Disney's "Mulan". Feminist Ideology in Animation

Essay 2015 8 Pages

Film Science


Assess how feminist ideology is organised within a key animated text of your choice. Animation holds the power to create a narrative of hidden connotations and therefore the ability to distort reality from fairy-tale. This power has led to animation becoming a key way to express ideologies that go against hegemonies. One of the revolutionary narrative discourses in targeting feminist ideologies is that which redefines traditional characteristics of femininity. In discovering the influences on media culture and its development we can be drawn to Disney, as a hugely influential and globally popular animation company, specialising in targeting children with the ability to draw adults into its deeper more sinister relations. Disney’s 1998 film Mulan (1999), is a westernised adaptation of the Chinese tale of Hua Mulan, a legendary figure from ancient Chinese culture about a girl who took her weak fathers place to fight in the army, as a ploy to save him from almost certain death. Disney’s adaptation brings with it strong feminist ideology towards seeking individuality and going against the norm that a woman is grown into, however at the same time it is arguably anti-feministic because of the way Mulan is “crumpled under the male gaze (Whelan, 2012, p. 28)”, throughout the film Mulan lives in fear of Shang Li’s gaze because of the penalty of death for imitating a man. Butler’s essay on Performative Acts and Gender Constitution (2012, pp. 900-911) engages a stronger sense of feminist ideology upon the film Mulan (1999), we begin to understand what gender acts are being challenged and how women are exposed to the cult of tradition which undermines women. The animation draws on gender hierarchy and the way in which it makes women devoid of social mobility or equality among men. The theme of Mulan (1999) follows ideologies around gender oppression, race, and social stance but on top of this; government oppression which is the main cause to feminine oppression and fear of acting outside the constituted gender norms or “specific corporeal acts (Butler, 2012, pp. 902)”. Many of the songs within the film are lyrical transgressions that highlight the dualistic, torn, emotions Mulan goes through during her journey of finding her ‘self’. A key feminist ideology is her ability to transgress traditional values and seek individuality, to be oneself. Mulan’s lyrics to ‘Reflection’ expresses the way the conformity of society burdens Mulan into submitting into gender roles.

Feminist ideology implements around an awakening outside of traditional restraining cultural factors. Mulan is constrained by the way her family look to her “to uphold the family honour (Mulan, 1999)”. She loves her father dearly and wants to please him and empower his masculinity, but she also wants to protect him and prove herself able. At the beginning of the film Mulan’s father is ordered to go to war, as he has no male son to fight for him. Mulan breaks the silence at dinner that night saying “you shouldn’t have to go- you’ll die for honour!” to which he replies “I know my place! It is time you learned yours (Mulan, 1999)”. After this scene Mulan is seen in the rain at night, the imagery is sorrowful and she looks weak, then suddenly her eyebrows invert connoting masculinity and strength as she decides to prepare herself to take his place in war. It is arguable that this transition into trying to appear like a male soldier gives her a tomboyish character “The source of [Mulan’s] attraction is her resistance to the constraints imposed on members of her sex by prevailing gender conventions… she wants to go out into the world and become a soldier (Hoogland, 2009, pp. 100)”. Mulan (1999) becomes a role model for women, the film is empowering towards feminist ideologies, and it provides a framework for children that encourages them to challenge the rigid structure of conformist culture. There is a progressive outlook on Mulan because “this film’s depiction of a strong and independent girl represents a new kind of treatment of feminism in popular culture (2011, pp. 54)”. Mulan presents us with a realistic portrayal of the role of women in ancient China, but also with the binary opposition of Mulan to show us the differences between conformity and following a more feminist ideology; “Mulan [is] an example of the “empowering” or “liberating” aspect of Hollywood production (2011, pp. 54)”. After Mulan makes her transition into a de-womanised image (this being her impersonation of a soldier), we learn of the penalties of her act of individuality, her mother says to her father “You have to go after her! She could be killed” to which he replies; “If I reveal her, she will be”. According to Queer theory, Mulan’s behaviour is strange and unusual, this to society would make her a deviant because of the way she opposes traditional ideal traits of Chinese femininity.

One of the main sections in Mulan (1999) is when she meets the match-maker at the beginning of the film “an obese, fussy matchmaker as the gate keeper of traditional femininity. She determined the worth of girls by evaluating their suitability for the role of the virtuous wife and good mother (Yin, 2011, pp. 61)”. The viewer is instantly immersed into the social conditions of females when Mulan is preparing for this meeting to prove her worth as a wife, Mulan lists the hegemonic qualities that she must conform to; “quiet and demur graceful, polite, delicate, refined, poised… punctual!”, right from the start Mulan’s comedic character fails to meet these requirements, try as she might. Her inability to be a perfect bride lead her to feel disdain and she feels outcaste by the rest of society. The matchmaker states that Mulan is “too skinny- not good for baring boys”, this ties into the Chinese stigma that males are worth more than women, and therefore as a wife you are chosen upon how likely you are to bare a son for your husband. Chinese women are a subordinate commodity for men. This impacts on why women are restricted from their voice, because… "Man's vision of woman is not objective, but an uneasy combination of what he wishes her to be and what he fears her to be, and it is to this mirror image that woman has had to comply. (Figes, p. 17, 1987)". Mulan is vexed when she is cut short for speaking up for her father, she is concerned for his life but the emperor’s counsel says “Silence!- You will do well to teach your daughter to hold her tongue in a man’s presence”. Judith Butler talks of gender performance as a taboo, a social sanction in which “an identity [is] instituted through a stylized repetition of acts (2012, pp. 900)”. Feminists often state that feminine behaviour is something that is socially created not born, through this feminist ideology it is clear that gender is defined and “constructed through specific corporeal acts (Butler, 2012, pp. 902)”. The ideology of a ‘woman’ and ‘gender’ is a “historical situation rather than a natural fact [from] which the body comes to bear cultural meanings (Butler, 2012, pp. 901)”.

During the scene when the soldiers and Mulan are on their way to war, Mulan’s fellow soldiers start to sing ‘A girl worth fighting for’ during this song the soldiers ascribe attributes to their idealised perception of what they want in a woman such as to “marvel at my strength, adore my battle scars” to which Mulan (masked as Ping) speaks up saying; “Uh, how about a girl who’s got a brain… who always speaks her mind?”. The image of uncertainty on Mulan portrays her realisation of how truly undermined women really are, she has been able to step outside the social structure and become an on looker of the chaos of stigmatised norms and values. Feminist ideology follows Mulan’s voicing of women with freedom of speech and opinion because… “these representations encapsulate the dichotomy of gender assertion vs. the Chinese tradition… in order to make Mulan a strong female figure, China was signified as the most sexist culture (Yin, 2011, pp. 61)”.



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University of Portsmouth – University of Portsmouth
Disney Mulan Feminism Judith Butler idelogy Chinese tradition gender




Title: Disney's "Mulan". Feminist Ideology in Animation