Saturday, July 25, 2009

Be a Man: We must be swift as the coursing river, with all the force of a great typhoon...

I love the movie Mulan. YES, I know it is a Disney movie. YES, I know that I am a growed woman. YES, I know it ALL (duh), but I love it more every time I see it. Last night I made myself pay special attention to the sex politics, since that tends to be one of the things most people focus on.

Now, the whole Disney franchise is a living monument to stereotypes and traditional sex roles—this is not a secret and never was. While I understand the general annoyance (she has to become a boy to be a hero), I’ve never really understood the exasperated, almost childish foot stomping that follows this type of portrayal. Western women are nowhere near where they used to be 100 years ago, never mind 50 or even 20 years ago. Progress is, well, a progression. You don’t jump from point A to point Z—the world and all it’s vile, stinking pustules of hatred, fear, and oppression, is not going to miraculously heal itself after one heartfelt verse of “We are the World” whilst holding Hands Across America.

I think it’s important to remember that this movie is made for children, and speaks directly to both girls and boys in very specific, very progressive ways. The movie starts with Mulan readying to meet the matchmaker…a culturally foreign and antiquated rite of passage that most Western girls will never know firsthand, but the message is not lost: Find a man to complete you and, more importantly, do not dishonor the family. People could generalize and say that this is specific to the culture—Western kids don’t give a crap about honor, loyalty, and the bickering chorus of ancestors—but I think they certainly relate to the concept of not letting your parents down. Culturally different, but the same in all the ways that count.

Mulan is clearly not cut out for domestic life in the Han dynasty—just look at the creative way she handles her chores with the puppy/bone on a stick trick to feed the chickens—and it’s inevitable that she will fail at the matchmaker’s. When Mulan returns home to face the shame of her father, she sings the lovely “Reflection,” which basically boils down to the question any conflicted young woman wants to know: Who am I and what is my purpose? The lyrics are heavy with allusions to “play[ing] a part,” “wear[ing] a mask,” and how she must “pretend” and “hide” who she really is. A disastrous daughter in a traditional family is inevitably a tomboy, a role she gets to inhabit as soon as her father is summoned to war.

But note that Mulan doesn’t want to be a boy—she just isn’t cut out for the delicate, practiced, well-mannered servitude of a traditional wife. Her first steps in the army are the same as her introduction to the matchmaker: awkward, destructive, alienating, and generally disastrous. She’s no more a success as a “man” as she is a “woman.” Mulan doesn’t aspire to be a heavily muscled, standing atop a mountain peak, sword-in-hand iconic warrior: she wants to be good at something and she wants to save her father, simple as that. The modern Western girl can certainly relate to Mulan’s identity conflicts: They want to work, they want to make the cash and feed the family, they want to be the CEO and bang the gavel…and they want to have princess weddings and babies and appliances and clean, shiny floors, too. More than anything, however, they want to be good at what they do, and accepted in whatever roles they choose.

The movie keeps the male roles fairly traditional to a point—the most searing and bittersweet for young women to watch undoubtedly is every scene with Mulan and her father, Zhou. Even now, in this world of idyllic equality (ha), female babies, children, teens and adults are intimately aware of the protective father figure, whether it is a father, grandfather, uncle, etc. As a person trying to grow into someone self-confident, strong, and independent, having a protective father is both endearing and comforting while simultaneously irritating and, in some cases, enraging. Even while Zhou tells Mulan she must learn her place—with strutting-while-limping male pride and slamming his hand on the table like the ultimate family gavel—I think he also understands how keenly her conflicted identity pains her and tries to assure her that even though she will bloom late, she will certainly be the most beautiful of all. And I doubt they mean physical beauty here—any little girl will tell you that Mulan is already beautiful. I think despite Zhou’s sexist, get-in-your-place position, he understands that Mulan is trying to figure out who she is and where she fits in. He begs the ancestors to help her at the matchmaker's but I feel it is directed more to his desire that she find her way in a safe, societally accepted the father-protector, he doens't know any other way to be. In the end, when Mulan presents the gifts from the emporer, Zhou tells Mulan "The greatest gift and honor is having you as a daughter."

Little boys watching Mulan must also respond and relate to the male roles throughout, especially with Captain Li Shang, the square-jawed young warrior who must “make a man” out of Mulan and the rest of the troops in order to fight the approaching Huns. I think boys grow up in an equally conflicted world: while we generally do not expect a boy to fulfill the traditional role of protector (and, by association, oppressor), he should certainly at least desire to do so. Otherwise, he is a wimp: he’s a loser, he’s yellow, he’s weak. It’s a delicate balance to be strong and protective...but only to a point.

Mulan’s success at training, on the battlefield, and at the palace owe equally to her physical strength and her problem solving abilities. It’s the old “men are meat bags and women are cunning kittens” routine, no doubt, but this old hat is also a tip to the idea that women have to do “twice as good as a man to go half as far” (Fannie Hurst). I love Mulan’s moxie, her quick thinking and wild spirit, and I “get” the device, but I don’t think it’s necessary to keep overcompensating to make a point. After all, girls these days aren’t aspiring to be “as good as” men—ain’t no such thing—they just want to be treated equally. In my opinion, it’s the one thing in Mulan that falls short(sighted).

What really succeeds, however, is the complete dismissal of sex politics in the end. The evil, horrible, no good Hun, Shan Yu, has taken the palace and wants the emperor to bow to him. Mulan and her army buddies break into the palace by going drag—the “ugly concubines”—and a reprise of “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” makes it both ironic and, ultimately, irrelevant: A girl becomes a man to become a warrior; men become girls to save China. Sex is interchangeable and immaterial: You need smarts, guile, and strength to win the battle. When Mulan is fighting Shan Yu one-on-one, she must draw back her hair and cock her head to show him that she is the same warrior that bested him on the mountain. And what does he say? Is it “A wooooomannnn!?” or “You shall learn your place, female” or even “Bitch!”? Well, no. It is Disney, after all (hello, “concubines”?) so instead of all that he says this: “The soldier from the mountains.” If the Hun(-nybun) leader—the very symbol of over-charged, over-grown, testosterone fueled male violence—can see Mulan not as a woman or a man, but simply as a soldier, the world might, too, mightn’t it? Now that’s progressive.

Of course, having said all that, I must admit that I love the movie because it hits all of my most personal chords: the traditional father who I want to please and yet struggle against as I try to assert my identity and independence; the conflicted schizophrenia of youth as I tried to figure out what/who I should be; the desire to be excellent in that endeavor. Being a girl of girly proportions, I will stand tall and state that I cried--sometimes outright bawled--throughout the film. Having confessed to such womany blubbery, I must say that it would be nice to feel safe inhabiting all gender roles, wouldn’t it? We could be warriors, mothers, crybabies, welders, cake bakers, bunny herders, and rugby players. With nice nails and a wicked right hook, too.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had no idea. I like the move too but I never diagnosed it like you did Lovey. Great passion.

7:17 PM  

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