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Reflections on "Mulan" This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This work has won the Teen Ink contest in its category.

As a little girl, I was bombarded with the message that I could do anything a boy could do. My parents said so, teachers said so, and the media said so – both explicitly, through advice columns on how to get boys to play with me in magazines like American Girl, and implicitly through female role models who earned admiration by fulfilling traditionally masculine positions.

Implicit in the stories was that these girls were somehow better than others. A scornful tone was often employed when describing the difference: “Kit wanted to show him that she wasn’t the kind of girl who was just interested in dresses and dolls.” “My big sister Cleo has been so girly lately! Am I going to act like that when I get older? What a scary thought!”

And of course, there was Disney’s “Mulan,” which came out when I was six. I liked that movie so much that I wanted to be Mulan. The songs were fun, there were cool animals, the whole thing took place in ancient China, and the title character was everything I wanted to be, everything I was supposed to be. She had the strength of love and the temerity to secretly take her aging father’s place in the emperor’s army against the Huns. She was independent, pretty, brave, smart, confident, hardworking. And, the cherry on top: she did it all while managing to masquerade as a man.

The dominant attitude toward women of the generation who made “Mulan” (and most media of my childhood) was second-wave feminism. Thus, the philosophy that woman is equal to man and ought to display it through imitation touched me before I knew it existed. Though I wished to be like Mulan, always, in the back of my mind, I wondered why it was better for her to be a soldier than a housewife.

If I made temporary peace with the fact that going to war involves killing people, I could accept Mulan choosing the role of soldier, as it fit her particular personality better than housewife. But never was I shown an anti-Mulan, a girl who, given a true choice between the traditional gender roles, chose the feminine – as I often did, preferring my dolls and tea parties to Pokémon and the baseball games favored by my brother – or engaging in them all.

At times, I would feel that my tendencies toward traditional femininity were something of a character flaw. Certainly, I realized, that is how they would be viewed in my brother. A girl exhibiting masculine traits was smiled at for her spunk; a boy with feminine traits received raised eyebrows and whispers that he needed “something to toughen him up.” I see this as a continuation of second-wave gender role sentiments, and while it’s certainly infinitely better than the preceding generation of overt sexism, it never made me feel quite right.

True, we girls could now participate more fully in what had been considered boys’ activities, such as sports teams. But many efforts to make us feel more comfortable with our gender roles, like the movie “Mulan,” only confused us. Even the movie’s main song, “Be a Man,” was about a woman coming of age by training in the male-dominated art (if it can be called an art) of war. A movie about a man coming of age by training in a traditionally feminine field – such as, in Mulan’s case, keeping house or learning to serve tea – would be highly controversial. He would not be regarded as intelligent, brave, and hardworking, like Mulan. Arguably, though, it would take at least as much intelligence and hard work to master Song Dynasty social intricacies as it would to learn to kill people. And a man would have to be as brave as a woman in that time to transcend gender roles. The male star of this alternative-universe “Mulan” would, in our world, be given much harsher labels, the most tolerant of which would be “weird.”

I don’t believe that this attitude is healthy for either gender. It is unfair to men with so-called feminine traits that they must choose to hide their true selves or be ridiculed for who they are. It is also unfair to women and girls, who, like me, feel caught between being too masculine and not masculine enough.

Perhaps worst of all, the idea behind movies like “Mulan,” rather than truly striving for gender equality, shifts the social premium from males to masculinity. Maybe the movies my daughters will watch will be different; after all, they will be created by people who grew up in the midst of the third wave of gender role thought. I recognize that we’ve come a long way from the days of docile, fluttery heroines like Cinderella and Snow White, which is very good. But what I’ve learned since I first saw “Mulan” is that in terms of the true eradication of sexism, we still have a long way to go.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

This work has won the Teen Ink contest in its category. This piece won the March 2009 Teen Ink Nonfiction Contest.





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This article has 26 comments. Post your own!

Cheerland_Qi said...
Nov. 9 at 12:07 am:
  Hi AliciaH! I just pop in and see this interesting article, so I sign up an account to write a comment for you. I am a high-school girl from China, which may bring you a fresh perspective. I am familiar with the background of Ancient China, specifically, the&... (more »)
 
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deanna98This teenager is a 'regular' and has contributed a lot of work, comments and/or forum posts, and has received many votes and high ratings over a long period of time. This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Aug. 23, 2012 at 2:29 pm:
This, while not only well written, demonstrates my thoughts perfectly. I was a tomboy growing up, but now I enjoy dresses and pretty things infinitely more than dirt. I believe women should not be looked down upon for choosing to confine to traditional gender roles; after all, they are modeled after a woman's brain anyway. it's what we naturally tend toward.
 
