Theories of Gender and Sexuality: Almost Progressive

This paper would benefit by having some explanation. This was the final paper of the course and my grades were okay, but not fantastic. I did not make the best grades on earlier papers, partially because I decided to put forward arguments that were what I really thought, instead of conforming to what the professor thought. Ahem. This paper was my last chance to get an A, so I decided to write exactly what was expected of me, to see how good of a grade I could get. I wrote it mostly as a joke, because Mulan is a very sensibly feminist film while most of the thinkers I use to interpret it are, in my opinion, not sensible. Well, I made a 98 on the paper, got an A in the class, and lol’d.

Credit goes to Garrett Malone for a few of the ideas presented in the paper.

Near the end of the Disney Renaissance, Disney released Mulan, a film about a young heroine who disguises herself as a man to join the Chinese army and defeat the Huns. The movie portrays two distinct but related masculinities; the Chinese have a warrior masculinity while the Huns have an animal masculinity. Mulan portrays these masculinities not as an exposition of the past, but as an analysis of the present. The film presents these masculinities in order to offer a powerful critique of them, but this critique ultimately rings hollow on multiple accounts.

Before interpretation of the film begins, it must be said that Mulan is a Disney movie. It is meant to appeal primarily to children, and to reach a wide audience. Disney is a large corporation, and among the most important goals of any corporation is monetary profit. It is not motivated to delve too deeply into controversial topics or profound themes; profitable entertainment attempts to appease the masses. Nevertheless, Disney has a history of being unafraid to challenge norms; an example being the homosexual couple in the recent live-action Beauty and the Beast (Barnes). For this reason, Mulan cannot be rejected outright as an example of philosophic themes.

There are two main versions of masculinity present in the film. The first masculinity is the masculinity of the Chinese. This masculinity has a specific setting. Mulan is set in the time of the Hunnic invasions of China. It is a dangerous time, when China must protect itself from external, physical threats. The effect of this constant warring can be seen in the song “Honor To Us All.” An anonymous chorus, representing the unanimous agreement of the society, sings, “We all must serve our Emperor / Who guards us from the Huns / A man by bearing arms / A girl by bearing sons.” This is the foundation of the Chinese masculinity. The culture is keenly aware of the precariousness of its safety, as can be seen when the Captain sings, “Time is racing towards us / Till the Huns / Arrive.” This danger compels them to create a masculinity based on warrior instincts. In addition to the setting of danger, Mulan is set long before the rise of modern technology. Perhaps the only technology in the film that could be called modern is the cannon weapon used by the Chinese. As Sandra Bem points out in her essay, “Biological Essentialism,” the pre-Industrial version of gender roles has been rendered invalid by the rise of modern technology (30-32). This is primarily because virtually all tasks can now be done equally well by either sex. Bem goes on to say that a “sex-based division of labor” may have had some biological basis in the far past, such as the time of Mulan. She writes, “Men would be primarily responsible for defense … both because they were bigger and stronger and also because they did not have their mobility limited by the continuous presence of children” (31). This development can be seen in Mulan. The men are warriors, and the women are not, and this defines much of their gender performance.

A distinct warrior masculinity grew out of the national fear of the Huns. The men of the troop are aggressive and easily prone to physically abuse each other. When Mulan arrives at camp and meets Yao, Mushu advises her, “Punch him. It’s how men say ‘hello.’” She hits him and he lands in Chien-Po’s arms. To this, Chien-Po says, “Oh Yao, you made a friend,” seemingly confirming Mushu’s advice. This shows that physicality and violence are an essential part of the Chinese masculinity. At another point, Yao invites the group to fight him by saying, “I am Yao, king of the rock! And there’s nothing you girls can do about it.” After Mulan does not want to fight, Ling is flabbergasted, and responds, “We have to fight!” This reveals that part of the portrayed Chinese masculinity is a total refusal to back away from any fight. In addition to these scenes, Yao has a black eye the entire movie, without explanation. Presumably he is constantly getting in fights off-screen.

