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Disney’s Mulan: my feminist icon

Mulan DVD taken off shelf

Disney’s Mulan. It’s a movie we all know and should love. And if you don’t – have you been living under a rock?

This is Disney’s best animated film, it is a beautifully diverse and powerfully feminist masterpiece. Released in 1998 and directed by Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook, Mulan has aged like a fine wine. 

The film is based on the legendary Chinese Warrior Hua Mulan. This tale has been around since the 5th century and is still an important part of Chinese story telling.

The original story is not very different from the Disney adaptation.

There is a war and Mulan’s crippled father is drafted. To protect him she dons his armour to fight in his place, hiding her true identity.

Robert D. San Souci then wrote his own story based on this legend, which is the basis for Disney’s version.

Mulan is pressured into fitting the traditional woman’s role in China of being a beautiful wife. She is unable to play this part during her interview with the matchmaker. As a result she is doomed to never bring her family honour.

Mulan is then torn between her duty to her family and her inability to fill the role expected of her.

The defining moment for Mulan is when she chooses to take her father’s place in the war. Her initiative to take action and solve her problems is what really differentiates Mulan from the other Disney princesses. 

Disney's animated Mulan DVD leaning against a wall with two, small, red dragon statues on either side, framing it.
Redefining what it means to be a girl

Young girls growing up are exposed to a range of stories, many of which are centred around princesses finding their prince charming and living happily ever after. The dresses, the castles and of course, the sparkling shoes, were enough to convince us that becoming a princess and falling in love was the only goal we needed in life. 

For me, that all changed after I saw Mulan. 

This strong girl sets out on a quest to save her family and ends up saving all of China! It was incredible and unheard of. It was empowering and exciting to see this badass female character destroy the mould set by every other Disney princess before her, and even countless after her.

The most important aspect of this movie is its portrayal of women. Mulan is renowned for its strong female lead. While still a fun, historical Disney classic with stunning music numbers, it has much deeper values as reflected through Mulan’s character. 

The roles and depictions of female characters presented in other Disney princess films are evidently a production of gender roles and stereotypes.

In this case however Disney took a completely different approach. 

Strong female characters

Mulan is the strongest female character I have seen and that is a result of her intelligence, courage and determination. However many Disney films have ‘strong female characters’ that only depict their physical strength. 

As the movie develops, so does her physical strength, but that was never the focal point on why Mulan is such a great female character. It is Mulan’s intelligence that proves her a worthy soldier in the army and leads her to ultimately defeat the Huns.  

It is evident that the purpose in creating Mulan is to provide children with a strong role model, along with an empowering lesson on gender roles.

In an article written by Soren Hough, he states that the film is remarkable in that it features an all Asian cast as well as voice actors. On top of producing a film challenging gender roles, the delivery is even more meaningful with the diverse tale. Hough continues in how this movie is a stepping stone in the growth of a generation becoming fluid about labels and identity. 

Ahead of its time and still miles in front

Frozen has been revered for its strong female leads and applauded as being Disney’s first feminist movie. 

However, this is really not the case. 

Anna is beautiful, but not an intelligent character. One of her main plot points focuses on her brash decision to marry a man she just met. Her clumsiness is supposed to make up for this as it makes her goofy and loveable. 

When considering the other films Disney were releasing around the late 1900’s, Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Aladdin (1992) show a drastically different portrayal of women.

Beauty and the Beast is based on a kidnapped woman falling in love with her captor, with physical looks being one of the main themes of the story. As for Princess Jasmine in Aladdin, her only focus in the film is who she is going to marry.

I really believe that Mulan is an incredible movie. It is forward thinking, presents positive representation of women and has a diverse plot and characters. This movie truly stands the test of time as a Disney feminist icon.