She

If you want to know what it’s like to be a woman, watch Mulan

I grew up on the Disney princesses. I desperately wanted to be loved by beautiful white men, live in castles with enormous libraries and above all, have adventures. In retrospect I agree with the feminists who critique these narratives: these beloved tales often teach girls that transformation is the way to win a prince. And, that winning a prince is the key to a happily ever after.

Mulan is different. It’s one of the few Disney movies that is not a white narrative of a woman changing to win a man. It also chronicles the difficult parts of womanhood in a relatable way. The main problem Mulan faces is not ‘which man will I choose’, or, ‘how do I change to get the prince.’ Mulan is not a prop or prize, and goes through a hero’s journey for her own sake.

If you haven’t watched Mulan, bookmark this and watch it now! I’ll wait. Otherwise, prepare to have the film spoiled.

Mulan is told to be pretty and graceful or she’ll never find a husband, and thus, become a shameful burden on her family

Mulan is introduced as a clumsy, bumbling heroine, breaking teacups and running with animals. Her father prays for her at the temple and begs the ancestors to help her impress the matchmaker.

Then it’s primp time for Mulan. During her reluctant transformation, her captors/beauty consultants sing to her:

Wait and see, when we’re through, boys will gladly go to war for you,
With good fortune and a great hairdo, you’ll bring honor to us all!
A girl can bring her family great honor in one way
By striking a good match and this could be the day
Men want girls with good taste
Calm, obedient, who work fast-paced
With good breeding, and a tiny waist

Really empowering message, isn’t it? Of course, Mulan fails miserably and is sent home, her future in shambles.

Mulan decides to dress up as a boy to bring honor to her family and prove her own identity

Shan Yu the invader has proven that he has little respect for China’s beautifully engineered walls and China is rightfully scared shitless. And so it comes to pass that every family has to send a man or son to fight the greedy conqueror.

When Mulan protests, she and her father are publicly humiliated by the Emperor’s asshole advisor, Chi Fu.

Silence! You would do well to teach your daughter to hold her tongue
in a man’s presence.

Her father reprimands her multiple times, telling her she shames the family by speaking out. As a woman, she can do nothing to help her father, who’s already gone to war and suffered a crippling leg wound. But, maybe as a man she can protect him. Mulan decides to run away from home. She cuts her long, beautiful hair and dresses up as a boy.

Mulan joins the boy’s club and has serious imposter syndrome

When she meets her commanding officer, she is terrified she’ll be found out. She and the Shang go through a foxtrot of names until they settle on ‘Ping’. Shang continues to be a hardass, singing perhaps the most famous lines in Mulan. Feel free to sing along.

…to defeat the Huns!
Did they send me daughters when I asked for sons?

Wellllllllllll, they might not have sent you any, per se.

Everyone else also sucks, but Mulan being raised on tea and servitude gives her a physical disadvantage. And her fellow classmates decide they don’t like her because she’s strange and annoying. They sabotage her in tiny and mischievous ways, ruining her drills and making her look like a fool. Shang tells her:

You’re unsuited for the rage of war,
Pack up, go home, you’re through!
How could I make a man out of you?

But she climbs the impossible pole that no one else could (nice! v. phallic) using her wits. She proves by going above and beyond that she should stay in training.

Mulan becomes ‘one of the boys’ and rises to the top of her class.

Despite being the best, when they find out she’s a woman, they kick her out of the club anyway

We get hints that Mulan won’t be accepted as a woman, even after being exceptional. Her classmates dream about the girl they’re fighting for and Mulan interjects:

Uh, how about a girl who’s
got a brain, who always speaks her mind?

The response: Nah!

The troops are ambushed in a snowy pass. It looks dire. Mulan uses her wits again and instead of shooting Shan Yu with the last cannon, causes a catastrophic avalanche that swallows up Shan Yu’s entire army.

Shang tells Mulan, Ping, you are the craziest man I’ve ever met. And for that I owe you my life. From now on, you have my trust.

But, lo! Mulan’s sustained an injury during her heroic snowpocalpyse and passes out.

Mulan’s outed as a woman and kicked out of the club

Mulan comes to and everything has changed. They’ve discovered she’s a woman. Asshole advisor Chi Fu says what everyone is thinking. I knew there was something wrong with you. A woman!

Shang and Chi Fu haven’t taken their memory ginseng and despite the fact that Mulan just saved the entire army with her antics, Shang prepares to execute her. He spares her at the last minute, supposedly because she saved him from snowpocalpyse. While her fellow soldiers protest, they obey and trail along after the army, leaving Mulan with nothing in the snow.

Mulan says, I should have never left home.

She realizes that she left to protect her father, but also to prove herself.

Dishonored and exiled, Mulan fights for the realm anyway

Alone, Mulan sees the Huns rise from her snowy trap. The threat still lives.

Despite having been kicked out of the club and almost put to death, despite being branded a traitor for serving her country, Mulan sets off to warn the Imperial City.

When she warns Shang, he doesn’t listen to her. She says, You said you’d trust Ping. Why is Mulan any different?

He rides away. She tries everyone near her fringe of the crowd, and they turn their backs on her.

No one will listen! she says.

Hey, you’re a girl again, her dragon companion tells her after pretending to ignore her.

Meanwhile, Shang is hanging with the emperor and getting all the credit for stopping Shan Yu.

But Shan Yu has made it to the capitol! He kidnaps the emperor and steals back his sword with his creepy falcon.

The soldiers try to brute force the front gates open. They don’t budge.

