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 now!

Tasogare This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
May 18, 2009 at 7:47 pm
Brilliant. We ARE far off from true equality. Nice work. :)
Deliah This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Apr. 8, 2009 at 11:09 pm
kudos!not only is this right on,but its also very well written:)
tweedle dee said...
Mar. 13, 2009 at 11:07 pm
this was great you had some excellent points.
Sana W. said...
Feb. 28, 2009 at 1:46 am
That was brilliantly written, and you made some very good points.
Alicia(Aleesha) This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Feb. 19, 2009 at 5:10 am
Thanks! Glad you liked it. :)
sofihuasteca said...
Feb. 19, 2009 at 2:52 am
wow! this is amazing, the connection and analogies you made are incredible!
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