The song, “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” explicitly defines the attributes of the Chinese masculinity. A man is, “Swift as a coursing river / With all the force of a great typhoon / With all the strength of a raging fire / Mysterious as the dark side of the moon.” The first three attributes clearly relate to fighting ability. The fourth is also a regular part of the warrior tradition. As Sun-Tzu writes in The Art of War, a foundational Chinese military text, “All warfare is based on deception.” The great warrior is unpredictable. The word “mysterious” captures this aspect of warfare.

A curious aspect of the Chinese masculinity is bad hygiene. Upon arriving at camp, Mulan exclaims, “They are disgusting!” to which Mushu responds, “No, they are men.” This is saying that all men are disgusting. Later, when Mulan is about to bathe, she says, “Just because I look like a man doesn’t mean I have to smell like one.” This phenomenon could also be linked to a warrior mentality. Warriors spend months in make-shift camps, so they will inevitably be dirty. If a warrior embraces and comes to love every aspect of the warring life, then they will reject cleanliness.

Chien-Po seems to contradict a warrior masculinity at first. He is sensitive by comparison, at one point calming Yao down through relaxing chanting. But he is certainly still a warrior. His warrior masculinity is not expressed through aggressiveness, but through size. He is large and strong, so he is able to fulfill his warrior role while remaining less aggressive.

The Huns have an animal masculinity, which can be shown to be merely an extreme version of the Chinese masculinity. They are presented as a single-minded group that does not even need to speak to one another to understand each other. This is because the animal instinct is common to them all, and that is what they are acting on. The leader of the group, Shan Yu, has claws and fangs, and his eyes are not white but black. As the leader, he is the archetype of Hunnic masculinity, and he hardly seems completely human.

Though this is different from the Chinese masculinity, the core of the two masculinities are the same. The Huns’ primary motivation is a warrior motivation. As an explanation of his own motivation for attacking China, Shan Yu says, “[The Emperor] invited me. By building his wall he challenged my strength.” The warrior mentality is necessarily competitive, and Shan Yu is taking this competitiveness to its logical conclusion. His motivation is to be the greatest warrior possible, and he attempts to prove his superiority through open combat. This shows that both masculinities are really just two versions of one warrior masculinity.

In showing these masculinities, Disney was not trying to be historically accurate, but was instead commenting on themes of masculinity in our own times. This is clear from the numerous caricatures and historical inaccuracies present in the film. Disney was creating a film for modern children, and only used historical figures and places to tell a story about modern culture. The masculinities that the film presented are masculinities that are present in the modern world.

Although Disney portrays these masculinities, the film is not a celebration of them, but rather a powerful critique of them. The first critique is in the style of Bem. The foundation of the Chinese masculinity is a warrior mentality, stemming from a constant threat of Hunnic invasion and a lack of modern technology. Remember that the masculinities that Disney is presenting are masculinities that exist today. But we do not have enemies like the Huns, and we have modern technology. Why did Disney make the basis of their masculinity something that is not valid today, if they designed their portrayal of masculinity to be applicable to the present? Disney is pointing out that these masculinities still exist despite the fact that their foundation is no longer valid. This is an example of what Bem was discussing when she said, “Even though a particular biohistorical interaction may have originally set up the pattern of male political dominance, the earliest biohistorical origins of male political dominance (whatever they were) are now irrelevant” (33). The warrior masculinity may have had a biological purpose in the distant past, but today, biology does not mean anything. The gender norms that remain only exist because of a certain cultural inertia.

