Women and Gender in Musicals Week: Mulan: The Twinkie Defense

This review by Karina Wilson previously appeared at Bitch Flicks as part of our series on Animated Children’s Films.
Much has been written about Mulan since its release in 1998, largely because the intentions of the film-makers are so obvious, and so crass.  If you buy into the movie’s ethos, you’ll believe that Mulan is a truly border-crossing story, bringing the best of classic Chinese culture to a global audience with – gasp! – a female action hero at its center.  You can quit the revolution now, kids, ‘cos Disney says that post-colonialism and post-feminism are here to stay.

If you watch the actual movie, as I did, as a European expat teaching in a Hong Kong international school and grappling with cross-cultural questions on a daily basis (you try teaching A Bridge To Terabithia to a class of city-dwelling Chinese boys) — not so much. Mulan has always been a problematic text for me because it tries so hard to be culturally sensitive and gender-aware that it positively creaks, and those creaks can be heard by the least-savvy member of the target audience.  Its sins are not the sins of historical omission of, say, Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, but are all the more egregious because they come from a place of awareness.  Mulan is an attempt to fix something that was perceived to be, if not wrong, unbalanced.  This clumsy attempt to wedge The Ballad of Mulan into the rigid, alien form of a Disney narrative (which, among other things, demands musical numbers, a comic sidekick and a Prince Charming to come home with at the end) doesn’t fix anything, and only serves to remind us what is broken about our global culture.  The road to hell is, as ever, paved with good intentions, particularly when it heads from the West to the East.

Back in the mid-1990s, Disney had a very specific agenda when it came to China.  They wanted to get back into the regime’s good books after the PR disaster that was Kundun.  They wanted to replicate the success of 1994’s The Lion King in the region.  And they wanted to soften up the government and local politicians when it came to breaking ground on Hong Kong Disneyland, and paving the way for the Shanghai park.  What better way to win friends and influence people than by honoring a popular Chinese legend in the form of a Disney film?

So, ever mindful of the accusations of racial insensitivity that had been tossed at Aladdin and Pocahontas, and anxious to get it right this time, Disney sent key artists on the movie to China, for a three-week tour of Chinese history and culture.  Three weeks! You can totally “do China” in three weeks.  This was enough to give them all the visual reference points they needed, and the whistle-stop, touristic nature of their impressions is very much in evidence on the screen.  Every Chinese guided tour cliché is tossed into the scenery hotchpotch, from limestone mountains to the Great Wall to the Forbidden City.  This isn’t so bad – other Disney movies are set in a vague Mittel-Europe of mountains, forests and lakes – but the loving attention paid to trotting out the visual truisms of courtyard complexes, brush calligraphy, cherry blossoms et al is just window-dressing.  Mulan does look like China, but only if you’re leafing through your holiday photos back in your Florida office.

It’s a shame the screenwriters weren’t sent on the same tour.  Mulan is peppered with crass jokes about Chinese food orders (because that’s what Americans can relate to about Chinese culture, right?), disrespectful references to ancestor worship, superficial homage to Buddhist practice and some kung-fu styling, of the Carradine kind.  Given that Wu Xia is a rich, diverse, centuries old storytelling tradition, it also seems a shame that the writers didn’t draw more deeply on those perspectives.  Instead, they send Mulan on a tired, Western Hero’s Journey, plugging her variables into the 12-step formula tried and tested by countless Hollywood protagonists.  She doesn’t ever think like a Chinese woman.  She’s never more American than when her rebellious individualism (bombing the mountaintop) wins the day – her filial obedience was only ever lip service paid as a convenience in Act One.  Even in Han Dynasty China, it seems, it’s best to follow the American Way.

There’s nothing particularly Chinese about Mulan herself, who is so brutally meant to be not-Disney Princess and not-Caucasian it hurts to look at her for long.   Poor little Other.  She’s shown wearing Japanese make up, and has a facial structure more suggestive of Vietnamese than Chinese (Disney really was embracing post-colonialism). For half the movie, she also has to be not-female.  The lack of detail on a 2-D Disney face meant the animators had to design her as able to switch between genders via her hair – and something subtle going on with her eyebrows.  The resulting face evokes, more than anything, a pre-op kathoey who hasn’t yet taken advantage of Thailand’s booming plastic surgery clinics in order to make zer gender-reassignment complete.

