Lee has a bachelor's in English Lit. She loves analyzing fiction and obsessing over books, film, and television.
Mulan is a Disney film that was released in 1998 and is one of the last films from the Disney Renaissance era.
With the live action version of this film coming out soon, I found myself reminiscing about the original Mulan. It has always been one of my ultimate favorite Disney films. Part of the reason was because I've always been fascinated by Chinese history.
There were many Chinese women who did great things, such as Wu Zetian, the only female emperor in Chinese history. She was vilified later (naturally), despite the peace and prosperity she brought to China.
I have always viewed her as a great liberator of Chinese women, who she uplifted the second she uplifted herself from a concubine and took power.
Disney's Fa Mulan is based on the legend of a Chinese woman named Hua Mulan who donned her father's armor and went to war in order to protect him from being drafted. Because she is a legend, no one knows if she ever really existed, but I always liked to believe that she did.
Another reason I really love Disney's Mulan is its overall message of self-acceptance and self-love.
When the film first opens, Mulan (Ming-Na Wen) is depicted as a screw-up who can't seem to do anything right. Her poor father is seen praying to the ancestors that she doesn't embarrass herself with the matchmaker.
Meanwhile, Mulan can't remember how she's supposed to act and what she's supposed to do, so she just writes it all on her arm.
It's not so much that Mulan is a screw-up. It's the fact that she's being asked to become someone she's not in order to fit into society.
Because she is a woman, Mulan has been designated the role of marrying a man, cleaning his house, looking pretty all the time, and having his children—without any regard as to what she might want to actually do with her own life (the implication here being that women exist to serve men).
Mulan can't fit into that role because it's not who she is.
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Performing femininity is not who any woman is.
When people talk about "performing femininity," we are talking about makeup, dresses, shaving, waxing, crippling shoes (China has a long, cruel history with foot binding on women), impractical clothing that sexualizes . . . All of that was invented by men for men at the expense of women.
I'm not saying women are wrong who wear makeup and high heels. Do whatever you want. I don't care.
But it wasn't invented for you, and it's not empowering to wear lipstick. Wearing makeup won't close the wage gap or get you abortion rights. So no. Not empowering at all.
These practices were invented for the benefit of men and repackaged as "feminine."
It's not reality. It's a stereotype. A sexist caricature of how men see women.
It is not us.
And because, deep down, Mulan knows this is not who she is, she has a hard time going along with the sexist script she's been handed.
She winds up screwing up her meeting with the matchmaker entirely because she doesn't feel comfortable in tight dresses and makeup and flashy hair. She doesn't feel like herself. It's like wearing shoes that are too big.
What makes Mulan different from other women in the film isn't that she later becomes a badass fighter. It's that she knew all along that being forced to be someone she wasn't was wrong, and she refused to accept it.
When I was a kid, I used to think that Mulan was sad because she couldn't fit in.
Now that I'm older, I understand that Mulan was sad because she had just come to the realization that she lived in a world that would not allow her to be herself.
"Can it be
I'm not meant to play this part?
Now I see
that if I were truly to be myself,
I would break my family's heart.
When will my reflection show who I am inside?"
Instead of being herself, Mulan was expected to submit to sexism, living her life for the pleasure of men and never on her own terms. She is basically told that the only way to bring honor to her family is to serve a man in his household.
Just minutes after the "Reflection" song, Mulan is reminded of her "place" and is told to "hold her tongue in a man's presence."
When Mulan's sick and elderly father is drafted into the military, Mulan takes matters into her own hands. She cuts her long hair short (symbolic of cutting away society's sexist idea of "femininity"), dons her father's old armor, and rides off to join the military.
Unfortunately, Mulan has a hard time with her training. This isn't because she's a woman.
I'm saying this as a woman who went through basic training, okay? I was doing worse stuff than what Mulan was doing in this film. Carrying some buckets of rocks was nothing compared to my training.
No, Mulan has a hard time with her training because—once again—she is trying to be someone she's not.
Mulan is not a tough, macho person. She has a hard time fitting in with the other soldiers because that's not who Mulan is! She is not masculine!
To be perfectly clear, you don't have to be masculine to succeed in the military. That's not what I'm saying.
And indeed, Mulan eventually does very well in her training.
One of the best moments in the film is when Mulan spends all night climbing that pole and gets the arrow at the top by the morning.
Her determination—and her ability to succeed where the men failed—earns her the respect of her peers, and she goes on to be a great soldier.
No, what I'm saying is that Mulan initially had a hard time with her training because she was trying too hard to be masculine and fit in with the men. Once again, she was wearing shoes that were too big, and they tripped her.
Eventually, Mulan is outed. The penalty is usually death, but because she saved lives in the last battle, she is simply sent home in shame.
And you can't help but feel sorry for Mulan.
None of this was really her fault. She was forced to keep pretending to be what she wasn't simply because the world doesn't want to allow women to be human beings. Instead, there's always some mask we must don, some box we must fit, in order to please and serve men.
Had Mulan lived in a society that just let her be who she was, she wouldn't have been forced through so many painful moments of humiliation and difficulty. She could have just gone to war in her father's place as a woman, as a soldier who had as much value as her male counterparts.
So having finally realized that she can't succeed while pretending to be what she's not, Mulan embraces who she actually is.
She dons her normal clothing, takes up a sword, and succeeds in saving China from invasion.
You could say that by choosing to be herself, Mulan chose to balance her yin/yang energy. Everyone has masculine and feminine energy inside them. Those energies have nothing to do with biology—the patriarchy would just like you to think they do.
The reality is, anyone can be masculine or feminine regardless of biological sex because those are personality traits and not a product of "gendered brains."
Once Mulan balanced her masculine and feminine sides, she was able to just be herself, and she succeeded. The second she gave society a middle finger and was true to her heart, she was able to save her entire country.
This is a pretty important lesson for children. If one is not in alignment with the self, one can not succeed. You can't live a lie and achieve your true greatness.
In that light, it's easy to see how asking women to be something we're not is pretty much suffocating us (times that by ten for us lesbians).
Mulan refused to be a sex object, refused to be a possession, refused to be a domestic slave, and refused to be a baby-making machine.
She refused to be restricted based on her biological sex. She chose her own path, and that path was in service to others, but in a different way.
The difference here being that she chose it.