Examining The Significance Of Gender In Pop Culture: The Story Of Mulan

After countless years, the importance of gender has been an ongoing discussion. It has made itself significant especially in the modern era with the introduction of pop culture. Mass media usually depict gender roles and separation in either an indirect or direct manner through TV shows, books or movies. One movie that illustrates a contrast is a Disney movie named “Mulan.” A young girl by the name of Fa Mulan is anticipated to act as the perfect girl, in order to find a suitable husband to bring honor to her family’s name. Due to her clumsy nature, she is unable to meet these standards and cannot claim the honor. However, a sudden announcement from the emperor forces her weakened father to join the army to fight for his country. This leads to her taking her father’s place under the guise of a man. During Mulan’s time as a soldier, the enemy is not the only thing she has to worry about. Mulan must compete with the trivial matters of gender roles, how she compares to other Disney princesses, and the effects of being treated differently as a member in a gender considered to be submissive.

Mulan is just one of numerous girls who are aware of their role as a person of the female gender, requiring her to follow a number of given standards. She is expected to obey orders that are set for her with no exceptions. This includes performing various tasks like feeding the hens or properly delivering tea to her father every morning. Unfortunately, her clumsy nature prevents her from properly completing her tasks without unintentionally causing trouble. The ultimate goal for Mulan is to find a husband so she can bring honor to her family; she will also most likely have to bear offspring to continue the family name. In order for her to seek one, she must meet a woman called the matchmaker, whose job is to appraise the ability of young women in finding a partner. She will judge how Mulan will achieve as a wife. To pass the evaluation, Mulan is required to remember the qualities of a good partner which involves various unwritten rules, regulations the matchmaker proposes, and pouring tea correctly. Her overall role is to be the perfect spouse for a man by completing appropriate tasks with a collected manner. Furthermore, she must think modestly before she speaks or acts. Such established guidelines would guarantee glory to a household. Additionally, she is likely to play a motherly role for her children in the future, but the matchmaker stated that she would be too skinny to bare any sons, a preferred trait among Asian families. Author Michelle Law states, “Both the play and novel versions of Mulan were written during Confucian periods in China's history, which advocated for traditionally gendered social roles. Men were the prize of their families, protecting the country and carrying on the family surname, while women were expected to submit to their men (husbands, fathers and sons) by undertaking domestic duties”. At the time of Confucian China, women were restricted to their given marital positions. They were unable to perform any other tasks outside their gender. Mulan became aware of this fact after being unsuccessfully evaluated by the matchmaker. She is shamed by the woman for failing the examination. Although this brings dishonor to her family name, it highlights how women are required to follow principles that were most likely decided by men for women, not women for other women.

In China’s ancient times, the head of the family was usually a male while the females are inferior to the males, setting a biased social standard for the country. An example of this is Mulan pleading the imperial guards from the capital when they enter her hometown. She pleads them to let her father not join the army because he is currently ill. She is looked down upon by the guards while the emperor’s assistant demands that her father teach her the meaning of obedience. As predictable with society at this time, she has no permission to speak up to other men since women, as the inferior gender, are supposed to have respect for men. By taking matters into her own hands, she impersonates a man by cutting her hair short, cross dressing using her father’s armor, and joining the army to regain her honor. Orenstein states, “Their [princess’s] goals are to be saved by a prince, get married…and be taken care of for the rest of their lives. Their value derives largely from their appearance”. The princesses in Disney movies, are always depicted with one or both of these qualities: the ideal body shape that is somewhat unrealistic or a beautiful face. Not to mention, all have the same wish: to one day meet their prince. Compared to them, Mulan does not have impossible proportions, nor does she have the desire to be rescued by a prince. She does not even think about a prince if all she could think about was her lost honor. Wloszcyna states, “Long-time Disney cartoon fan Ming-Na Wen (The Joy Luck Club), who provides the speaking voice for Mulan. ‘She's the antithesis of Cinderella. She doesn't wear a gown. She wears armor’”. Another common quality that princesses have is a beautiful dress either when they are dancing with their true love at a ball or wear them on a daily basis. In contrast, Mulan does not stay in her traditional dress for most of the story. To add, she is not seen owning any luxurious gowns of any kind. Instead of beautiful dresses, she dons her father’s armor for one purpose: to fight in his place.

