The enduring feminism of Disney’s Mulan

Mulan, Disney's 36th animated film, is still relevant today. The movie had released in 1998 and has received critical acclaim over the years for exploring and breaking conventional gender norms.

Written by Anvita Singh | New Delhi | Updated: March 8, 2018 10:28:22 am
mulan, happy women's day Disney’s 36th animated feature, Mulan, is an inspiring tale of courage and individuality

Mulan, Disney’s 1998 animated flick, was directed by Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook. The movie’s casting was in itself a revolution of sorts, with Chinese-American actor Ming-Na Wen voicing the titular character. American actor BD Wong of Chinese descent gave voice to Captain Li Shang. But even Mulan fell short of perfect as the all-caring and hilarious character of Mushu was given its voice by American comedian-actor Eddie Murphy. But hey, at least Murphy is not white.

Casting aside, Mulan’s story was a departure from the regular Disney princess stories we have been so used to throughout the years. Be it Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty or Jasmine.

Based on the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, where a legendary woman warrior takes her father’s place in the army to fight the good fight, Mulan is a rich and inspiring tale of courage, discipline, and love. The screenplay of Mulan was penned by Rita Hsiao, Chris Sanders, Philip LaZebnik, Raymond Singer and Eugenia Bostwick-Singer.

The writers take the cake when it comes to Mulan. Its dialogues, tight script make the movie what it is; not just a good feminist movie, but a good movie in itself.

Take, for instance, the conversation that ensues between Mulan and Li Shang when he discovers that Mulan is a woman, and not the male warrior, Ping, he had presumed her to be:

Mulan: Shang!
Shang: Mulan?
Mulan: The Huns are alive! They’re in the city!
Shang: You don’t belong here, Mulan. Go home.
Mulan: Shang, I saw them in the mountains. You have to believe me!
Shang: Why should I?
Mulan: Why else would I come back? You said that you’d trust Ping. Why is Mulan any different?

In another subversive little twist, Yao, a male warrior, asks Mulan’s opinion about his weight:

Mulan: Okay. Any questions?
Yao: Does this dress make me look fat?

Let’s just call spade a spade, Mulan is a badass. She has the strength of character because she is willing to go to any lengths for the people she loves. She couldn’t care less about how a ‘good’ woman behaves, defying the conventional notions of being feminine. Mulan reinforces the fact that feminine can be strong, that a female can fight just like any other male warrior, and that courage under fire is the true testament to being an actual decent human being.

Yes, it’s safe to play the archetypal rebel heroine, they said. People like that kind of stuff thrown at their faces, deluding them into believing that things are really changing, they said. Well, believe it or not, ‘they’ were wrong. Mulan did change forever the way a Disney princess is supposed to be. She’s not only physically strong but is also quick on her feet. Remember when she brings about an avalanche through a rocket to bury the Huns under the snow?

I’ll Make a Man Out of You

One of the most famous songs from the movie, “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”, reeks of sexism. But that’s how it’s meant to be. Because how else would you see that our heroine doesn’t give a damn about the track? (And I mean that in the best way possible).

Let’s get down to business, to defeat the Huns
Did they send me daughters, when I asked for sons?
You’re the saddest bunch I ever met

So the immensely hummable song begins, and throughout the whole song, we hear what makes a man, a man. Mulan, dressed like a male warrior, is also featured in the song. But she doesn’t sing along. And towards the end of the movie, she successfully proves that she cannot be bound by any traditional notions of masculine behaviour or womanly appearance. She is her own person.

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