when I first watched this movie, and my answer was that it came out when I was six. But whether or not I was able to articulate it, this stuff was still there, and I was still being exposed to it at a young age. Look, little girls (and big girls, too) tend to get short shrift when it comes to media. Female heroes are rare, and it’s even rarer that you find one who you actually want to be when grow up. That’s why Mulan is such a revelation – she’s a fun, smart, capable female character (who thankfully manages to avoid spunky) and tells both little girls and little boys that they don’t have to deal with Prince Charming. I’m not trying to say that none of the other Disney Princesses made good movies, but Mulan is the only one who’s cool, who really presents something positive for the kids who are watching her. We need more characters like her, and that’s why I will fight to the death anyone who tries to deny that this is the greatest movie Disney ever made.
And finally, because this is seriously the best song ever: