Tuesday, May 1, 2012

I'll Make a Man out of You

After reading a great blog post on female attire, I was inspired to delve deeper into the topic of women needing to masculinize themselves in order to gain respect. In her post, Emily Tess raises the question of why Elizabeth Swann in Pirates of the Caribbean must cast away her femininity in order to, "feel free to fight and exhibit superheroine like qualities while still gaining respect from her peers". Perhaps this change just emphasizes her escape from her old life, attached to material needs and stereotypes, to a new limitless world where she can be whomever she wants, but perhaps it applies to a more general gender issue.

In many examples in popular media, whenever a respected female character is introduced, she is not a steretypical girl. A great example of this is in the classic movie Mulan. Mulan, a tomboy at the start, literally trasforms herself into a man in order to be able to accomplish her goals and be a strong human being. When I was younger, I remember looking up to Mulan and thinking she was an awesome, powerful girl, but now I am beginning to question whether she really strengthens the female gender at all. I found this really interesting article on a blog which examines feminism (good blog, you should check it out!) that claims that Mulan is really not a feminist movie at all. While Mulan does accomplish so much, it is all while she is disguised as a man, and at the end, she returns to her previous feminine role. The author of the blog post believes that Mulan "seems to have less of a rhetoric of 'Look girls you can do anything' and more so 'Yes girls can do anything but eventually they will recognize their true womanhood and conform'." Does the fact that Mulan becomes a much stronger character when she is disguised as a man diminish the fact that she is a powerful, independent female character?

Is the movie saying that women cannot be strong on their own, and must change themselves in order to gain respect? Or is it actually trying to give the opposite message: that women can do anything, but because of the society in which they are trapped, must change themselves in order to gain the necessary respect?

"Look at me
I will never pass for a perfect bride
Or a perfect daughter
Can it be
I'm not meant to play this part?
Now I see
That if I were truly
To be myself
I would break my family's heart "



  1. I agree that the fact that Mulan had to disguise herself as a man to become powerful deters from the movie's overall message of female empowerment. Sure, it would have been a much more striking message had Mulan become so powerful without disguising herself, but such a thing was not feasible in the movie's setting. The movie takes place in China during the Han dynasty, a time period when women had three places in life, and that was to be mothers, wives, or daughters. Had Disney made Mulan a female soldier without having her disguise herself, the plot would deviate too much from its historical setting, and would therefore seemed very artificial. Making Mulan disguise herself gives a more feasible story in which a woman still exemplifies strength and female empowerment.

  2. I never really saw Mulan as a feminist movie, it started out her family attempting to find a husband for her and it ends with her and the other male solider forming a relationship, however, it does create a strong female character. I definitely agree with what Tory has to say, for the purpose of sticking to the time frame of Mulan (granted, this movie has a lot of culture issues and time frame issues), in that she could not have made it to be part of the Chinese Army had she went as a woman. What I found most empowering about Mulan, was the fact that she stepped up, cut off her hair, and came up with this idea to join the Army in order to save her father from going. I found that her strength to protect the ones she loved made this a very powerful movie, regardless of her attire while doing so.

  3. Tory, you make a great point about the setting of the movie, in that it would be impossible for Mulan to accomplish what she wanted while still looking like a female... but is the movie really just about the Han Dynasty, or does it metaphorically extend to our culture? Why would Disney choose to make a movie in this unlikely setting unless it served some purpose? Sure, our society may not be as repressive or have such distinctly defined gender roles as Mulan's, but it still contains many of the gender inequalities that ancient China had. Perhaps Disney merely uses the setting of ancient China as a vehicle to comment on the presence of these ancient gender issues in our modern-day culture.

  4. I agree with you Emily in that I believe the movie has meaning beyond the Han dynasty. Regardless of where and when the movie takes place, the audience is still receiving the same message. Think about the people watching these movies- little kids are absorbing information about gender norms from these movies- they aren't thinking about the oppressive nature of gender roles in ancient China (which is overemphasized in the movie as well), they are taking the movie at face value. What is on screen is what these children understand to be gender roles in society, and if children associate masculinity with power and leadership than that becomes their socialized norm. I don't think Disney is helping the problem- their movies don't send the message that women can be strong without the guidance of men. I think they help perpetuate the problem.

