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Regarding different aspects of sociological thought, the 1998 film Mulan provides many illustrations of intriguing social behavior. Mulan is about a young Chinese woman who disguises herself as a man in order to protect her ailing father, Fa Zhou, from being drafted into another war. China is under attack by a group named the Huns led by Shan Yu. In the wake of this attack, the Chinese military calls for one man from every family to serve and help defeat the Huns. Zhou has already served in a previous war which has left him in a weaker condition than most. Mulan is fearful that her father may die due to his condition and decides to take his place. During this time period, China was under a patriarchal regime, which meant Mulan was instantly disregarded due to her being a woman. Nonetheless, Mulan does whatever it takes to protect her father and family — she cuts her hair, takes her father’s armor, and heads towards the training grounds. There, Mulan faces many challenges but overcomes them by being resilient and persistent which led to her being able to keep up with the other men. Mulan defeats the Hun leader Shan Yu and, in the process, saves all of China. Although she is a woman, she was awarded a sword and the emperors crest which is among the highest honor. Mulan returns home to a proud father. In the movie, Mulan, sociological concepts such as structural functionalism, conflict, gender, and inequality are prevalent and work together to highlight a variety of social interactions.
Mulan was a successful film because it leads the viewers to vicariously experience the ways of life through Mulan. The director and scriptwriters use powerful imagery such as, historically accurate illustrations of characters, their clothes, and culture. By using this technique, the audience, dominantly of a young impressionable age, are introduced to the cultural distinctions of another country. This allows viewers to temporarily live through Mulan’s sociological perspective. While entertaining the film provided valuable insight on cultural differences.
The sociological theories that were prevalent throughout the film where conflict and structural functionalism. Shan Yu, leader of the Huns, attacks China in an attempt to gain wealth and power. He chooses to go into battle in order to defeat China’s army and show them what a real and powerful leader looks like. Shan Yu represents the poor while Mulan and her village represent the wealthy. He may be taking out his frustrations of being in the lower class of society in the form of retaliation. According to Stein and Ferris, “Conflict theory proposes that conflict and tension are basic facts of social life and suggests that people have disagreements over goals and values and are involved in struggles over both resources and power”. Mulan also experiences gender role conflict between herself and her male alter ego Ping. When Mulan is herself, her thoughts and actions are dismissed in an instant, but when she is Ping, she experiences the freedoms that come with being a man. When Mulan first personifies Ping, she struggles with the ideology of how men act. For example in one of the scenes from Mulan, a fight breaks out, and Mulan attributes it to the fact that it was just one of those things that men do by saying that “but you know how it is when you get those manly urges and you just gotta kill something”. Her rationalization of men acting rowdy may come from her seeing men as dominant figures, so they are entitled to do what they want. Mulan presents structural functionalism as one of its key points for the expectations of society. Ferris and Stein define structural functionalism as “a paradigm based on the assumption that society is a unified whole that functions because of the contributions of its separate structures”. In Mulan, Mulan and her village must abide by the rules set during that time. Society believes that with these rules in place, they work well for their society. The women are to get married and function as housewives and child bearers while the men are the breadwinners.
Mulan focuses heavily on gender and inequality. Throughout the film, her success relies on what gender she was displaying at the time. In the film, gender is displayed as dominant vs. submissive. The men are dominant, and the women must seek approval from said men. During the film, Mulan tries to plead her case as to why her father could not survive another war to which she was given the response “Silence! You will do well to teach your daughter to hold her tongue in a man’s presence”. Since Mulan is a woman, her only task is to get married, and the idea of that is conveyed through Belarmino and Roberts’ study in which they write, “Five of the women interviewed felt that familial expectations centered on marriage”. According to an article written on the effects of gender-based roles, “Despite women’s involvement in economic activities, certain behaviours that are considered weak or simple are assigned to the female gender. In an analysis conducted by Melanie Belarmino and Melinda R. Roberts, they express how inequality and a patriarchal rule go hand-in-hand by stating, “Gendered inequality results from long-standing patriarchal societies were women have more expectations placed on them and fewer freedoms than their male counterparts do”. This is displayed in Mulan when all the other women are waiting and getting ready to meet with the “matchmaker” to find husbands and bring “honor” to their families.
A social issue that is widespread and raises concerns are gender inequality. The difference in treatment based on gender is evident in Mulan by the interactions between the male and female characters. A scene that was heart wrenching was when Mulan thought of herself as a failure because she could not bring honor to her family; In a study conducted by Soltanpanah and his colleges report “Results of a cross-cultural study examining different samples of women supported our prediction that gender role satisfaction is related to general life satisfaction. Mulan also thought she could not do anything right in life which if she was not a strong female could have led to her possibly developing depression. Mulan was able to overcome her hardships and honor her family by being persistent as a woman with little to no voice.
Mulan helps understand the above sociological concepts through the use of visual aids and how the characters interacted with each other. Watching the sociological principles visually displayed through the life of a young woman from a different culture, time, and country help me more objectively view these principles working in my own life. One can notice similarities of pressure from societal expectations; for on it can be to go to college and attain a degree despite uncertainty of career path while for Mulan it was finding a husband and bringing honor to her family.
Viewing Mulan through a sociological lens can make one more aware of the hidden messages focused on gender norms in China. As a child watching this film the main goal was passing time and entertainment; now the main focus was on the sociological issues affecting Mulan’s experience as a young Chinese woman.
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