I’ll Make a Man Out of You: Representation Issues in Mulan

Let’s get down to business: Disney is a brand that prides itself on pure family entertainment, when in actuality it contributes to an industry that perpetuates a culture of racial stereotyping and gender inequality. One of the best examples of this is also one of my favorite movies growing up — Mulan (1998). A tale about an imperfect daughter in China who trades in her dress and makeup for armor and weapons to defend her family’s honor, Mulan at the surface seems like a great story about pursuing adventure and breaking gender stereotypes to share with children to encourage them to do the same. For once, the conventional Disney princess isn’t a princess, but a female warrior that doesn’t need saving. Progressive, right? In actuality, in attempting to dispel notions of the damsel-in-distress, Disney fails to acknowledge the other cultural and sexist implications that inhibit them from successfully achieving their intended purpose.

Ethnic costumes, foreign names, and cultural traditions don’t serve much meaningful purpose within the film. In addition, the stereotypical expectations of daughters pleasing fathers by marrying well and obeying orders further delay the agenda as Mulan does not fight under her own volition, but to serve her father and kneel to the patriarchy. It is important to consider that Mulan is adapted from Chinese folklore, but in this adaptation process and the translation of a folklore into a marketable, consumerist product — not much of the original story or Chinese culture is preserved. It is however reduced to icons and tropes to simplify a very complex and different culture. This is not a step forward, but in fact, ten-steps backward. The quality of representation in Mulan does not suffice in leveling the landscape for diversity and representation in that the names, appearances, and setting are different. Racial representation is sensitive because it is not only quantity, but also quality and consistency that brands a film as inclusive and conscious.

The musical numbers in Mulan add another layer of concern in regards to gender equality and stereotyping. Songs like “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” and “Honor To Us All” highlight the expectations of men and women, and further serve to persuade a certain ‘type’ of person based on gender. To have children listening and singing along to music that idealizes such negative practices is a fundamentally problematic issue that needs to be fixed.

“Men want girls with good taste
Calm
Obedient
Who work fast-paced
With good breeding
And a tiny waist
You’ll bring honor to us all”
-Honor To Us All (Mulan, 1998)

The danger of Disney lies in the masked discrimination that hides behind song and dance, and a false notion of conscientiousness. This is not to discount the importance of Disney in popular culture; however, it is crucial for Disney as an institution, and the public as fans, to urge for transparency and progressive change for an equal future for both girls and boys, minorities and majorities. We have come a long way since 1998, but there is still a long way to go.