Agreed! Mulan is in many ways, a refreshingly different Disney princess, a stark and celebration-worthy contrast to most of the tendril-armed, doe-eyed, slim-waisted damsels who have dominated our imagination for decades. For one, Hua Mulan’s depiction allows us to consider the possibility of a gender-neutral appearance which enables her to pass off as a man which she does to join the army, strictly forbidden for women. Hua Mulan apparently has a very strong “chi” which her family has known since she was a child but both her parents have time and again told her that she can bring honour to the family only by getting married, and that it is important that she “learn her place”. When Hua Mulan runs away from home to join the army, her father is more than certain that one way or the other she is doomed as she can be executed for her deceit or killed by the village folk for her transgression if she returns alive.
And yet we see Hua Mulan, during a skirmish with the invading Rourans, not only saving Chen Honghui, a fellow soldier she secretly likes, but all her other fellow soldiers singlehandedly, because of the superhuman power of her “chi” and then going on to save the Emperor and destroy Bori Khan, the leader of the Rourans. So yes, Mulan is inspiring in many ways as it turns the classic, archetypal narrative of the “knight-in-shining-armour saving the damsel-in-distress” on its head. So then, why do I find a film like Mulan or films with Mulan-like narratives so problematic?
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For one, larger-than-life portrayals such as that shown in Mulan, drawn in sharp relief against the hostility and utter animosity, emanating from a malist space, prompted by misogyny, puts a lot of pressure on women, indirectly sending a message that only the very best women stand some kind of a chance to sustain in these spaces. This is the exact trajectory of some other onscreen narratives like Gunjan Saxena and The Test Case where the woman simply can’t afford to be second best. Either she has to be the best, a superhuman or she can just get out of the space. It also further reinforces the notion that qualities like strength, fearlessness and courage are naturally present in men, implying that they have no need to prove themselves. They can afford to be just part of the group that judges and makes favorable or unfavorable decisions about women; the men, unlike the sole woman amidst them, don’t even have to be second best or third best; they can simply be at the bottom and still by sheer privilege of their gender, enjoy a vantage point and engage in paternalistic or exclusionary politics.
The army of the Rourans in Mulan has a shape-shifting woman Xianniang addressed as the “witch” who has a huge contribution in their wins. Oppressive and absolute patriarchy is unforgiving and a socially ostracised Xianniang actually had no choice but to join Bori Khan who she helps in his invasion because he has promised her some place in his reign which is hardly any place at all as he equates it to a place he would have given a dog. Interestingly, during the sudden skirmish, Xianniang confronts Hua Mulan and vanquishes her momentarily telling Mulan that her disguise is poisoning her “chi” and diminishing her strength. Subsequently, when Hua Mulan “comes out” as a woman to save her army and fight the enemy, the army runs helter-skelter and calls her a ‘witch’. Thus, both Xianniang and Hua Mulan are addressed as ‘witch’, so fearful and unthinkable is the idea of a woman displaying conventionally masculine qualities of strength and courage.
Despite saving the entire army, Hua Mulan is expelled from the army by the commanding officer Tung for being dishonest, for that is the state’s punishment for dishonesty. This also exposes the problem with absolute and unquestioned loyalty of people, lower in the order, to authoritarianism which prevents them from taking calls based on their individual judgement. As a commanding officer responsible for several hundred soldiers, Tung fails to depend on his better judgement and sagacity and instead, blindly follows the law of the state without even considering the possibility of escalating the matter. It is only when the Emperor, projected as a progressive patriarch and perhaps grateful to Hua Mulan for saving his life, gives her a position in his royal guard, that the whole country realises her contribution.
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But what if this were not the case? What if Hua Mulan had been unable to save the Emperor and had only been able to save Chen Honghui or only the army or just simply put up a good fight like the rest? Would her contribution have counted then? The narrative then tells us that a woman needs to be extraordinary in every measure in a male space, outdoing and outperforming the men by miles so that she can be accepted. And secondly, does this depiction of valour lead to systemic changes? In the film Gunjan Saxena when one of the politicians on television engages in a rhetoric about the consequences of a woman being taken as POW (prisoner of war), the issue is left unaddressed. This has been a constant argument proffered by senior defense officials to justify their stand of not being in favor of hiring women in the armed forces which stems from a very patriarchal standpoint which sees the woman as a sexualized and therefore vulnerable being first, and then, as an individual or a soldier.
Similarly when the Emperor offers a position to Hua Mulan in his royal guard, we do not know if this will lead to systemic reform or change where more women like Hua Mulan will be included in the Emperor’s army, or women with a strong “chi” can become warriors instead of “getting married and bringing honour to their family”. Patriarchy doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, nor is there even the slightest dent in it since these are just one off, supremely exceptional women who have moved mountains and done what is unthinkable by the standards of even most men, to secure their place in a thoroughly male dominated space.
Ultimately therefore, we see the Emperor deciding Hua Mulan’s fate. Earlier too, it is the collective voice of the men in the army who she has saved, who convince Commander Tung to believe Hua Mulan when she comes with news of the siege. Thus to be validated, a woman needs the support of patriarchal institutions/the collective voice of men/an authoritative patriarch which she can only secure by first proving herself beyond reasonable doubt, which a man will not have to. This is again something which fails to be problematised. Hua Mulan’s single heroic feat the day she saves her fellow soldiers becomes the reason for these men to vouch for her. But if she had failed to save them, probably, they would have been ruthlessly unequivocal in opposing her for being a woman and pretending to be a man and her consistency, her discipline, her skills as a trainee soldier would be completely undermined.
Hua Mulan is also shown to turn down the offer by Xianniang who wants the former to cohabit an alternate space with her. Similarly we see Xianniang also reluctant to cross over to Hua Mulan and instead readily giving up her life to save Hua Mulan. This show of solidarity and sisterhood fails to find a deeper resonance in the narrative and what otherwise could have shaped into some kind of a meaningful feminist discourse. Both, Xianniang and Hua Mulan, as each concedes, are “the same” despite being on opposite warring sides, since they are both marginalised, regardless of whichever man leads, and they both serve patriarchy, only in different ways.
Featured image source: Observer
The movie is full of cultural appropriation, and distortion of history (esp of Hakka culture)