Last night, the Lomans watched Mulan. The movie follows a woman who falsely enlists in the army as a man, becomes the strongest soldier at boot camp, is shunned when her secret is exposed, and ultimately saves China. Mulan is a symbol of feminine power and honor. Growing up, I thought she was a rebel. I believed that the movie taught young females like myself the importance of ignoring societal rules; scenes such as her father’s embrace and the emperor’s salute proved that women could be respected for their strength and courage, not domestic capabilities.
Looking back, I wasn’t exactly naive. After all, I caught the point of the movie. Mulan, released in 1998, and Aladdin, 1992, both featured strong female characters that indicated Disney’s feminist shift (compare Cinderella’s 1950s complete domesticity to Tiana’s 2009 independence for a more dramatic comparison). However, what I never saw was the undertone of sexism in the entire movie.
I caught the obvious examples, as I dare say most children did. In one notable scene, the Emperor’s annoying advisor reveals to the camp that Mulan is, in fact, a woman. This character is universally despised– with his slimy disposition and nose up in the air, no character or audience member ever truly respects him. Thus, no harm is done when he shuns her. Oh, Disney producers think, this guy is villainous anyway, so associating sexism with him indicates that sexism is villainous. Everything is okay. Associating it with random men in the capital is not harmful as well; with no personal attachment to these characters, children see their blatant sexism negatively rather than seeing it as exemplary behavior.
Everything changes, however, when it is the characters we like that show these ideals.
Mulan’s grandmother is hilarious. Children love her from the second she tries to cross the street blindly with the help of a “lucky” cricket. More importantly, Mulan loves her. Thus, when she states, “She should’ve brought home a man,” children don’t perceive this negatively. When Mulan ultimately brings home one of the most honorable men in China, well… Children think, she might be an incredible heroine, but even Mulan needs a man. Even I need a man.
From a feminist standpoint, that was not exactly well-played, Disney, as this article explains.
The funny thing is, in the original Chinese story of Hua Mulan, which can be traced back to the first century CE, Mulan never brought home a lover. Rather, for twelve years our beloved heroine fooled her company into believing she was a man, and her merit and honor were gained without aid from a husband. The Disney adaptation, made 19 centuries later, somehow never caught on.
In all of time, this is not the first instance of a female in war. Take Robert Sampson, Petter Hagberg, Albert Cashier, and Denis Smith— all aliases for women cross-dressing in the American Revolutionary, Russo-Swedish, American Civil, and First World Wars, respectively. There are documented cases of women in wars without hiding their identities as well. Just ask:
- Matilda of Tuscany, who led her men in military conquests in order to “dominate all territories north of the Church States” during the Early Middle Ages.
- The Lioness of Brittany, who hunted French ships in the English Chanel with her Black Fleet in the 14th century
- and, for a classic, Joan of Arc, head of many French military campaigns in the Hundred Years’ War.
Clearly, extraordinary women have been in wars for quite a long time.
The average woman, however, has not been.
Take, for instance, The Iliad. From the 8th century BCE, over 2,800 years ago, the epic features an impressive cast of women: Chryseis, Breseis, Helen, Hecuba, and Andromache, to name a but a few. There are also the female gods to take account of: Hera, Athena, Thetis, and Aphrodite, most prominently. However, the war does not feature such an impressive cast. Oh, yes, extraordinary women, the goddesses, fought often in the wars. They are cast as powerful and more deadly than even some men, as is the case of Athena versus Ares. However, the ordinary woman was still a domestic wife. They are seen as prizes, part of a warrior’s timê, or honor. Priam sought Hecuba’s advice and Andromache may have stood at the ramparts, but the fact remains that both stayed in safe little Troy as housewives, not warriors. Both were prizes, not people.
This is the case throughout most of history. Though a few notable women may have fought in wars since the dawn of time, the status quo was to stay out of conflict. They took care of the children and the household. They took over jobs held by men previously to support their economies, but they didn’t fight. Every war is different, but they all are the same in that they were led by men. Women stayed home.
(We can, of course, go into the ways that women are warriors in other ways, such as mental strength, but that’s a different topic for a different day. Here, I am discussion traditional notions of a soldier.)
Today, standards are different. In the United States, as of 2014, women comprise “14 percent of the active duty Army, 23 percent of the Army Reserve, and 16 percent of the Army National Guard.” The average woman can stay home or go to war– she is no longer bound to being a “prize.” With feminist movements and the general trend toward equality, the average woman is the same as the average man. A lawyer can be of either sex. Beyoncé commands just as much Kanye.
I don’t begrudge Mulan for its contradictory feminist and anti-feminist messages. Despite everything, as a child, I was still inspired to be as strong and capable as she was. Times change, and the movie was progressive when it was made. Women, excluding a prime selection, weren’t always warriors, but there is nothing wrong with that. We are now, and that’s what really matters.
“Albert Cashier.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.
Bishop, Ashley. “Fairytale Dreams: Disney Princesses’ Effect on Young Girls’ Self-Images.” Dialogues@RU 9 (2014): n. pag. Web. 11 Oct. 2015.
“Brita Hagberg.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.
“Deborah Sampson.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.
Homer, and Robert Fagles. The Iliad. New York, NY, U.S.A.: Penguin Group, 1998. Print.
“Hua Mulan.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.
“Jeanne de Clisson.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.
“Joan of Arc.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.
“List of wartime cross-dressers.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.
“Matilda of Tuscany.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.
Stover, Cassandra. “Damsels and Heroines: The Conundrum of the Post-Feminist Disney Princess.” LUX Lux 2.1 (2013): 1-10. Taylor & Francis Online. Web. 11 Oct. 2015.
“Women in the United States Army.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.