Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Why Disney's Mulan is an Awesome Heroine

Okay I've been a bit on a Disney kick lately on this blog, but I promise I’m almost done with it, and I’ll move on to more adult topics, maybe Game of Thrones (which is as far from being kid friendly as you can get).

After writing my post on Frozen and The Evolution of the Disney Princess, someone pointed out to me that Mulan wasn’t listed.  It was an oversight, but on further thought, I realized that to me Mulan really isn’t a princess movie. 

It is more than the fact that Mulan isn’t a princess nor will she ever become one.  Mulan’s story is more akin to the archetype hero’s journey (think Star Wars and Lord of the Rings) than the typical Disney princess movie.  Perhaps the same argument could be made for Frozen since Anna is trying to save more than herself but her kingdom, but I think that Mulan fits the hero’s journey a little better.

I’m not going to discuss the hero’s journey today because I’d rather focus on the character of Mulan, and what the movie does right for feminism. 

Of course I’m not the first to look at Mulan from a feminist point of view, and there are several great articles written on this topic both with positive and negative views of the movie.  Here are a few that I found interesting.

I fall on the more positive side.  I think Mulan as a great feminist role model, and that the movie has a lot of positive messages for our girls and boys.  One noted criticism is that some of the lyrics of the songs like “Please Bring Honor to us All” and “A Girl Worth Fighting For” have very misogynistic messages, and they do.  The lyrics are so over-the-top that it is clear to me that they are used to establish the very patriarchal society.

 I can see the concern that young kids might not catch that, but my feelings are that actions speak louder than words.  Seeing Mulan take on supposed masculine roles and save the kingdom sends a stronger counter-message to those songs.  There are also a lot of stereotypes of both men and woman and Chinese culture which are all valid criticisms.  Clearly, the movie Mulan isn’t perfect, but the character Mulan, herself is really awesome and here are a few reasons why.

Mulan doesn’t diss on the other women or on her cultural.  Too many time when a female character goes against gender roles and social norm, she has some sort of disdain for the female roles in her society or is enlightened enough to see that women shouldn’t be constrained by them.   The problem I have with this especially when stories are set in historical time periods is that the character is given a modern viewpoint.  Most people accept the culture that they live in.  I’m not saying it is unrealistic for someone to challenge it, but they should buy into it on some level.   It is unrealistic for a character who comes from a repressed culture to completely embody modern beliefs. 
Additionally, having a character sneer at the gender roles of her sex is also somewhat demeaning to the traditional roles that women have played throughout most of history.  I’ve discussed before about how society elevates all things considered masculine and devalues all things considered feminine, and that to me is a big problem with patriarchy.  Stories that present strong, feminist characters that do this are buying into the patriarchy culture that masculinity has more value than femininity.
But Mulan does not do this.  She sincerely wants to fulfill the role society has asked her to play and bring honor to her family.  Only she doesn’t fit that part.  This has always been the problem with rigid gender roles.  While no one ever perfectly fits into them, there are some who can’t fit into them at all.  Mulan is one of these.  She is not trying to lead some sort of feminist revolution but just struggling to find a place society where she can be valued for her own strengths and not the ones society thinks she should have.

Mulan is not a tomboy.   Not that I have anything against tomboys, but a lot of times, female characters fall into two categories.  They are either the prissy, princess-type or a complete tomboy.  Real people do not fall nicely into categories, and Mulan doesn’t either.  She doesn’t have the grace and poise of a lady, but she isn’t a sword-playing martial arts expert either.  In fact, she struggles to be a soldier and does not initially have the athleticism she needs early in her training.

What she does have is smarts.  She is clever, innovative, intelligent, and brave enough to speak her mind, traits that are better suited for a leader and detrimental to the passive role that society expects of her.  So while she doesn’t quite fit into the ideal female role, she also doesn’t perfectly fit into that male role either.  Like most of us, she is a mishmash of feminine and masculine traits. 

Mulan uses her own strengths to succeed.  While Mulan does eventually become a good soldier, it is not her fighting skill (which is average at best) that helps her save the day but rather her brains.  I love this.  She becomes a hero because she embraces who she really is instead of trying to be something she is not.  
Mulan acknowledges or own her self-serving interest.  Mulan comes across as very self-sacrificing.  She dresses up like a man to take her aging father’s place in the war.  It is all very noble.  But my favorite part of the movie is after she is discovered and cast out of the army and humiliated, she takes a good look at herself, and realizes that she did this not just to save her father but for herself.  What Mulan truly wanted was to prove to herself that she was worth something.  
Mulan is one of my favorite heroines.  She isn’t perfect.  She isn’t some sort of symbolism for feminism.  She feel like a real person who is struggling with society expectations and trying to find a place for herself to bring honor to her family and her culture.  I think she is amazing.
So what are your thoughts?  Do you love Mulan?  What do you think makes a great heroine?



  1. I've always loved this movie. It's entirely possible that a friend and I will belt out the "Be a Man" song at any available moment.

  2. Awesome insight and analysis, MaryAnn! Loved reading this article, especially your thought about societal roles and expectations that "while no one ever fits perfectly, there are some who can't fit into them at all." My first thought is that this is exactly why Mulan appeals to both girls and boys. Like you said, Mulan became a hero to China as well as to herself, simply by "embracing who she really is." From start to finish...beautifully written!


Got an opinion? Use it! Remember... be silly, be honest, and be nice/proofread.