Gender Roles – Women
Self-Esteem and Body Image
Room for Improvement:
Gender Roles – Men
Gender Roles - Women: 5 Stars
Mulan is as brave and heroic a woman as you’re likely to find. She has strong opinions and behaves like a born leader, assertive and strong-willed. Unfortunately, these impressive traits make her more of a pariah than a hero in ancient China. She is frequently chastised for her inability to behave like a proper lady, to the point that Mulan herself believes there is something wrong with her. Mulan is forced to disguise herself as a man and prove herself many times over before she is accepted and honored for her many talents. While Mulan’s family and friends openly support these rigid gender roles, Mulan tells the story of one special girl who rises above these limited expectations and carves out her own path.
Self-Esteem and Body Image: 4 Stars
Mulan may be brave and determined, but she also spends a fair amount of time questioning her own worth. When she fails to impress the matchmaker, when Captain Shang discovers that she’s truly a woman, when the Emperor chastises her for her charade, she seems to buy into the idea that she has dishonored her country. She never challenges the laws or the social structures that have held her back, and doesn’t begin to truly see her own value until the end.
On the other hand, Mulan is a positive example of a young woman who is respected and admired for her incredible accomplishments, rather than her beauty. For most of the film she is disguised as a man, willingly sacrificing her femininity and her beauty to save her father’s life. As a result, she is challenged to perform impressive feats of strength and endurance, rather than practicing grace and gentility as she serves tea. Mulan doesn’t cry or hesitate when she takes her father’s sword to cut her hair. The scene projects only power and strength.
Plot: 4 Stars (Spoilers)
Mulan takes place in ancient China, where culture and tradition emphasize the value of one’s honor - however, men and women have different roles in bringing honor to their families. Women are to become perfect brides, while men are required to fight wars. Mulan defies this categorization in order to save her father’s life, becoming a skilled and determined soldier. At one point, Mulan even saves the life of her commanding officer, and single-handedly destroys an invading army of Huns. Her success in the fight is particularly satisfying because it is based on strategy, rather than brute strength. Even if she is at a disadvantage in terms of her physicality, she is clearly able to contribute to the battle with brainpower and raw courage. While her heroics are unappreciated for a long time due to her gender, she is eventually hailed as China’s savior. Mulan does a remarkable job of creating a female hero who is clever, outspoken and brave. Were it not for some rather tricky, outdated social norms, Mulan would have easily received a Trailblazer rating.
Character Development: 4 Stars
When the film begins, Mulan wants only to please her family by becoming the perfect daughter and the perfect bride. But when circumstances call for something more daring, she easily commits to a bold and dangerous strategy. In the end, Mulan can’t be obedient, because she is a leader. She doesn’t consult with anyone when making the decision to masquerade as a man. She simply takes action, coming out of the rain and reaching for her father’s conscription orders and sword. She even disobeys her commanding officer in battle in an attempt to save what’s left of China’s army from the attacking Huns.
Mulan begins her journey in an effort to save her father’s life, but it’s clear that her mission evolves into something bigger as time goes on. She could have given up when Captain Shang dismissed her from the army and sent her on her way. Her father’s life was no longer in danger and her secret hadn’t been discovered. The fact that Shang’s dismissal only emboldens her to work harder suggests that her masquerade isn’t just about saving her father’s life, but also about proving herself.
Gender Roles - Men: 1 Star (Spoilers)
The strict gender roles in Mulan are just as prevalent for the male characters as they are for Mulan. Her love interest, Captain Shang, is a fierce and emotionless warrior, who doesn’t even shed a tear when his father is killed. Mulan's father, Fa Zhou, frequently reminds her of her place in society and chastises her for dishonoring him. Her friends in the Army, Ling, Yao and Chien Po, eventually come to accept Mulan, but they are still little more than caricatures of rough and tumble male soldiers.
Most of the men in Mulan’s story, including the Emperor and even her ancestral guardian Mushu, at one point or another claim that she has acted dishonorably. And although each of them in turn comes around and recognizes her heroic achievements, not a single one of them admits to being wrong. Not one of them begins to question the norms that have held her back, and are holding back women all over China.
Even the boldest and bravest of women are limited by the social structures that surround them - and true equality means raising progressive and open-minded men as well as strong and independent women. Mulan may showcase one strong and courageous woman, but unfortunately, she has zero progressive men to support her on her journey.
Love: 3 Stars (Spoilers)
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Mulan is the manufactured romance with Captain Shang. Mulan and Shang learn to fight together and to trust each other with their lives, but the story doesn’t provide much opportunity for intimacy to develop. Worse than this however, when Captain Shang discovers that Mulan is really a woman, he raises his sword and prepares to kill her, only sparing her life at the last minute. The other male soldiers rush forward to stop Shang, indicating that they have already forgiven Mulan’s trespass, but he unceremoniously dismisses her and walks away in anger. He is the last to recognize and accept her for who she is. Based on this, it is difficult to see what draws Mulan to Captain Shang, rather than the other men, despite the fact that he is both handsome and in command. At the very least, however, Captain Shang never comes to Mulan's rescue, and he does ultimately defend her as a hero in front of the Emperor.
The romance between Mulan and Captain Shang might have been an exceptionally powerful one with just a few more kind words between them. And a more gradual change from Shang's initial, rigid character to someone who can see past tradition and appreciate true strength when he sees it. Even an admission of guilt or an apology might have been enough to make Mulan a Trailblazer.
Family: 3 Stars
Unfortunately, after saving China from the Huns, Mulan turns down an opportunity to serve on the Emperor’s council and chooses to return home - no doubt destined for another appointment with the local matchmaker. She returns with dignity and honor to her family, but to some degree, she simply returns to the uncomfortable position she was in before. Mulan returns to comments from her grandmother about coming home with a sword rather than a man, and doesn’t truly earn her happy ending until Captain Shang arrives for dinner. The sloppy love story leaves us with the impression that despite Mulan’s amazing service to her country, her greatest achievement is still winning the heart of a worthy man.