Gender and Sexuality in Mulan

Mulan is a Disney film made in the 1990’s, and released in 1998, that is based on the legendary Chinese warrior, Hua Mulan. The plot of the film takes place during the Han dynasty, and the movie itself is about a young girl named Mulan who secretly takes her sick father’s place in the army in order to prevent his death. Although that’s the general description of the movie, the use of gender and sexuality throughout the film communicates a more in depth meaning of the storyline when related to culture and audience.

Chinese culture is clearly present throughout Mulan, as seen through things such as the calligraphy, paintings, presence of the Great Wall, and the general landscapes seen throughout the film. The presence of the Chinese festival and the Americanized Chinese food speaks to the American interpretation of Chinese culture. The title of the movie is underlined by a red dragon, which is a popular emblem among Chinese people living not only in China, but among those living in America as well.

The dragon is a symbol of luck and power in Chinese culture (Pkl 2018). Mulan does a great job at communicating the strict gender roles of traditional Chinese culture through the typical gender stereotypes that it presents. During the Han dynasty, women didn’t get to enjoy the status that the men were presented with. They were often socially segregated and forced to compete for their husband’s attention (Cartwright 2018). In Chinese literature, being born as a woman was often seen as a punishment for wrongdoings in a past life (Cartwright 2018).

Many of the female babies that weren’t abandoned or killed were named after dainty flowers in the hopes that they would grow up to be as dainty as the female essence was expected to be in Chinese society (Cartwright 2018). Women in ancient China were expected to be gentle, loyal, quiet, diligent, and have proper manners (Cartwright). They had very little freedom, even within their own household.

Mulan is clearly a misfit to the binary gender roles of the Chinese culture during the Han dynasty, embodying the exact opposite of what is expected of her. Being that Chinese culture traditionally has rigid and binary gender roles, especially in terms of feudal China, it’s quite ironic that, out of all of the Disney princesses, Mulan is the one who breaks out of the normal gender role ideology that’s often portrayed in every aspect of society.

The fact that Mulan is the character to defy these norms makes her actions even more significant than if the actions had been taken by any other Disney princess. Mulan was one of the first Disney movies to break away from the usual “damsel in distress” storyline that Disney constantly presented in films throughout the 20th century, including both Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.

Mulan presents gender stereotypes throughout the movie, and the movie utilizes the main character to defy these norms. Mulan doesn’t seem to fit into the strict gender norms that the movie presents, and she must find her own way in terms of gender and sexuality in a world that expects her to be something she’s not. The film begins by establishing the strict gender hierarchy, as seen in the song “Honor to Us All”, when family members and other females bathe, clothe, and do Mulan’s hair and makeup to make sure Mulan looks “proper” for her meeting with the matchmaker (Bancroft & Cook Mulan).

The song exemplifies the ancient Chinese gender roles when it states that a girl can bring honor to her family by getting offers for marriage from a “good match” (Bancroft & Cook Mulan). It states that men can serve their emperor by going to war, while women can serve him “by bearing sons” (Bancroft & Cook Mulan). The lyrics also state what’s expected of a girl when the women sing, “Men want girls with good taste. Calm, obedient, who work fast-paced, with good breeding and a tiny waist” (Bancroft & Cook Mulan). Although Mulan does try her best to fulfill these expectations in order to honor her family, she clearly doesn’t succeed.

Mulan, questioning when her true-self will be able to shine, runs away from home taking her father’s place in the war. When she first arrives at boot camp, she’s instantly greeted with the presence of blunt, boisterous men who do “manly” things like spit and pick at their toes. None of the other men seem to respect Ping, which is Mulan’s alter-ego while she’s pretending to be a man. In the song “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”, Li Shang, the captain of Mulan/Ping’s troop, challenges his men in what their idea of being a man is. Li Shang sings, “did they send me daughters, when I asked for sons,” which not only insults the strength of the men, but also stereotypes women as being weak and not meant for war (Bancroft & Cook Mulan). He makes them “more masculine” by training them to be physically stronger in every aspect, stating that they must have “the force of a great typhoon” and “the strength of a raging fire” (Bancroft & Cook Mulan).

This exhibits another type of stereotype by saying that all men need to be strong in order to be considered manly. By the end of the song, Mulan embraced her more manly side. She became stronger than all the other men, surpassing their abilities in every endeavor, and, unlike the other men, she even figured out how to get the arrow down from the wooden pole. Mulan’s brains and wittiness, combined with her strength, allowed her to accomplish a task that had originally seemed impossible. Mulan’s perception and intelligence were seen yet again after she used a rocket to cause an avalanche, which buried Shan-Yu, the enemy, and his men. Mulan’s cleverness continued to overpower her strength, diminishing the importance of this “manly” quality overall.

