Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Think of the Children! Tuesday: Mulan

It's surprising that it's taken me this long to write about Mulan, because when it comes down to it, this is probably my favorite children's movie. Or, well, that might be overstating it a bit (there's still Balto and Babe and the movies I genuinely watched most as a child, Endless Summer and Chariots of Fire). It's definitely one of my favorites, though, and of the movies from the Disney renaissance, this one is tops.

I love it for a lot of reasons, not all of which are academic. First off, it's just a fun cool adventure story with a kickass female lead and a lot of great songs. Tell me you can listen to "Make a Man Out of You" without singing along at the top of your lungs, and I'll call you a liar while starting to sing the song myself because it is exactly that catchy. 

I mean, there are definitely weird things in this movie (like why a Chinese guardian spirit is voiced by Eddie Murphy), but I love those weird things and everything about this whole film. It's feminist without feeling forced, and it actually has really good messages for kids in there. Plus, hey, it's always nice to watch a Disney movie that isn't super duper white-washed.

Those are the real reasons I love this movie, but I also appreciate it on an intellectual level. It's not just a good movie, it also has some really interesting things to say about a very prickly subject: gender performativity. Awww yes, that's where we're going today. Strap in, it's gonna be great.

So the term gender performativity sounds really complex, but it basically means "how you perform your gender". And, just so we're totally clear, while sex is defined by what's between your legs, gender refers to the social construct and interpretation of that. Sex is pretty neutral, it just kind of is. Gender, on the other hand, because it's socially constructed, can be both good and bad. And because it isn't really innate, like sex is, it's something that we "perform" when we go about our lives. Because it's determined by our actions. Good? Good.

What makes Mulan such a really interesting movie (to me) is that the whole film is about performing gender, and the ways that this is both bad and good. At the start of the movie, Mulan (voiced by Ming-Na Wen, who is awesome) struggles with properly performing female gender. It's not that Mulan isn't a woman - we're pretty clear on that - it's that she is having trouble adhering to the gender requirements placed on her.

And, I mean, it's pretty funny, isn't it? Watching Mulan get all dressed up, clearly not having it, and then be squeezed into some dress all so that some angry old lady can tell her who she's allowed to marry? It feels weird and silly and as a tomboy I totally felt some connection with this awkward girl. Mulan is a "failure" because she's not good at performing her gender, at least not insofar as her society is concerned. 

That's what the whole song "Reflections" is about. Mulan isn't seen as fit to be a girl, but she knows that she is. She knows that while she doesn't fit her gender requirements, she's still a girl. She's just not a girl as everyone else defines it.

Which brings us to the crucial decision of the movie. While, yes, Mulan decides to go to war to save her father's life, and it's very noble and everything, there is also an element of personal choice there. It's Mulan saying that if she can't bring her family honor as a woman, and society says that she can't, then she'll try to bring them honor as a man. So she has rejected the feminine, and figures she'll try this way. This masculine way.

But, as we quickly see, Mulan isn't really any better at performing masculinity than she is at performing femininity. She's pretty terrible, actually, and everyone knows it. She's not a convincing man - it's not that anyone doubts that she is a man, but they don't think she's very masculine and they don't like her. Here's where we come to the crucial bit, though. Mulan is performing masculinity in order to fit in, but so is everyone else.

And that's where the real point this movie is trying to make starts to sink in. It's not that Mulan is just some weirdo who is incapable of fitting into gender stereotypes, it's that we all are. Gender stereotypes have elements of truth in them, sure, but it is impossible to completely conform to them. To some extent or another, we are all performing our genders when we go about our daily lives. And it seems to me (as it seems to this movie) that the more insecure we are, the more we either reject or cling to our gender performance.

What I mean is, well, take the men in the army with Mulan, right? All the men there, except Shang and that sniveling bureaucrat guy, are in some way insecure with themselves and their existence as men. They don't feel as manly as they think they should feel. 

That's what the whole point of "Make a Man Out of You" is - these men aren't really "men" yet, because they don't conform to traditional understandings of masculinity. One of them loves cooking, the other one is kind of a wuss and not very good at fighting, and there's that one guy who is super tough and masculine, but he's arguably the most insecure because he's short and angry and not very happy with himself.

