For a traditionally highly patriarchal country, Mulan is an important legacy left behind not only to give girls in China an important representation but a sense of empowerment.
And, in the year 2020, Mulan came at the perfect time when feminism is a hot topic in China. It was the perfect time for Mulan to inspire so many people.
Unfortunately, it was…divisive, to put it mildy.
To understand Mulan the live-action, we must first understand Mulan the 1998 animation as well as the ballad of Mulan.
THE ANIMATED TALE
The story of Mulan was set in a Northern Wei era in ancient China, a time when the greatest honor a woman could bring to her family or herself, was to get married and bear children, to which Mulan was terrible.
During this time, the Huns began to attack China, leading the emperor to order the conscription of one son from each family. Having no sons, Mulan’s disabled father was the only one who could take on that mantle. Desperate to save her father’s life, Mulan dressed up in his armor and joined the emperor’s army.
Mulan starts off as a total amateur but so does everyone. All the men around her lacked the skills required for battle. This presented an opportunity for the soldiers to train in any and all relevant aspects required and also allowed Mulan to show her capabilities by keeping up with them. As the other soldiers grow, so did she.
Here, the animated film made a statement. Women in any practical situation can be just as capable as any other man. Mulan learns to be masculine, despite not being manly. She is capable of harnessing strength and power, traits that, traditionally, are valued by men. But what’s interesting is the way the animated film empowers women by empowering femininity.
Now, this sounds strange at first glance because Mulan isn’t very feminine, she proved that by failing to be lady enough for the marriage-matching. She is a tomboy and a failed bride. But she is also not good at masculinity, being extremely awkward at pretending to be a man. That’s because those are extreme versions of gender expression. Femininity means submission, masculinity means aggression.
In a sense, Mulan’s journey is to embrace her own gender expression, she succeeds in doing traditionally masculine tasks but refuses to engage in hypermasculinity. Rejecting the value of brute strength. Instead, she is able to overcome various trails by using clever solutions on multiple occasions.
And her fellow solders learn from her as well. A bond is formed, through codependency, because no war is won with single solder but a codependent army. They start off as hyper-angry hyper-masculine men, but by the end are willing to be in drag to save the emperor. We see both sides learn to embrace each other. Girls can be manly and men can be girly without it necessarily being a bad thing. There is strength on both sides and there is strength in not limiting one with either extreme.
The animated film climaxes with her trying to save the emperor the man, not the emperor, Lord over China, or even China itself. Mulan doesn’t save the emperor out of loyalty; she merely sees the emperor as a fellow human in need of help.
After saving the emperor, Mulan is offered a position on the emperor counsel, as a reward for her intelligence and wit. Mulan declines the offer, rejecting the value in upholding the patriarchy, she returns home, to the only patriarchy she recognizes, her father. She presents him with a sword and a medal, bring symbolic honor to her father and family as a whole. Her father drops everything and embraces his daughter, breaking the final patriarchal relationship.
THE LIVE-ACTION TALE
Mulan, the 2020 live-action, follows the same basic plot. She completely fails at being a bride, China conscripts men, the father is too feeble to fight, Mulan leaves in his place. Despite the same basic plot, the two couldn’t be any more different.
Right of the bat, Mulan is a naturally gifted fighter. Instead of seeing Mulan grow alongside her comrades, building character, and a true sense of connection among them, now the message conveyed is only the select few are blessed by the gods to have the privilege of catching up with men. Those who aren’t so gifted like Mulan’s unnecessary sister character get married or “matched” off. Instead of a message of perseverance, we get a special case of “Qi”.
In the animation, Mulan was a problem solver, she finds her way to the top using her wits instead of brute strength. Mulan is able to solve problems without involving hyper-masculinity, clearly stating that there is value outside of the hypermasculine way of thinking.
Unfortunately, live-action Mulan had other plans. Mulan has to climb a mountain with two buckets of water, now how does she solve this problem? Mulan just does the manly thing better than men. Through sheer strength and Qi, indulging in the traditional masculine value of strength, and that a woman is good only if she can man up. Mulan’s experience and perspective as a woman are not valued.
The biggest let down for me, besides the absence of Mushu, was how they trivialized the rabbit scene despite its importance to the ballad. It takes one of the most iconic and powerful lines from the poem and turns it into a throwaway fan service moment, that ended up as a pointless scene.
THE BALLAD’S TALE
In the Ballad, Mulan went to war for ten years and was promoted by twelve ranks and yet no one ever discovered she was a woman. She was that much of a badass in the poem.
After rejecting the governing position offered to her, she chooses to return home. It was then when her fellow soldiers came to visit and saw her in a dress, wearing make-up did they realize the truth. Confounded, they asked her why they never realized she was a girl, to which Mulan replies,
“The male hare’s feet go hop and skip
The female hare’s eyes are muddled and fuddled
But when two hares running side by side
How can you tell the female from male”?
Mulan’s answer was poignant. Men and women may look different, but when living amongst each other, when fighting side by side, what difference do the differences make?