Mulan critiques gender norms again by portraying gender as performative and imitative. Much of the movie is centered on Mulan deceiving other men into believing that she is also a man. This would not be possible to do if gender is not a performance in the sense of an intentional outward appearance. During “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” the Captain says to his men, “You’re a spineless, pale, pathetic lot / And you haven’t got a clue.” At another point, he says, “You’re the saddest bunch I ever met.” He is saying that his troops do not have any real manliness. But immediately after saying these insults, he concludes, “Somehow, I’ll / Make a man / Out of you.” Though the men are not being “true men,” he is certain that he will be able to make them into men; he will enforce their imitation of himself. Femininity is also portrayed as performative. Near the end of “Honor To Us All,” Mulan joins with the other hopeful young girls. They are all holding an umbrella, and Mulan initially carries it over her shoulder. But she then notices that all the other girls are holding it in a very specific way. Her eyes grow wide, signifying nervousness, then she closely inspects the way in which the other girls are holding their umbrellas, and imitates them precisely. This is a clear example of Judith Butler’s notion of gender being a frantic imitation of everyone else. In “Reflection,” Mulan sings to herself, “I will never pass / For a perfect bride.” The word “pass” is particularly interesting, as it is the precise word that drag queens use to describe their own playing with gender. In light of the word’s history, Mulan is saying that being a “Perfect bride” is a performance in the same way that a drag show is a performance. Perhaps most shockingly, in “A Girl Worth Fighting For,” Yao says to Mulan, “Bet the local girls thought / You were quite the charmer.” Unbeknownst to him, he is saying that Mulan, a woman, embodies the masculine attributes more successfully than any of the men do. All these examples demonstrate the superficiality of the genders. They demonstrate that masculinity can be performed.

Disney also mocks the innate insecurity of the portrayed masculinity. In “A Girl Worth Fighting For,” the men discuss their view of the perfect woman, and come to the conclusion that the perfect woman is one who will reinforce the tenuous gender norms they have imposed on themselves. When Ling confidently sings, “My manly ways and turn of phrase / Are sure to thrill her,” Yao sarcastically whispers to Mulan, “He thinks he’s such a lady killer,” then causes him to fall face first into the mud, clearly revealing that his charm is only a superficial façade. Although Yao knows that masculinity is only a fake performance, this does not cause him to reject it. Instead, he only becomes insecure. He sings, “My girl will marvel at my strength / Adore my battle scars.” Strength and battle scars are symbols of his warrior masculinity. He is saying that he wants a girl who will reassure him that he is, in fact, masculine. He needs an external confirmation of his own panicked imitation. In “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” Butler writes, “Heterosexuality is always in the process of imitating and approximating its own phantasmatic idealization of itself – and failing” (307). Yao intuitively knows this, and seeks an escape from the anxiety of this knowledge by hoping for an approval. In “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” Mulan says it most clearly; “[I] hope he doesn’t see right through me.” She is hoping that the Captain does not find out that her masculinity is fake. All of the men’s masculinities are fake as well, and they are feeling the same insecurity.

Disney then shows how this insecurity leads to Butler’s “heterosexual panic.” Butler says, “That heterosexuality is always in the act of elaborating itself is evidence that it is perpetually at risk, that is, that it ‘knows’ its own possibility of becoming undone: hence, its compulsion to repeat which is at once a foreclosure of that which threatens its coherence” (308). Though the culture itself knows and freely admits that gender is a performance, it still cannot endure the genders being played with. When it is finally discovered that Mulan is a woman, the men realize that the law demands that she be put to death. The fact that she had just saved not only their lives but the lives of everyone in China does not matter. Her ability to subvert the gender norms, her ability to show that they are incoherent, creates a panic so great that the law is designed to destroy her life.

Finally, Disney critiques the warrior masculinity by contrasting it with the Emperor, who looks remarkably similar to Confucius. The Emperor represents the deepest wisdom of the land, but he does not possess this panic. Instead of abiding by the established gender norms, he ignores them. He does not punish or shame Mulan, but shows her the greatest honor by bowing to her, giving her noble gifts, and even asking her to be his counselor. Because the Emperor represents the deepest wisdom, Disney is saying that the established gender norms are not important.

Though Mulan has many themes from feminist philosophy, it ultimately fails on several accounts. First, it forgets the existentialist themes of Simone de Beauvoir. This is most accurately seen in the song, “Reflection.” Mulan sings, “Who is that girl I see / Staring straight / Back at me? / Why is my reflection someone / I don’t know?” Beauvoir answers this by saying of women, “They wonder indefinitely about what they could have become, which sets them thinking about what they are. It is a vain question.” (258-259). Mulan is asking who she is, but “In pure subjectivity, the human being is not anything.” (Beauvoir 257). Any answer to Mulan’s questions would be a false answer, because existence precedes essence. Disney seems to give Mulan some sort of answer. She sings, “When will my reflection show / Who I am inside?” Mulan is left with an unshakable feeling that she has some internal being that is trying to be expressed, when Beauvoir would respond, “An existent is nothing other than what he does” (257).