Oh, Mulan.  She’s meant to be non-offensive, and she ends up being not-anything.  Despite claims to the contrary, she’s not a feminist hero.  She has to dress as a boy to achieve selfhood, and refuses political influence in order to return to the domestic constraints of her father and husband-to-be.  The movie itself doesn’t even pass the Bechdel test, if you consider that the only topic the other female characters discuss is Mulan’s marriageability – a hypothetical relationship with a man.  The final defeat of the antagonist is achieved by the male Mushu riding on a phallic firecracker, as Mulan flails helplessly at his feet.  Positive female role model? Case closed.

Nonetheless, Mulan did brisk business worldwide – apart from in China.  It perhaps had most impact on second or third-gen Asian-Americans, who could relate to the over-simplified view of China, and feel a connection with this stereotypical version of “their” culture, lacking many other reference points.  For Asian-Americans across the board, not just Chinese-Americans, Mulan’s brown, angular features represented something vaguely familiar, which made a delightful change.  For Chinese-Chinese, Mulan was a thoughtless Western blunder.  For Asian-Americans, particularly little girls, Mulan was a rare screen representation of aspects of their selves.  Mulan drove the story, at the center of almost every scene, instead of pushed to the periphery as a “typical Asian” shopkeeper, geek, or whore.  They could even purchase Mulan merch – although it’s still impossible to buy a doll, a t-shirt or a pin showing Mulan in warrior mode, she’s always got her hair down, and is wearing her hanfu frock.  For a generation of Twinkies, Asian on the outside, American on the inside, Mulan was significant, a role model in the Disney pantheon of princesses.  It didn’t matter that she was a bit low-rent (no castle, not really a princess), and she hadn’t snagged a proposal by the end of the movie (that happily ever after is a ‘maybe’), she allowed Asian-American girls, many of them adopted, to hold their heads high.  And for that alone, you have to love her.

Mulan wouldn’t seem like such a frustrating, failed attempt to push gender and cultural boundaries if it had been followed up by other stories of empowered female warrior heroes.  A Disney version of Joan of Arc or Boudicca could have been a blast.  Unfortunately, since 1998, it’s been pretty much princess as usual.  On the bright side, Disney achieved some of their other goals with Mulan.  Hong Kong Disneyland (itself the subject of accusations of crass cultural insensitivity) has been doing brisk business since 2005, thanks to a US$2.9billion investment by Hong Kong taxpayers (of which I was one).  The majority of tourists are from mainland China.  They come to marvel at Western icons like Mickey, and an all-American Main Street that’s a replica of the one in Anaheim.  Thanks to the ubiquitous presence of Mulan images, they stick around.  It feels a tiny bit more like they might have a stake in the happiest place on earth.

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Karina Wilson currently lives in Los Angeles and works as a writer and story consultant. She reviews movies for Planet Fury, writes about horror literature at LitReactor and horror films at Horror Film History. Her teaching site, Mediaknowall, has guided media studies students for more than a decade.

 

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08508302421134951238 Meredith L.

    I’m glad you posted this. My 4-year old son and I just watched “Mulan” together for the first time a few weeks ago when it aired on Disney Junior.

    As the feminist mother of two boys (the other is six months old), I used “Mulan” as the jumping-off point for a dialogue with my older son about some of the issues the movie presents: Does he think it’s fair that she’s not allowed to fight just because she’s a woman? Why does he think she’s doing all those things (spitting, picking fights, etc.) when she’s pretending to be a man – and how does that work out for her? How did he feel when she got found out as a girl and got left behind?

    My proudest moment in feminist parenting came when the only take-away my son picked up from the song “A Girl Worth Fighting For” was the line, “A lady who speaks her mind.”

