feminism, movies, teaching

I’ll Make a Man out of You

mulan-1998-disney-princess-crop-1200x599On Wednesday, International Women’s Day, my 6th grade history class watched Mulan to celebrate the end of our unit on ancient China. They made silly comments about the villain’s appearance, laughed at Mushu, and danced along to “I’ll Make a Man out of You” (which is now stuck in my head for the third day in a row: Let’s get down to business…to defeat the Hun!). But at the end they also called for Mulan and Captain Li Shang, the hero, to kiss.

I work at an all-girls school, and throughout the movie I struggled with my conflicting responses to the movie. On the one hand, go Disney! You created a kick-butt heroine who saves China! On the other hand, why does she still have to get the guy at the end to be a fulfilled person? And is it okay that my students, who raged at a Han dynasty-era primary source about the inferiority of women, still want Mulan to find a boyfriend? What does this say about the messages they’ve been digesting since birth?

Here’s the thirty-second recap: when Mulan’s frail father is called up to fight for China, she runs away to join the army in his place, disguised as a boy. Hilarity and intense animated battles ensue. Mulan saves all of China and is honored by the emperor! There’s a whole mess of anachronisms, racism, and fantastical elements that I won’t get into here, but we did address a lot of those in class once we finished the movie. Instead I’ll focus on the movie’s feminism, which is…complicated.

Here are a few things I think Mulan does right and some more troubling aspects.

The Feminist Stuff

  • Mulan runs away to war to protect her father, after being repeatedly told that it’s not a woman’s place to even speak in the presence of a man, let alone replace him in battle. She’s not trying to prove anything, she’s just doing what she feels is right. I love the emphasis on personal choice.
  • That ridiculously catchy song, “I’ll Make a Man out of You,” is ironic and nicely twisty, especially juxtaposed with the earlier “Honor to Us All.” “Honor” serves as the backdrop to Mulan’s makeover montage to get ready for the matchmaker at the start of the movie, with an emphasis on beauty, honor, and submissiveness. Mulan, of course, disgraces herself and is told she’ll never be a bride. “Man,” by contrast, is the backdrop to a training montage where Captain Li Shang whips his disgraceful army into shape. It’s a) funny because we all know Mulan’s a girl – how could he make a man out of her? – and b) a bit of a girl-power moment because by the end she beats all the other recruits. They’re both makeover songs, just in wildly different directions.
  • After Mulan’s true identity is revealed, she still heads to the capital to save the emperor from Shan Yu and his evil Hun army. She and her fellow soldiers trick their way into the palace by pretending to be concubines, using all the feminine wiles Mulan utterly failed to master at the beginning of the movie.

The Troubling Stuff

  • As catchy and fun as “I’ll Make a Man out of You” is, it’s not as subversive as it tries to be. In the end Mulan still has to pretend to be a boy in order to be seen as a worthy recruit, so in a way, she really has been made a man to some degree. She can’t be a girl or a woman with stereotypical masculine qualities – that would make her too well-rounded and complex.
  • After she’s saved China, the emperor offers to make her a member of his council. How generous, she says, but really, she just wants to get home. In the original ballad, Mulan was away for ten years, and in the Disney movie it can’t be more than a few months. But she still heads home to see her parents, just as the original ballad states. A daughter’s duty to her family remains paramount, and she sets aside ambition in order to fulfill it. You could argue that again, this is a personal choice, and Mulan clearly loves her father dearly. But she doesn’t even consider the possibility of serving the emperor so closely.
  • And after all that, it’s not enough for her to arrive home and present her father with her honors. Li Shang shows up, looking sheepish and embarrassed and getting teased nonstop by Mulan’s grandmother. Our heroine is, after all, a Disney princess, and Disney princesses always get their man. So even though Li Shang abandoned her on a mountaintop when her true identity was revealed, she forgives him and asks him to stay for dinner. At least there’s no kiss.

Like I said, my feelings are complicated. It’s an admirable effort from a studio known for decades of damsels in distress, and it is a huge step forward. Plus, there have been many other Disney movies since then (I was shocked to learn it came out in 1998!). But it’s still pretty popular with my 6th grade students, and I’m still concerned about the messages they’re taking away from it.

What about you? What are your thoughts on Mulan or any other Disney movie?

(Image: girl power on the roof)

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4 thoughts on “I’ll Make a Man out of You”

  1. I think there’s a lot to say about Disney movies and princesses, but in the case of Mulan, I think you really cannot separate the racial aspect. Representation matters, and Mulan being Chinese is doubly unique in that she not only fights against the norms of her time, she is part of a culture that is excessively stereotyped as passive, servile, the exotic seductress, or gratuitously good at math. Mulan as a female Asian heroine is much more significant, in my opinion, than Mulan as feminist heroine. My daughter is Chinese and Mulan is her one and only opportunity to see herself in a major animated role. As a parent I’m willing to overlook feminist problems in favor of having a heroine who looks like her. I also think that for children of other colors really benefit from seeing an Asian woman who isn’t just there to be the nerdy violin-playing sidekick. Have you seen Mulan 2? It adds an interesting dimension to this discussion.

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    1. That’s a really good point, and one I hadn’t considered. Representation completely matters. We started watching Mulan 2 on Friday and it’s interesting to see Mulan’s take on arranged marriage, as well as the sisters’ different responses. Thanks for sharing.

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      1. I have to say, I think it’s amazing you teach a unit on ancient China!! My children attend a Mandarin immersion program at a public school and even the we’re struggling to get Chinese history and culture into the curriculum. Kudos to you for covering world history in depth and using Mulan as a way to keep your students engaged. 🙂

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      2. Thanks! I teach at an independent school, which gives me a lot of freedom with the curriculum. How cool that your kids are in an immersion program (but also, how frustrating that there could be more included). It seems like an immersion program should, by nature, include culture and history and other topics that naturally connect to language.

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