Mulan also fails to present any alternative masculinities that are not male. Judith Halberstam writes, “Masculinity must not and cannot and should not reduce down to the male body and its effects.” (355). Disney had a prime opportunity to explore the theme of female masculinity. Mulan was performing some type of masculinity, but the masculinity she presented was temporary and voluntary. It was not performative in the Butlerian sense. Butler writes of her own lesbianism, “This is not a performance from which I can take radical distance, for this is deep-seated play, psychically entrenched play, and this ‘I’ does not play its lesbianism as a role.” (304). Mulan just adopted the role of “man” for a few days. She did not investigate masculinity in any profound way, because she never embarked upon a commitment to performance. Unfortunately, Disney decided against a butch heroine.

If Disney was attempting to be progressive, then perhaps their biggest failing was forgetting Monique Wittig’s unwavering insistence on lesbianism. In the end, Mulan does not truly challenge the traditional gender roles, but instead reinforces them through heteronormativity. The Emperor, the most trustworthy guide to the true agenda of the movie, pointedly says to the Captain, “You don’t meet a girl like that every dynasty.” He is telling the Captain to go after Mulan, and continue to perpetrate the stringent heterosexual culture. Instead of this, Disney could have embraced David Halperin’s method of normalizing homosexuality by showing that it has only recently been considered a category of person. No mention of homosexuality as part of the culture ever comes up, though heterosexuality is a dominant theme throughout. Wittig reveals why this is a damning fault; she says that the only way in which the arbitrary class “Woman” can be destroyed is “by the destruction of heterosexuality as a social system which is based on the oppression of women by men and which produces the doctrine of the difference between the sexes to justify this oppression” (271). The film ultimately fails to be truly progressive because of its unreserved acceptance of a heterosexual social system. Interestingly, it does not back away from the topic of drag performance. When the ancestors are first awakened, they quickly descend into bickering over Mulan, of which the last coherent thing said is, “Your great-granddaughter had to be a cross-dresser!” After this, the argument becomes a shouting match. Later, Mushu quips, “I’m doomed! And all because Ms. Man decided to take her little drag show on the road!” If Disney was bold enough to bring up the topic of cross-dressing, even in a mocking way, it is surprising that they did not see fit to mention homosexuality.

In conclusion, Mulan presents us with two main masculinities; the warrior masculinity of the Chinese and the animal masculinity of the Huns. Disney is using a historical setting to portray masculinities that exist in contemporary culture. It is not applauding the masculinities, but critiquing them. Although the film’s critique is powerful, it ultimately is rendered unhelpful by its adherence to a strictly heterosexual society.


Works Cited

Barnes, Brookes. “‘Beauty and the Beast’ to Have ‘Gay Moment.’” The New York Times, 2 March 2017, p. C3.

de Beauvoir, Simone. “Myth and Reality.” The Second Sex. Translated by H. M. Parshley, Random House, 1989, pp. 253-263.

Bem, Sandra. “Biological Essentialism.” The Lenses of Gender. Yale University Press, 1993, pp. 6-38.

Butler, Judith. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory. Edited by Linda Nicholson, Routledge, 1997, pp. 300-315.

Halperin, David. “The Democratic Body: Prostitution and Citizenship in Classical Athens.” The Masculinities Studies Reader. Edited by Rachel Adams and David Savran, Blackwell Publishing, 2002, pp. 69-75.

Halberstam, Judith. “An Introduction to Female Masculinity: Masculinity without Men.” The Masculinities Studies Reader. Edited by Rachel Adams and David Savran, Blackwell Publishing, 2002, pp. 355-374.

Mulan. Directed by Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook, performances by Ming-Na Wen, Eddie Murphy, and BD Wong, Walt Disney Feature Animation, 1998.

Sun Tzu. The Art of War. Translated by Samuel B. Griffith, Oxford University Press, 1971.

Wittig, Monique. “One is Not Born a Woman.” The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory. Edited by Linda Nicholson, Routledge, 1997, pp. 265-271.

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