    But, as a white woman with white kids, I see that my dialogue with my children on the subject of “Mulan” is only half-over. Time to hit the internet and do some research on Chinese history…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08024571610227384326 Rainicorn

    Great analysis, Karina. Meredith L, that’s an awesome approach to parenting :)

    Also interesting: (probably white) internet trans*masculine youth culture’s wholesale embrace of the song “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You.” Yes, we find it empowering to belt out that we must be swift as the coursing river, etc., but clearly we need better analysis/awareness of the deeply problematic race and gender stuff going on in this movie. I think your point about second- and third-gen Asian-Americans finding that Mulan spoke to them is another good example of how something can be actually pretty failtastic but still be meaningful to people, especially if it’s the closest thing they have to a mainstream pop-culture representation of themselves.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13042740730713682014 Bitch Flicks

    With no disrespect meant, I have to point out the serious flaw I find in your argument that Mulan is not a feminist hero.

    To begin: “She has to dress as a boy to achieve selfhood” is clearly an argument rooted in the idea that “dressing like a boy” even exists. It’s based entirely in the idea that clothing dictates gender and completely ignores the fact that when she truly (if you’ll pardon the generic term) blossoms, she’s back in a dress (notice the ironic reprise of I’ll Make A Man Out Of You) and so are her new friends. You also quite heavily imply with “refuses
    political influence in order to return to the domestic constraints of
    her father and husband-to-be” that a woman who chooses to live at home over a career cannot be a feminist. Highly insulting to many a stay-at-home-mom who are also strong, independent women. Who are you to decide that she’s anti-feminist just because she wanted to go home? Why can’t she make a difference in her own home, by changing her own family?

    The movie not passing the Bechdel test is kind of a main plot point. It sets up her feelings of isolation and inadequacy; feelings that people relate to. It wouldn’t have the same impact if it wasn’t. The Ballad Of Mulan’s protagonist didn’t have these feelings or issues, and I personally consider her an exceptionally flat, boring character. How many little kids really relate to someone who gets everything right the first time and succeeds without any issues? No one really wants to root for the person who can do anything. Everyone loves an underdog.

    The final defeat comes from Mulan’s own plan-she was the one who positioned Mushu to attack in the first place. Her “helpless flailing” was nothing more than a ploy to lure the villain out there. It’s an obvious facade which she tosses aside the moment she sees that her companion is prepared to launch the attack, then pins him in place with his own sword. Having her kill him with her own sword would’ve been a bit gruesome for a Disney movie, where the villain’s deaths are usually done in a manner that avoids having the hero dirty their own hands.

    As I said, I’m not trying to start an argument here, I’m just saying that you might want to consider reevaluating Mulan’s feminism.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13042740730713682014 Bitch Flicks

    I agree with Candy in her points, and as an Asian, myself, I wonder what exactly do you mean by “she’s an American girl in an Asian woman’s body?” Be of the greatest assumptions that the Western World has conjured is that INDIVIDUALISM is a product of Western thought. individualism also takes root in Asian philosophy and political consciousness, mind you. And though I do not doubt your credentials (for you have written yourself that you taught in Hong Kong), I think you don’t know “HOW ASIAN WOMEN THINK”. It is sad that westerners such as yourself, dear writer, think that Asians are too COMMUNAL and that whenever an Asian character takes control of her own life, you consider her as “Americanized”.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13042740730713682014 Bitch Flicks

    As an aside, and not taking issue with your central argument (which I think was right on), however: Like you, I would love love love it if disney would pick more strong female characters. I don’t care if they are princesses (I thought it was a huge point in Mulan’s favor that she wasn’t one.) But the two you list here, Joan of Arc (burned at the stake) and Boudicca (either committed suicide to avoid Roman capture or died of illness when the Roman’s finally rallied) aren’t exactly disney material without some serious editing of the end and some serious omissions of historically perpetrated violence–a lot of it, sexual (Boudicca’s daughters are raped prior to her taking up the sword, according to Tacitus, and she is brutally, publicly, flogged). Ie, I’d have trouble imagining these movies done in a way that didn’t fall into the Pocahontas trap. The difficulty with so many of these historically based figures is that violence against women (and and the Other) is so pervasive as to make a disney safe versions of their stories borderline irresponsible. I feel more comfortable with the idea of the revision of myths, though have similar anxieties to the sort of issues that you raise here about Mulan.

