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The film Mulan was released in 1998, where the story opens up with the Great Wall of China, where ShanYu (leader of the Huns) invades China for the sake of control and conquest. Mulan, the daughter of a famed but disabled war veteran, is set out to meet the match-maker, where things go horribly wrong. She just isn’t able to maneuver properly, and fails the test for what’s expected of women. There’s a draft for men, and she ultimately decides to take her fathers place cutting her hair, and posing as a man to do so. Meanwhile, the ghost of her family ancestors send Mulan help that ends up being Mushu, a small dragon with a spotty track record. After joining the ranks and some battles later, she ends up saving the emperor from Shan Yu and makes her father proud.
To set the stage a bit, Mulan brilliantly depicts the ties between sex, gender, and the state. The opening song “Honor To Us All” is sung by all the characters as Mulan prepares to her doom regarding the match-maker visit. The song introduces the gender politics of the narrative world where in it they sing “A man by bearing arms, a girl by bearing sons”, in relation to serving the emperor. Gender norms functioning within a culture that rely on militarism, distort what it means to be a human being in relation to other human beings. This plays out in Mulan in two ways tying together the symbols of gender, and the state with the symbol of the family. So you have the emperor as the sort of patriarch father figure to the nation. He’s like a grandpa, and stands in a sort of analogical relation to grandmother fa. Their analogs for example are they use their familial power knowledge to provide sexual guidance to the pairing at the end of the film. The emperor says “You don’t meet a girl like that every dynasty”, and grandmother Fa says “Would you like to stay forever?” after Mulan suggests dinner. Gender roles have a family dimension eg bearing sons, as well as a political dimension eg sons existing to bear arms. The Fa family is a sort of miniature state of the whole, with gender playing a large role at each side of it. Militarism with its codes of honor, and shame bind all the parts together.
Shakespeare and his friends knew in the renaissance that gender is a performance. Mulan as a film is sort of a shakespearean comedy. Mulan as a Disney movie, surprisingly doesn’t put as much emphasis on a romantic plot unlike others. The story revolves around a series of gender performances on the part of Mulan, whos persuaviness and unpersuavisness poke holes in the performances of those around her. The story begins with Mulan’s unpersuasive performance of extreme femininity with the match-maker. This a dramaturgical struggle, down to makeup, costume, choreography. So while unconvincing, she’s still a woman. Her dramaturgical failure isn’t by being biologically a woman, it’s being marriageable. The point is that being a woman and being marriageable are in this context seen as the same, but Mulan’s failure proves implicitly that this is bogus. There is nothing natural about anything she’s asked to do. As mentioned earlier, she failed in a performance of extreme femininity. Maybe it’s not about romance, but power and hierarchy. The stakes for everything is based on honor, which in the movie is what you have after playing your role according to all the political, cultural, and moral norms. The opposite is shame, which is at stake throughout the movie. Most of the movie follows Mulan’s second performance of gender, this time with masculinity in its extreme form. Musho of course tries to give Mulan directions on how to act with the men, and what’s great about the movie is that it sets up the match-maker scene and drill camp scenes analogous to each other. Both men and women are asked to perform something unnatural or toxic, a set of norms that alienate people from their own desires and from other people. The thing with militant masculinity is that it holds itself together with plenty of misogyny. So eventually Mulan’s performance becomes unconvincing as is clear from Chi Fu, which brings us to the mens performances of masculinity. Chi Fu is really misogynist, but is really quite in the middle when it comes to the way he performs gender codes. This is illustrated during the swimming scene when he gets out, and squeals… he says just beforehand “I do not squeal like a girl”. All three friends Ling, Yao, and Jin Po, who are insecure about their various masculinities, have no problem by the end of the film when they change their gender performance to dress in drag to help Mulan save the emperor. On the other hand, Shang is consistent and resistant to change even as the others embrace their gender slippage.
What this movie does it identify and portray the growth of self identity. Mulan wants to look into a mirror someday and recognize the face she sees. It turns out who she really is, is smart, someone who can defy classic tropes of manliness, in exchange for ingenuity, and complete the tasks that the other physically stronger men could not. Mulan as a movie, and as a character conveys how powerful self identity is, even if you need to cross dress to achieve it. She uses the military as a platform, not because she’s itching for a fight, but because she views it as a way to risk her own life, rather than the life of her ailing father. The irony in all of this is in a movie that places most of its emphasis and song in fighting, war, and all the various traits you need to succeed in both. Having a female lead in the process is what creates this resonating tale in self discovery, and self acceptance. I think this is where feminism comes in more than anywhere else. Too many people (men), they accuse feminism as being this oppressive hate group when the feminists represent a minority. In reality, it would be about treating both genders with equality meaning that the unique invaluable ways that both can contribute to society, should be given equal footing. In Mulan, it’s the representation of this. Not only because a male dominated society embraces her, but because on top of this she never feels the need to view herself as more important than anyone else. This is gender equality at its finest, because both her and her comrades know it took both to win the day.
So ontology and ethics, being and action, are tied up with ideas about sex and gender but differently. Throughout the film they’re in tension with one another. As a woman, Mulan is both subjected to being a certain way (ontology), and expected to behave accordingly (ethics). The work of the film is to deconstruct how duty in the film world, and real life is understood as the product of ontology plus ethics, when really it’s something we use to justify the way things are manage womens bodies one hand, and mens emotional lives on the other. Mulan defies both her families and the states ontological demands, (her sex) and ethical demands (her gender); Not to create some brand new idea of duty, but maybe a renewed duty based on human worth grounded in familial love rather than the honor and shame dynamic. Speaking of love, it’s interesting that in Mulan, the erratic relationship between Mulan and Shang is only suggested as possible. Shang after all has a hard time seeing “Ping” (Mulan) as a fully human person, and he’s the stiffest gendered character of the group to the point when he comes to court Mulan in the end, he’s very awkward about it. So now that Mulan was a girl towards the end, he had to court her? One can wonder if that meant he liked her as Ping, or if he was just following the emperors advise.
So Mulan was a movie that depicted ties between the relation of sex and gender, involved extreme feminism, and used the growth of self-identity. Of course how does this movie and fiction teach us anything? For fiction to be moral, does that mean it has to be somehow accurate to some set of real world facts? On a last note, the song “Be a Man” is pretty great, even if the point of it is rendered mute once realized that women can be all those things too, and great men are more than just physical traits. Mulan is a special film that resonates and holds up well throughout the years. It gave a platform for females, individualism, and Asian stories and culture, for which all three matter and are given proper weight without overplaying feminism, or underplaying anything else.
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