Upon her arrival to the army camp, she endures intense training while remaining disguised without any of her fellow soldiers discovering right away that she is a woman. The article “Woman Warrior” suggests, “In the most radical twist of all, Mulan doesn't rely on magic to solve her problems. She sweats her way through basic training until she gets good and strong”. Most Disney movies have princesses or female leads that solely rely on supernatural powers from other characters. Unlike them, Mulan is required to train both her body and mind to become a hardy soldier. There are no fairies or magical beings to assist her in her journey. Although Mulan has Mushu, the demoted dragon guardian, she does not use his fire powers throughout the whole movie. She mainly relies on her own strength and quick thinking to keep pushing through. During practice, the leading general’s son, Shang, asks the trainees if the imperial city “sent him daughters when he asked for sons” (Mulan). This statement easily implies how the male gender is highly preferred because of their strength and aggression, especially when it comes to fighting for a country. The daughters in this case are depicted as gentle and fragile, thus interpreting them as the weaker gender against physical confrontation in a battle.

Another example of skewed social standards is from the soldiers’ song, “A Girl Worth Fighting For.” Mulan’s soldier friends all have different preferences in women. Ling wishes for a woman “who’s paler than the moon, with eyes that shine like stars,” (Mulan) while Yao wants her to “marvel at his strength and adore his battle scars.” On the other hand, Chien Po claims to not “care for what she wears or what she looks right, it all depends on what she cooks like.” Mulan’s comrades do not all expect the girl they are fighting for to look at them as a rare sight. In fact, Ling mainly focuses on appearance while Chien Po is interested in her ability to cook. Nevertheless, each have a catered preference to how their lady should be to please their desires in a girl. However, when Mulan alludes the idea of a girl “who’s got a brain, [and] who always speaks her mind,” (Mulan) they become disinterested. Most men cannot see an inferior gender, like women, being cleverer than them and honest enough to stand up for what they believe in. In other words, they see it as inappropriate for a woman to behave in a way that could make a man feel equal or lesser to them.

Eventually, one of the most difficult challenges Mulan faces is convincing others to listen to what she has to say, despite no longer impersonating a young male soldier. Following the Huns’ sudden invasion in the mountain pass, General Shang and his surviving crew are forced to regroup. They end up meeting the entire Hun army, which greatly outnumbers the crew. Despite this fact, Mulan is able to push back the entire Hun army using her wits but is injured in the process. Soon, her real gender is revealed but she exclaims that she did everything for her father. Her main goal is to be an honorable daughter to her family, especially for him. Author Margaret Chang argues, “Dong describes the exploits of actual women from aristocratic families who, like Mulan, went to war out of desperate necessity…They fought not for fame or glory, but out of loyalty to family and country, values highly regarded in Confucian ethics.” Though unmentioned in the movie itself, Mulan was not the only woman to participate in the act of impersonating a soldier. Much like her however, these women put their families first over everything else. Even if fighting in the army is considered a job for men, women cross dressed anyway to protect their fathers, brothers or sons from the wounds of war. They felt it was necessary to keep the ones they loved safe if it meant giving up their own lives doing so. Instead of killing Mulan immediately as he is supposed to, he spares her as a way of paying his debt to her leaving her in the mountains. Upon her way home, she observes a mysterious scream of anger and quickly realizes that the Huns are not yet dead. She alerts Shang about the Huns possibly being in the city, but he ignores her since he now sees her as an inferior who should not be exchanging words with him. As she attempts to warn the citizens of the city, they blatantly disregard her remarks. When Mulan asks Mushu why nobody is listening to her, he simply remarks, “Hey, you’re a girl again remember?” (Mulan). Returning to gender roles, she is now a woman instead of a male soldier, restoring her purpose as the lesser gender. She is unable to speak to other men because as a female, her words mean nothing to them. Due to this fact, she cannot convince anybody to help her save the emperor except for a few of her soldier comrades. By utilizing different methods from training in the camp including her own smarts, she saves the emperor of the city and the entire country of China from a Hun invasion.

In present day where pop culture is enjoyed by everyone of all ages, the topic of gender roles and separation is often considered controversial in a way. The media presents it as a message for viewers to understand how one gender is treated compared to the other. Disney’s hit movie “Mulan” carefully emphasizes how women are generally seen as beneath men, that they should remain in their place and do as their told. Mulan does not conform to the society’s harsh restrictions against women. She goes out of her own way to fight for her family’s dignity. In return, she ends up saving her entire country. Her actions of heroism set a high example of how she breaks boundaries in a patriarchal society while remaining true to herself.  

16 December 2021
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