Disney’s Mulan at 25, and the Best of Can-Do Feminism

Disney’s Mulan at 25, and the Best of Can-Do Feminism February 27, 2023

“Chinese Dragon symbolizes potent and auspicious powers. Historically, the dragon was the symbol of the Emperor of China.”

I have watched Disney’s Mulan, which turns 25 years old this year, twice in the past ten days. On a family getaway last weekend, my kids watched this arguable last of the Disney classics based on the sixth century Chinese Ballad of Mulan—in which a young girl dresses as a man and enlists in the Chinese army to spare her elderly and ailing father, who has no son to fight in his stead—with their cousins over cupcakes.

This week, we watched the film again because my newly minted six-year-old used his birthday privileges to select it as our Friday feature.

When this second viewing of the movie concluded, my son informed his father and me that he would like to marry a girl that can fight like Mulan. Then, they can go all over the world catching criminals that hurt poor people and bringing them to swift and certain justice. My own satisfaction in this precocious devotion to Catholic charity and its necessary attendant, Roman justice, notwithstanding (apparently, my husband and I are doing a decent job of inculcating our values so far), I strongly suspect that my son will ultimately not form a vigilante duo with his eventual spouse.

I confess, however, that do I hope his version of the ideal feminine remains as close as possible to that which is embodied by Mulan as depicted by Disney: a strong heart and a strong mind, as manifested by a self-aware woman.

Unfortunately, in the past 25 years, we’ve lost ground as a culture in our admiration for strong women. The mainstream feminist movement (which was once essential to establish women’s free exercise of equal rights and could be so again, were it to focus its energies on the myriad places in the world where such rights for women still do not exist), has in the United States recently desiccated into a childish forum for the rejection of both biology and nature.

So, I hope—and I worry.

A Strong Heart

In 1998, when Mulan was released, “girl power” was the en vogue way to express feminism. Yes, the problems that would eventually result from this regressive and narrow iteration of female strength were obvious then, and have come to pass now, as the erstwhile simple question “what is a woman?” has become the ultimate political football. Nonetheless, in 1998, the old feminist emphasis on what girls could do (not what they are) still animated all relevant political questions.

One such question was about women in the military. Former Vice President Mike Pence, a conservative who in 1998 opposed women’s inclusion in the military, objected to Disney’s release of Mulan on the grounds of, first, what he considered to be the unrealism of Mulan’s military success and, second, what he considered to be the realism of her eventual romance with a superior officer. For Pence, a woman’s “ingenuity and courage” were so vanishingly unlikely to render her the equal of her male counterparts in combat that the engaging storyline of Mulan must have been calibrated to make viewers forget the then-universally understood reality that most men are larger and stronger than most women. Moreover, the fact that “even in the Disney film, young Ms. Mulan falls in love with her superior officer” speaks, in Pence’s interpretation, to the likelihood that sexual tension would disrupt cohesion in mixed sex military units.

I do not share Pence’s reasonable but misguided concerns, in part because I’m not sure that an individual woman’s ability to complete, by dint of her creativity, a physical challenge to which her male counterparts found their superior physical strength unequal is the most unrealistic thing about an animated film that features various talking animals, including a dragon impeccably voiced by Eddie Murphy. (Not to mention a horse carrying a dozen people pulled up a mountain by one man three times the animal’s size).

Of course Mulan is rife with exaggeration and unrealism about Mulan’s physical abilities. It’s an animated Disney film—and thus rife with exaggeration and unrealism about, um, everything.

What the film gets correct, however, and where it does influence viewers in what I believe to be the right direction, is its lionization of Mulan’s persistence and courage, and the ways in which her marital and feminine failures (the matchmaker throws her out, because she makes so many mistakes and is so indecorous) are inextricable from her physical and military successes.

