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Gender Portrayal in Disney's Mulan

From before we are born, we are influenced by everything around us.  Physically, mentally, emotionally, even in ways we can’t control. Little kids are especially impressionable, their brains acting as sponges soaking up everything around them.  Like when I was 5 and I heard my dad say a bad word and couldn't stop repeating it. Another thing my dad did would be to put on the show SpongeBob Squarepants to get me to stop crying. As a kid, I watched a whole bunch of tv (that did NOT turn my brain to mush! Take that, mom!) This means that children’s films have a lot of power to influence what kids do and think and with that power, comes great responsibility. And no other company has more responsibility in children films than Disney.


What I hope to address here (and hope to show you with evidence) is that Mulan's influence on the perception of gender roles, from a musical view, perpetuates these stereotypical roles. It is impossible for me to attest to what values Disney intended Mulan to portray. I can only speak to what actually goes on in the film.  

Mulan has four central songs:


I will be looking at each of these (plus two bonus musical scenes that is not a full song but pivotal) and how they address gender roles.


Honor to Us All

This song starts with suddenly with hard beats (as opposed to being faded in) and the first instruments played are xylophone, cymbal, bells, and triangle at a fast tempo. After the first stanza, drums and a traditional Chinese flute come in. This song is the largest contributor to reinforcing stereotypical gender roles that appear in this film. Musically, the Chinese flute plays very high notes mimicking the high pitches of the women singing in the song.

Lyrically, in the first stanza, the song employs a version of the adage “can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear” by saying that will turn Mulan, the sow’s ear in this case, into a silk purse.  Typically in reference to this adage, a sow’s ear is said to mean “something ugly or inferior” and a silk purse is to mean “something attractive or of value." In direct comparison, the women working for the matchmaker are calling Mulan “something ugly or inferior” and that the work they will do (makeup and clothes and posture) will turn her into “something attractive or of value.” That all of their work will make her into an “instant bride” and because of this, she will “bring honor to us all.”  The first two stanzas of this song reinforce the traditional gender roles that women are meant to marry and that this is the way to honor their family. Further evidence of this is in the fourth stanza where the matchmaker’s workers say:


A girl can bring her family

Great honor in one way

By striking a good match


The matchmaker’s workers then say that “Men want girls with good taste” who are “calm, obedient, work fast-paced,” who are good for breeding with a “tiny waist.”  These women reinforce not only how a woman should act but also how her physical appearances should be, that they should be “like a lotus blossom / soft and pale,” like a “perfect porcelain doll.” As if women are an object to be admired and bought and placed on a shelf when not in use (Hint: they're not).  And that if Mulan follows these rules, no man can “say ‘no sale’” when the parents offer their daughter to be bought.

From a Western perspective, these values are supposed to be opposite to what we support. And while that may be somewhat true in today’s ever progressive world, in 1998 when the movie was released, some of these values reflected the reality of US culture, praising women with tiny waists and a light complexion.


Reflection

In contrast to this gender roles-reinforcing song, “Reflection” is up next.  This song starts with a slow fade in of a flute and a harp at a slow tempo.  The singing comes at a low volume with the music being even lower. This song overall is a lyrically short song with two stanzas of lyrics, as opposed to “Honor to Us All” which has 11 stanzas.  In this song, Mulan is reflecting on her life after feeling disheartened from her meeting with the Matchmaker. She sings, “if I were truly to be myself, I would / break my family’s heart” showing the clash between an independent mentality (USA) to an interdependent culture (China).  Mulan sings that she has tried to hide her true self from the world but has failed. In this short song, Disney appeals to the values of Western society by allowing Mulan a stage to let out her independence and try to be herself.