The boy’s club has to get in touch with its feminine side

Bless Yao, Ling and Chien-Po. Though they didn’t really do anything while she was nearly killed for being female and we squint at them for that, they are willing to try it Mulan’s way. They dress up as women and even Shang decides to come for the ride, using Mulan’s signature trick to climb up the poles.

As an aside, it does suck that it’s considered funny for men to dress up as women when Mulan was in drag basically the whole movie to gain acceptance. And, that Shang didn’t join in, presumably because that would emasculate him and thus make him undesirable as a Disney prince.

The team sneaks up on the Huns. They witness Shan Yu trying to get the Emperor to bow to him. But since the Emperor is a BAMF and too proud and old to give a fuck, he refuses. He even drops some infuriating grandpa wisdom on Shan Yu.

The ragtag team saves the Emperor and gets him to safety. Mulan has the chance to run, but stays behind to save Shang. Shan Yu sees Shang and gets angry. You, you took away my victory!

Mulan then chucks her shoe at him.

No! [you prick], I did!

Shan Yu doesn’t give a shit that Mulan is a woman

Shan Yu proceeds to chase Mulan around the palace. He doesn’t give a second thought to Mulan being female. She’s just another walking corpse as far as he’s concerned. He fights her like he’d fight a man.

They fight and Mulan continues to be a freaking boss.

Eventually, she disarms him with a fan, turning another feminine symbol into a weapon.

She then of course saves the city and ziplines a lantern to safety.

Mulan expects her breaking of the rules will outweigh the good she’s done

The Emperor starts off with what sounds like a lecture:

But, remember, the Emperor is wise as hell.

So Mulan finally gets the credit she’s due and appreciated for who she is.

She decides to return home. But before she leaves the palace, Shang tells her, Um…you…fight good. Pat pat.

Oh, she says, no desperation and no drama. Thank you. And then she rides away to go tell her family that she saved China from the Huns.

Of course, Emperor can’t resist dropping some more knowledge.

After saving China, Mulan is finally able to stand on her own (almost)

We have a teary father-daughter moment when Mulan brings back all the treasures of China and her father dumps them on the ground.

The greatest gift and honor, is having you for a daughter.

Her grandma, however, is unimpressed. Great, she brings home a sword. If you ask me, she should have brought home a man. THANKS, GRANDMA!

Impeccable timing, as Shang wanders in like a lost puppy.

It’s a happy ending and everyone gets what they want, even Grandma, who gets to stare at Shang’s well-sculpted booty. Well — everyone except for Shan Yu. ‘Cause eff that guy.

I’m happy that Mulan ends on a high note. Despite nodding along with each of Mulan’s trials and thinking, Yup, that’s exactly what it’s like, one can’t help but watch Mulan’s end and think that there is hope. That it’s possible to bring honor to your family and country in a way that suits you, and that there’s a home waiting for you that you’d actually want to go back to.


Final lessons


Women feel immense pressure to be exceptional because of a perceived lack

Just as Mulan has to do the impossible to stay in training, many women put undue pressure on themselves to stand out from the pack. While many men aren’t afraid to fail or take risks, women are. They are more likely to define themselves and be defined by their mistakes, rather than be a person who made a mistake. Being imperfect as a woman attracts more attention and second chances are harder to come by.

Denying one’s womanhood and pretending to be one of the boys is not sustainable

Mulan’s adventure through the boys’ club is a familiar one to many women, who struggle with imposter syndrome. They are often terrified to be found out or seen as soft. It’s vital to note that there are women who would be happy picking their toes with chopsticks or spitting, just as there are men who’d enjoy cooking up a big dinner and putting on guyliner. Either way, faking it is not a sustainable option. Denying who you are puts you in a position of having to always watch your back instead of looking for errant Huns. A plethora of boys’ clubs means that many women (and men) resort to faking it.

True adversity doesn’t see gender

Just like Shan Yu, true adversity doesn’t much care for gender like we do. Numbers go down? That affects women at the company as well as men. War breaks out? That affects women, even when they’re not fighting. Many of our world’s biggest problems like cancer, world hunger and corrupt politics affect both women and men. They are also problems that need a range of solutions thrown at them by as many smart, determined humans as possible. We don’t benefit at all by having only men fighting these issues.

There’s something to be learned from the feminine

Mulan’s China is stronger after accepting femininity and feminine ideas into its methods. Mulan scales the pole with inferior physical strength by using weights as tools. Chien Po, Yao and Ling dress as ladies and convince the guards to lower their defense. There are plenty of feminine ideas that could improve the way we run companies and solve problems: mercy, persuasion, listening to users, planning for long-term success. Diversity means more solutions and better innovation.

It’s not all on the woman

Mulan changes through the course of the movie and becomes strong and independent. She overcomes society and her upbringing. However, unlike other Disney movies, the people in her life change as well, and not merely as a way to win her as a prize. Yao, Ling and Chien Po understand that Mulan is a hero and a person, rather than a ‘girl back home’ who will cook them chicken and swoon at their muscles. Her father understands that she is more important than who she marries. Shang realizes that none of Mulan’s struggle was actually about him and gets over himself. There’s a lot of weight on women to actuate change and to educate, but it can’t be all on them. Society and families must soften as well.


Extra credit reading! If you’re interested in how women are portrayed in our stories, check these articles out. If you know of any other good ones, comment and leave them here.

We’re losing all our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome by Tasha Robinson

‘We Have Always Fought’: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative by Kameron Hurley