So all of these guys are basically doing the same thing Mulan is doing: playing at being someone stronger and manlier and more masculine than they really are. It's only when Mulan kind of stops and thinks about it, and then uses her weaknesses as strengths (the climbing the pole scene), that she begins to accept herself, and that the other guys begin to see that their various interpretations of masculinity aren't bad, they're just different.

However. While the movie has, at this point, made inroads into the idea that masculinity is about personal understanding, rather than mass performance, it's still got a ways to go. While they're marching off to battle, the men sing about "A Girl Worth Fighting For", which underscores both their gender ideals (very pretty, doesn't talk much, good cook), and how much Mulan doesn't fit those ideals. it also points out how insecure they still are - they need to assert their masculinity by talking about the opposite. Femininity.

Anyway, Mulan is eventually found out and kicked out of the army (though I believe in the legend this is based on she was never found out, just as most female soldiers were never discovered because it is surprisingly easy to hide). Because Mulan is a badass and amazing, she picks herself up and rides into the capital to tell Shang and the others that the Huns aren't dead and are definitely about to murder the emperor.

In any other movie I might not find this noteworthy, but I think it's worth adding that when Mulan does this, when she finally acts in her own identity, not as a girly girl or a manly man, but as a strong effing woman, she does so in an outfit that is a mix of her previous two. It's definitely a more feminine style of dress, but it doesn't constrict her movement. It's practical, but also pretty. Just saying - this is a movie all about the ways we perform gender, and I think that the clothes she's wearing are probably relevant.

But what I really love is the climax of this movie. The Huns arrive, they kidnap the emperor, and only Mulan and her little band of soldiers can save him. How do they save him? By dressing up as women and sneaking into the emperor's chambers.

Here, what we see is a form of feminine performativity. And part of that is supposed to be funny, because men dressing up as women is usually seen to be funny (let's be real, the joke about the fruit they were using to simulate breasts is amazing), but it's also really important. Mulan had to pretend to be a man in order to fight, and now these men are pretending to be women in order to save China. That matters. What it says is what is ultimately the message of the movie: forget trying to fit into someone else's gender stereotype, you just do you.

Which is why it's so incredibly satisfying at the end of the movie when, having saved the emperor, Mulan looks out at the sea of people, sees them all bowing to her, and decides, you know what? It's time to go home.

I love that moment because it really hits home what this movie is about. Mulan has finally gotten what she wanted (honor for her family), and she's even achieved a level of personal satisfaction and stability. But what she really wants in the world is to go home, because, well, not everyone does desire glory and fame. All she wanted was to figure out who she was and how she could honor her family. And she did.

Plus, the ending of the movie shows that Mulan doesn't have to forego romance just because she's not a stereotypical girly girl - Shang's appearance and his epic compliment of, "You forgot your helmet," are both classics. This is a movie where the girl gets the guy because she was busy doing other stuff and he fell in love with how focused and passionate and kickass she is. She didn't have to bat her eyelashes and wait for him to love her, she got on her horse, punched a Hun, and he swooned into her arms.

Now, I want to take a step back now and talk about the larger impact of this movie. On the one hand, as I think I've made perfectly clear on this blog, I'm not actually much of a tomboy myself. I literally wear dresses every day (because pants are terrible), and I pretty much only ever play sports for the communal aspects of being on a team. I am girly, is what I'm saying. 

But I don't think everyone should be as girly as I am. That would make for a very dull world. I also don't think that there is some kind of magic number of girliness that a woman must achieve in order to qualify as a "real girl". That's crap. I can appreciate Mulan and its message because even though I don't have that problem, I like living in a world where gender performativity isn't a huge thing. Where we're not all constantly worrying if we're doing a good enough job being men and women.

And for kids especially, I think this message matters. The Munchkin and his sister are good kids, but the sister already has this idea in her head that girly things are bad and not as cool as boy things. I'm trying to explain to her that that's not true, but I'm also trying not to change her. Because it's fine if she happens to like tomboyish things. That's nice. Just as long as it's not because she thinks girly things are inherently worse.

It matters, is what I'm saying. It always, always, always matters. I am grateful for Mulan because it shaped me a lot as a kid. I like living in a world where it's fine to be girly and it's fine to not. Makes life more interesting, is all I'm saying.

A girl who's got a brain and always speaks her mind? Get real, Ping.

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