Mulan is the kind of girl that went undesired and unvalued by the traditional Chinese society in which (as in most traditional societies across the world) girls’ only societal value was how well they married. Her virtues—creativity, bravery, determination, and so on—were drawbacks on the marriage market of her time. Some men (maybe Pence is one) see these characteristics in a woman as romantic drawbacks even today, especially insofar as they are likely to coexist with lesser degrees of docility and fewer layers of makeup.

By 1998, feminism had done us all the societal service of recognizing that there are all kinds of women, just as there are all kinds of men.

After all, it is not Mulan’s physical feats that make her a heroine worth emulating (or, in my son’s case, aspiring to marry): it is the undaunted heart she displays in working twice as hard as her male counterparts to achieve the same thing. Mulan’s extra work is necessary in this military context because of the usual physical differences between women and men (which are evident to any honest person) and the ways in which these differences must be accounted for by a woman’s overbalance of both creativity and hustle when (as in the case of some extraordinarily talented women) they can be accounted for at all.

A Strong Mind

To remain in her male disguise and thereby save her father without exposing herself and her family to shame, Mulan has to consider various physical and social realities. Even in the animated Disney film, some of these are depicted to humorous effect.

She is careful, for example, where and when she bathes—lest the appearance of her fellow soldiers both violates her modesty and reveals her secret. She is also compelled to cover her face in embarrassment when marching by the fields where women (at whom her male comrades whistle) labor. Talk about “girl power”: the women laugh at her because, unlike the men with whom she’s been living and training for months, they instantly recognize a fellow woman.

But there are also various questions on which Mulan does not feel compelled to ruminate.

When her father is called to fight because he has no son to take his place, she does not lose sleep—as a gender studies major today might—over why only sons, and not daughters, are considered acceptable soldiers in lieu of their fathers. (Hint: the, “on average, bigger and stronger” reality of which we are all aware). Instead, she disguises herself and is on her way.

When Mulan is told to go home from military training in disgrace because she can’t perform at the same level as her male counterparts, she does not consider whether the Chinese army’s requirements are inequitable and thus discriminatory because she fails to meet them—and thereby hope to lower the standards for soldiers, rendering herself more comfortable but her country less safe. Such is the regressive, infantile impulse of many claiming feminism today; Mulan, though, takes it upon herself to either meet the specified standards or fail trying.

Finally, when the film’s main villain, Hun leader Shan-Yu, is finally done in (and dozens of his marauding bandits before him), Mulan does not wonder whether the erstwhile murderer of hundreds has been treated quite fairly, nor does she consider whether she ought to have attempted to reform him rather than (literally—again, it’s Disney) blowing him up. She recognizes without question or demure—exactly as her male counterparts are expected to—that Shan-Yu and his soldiers had to be stopped at any cost. She does not engage in the utopian fantasies now common among feminists (despite being so fantastical as to belong in a Disney film and nowhere else): that there might be some way besides total incapacitation (unto death if necessary) to deal with people that repeatedly and wantonly murder without remorse and lead others to do so as well.

In short, unlike alarming numbers of women (especially, unsurprisingly, those professing progressive politics and feminism) today, Mulan is psychologically healthy.

In the course of the movie, Mulan is variously sad, angry, and scared, among other emotions. But (unlike the female characters in Encanto, whose virtues and limitations I will address in a future column) she is not particularly anxious.

Anxiety affects us all, and today affects many women in increasingly sustained and alarming ways. When I was a child, anxiety was given special mention in each mass, after the Our Father, when the celebrant prayed, “and protect us from all anxiety.” Today, “distress” has been substituted for “anxiety” (to lesser effect in my opinion).

Per the old prayer, anxiety can ultimately be countered (as opposed to medically managed) only by truth.

The truths of our faith, yes (that God reigns, and so on) but also the metaphysical and social truths—about sex, equity, and justice, as well as about the transience of emotions and the value of purpose—that mainstream feminism now rejects and has been enticing young women (and, indeed, increasingly young men as well) to reject at their peril.

That’s why, twenty-five years later, the can-do version of feminism that produced Mulan is long overdue for a comeback.

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