Mulan further displays the gender stereotypes and ancient Chinese expectations in the song “A Girl Worth Fighting For” when the men sing, “I want her paler than the moon with eyes that shine like stars. My girl will marvel at my strength, adore my battle scars” and “it all depends on what she cooks like” (Bancroft & Cook Mulan). Mulan chimes in saying “how ‘bout a girl who’s got a brain, who always speaks her mind?” which was immediately shot down by her male peers (Bancroft & Cook Mulan). This song managed to incorporate both the expectations of what a Chinese woman should look like and act like, and also incorporated the forward looking feminist ideas that Mulan wanted for herself.

Queer theory, which was established in the 1990’s, builds upon both feminist and queer studies, and it examines the social constructs surrounding sexuality and sexual identities. Although being “queer” is usually associated with bisexuality and homosexuality, queerness also includes things like cross-dressing, intersexuality, and gender ambiguity. Queer theory defines sexuality and gender identity as being fluid and as something that may vary at different points in a being’s life.

Mulan clearly exhibits aspects of the, at the time, newly developed queer theory. Mulan displays how gender isn’t locked into a singular rigid category, but rather can fluctuate between the male and female constructs that society has put in place. Mulan considers her identity and the duality of her gender in the song “Reflections”. As she is all done up in “traditional” Chinese makeup, she looks at herself and sings, “why is my reflection someone I don’t know?” (Bancroft & Cook Mulan).

Although Mulan has been asked by her family to fulfill the conventional, conservative role of a female in ancient China, Mulan challenges the idea knowing that she will never be the person that her family wants her to be. She knows that she won’t be able to pass “for a perfect bride, or a perfect daughter”, with regard to both her religion and her gender identity (Bancroft & Cook Mulan). She questions her identity asking when her reflection will show who she truly is inside. Mulan also officially breaks the cross-dressing barrier in entertainment of the time. Not only does Mulan dress up as a man for a majority of the movie, but Mulan’s three male friends dress as women near the end of the film in order to trick Shan-Yu’s men protecting the door.

Another instance in which queer theory is seen in Mulan is through Li Shang’s sexuality. Li Shang is clearly attracted to Mulan, even though she presents herself to him as a man for a majority of the movie. You can see Shang becoming more enthralled by Ping through Shang’s body language, and Shang’s lack of participation in the song “A Girl Worth Fighting For” might be because he doesn’t believe in the traditional norms of gender and sexuality that his culture presents. When Shang discovers that Ping is actually a woman, he doesn’t reject her for that reason, but rather because she breached his trust. After this discovery is made, Shang justifies not killing her because she had previously saved his life. The true reason, however, is likely due to Shang’s affections towards Mulan, which is interesting since he only just found out that she was a girl at this point in the film. Regardless of whether Li Shang is bisexual or not, he still showed affection towards someone who was genderfluid throughout the movie, which is uncommon in films up until this point in time.

One article stated that from the beginning of time, “race and gender have been intertwined in Asian American history and literature”, and they are clearly still intertwined in Disney’s Mulan (Wong & Santa Ana 1999). Disney did a great job reading their audience when they created Mulan by targeting Asian American’s growing up in a westernized culture with parents who likely still held their Chinese cultural beliefs to a high standard. These people were able to relate to Mulan and her desire to break free from the biased gender and sexuality roles. One study determined that Asian American adolescents tended to display more conservative attitudes towards sexual behaviors, which was likely due to their desire to please their old-fashioned parents (Okazaki 2002).

The study further discussed indications that as Asian Americans became more accultured to westernization, their behavior became more consistent with that of the normal American (Okazaki 2002). Mulan planted a seed in Asian American children’s minds that they didn’t need to be restricted to the norms that their parents wanted or expected of them. It also displayed the evident inner conflict to please one’s parents and ancestors by honoring them and doing what’s expected of themselves.

Although Mulan plays with gender roles and sexuality throughout the film, one scholarly article, written by Lauren Dundes and Madeline Streiff, analyzes the contribution that Mulan makes towards the binary gender role and glass ceiling dilemma. The article states that Mulan “teaches girls what constitutes a happy ending: going home to fulfill domestic duties,” and further discusses how Mulan returns to the conventional Chinese female role by giving the enemy’s sword to her father and presumably securing Li Shang as her husband (Dundes & Streiff 2016).

The fact that Mulan turns down the prestigious position of being the Emperor’s advisor in order to conform to Chinese tradition and return to her designated role as a daughter and a wife evidentially seems to revert the modern ideas of gender nonconformity and varying sexuality that the movie originally seemed to communicate to its audience. Regardless of how one analyzes Mulan, it’s evident that gender and sexuality play a major role in the film, as well as in traditional Chinese culture and modern Asian American culture.