Bonus Scene #1

Though not it’s own song, a very pivotal moment both symbolically and musically takes place in this scene.  Prior to this point, Mulan’s appearances on screen have been accompanied by soft music, e.g. flute or harp or strings, while the men on screen have been accompanied by harsh music, e.g. drums, cymbals, trumpets.  At this time, Mulan has just been told by her father that she “has dishonored him” by speaking out of place because she was trying to reason with the Imperial Army that her father should not have to fight in the war.  Realizing that her father would have to fight and most likely die for this war, Mulan makes the bold decision to run away from her family and assume her father’s role pretending to be his son. As she makes this decision, her face goes from that of defeated to that of determined.  In this change, the music changes from a flute and piano and strings to drums, cymbals, electric piano, trumpet, and thunder, signifying her transformation from woman to man.


I'll Make a Man Out of You

Following this scene, Mulan leaves home and joins the army training camp where she introduces herself as Ping (but for purposes of this post, I will continue to call her Mulan).  This is where the third song from this film comes in, “I’ll Make a Man Out of You." This song starts with a snare drum and other percussions with trumpets following soon after with a moderate tempo. The lyrics of this song are about Captain Li Shang training his new recruits. The one reference to both genders is when he says, “Did they send me daughters / When I asked for sons?” The rest of the song is about how a soldier must act and the characteristics he will instill in them to make them men. Toward the end of the song, when all the soldiers are trained and they are performing at the same level as their Captain, everyone has gained a new level of respect for each other.  


A Girl Worth Fighting For

The final song in this film is “A Girl Worth Fighting For.”  This song has a moderate tempo that starts off with drums, trumpets, and a flute with whistling and cymbals following later.  This song is important because it is showing the opposite side of “Honor to Us All.” Whereas “Honor to Us All” showed how women should behave to get a man, “A Girl Worth Fighting For” shows what men want from women.  It starts with Ling describing his perfect woman who should be “paler than the moon” in reference to her skin complexion. Other suggestions from other characters on what their perfect woman would be like include cooking skills, admiration for anyone in armor, and seeing no faults with the men.  In terms of what they don’t want in a woman, Mulan suggests “How ‘bout a girl who’s got a brain / Who always speaks her mind?” and all three major army characters shout in sync, “Nah!” In this song, Disney is, knowingly or not, suggesting that men who are “strong” or who have fought in a war will have any woman they want with all of them “lining” up to meet them at their return.  


Bonus Scene #2

The final musical element I will be addressing comes near the end of the film.  Here, Mulan grabs the attention of Captain Li Shang and the three main army characters who are trying to rescue the Emperor from the Huns.  As she leads them to an alternate entrance, the exact melody from “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” starts to play from mid-song, not from the beginning.  These characters have accepted the fact that Mulan and Ping are the same person and being a woman does not negate her skills. The scene starts with the melody only and no lyrics but the lyrics are added mid-verse with “Be a Man.”  These lyrics are sung at the exact same moment that the three main army characters have changed from their "manly" armor into women’s clothing (makeup and all) juxtaposing “Man” audibly and “Woman” visually. Signifying that the strength and other elements that were supported in the original song about turning “boys” into “men” can also apply to women.  


Conclusion

The film ends with Mulan having single-handedly saving the Emperor and China from the Huns.  The Emperor, realizing the worth of Mulan, knows that she deserves the utmost respect and bows to her and, in turn, all people present bow with the Emperor to Mulan.


Disney deals with gender in very peculiar ways in this film.  For most of the film, stereotypical gender roles are highlighted and enforced with only the final 10 minutes challenging these standards.  Disney undoubtedly has a profound impact on children’s sense of what values are important and Disney needs to take that into account for future films.  But for the time that this movie came out, Mulan may have been one of the more progressive films.  Mulan was not motivated by a prince nor was she looking to become a princess, instead, Mulan was motivated by both her love for her father and a need to find her true self.  Mulan appeared a tomboy and fought in a war, new territory for Disney. Looking at Disney’s most recent films, they have learned to take a more active role in being cognizant of what values they emphasize in their children films.


Read the full paper here.

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