Asia remains one of the most conservative societies in today’s world, but who would have thought that 20 years ago, Disney would have created their arguably most ideal feminist icon when they turned a Chinese folk legend into a Disney princess?
Mulan was released in theaters on June 19, 1998, and it has been one of Disney’s most important animated films since. The 10-time Annie Award-winning film loosely adapts the tale of Hua Mulan, a Chinese woman who disguises as a man to join the national army in the place of her aged father.
Feminism wasn’t a word anyone talked about back in the late 90’s, yet in retrospect, Fa Mulan (the Cantonese translation of the Mandarin original) was Disney’s first true feminist of a princess.
The sisterhood of royalty that precede her in the Disney Princess line may be more iconic, but not for the best reasons. Most of them are damsels in distress, particularly the original trio. Snow White and Sleeping Beauty awaited true love’s kiss to break the spell, while Cinderella was only empowered to a life of riches when she was rediscovered by Prince Charming.
The 90’s princesses were comparatively less helpless, although their male counterparts still did most of the work.
In the climax of The Little Mermaid, Ariel’s contributions pale in comparison to Prince Eric, who drove his ship into Ursula’s abdomen. In Beauty and the Beast, the unconventional Belle was a bookworm who happened to be beautiful, but she did next to nothing during Gaston’s invasion. While Jasmine from Aladdin was feisty and quick-witted, fooling Jafar into thinking she was mesmerized by him, even she became a damsel at one point when Jafar encased her in a giant hourglass.
And Pocahontas… well, she just ran really fast to stop an execution. A lifesaver, but nothing particularly groundbreaking.
Enter Mulan in 1998, who for the first time, was the princess that actually saved the day own her own.
During the movie’s surprise attack at the Imperial City, she personally engaged in physical combat with the surviving Huns, then overpowered their leader, Shan Yu and his sword using a fan (superbly symbolic and iconic), cornering him strategically to allow the dragon Mushu to launch a skyrocket that ended him.
All this, and she singlehandedly led her male comrades (including a male dragon and cricket), all of whom gladly followed her into battle. This was the first time in any movie starring a Disney Princess that a woman helmed the forefront while leading a band of men that assisted her.
Mulan is the truest, most authentically unconventional woman, conceived at a time when there was no feminist movement to pacify or pander to. She was really just a female character who happened to be atypical of the archetypal lady.
They established it early during the movie, when she fails the dreaded matchmaker’s test. Mulan is not society’s “perfect porcelain doll”. She is different, and like Belle from seven years prior, she sticks out like a sore thumb.
Her individuality even manifests in a song of her own, “Reflection,” where she acknowledges, “I will never pass for a perfect bride or a perfect daughter. Can it be I’m not meant to play this part?” speaking out to the millions of women back in 1998 who felt different than the ideal archetypal woman.
Few critics are skeptical of Mulan as a genuine feminist. They consider her primary motivation to be that of a man, her father, and that she only joined the army in order to keep him alive. But this is why I love Mulan.
The character is a phenomenal Asian woman who prided herself on family values, willing to sacrifice her comfort and safety and undergo the physically, mentally arduous process of conscription typically reserved for men, just so to preserve her own parent’s life.
Her motivation was not by a man, but by filial piety, a quintessential Confucian virtue.
During her training disguised as Ping, she starts at the bottom of the pack, but eventually outperforms all of her comrades owing to her resilience, determination and inner strength. Mulan outruns them all, defeats her male captain in close combat and cleverly uses two gold discs to summit an impossible pole.
She is not equal to men. She is better.
This movie, which came out in 1998, truly put men and women on a balanced, playing field.
In the song “A Girl Worth Fighting For”, the male soldiers share their narrow-minded constructs of their ideal woman, then shut Mulan down when she tries to share an alternate perspective: “how about a girl who’s got a brain? Who only speaks her mind?”
While perhaps the most anti-feminist track at surface level, the song itself actually unveils that the men are motivated by women the same way women were expected to be motivated by men. It is only these soldiers’ idea of what they consider ideal that needs fixing.
But what I appreciated most about Mulan, especially in retrospect (given the Disney Princesses that have been introduced since), was that she was a Disney Princess that embraced romance.
It is not anti-feminist or diminishing for a woman to fall in love. But in an age that demands for more empowering female characters in movies, this decade’s Disney heroines have been void of a love life.
It started with the annoying Brave in 2012, where Merida became the first Disney Princess to not have a romantic subplot. Critics even applauded the Pixar character for her atypical, un-lady-like qualities (such as being untidy), outrageously forgetting Mulan’s first scene when make a clumsy mess around the house and nearly spills tea on her father’s robes.
2013’s overrated Frozen introduces Elsa, who becomes queen early in the film, is too plagued by her icy powers to be bothered with love. She even shuts down her sister Anna for her foolish ideas about marrying Prince Han. Fortunately, love-at-first-sight is indeed ridiculous and impractical, so I give the film brownie points for that.
2016 gave Moana, where the Polynesian daughter of an island chief (effectively, a princess-equivalent) is once again deprived of a romantic subplot.
It’s not necessary for a lady to have a romantic subplot; a Disney animated film doesn’t have to integrate romantic love to thrive, but it appears as though the writers at Disney are avoiding romance entirely to prevent backlash from feminists who believe a female with a love interest is a cause for concern.
Mulan is Disney’s first Disney Princess film where the leading lady’s romantic subplot does not influence the main story’s outcome. She may have been attracted to her captain, the brooding Li Shang, but that interest (and any reciprocation) have no weight on the main plot. When Mulan is discovered to be a woman, Li Shang and the rest of the army abandon her on the mountains, not because the captain felt betrayed, but because her impersonation was deemed unlawful.
The captain, who was supposed to execute her, instead spared her life, not because of romance, but because Mulan had saved him earlier in the film.
Mulan was never motivated nor rescued by romantic love. Yet at the end of the movie, the writers gave her a happy ending when Li Shang visits her at her home. The film embraced romance and wasn’t afraid of it. They crafted a brilliant feminist in Mulan, because women can experience love and not be diminished by it, a far cry from the feminist-pandering Disney films of this decade.
Some LGBT activists also lauded Mulan as a milestone for the gay and trans community in the late 90’s.
One could reason that Li Shang was arguably attracted to Ping, the subordinate he thought to be male, even if there wasn’t any explicit showing of it (although one scene did depict the captain noticing Ping.)
Mulan herself cross dressed as a man to join the army, and coming full circle, her comrades cross dressed as women in the film’s final act to infiltrate the Imperial Palace.
Today, Mulan stands as one of Disney’s most beloved Princesses, consistently garnering high votes on online popularity polls. While much of the deserving credit has been unfairly shifted to the newer Disney heroines, Mulan will always remain the animation conglomerate’s first and most balanced feminist film.
And as an Asian myself, thank you to the creators of Mulan for giving the world a powerful Asian icon who prides herself on family. 20 years later, the film is still one of Hollywood’s best Asian-themed offerings.
A live-action remake of Mulan is currently in production and is slated for a March 2020 release.