Felicity replied...
Aug. 25 at 9:43 pm :
This and the article. I have always been more attracted to wearing dresses and skirts which is met with scoffs and 'sexism-enabler'. I have also mentioned the fact, if I had enough money to properly do this without hurting anyone, I would rather be a stay-at-home mum/housewife/whatever you want to call it. That day, I can honestly say, was horrible after I mentioned it. Despite the teacher's best efforts, the girls in the class felt it was alright to bash what I truly would like to... (more »)
 
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AliciaH This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Jul. 3, 2011 at 12:57 am:

Thanks for all the feedback, everyone -- I'm really glad the article connected with you all, and I'm sorry for not replying sooner to those who posted earlier.

Toxic_monkey, I'm glad to hear that. :) Sophie L., thanks for the recommendation, I'll have to check that out. Mabel, I'm really happy my article got you thinking! Mulan definitely relates to a lot of societal issues when you reflect on it. Dragonfly_girl, I agree, it's very irritating when people look d... (more »)

 
Takii replied...
Feb. 14, 2012 at 5:30 am :
I'm a man and I agree with everything you said, it's refreshing though to read something like this. I read about sexism often because I wish to educate myself about the subject and become a better man with more knowledge about it rather than one that swims with the waves. Good read and keep it up I hope you write more articles and use disney movies as examples.
 
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Dragonfly_Girl said...
Jun. 30, 2011 at 8:08 pm:

This is fantastic! When sexism and gender roles are discussed, this side of the story is often not expressed. It's good to hear. My mom works in the home, and in a community where most women have jobs, I have watched her been discriminated against my whole life. When someone finds out she is a stay at home mom, often they raise their eyebrows and say something like "Oh. You don't do anything." They act like the fact she has made this choice makes her a stupid, unneducated, worthless female. I... (more »)

 
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Mabel said...
Dec. 1, 2010 at 5:45 pm:

I loved this.It was moving but you made your point clearly and directly. This essay also made me think other modern issues "mulan" can relate to.

 

 

 
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Sophie L. said...
Jun. 8, 2010 at 2:32 am:

This is really a great start to a deep issue in our society! It explains what some find hard to grasp (due to fact it is so ingrained in people it eludes us) May I suggest an incredible documentary called "Straight-laced" it sheds light on all types of gender issues in society.

 

 
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toxic.monkey said...
Apr. 3, 2010 at 12:33 pm:
this is a great article and it shows just how we're still working on things! you've written exactly what i think :P
 
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AliciaH This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Jan. 17, 2010 at 7:44 pm:
Thanks for the compliments, everyone -- I'm really glad you enjoyed my article.
And if you read this and don't like it, could you do me a favor and leave your critique in the comments? Just giving me a 1 and disappearing isn't the most constructive feedback. :)
Thanks again to all of you who commented! I love hearing that people can relate my essay to their own lives.
 
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Moonlight said...
Jan. 17, 2010 at 5:12 pm:
So totally agree! I fall into the middle some where. I don't mind getting dirty as long as I can get clean afterwards. Most of my life I have been veiwed as a tomboy since I wasn't into dating, or dolls, or dresses and competed in burping contests(which i usually came into second place), hated pink, and loved doing taekwondo. But nowadays when I ask people if they believe me to be more boyish then girlish they say "somewhere in the middle". I realized a year ago that I didn&#... (more »)
 
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This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Oct. 20, 2009 at 11:31 am:
I agree! I'm not the type of girl to be out playing baseball with my brother, but I consider myself very feminist. Men and women are equal, but that doesn't mean that they have to be the same! I don't know a better example then that of my step-mother. She is a stay-at-home mom. She cleans, takes care of her kids, and makes lasagna that is so good it will bring grown men to their knees begging for more. A lot of feminists would look down on her, but I think she's taking a step... (more »)
 
Dragonfly_Girl replied...
Jun. 30, 2011 at 8:10 pm :
This is exactly how I feel!
 
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AliciaH This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Sept. 23, 2009 at 5:16 pm:
Thanks, everyone!
 
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sheeroxs said...
Sept. 23, 2009 at 5:10 pm:
i love this article.....really, i do!
 
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joanofarc15 This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Aug. 23, 2009 at 1:21 pm:
Good job! I love the movie Mulan, but I agree with a lot of what you said. Very well written, and congrats on being a winner in the nonfiction contest!
 
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Xasswuwe said...
Jul. 18, 2009 at 1:35 am:
I really appreciate this. I fall on the "masculine" end of the spectrum, but I can't stand how open minded we claim we are as a society when we are not. I'm ridiculed for being overtly masculine, but feminine women are stereotyped of being not as "strong" in character. What gives?
 
This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Oct. 20, 2009 at 11:36 am :
Exactly! My sister is mocked for looking like a boy with her short hair, but then they say I'm too girly whenever I do something special to my hair (which I don't even do that often!)
 
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SaraB. This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Jul. 9, 2009 at 1:17 am:
You conveyed a very unique viewpoint here. It's not something I would have thought about, but simply fantastic. Although I would probably fall on the more boyish side of the spectrum. You make me wonder if that's for approval's sake. Love it!
 
This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Oct. 20, 2009 at 12:10 pm :
I wouldn't blame you if it was just for approval. I don't know how many times I've pretended to enjoy fishing with my dad when I just wanted to be inside reading.
 
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