Disney’s “Mulan” was released in 1998 and remains as one of Disney’s classic children’s movies. Mulan takes place in Imperial China during the invasion of the Huns over the recently constructed Great Wall. The movie follows the journey of Fa Mulan, the only child of a respected war hero. During the initial invasions, Mulan is struggling to bring honour to her father and family, by becoming a respectable woman who will soon find a husband. After failing yet again at fitting into society’s cookie cut out of a perfect Chinese woman, Mulan returns home to soon find that the Emperor has released letters of conscription to each family. Since Mulan is the only child in the Fa family, and female, her father is forced to enlist in the war. However, he is injured from his first time serving and as a result is weak and requires a cane to walk. Therefore, in order to save her father, Mulan changes her appearance by cutting her hair off and sets off to fight for China in her father’s place. The story thus follows Mulan’s struggles of being a woman in a man’s world, leading to her ultimate triumph of being the one to save the Emperor, and China, from the Huns.
The basis of Mulan’s story revolves around one the largest forms of cultural hegemony, and one that is still predominately seen in the East today. This cultural hegemony is the equality struggle between men and women. From the beginning of the movie, gender roles are very clearly distinguished. Although this further enhances Mulan’s ultimate triumph, it negatively feeds into the cultural hegemony of the movie.
Mulan’s character is introduced as being a failure to her family up to this point in her life. The first scene shows Mulan studying for her meeting with the town’s matchmaker. In order for Mulan to bring honour to her family, she must do well on this interview so that she will be married to a respectable man. As Mulan goes over the qualities a woman should have she recites: “quiet, graceful, delicate, polite, poise, punctual.” This is an example of pop culture’s stereotype for how a woman should behave. To further this stereotype, as she is being prepared for her interview the workers sing to her: “men want girls with good taste, calm, obedient, who work fast past, with good breeding and a tiny waste…you’ll bring honour to us all.” As the workers dress Mulan they pull her belt tight, clearly making Mulan uncomfortable, but emphasizing her petite figure. We watched a part of Jean Kilbourne’s “Killing Us Softly” in lecture four, and discussed the way pop culture and the media discuss body image. With regards to Mulan, it is clear that the importance lies on her physical qualities and essentially what she will be able to offer a husband. The comments on Mulan’s size however, do not end there. When Mulan meets the matchmaker, the first thing she says while evaluating her is “too skinny, not good for bearing sons.” Not only does this completely objectify Mulan as a baby-making machine, but also the importance of the message is once again brought back to Mulan’s physical qualities. Jean Kilbourne explains how in the eyes of the media we are never good enough. This holds to be true in the portrayal of Mulan. First she is told to be skinny and then put down as being too skinny. The message being sent to young children, and young girls for that matter is completely absurd. Rather than enforcing body image as a positive aspect, this movie tells children who are in the stage of developing self-image that they will never be good enough.
The cultural hegemony in Mulan is depicted through the idea of honour. By Mulan being a female, any of her actions that are not considered culturally acceptable automatically bestow dishonor on her father. When Mulan interrupts the conscription announcement in her first attempt to save her father, the Emperor’s assistant tells Mulan’s father: “you would do well to teach your daughter to hold her tongue in a man’s presence.” Mulan is constantly told that she must learn her place, even by her father, who although loves Mulan, is still embarrassed by her actions. As a female, Mulan will never have the same social power or respect as a man. This can also be seen when Mulan is revealed to her fellow soldiers and captain as being a woman. Although Mulan saved the entire team and was even wounded in the process, as soon as she is revealed to be a female all respect for her is lost. The captain was in fact supposed to kill Mulan for her actions, causing “high treason! Ultimate dishonor!” However, he spares her life since she just saved his. Nevertheless, Mulan loses all credit for her brave actions that saved the Imperial army. Thankfully, her honour is restored in the end of the movie when she saves the Emperor (as a female) alongside her fellow soldiers.
At one point, Mulan makes her fellow soldiers dress up as women to distract the guards. When the guards see them they mutter “concubines” to each other. Ironically, concubines in Imperial China were women contracted to men as secondary wives. These women had lower social status and rights, thus, another depiction of woman as a secondary class to men.
In lecture five we discussed the novels “50 Shades of Grey” and “Twilight” and examined common qualities between the two. Mulan also follows these characteristics. For example, characteristics of the males are dominance, competitiveness, and physical prowess. In contrast, Mulan is self-sacrificing, clumsy, empathetic, and has anxiety about her beauty. Overall, Mulan, like the books analyzed in lecture, ends with a happy marriage and peace.