  5. Although Disney movies are originally designed for younger children, they are definitely famous enough to be watched by all age groups. I honestly believe that if there wasn't the "plot twist" of Mulan disguising herself as a man to make it historically accurate, no one would have watched it. Think about it, it wouldn't make any sense. It wouldn't be funny at all (the scenes with her attempting and failing to be a man are absolutely hysterical when you're a kid).

    I know that by her dressing up as a man, a bad message is sent out. I believe this absolutely. The problem is, however, that ALL disney movies do this. They have yet to create a movie in which all gender roles are negated; I think it is because Americans have them so ingrained into their lifestyle that they would be outraged if someone went against it. Especially Disney.

  6. I also agree with plausibility being a big factor, but so far no one has mentioned the big final battle where not only does Mulan dress as a women, but the men do as well. They pretend to be concubines ( a word I certainly didn't know as a child) in order to save the emperor. Mulan, as a woman, still takes charge even though no one would listen to her in the crowd. She makes a point to call out the soldiers for trusting her as Ping but not as Mulan.

    That part alone is huge. She points out the gender assumptions, making the audience annoyed at the male supremacist soldiers, and then kicks ass as a woman. Disney movies aren't all about challenging social norms, but I don't think the movie should be discredited as a whole for having her dress up as a man.

  7. Emily, I believe that Mulan is a pro-feminist movie in the way that Mulan had to disguise herself as a man in order to be able to train in the army. Just as Tory mentioned, due to her country's rules on women fighting in wars, Mulan would have been incapable of even joining if she kept her old identity. I think Mulan changed herself less for the fact that she personally wanted respect, and more for she had to use this tactic in order to be able to participate at all. Also, at the end of the movie, she reveals she is a woman to the emperor and all of China. By doing this, she establishes that, while she was disguised as a man, all of her actions and bravery stemmed from who she really is: a woman. No amount of disguise can change that, proving that women are just as capable as men to fight for their lives and their loved ones.
    Furthermore, to answer your response to Tory, I feel that Disney did produce a movie that sort of paralleled with America's society. It highlighted the gender inequalities, but, as I mentioned before, managed to show how, despite the disguise, Mulan is truly still a woman. All that she accomplished she did as a woman under this disguise. And as Maggie said, the final scene, (aka the climax of the whole movie) is done with Mulan dressed as a woman. Whether you are an older person analyzing Mulan for gender roles or a child just enjoying the movie, it is crucial that we make note of this scene and how it communicates a powerful woman saving the country.

  8. I feel that yes, Mulan is portrayed as even more capable than men, but her strength is only diminished society's role for her and her compliance to it. She leaves for the army, not to prove that she is capable, but because she feels the duty to protect her father. This shows that even when making her decisions, she is weighed down by patriarchal influence. Also, instead of questioning the unfairness society treats women with, she is upset that she cannot conform into the typical patriarchal model. In the end, she is offered a job in the imperial council, but turns down the offer so she can go home to once again take her of her family. I feel like this all goes to show that although women can be just as stronger or even stronger than men by using intellect over physical strength, but in the end they are still limited by ultimately allowing themselves to be suppressed by a patriarchal society. I think that Mulan can have been an overall better feminist movie if she had chosen to lead a life in authority, rather than succumbing to her "duty" to get married and become essentially a homemaker.

  9. I think that everyone is leaving out and essensial part of the movie. Mulan does all of this for family but she also does it for herself. She wants to prove to herself that she can be more than her society wants her to be. She does that in the end by saving China. I think by turning down the emperor's job offer she isn't conforming to society. She realized that she can just be herself, she didn't need to work for the emporer. She didn't just go home and get married at the end of the movie, it wasn't ended with a kiss like most Disney films. It ended with the possibility of Mulan falling for Shang (who by the way loved her for her honor and bravory and not looks) Mulan doesn't promise him anything just asks him to dinner. This in my oppinon is one of the most realistic loveconnections in a Disney film, probably because Mulan isn't a love story. Its about a girl finding her courage and herself. And if anyone has seen the sequel you would see that Mulan does not in anyway go home to become a house wife. She trains young girls to be strong and brave, and she fights for what she believes in.


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