The artefact I’ve chosen is Disney’s Mulan. The movie is set in China during the Han Dynasty; following an invasion by the Huns, the Emperor asks one man from each family to join the Chinese army. Knowing that the only male in her family is her elderly father, Mulan takes her father’s armor and sword and sets off to enlist in his stead, with guardian spirit Mushuu and a lucky cricket in tow. Despite having her identity revealed while travelling with the army, Mulan would ultimately see to the defeat of the Huns, restoring her honor and bringing peace to the country. At face value, the act of rule-breaking which Mulan commits would seem to be that of going against her family’s wishes, or impersonating her father. The larger act of rule-breaking which encompasses many portions of the movie and is frequently referenced is Mulan’s conflict with society’s expectations for pre-established gender roles. Not only does she begin by showing a disinterest in how women are “supposed” to act, as the movie progress Mulan also challenges what “makes a man.”
The movie begins with Mulan being prepared to be chosen as a bride for a potential suitor; this in itself is an example of women’s roles in feudal society. To bring honor to your family as a girl, the best you could do is become a wife “with good taste, [be] calm, obedient, work at a fast pace, […] and have a tiny waist.” The roles of men and women are explicitly different: “We all must serve our Emperor, who guards us from the Huns. A man by bearing arms, a girl by bearing sons.”
Mulan acknowledges that she can’t live up to society’s expectations for a girl, if she wants to be herself. This is shortly before she takes on her father’s armor and leaves to join the army. Mulan breaks a “rule” by deciding not to be a “perfect woman” then moves straight to breaking another “rule” by pretending to be a man.
My favorite Disney song starts by asking if the general was sent daughters when he “asked for sons,” again reinforcing that women belong at home, where men go to war. The scene continues to list off qualities that are favorable in men, in both the song and the animation. Men should be swift, forceful, strong, muscular and tenacious. Mulan adds intelligence and ingenuity to the mix when climbing the pole to retrieve the general’s arrow, using the weights of “discipline and strength”.
This scene very obviously shows what qualities men want in women, what a “girl worth fighting for” is like. Desirable qualities include beauty, appreciation for strength, and the ability to cook. When Mulan’s squad talks about a woman who won’t find any faults in them, she suggests instead a girl “who’s got a brain, who always speaks her mind” which is very quickly dismissed.
Mulan is absolved of guilt through transcendence; she only engaged in her law breaking act to spare her aging father from participating in the war. She is even more literally absolved of guilt for posing as her father when the Emperor himself commends her for her actions.
I believe the message we should be taking away with us is that it can be appropriate to break society’s gender roles, or at the very least, not believe in them. I’m sure we all understand that a woman can contribute to society without becoming a bride, and they can be appealing without having to be physically attractive, obedient, or good with house work. Likewise, we understand that men don’t have to be “swift as a coursing river”, nor must they have the “force of a great typhoon.” Despite believing that these gender roles and traits are invalid, there are still some we adhere to, for example Mulan using a high voice in preparation to be a bride, or using a low voice during her façade as a man. Even more interesting is the idea of the damsel in distress, despite Mulan being the hero of the story, we still need to dress her as a man in a fantasy setting for our brains to process it properly.
Mulan. Dir. Bancroft Tony. Perf. Ming-Na, Eddie Murphy, Miguel Ferrer and BD Wong. Walt Disney Feature Animation, 1998. Film.