With talking animals, catchy songs and slight action, it is easy to see why Mulan is a classic children’s movie that has stood the test of time. Disney movies usually have the same classic messages such as “believe in yourself” or “true love conquers all,” and Mulan is no exception. Critics have often found problematic messages mixed in with the cliché, positive messages. These messages can influence children’s ideas of gender roles, society and love. Usually these problematic messages have their greatest impact on young girls, considering the large amount of Disney movies that are focused on princesses. However, in Mulan, the message being sent to young girls is ultimately positive. I believe it is the message being sent to little boys that is seen as problematic. The stereotype presented about girls is broken after the final plot resolution, while the implied message being sent to young men is left standing.
Mulan is an independent, adventurous, young girl seeking to bring honor to her family. For a young lady in the Chinese culture, bringing honor comes from marrying a man of high social status. This is of no interest to Mulan, and she makes this apparent within the first twenty minutes of the film. She is shown running, riding horses and playing outdoors, with little regard to her place in the home. When her mother speaks of the matchmaker that will place her with a husband, Mulan seems utterly uninterested. Her interest does spike when the call for war is brought upon their village. It is this call for war that leads Mulan to bring honor to her family and meeting her love interest.
Even though the message that a girl’s value is measured on her ability to marry has definite negative connotation, the fact that Mulan breaks this trend sends a stronger message. This is an obvious ethos appeal by showing her true character. The film shows the social norms, and then breaks it by proving that a young girl has the ability to bring honor to the family as a male could. This overrides any negative message about women only being good as submissive wives. In my opinion, the cliché theme is equality amongst genders. Not only does Mulan go to war, but she also fights and shows bravery even greater than the men. By not conforming, she remained true to her character, which makes the largest impact in my opinion.
While this is mainly using ethos to convince viewers, there are pathos arguments present. By adding humor, most commonly seen from the character Mushu, kids are instantly hooked, and more likely to take in the messages being sent their way. An example of this humor is when Mushu is giving Mulan a pep talk on being a strong warrior. This scene would make kids laugh, while also enforcing the fact that she is able to fight. As Everything’s An Argument describes, “You can slip humor into an argument to put readers at ease, thereby making them more open to a proposal you have to offer.” (Lunsford 38). This is exactly what the humor from Mushu, along with other characters, is providing: a reinforcement of gender equality.
While the main messages are self-empowerment, equality and honor, there seems to be implied messages that can be taken from the film as well. The men in the movie are mostly portrayed as emotionless and robust. This is especially seen when Li Shang accepts his new position over the recruits. He is obviously touched to be receiving this honor, and his face begins to show gratitude. As soon as he realizes his face shows emotion, he shakes it off and accepts it with pride. The sudden shift is very apparent to viewers and speaks volumes. It portrays the theme of “emotion as weakness” to little boys especially, who are watching these idolized soldiers. By making the men appear to have no emotion, it is playing into children’s logic that in order to be strong, you must show no emotion. Initially viewers start to feel the same emotion, but when Li Shang shakes any emotion from his face, it directly affects the mood of the viewer.
Other implied messages that are being sent from the portrayal of men, especially Li Shang, is physical appearance. There are upwards of five scenes that Li Shang is shirtless, revealing his top-notch physique. Li Shang is the man in charge, and known to be one of the best warriors. The fact that he is attractive and in shape sends a message that in order to get the girl and be of high ranking, you must look like him. The other main warriors are seen as unattractive to society’s standards. One is tall and too skinny, one is muscular and unattractive, and another is obese. These warriors are unimportant in contrast to the mighty Li Shang. This is also playing into the logos of young boys who idolize Li Shang’s character. Giannetti states “every film has a slant, a given ideological perspective that privileges certain characters, behaviors and motives as attractive and downgrades an opposing set as repellent.” (Giannetti 403). For Mulan, Li Shang is then seen as privileged, while the other men fighting are unsightly. Typically, the messages that have been criticized are the ones targeted towards young girls and their self-image. However, it is more concerning to me that the stereotypes affecting little boys are left unbroken.