    Mostly, I’m curious what other readers think alternative female heroes (not princesses, necessarily) might fit the requirements of a kick-ass female lead? And, how can you alter these stories and still do justice to their core elements? Or, how do you tell these stories in an honest, but audience/age appropriate way?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13042740730713682014 Bitch Flicks

    i’m one of those second-gen Asian girls who adored Mulan when it first came out and still does today. There’s definitely parts of Mulan that are problematic but I don’t think the influence it had on us second/third gen kids can be written off as a side benefit- she was the VERY FIRST Asian heroine I had ever seen at that point and one of the most resonant.

    the critique that Mulan looks like a pre-op kathoey is crude as fuck- I disagree with the assertion to begin with but the author is also clearly trying to imply that looking like a trans* person is a terrible thing. And in the same paragraph that they complain that Mulan has more Vietnamese features than Chinese they compare her to a Thai person. Undermines the original critique when you interchange ethnicities like that in the same breath.

    is the fact that there’s no definite proposal of marriage at the end a good or bad thing? The author also seems to waver- Mulan isn’t quite a princess cause she doesn’t snag the guy for sure, and she’s not quite a feminist hero either because there’s a Prince Charming in the mix (never mind that “getting” him is never a major plot point or motivation behind Mulan’s heroism/character).

    (tbh i read this whole article with a bit of sideeye cause i’m really not interested in white women’s opinions of “my” culture or seeing me and mine labeled as “Twinkies” by a white lady, thnx.)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13042740730713682014 Bitch Flicks

    I do think many of your points are valid, such as the Bechdel Test mention and the lumping of several Asian cultures. However, from my humble point of view, Mulan was one of my heroes. I chose to serve in the military for several years and it was inspiring to remember a movie in which a small, somewhat sheltered girl could use her brain and her personality as tools to make herself into something heroic. Mulan may be dressed as a boy, but it is her individual qualities that make her the protagonist, and, as she says, the ultimate reason she stayed (when she had been dismissed and could have gone home, her father’s life saved by default) was so she could find a purpose. That purpose had nothing to do with finding a man. The choices she makes and the way she harnesses her abilities is what saves her country and earns her friends who no longer see her as just a woman, but as a person and an equal. Sure, she marries in the sequel (no mention at all of a set marriage is in the first movie, btw), but it is her choice and not arranged. Surely a woman deciding her own fate on her own terms is worthy of praise?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13042740730713682014 Bitch Flicks

    Well to tell you the truth I think you’re overdoing it. Disney is about Fairy Tales, which means romanticized History, or stories, otherwise all of their adaptations should be thrown out. The problem is that by searching for every fault in the movie, you yourself are kind of being an anti-feminist. As people, we have our faults and it’s not a question of gender, but of personality. What if she wants to go home to her family who she hasn’t seen in a long time, she had probably never left them before, she left without a word, anything could have happen to them. She only refused a job at the palace nothing more. Maybe she’s just not suited to the over fancy life there, ect…
    Also it is a fact that she would have had to pass for a boy in order to be accepted otherwise she would never have been given a chance to even stay in the area (or alive).
    If you want her to be able to live in a world where she can do it without hiding then either she would be in our time (and even that….) or she would need to be in a made up land where everybody’s equal; and since they usually try to represent our society or a mix of ancient societies, the chances of this happening are very low.
    To me it’s more of a denunciation of stereotypes and sexism than anything (I mean just the song I’ll make a man out of you, what he describes the way he talks is an idolized vision of men and not a realistic one).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13042740730713682014 Bitch Flicks

    I agree so much with many of the points in your article. No disrespect, but I find the part about second generation Asians connecting to this almost offensive. As a second generation Asian American, I did view Mulan as a bridge to Chinese culture, because she was the only one there. Except, I also knew that there was more to the story, and this movie pushed me to find out more about my culture. By calling people like me a gullible, ignorant twinkie for enjoying the movie, you make it seem like it’s shallow and uneducated to do so. Mulan was one of the only Asian heroes for me growing up, and I couldn’t help but look up to her.

    I’m really sorry if it seems like I’m disrespecting your review, I’m not trying to, and I agree with many of the points. I highly respect this website, and everything on it. That part just made me think, and I’m glad that this website lets everyone have a say in the comment section.

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