In 1998, Disney came out with a charming children’s film called Mulan. This movie is about a Chinese girl living in China during the threat of the takeover of the Mongols. When war is uprising, the government calls one person from every family to come and fight. Her father, a previous war hero who is also injured, steps forward as the man in the family to fight. In order to protect her father as she knows he will die, Mulan cuts her hair overnight and steps into the army pretending to be a man. Though this film has cliche positive messages, there are some messages about gender roles that could potentially affect the children who watch them.
This movie differs from other Disney movies in that traditionally, the “prince” saves the “princess,” but in Mulan the “princess” ends up saving the “prince.” Mulan includes an important message to children, that you have the potential and ability to do whatever you want no matter what people think of you. Mulan proves that you can breakaway from the judgements people make towards you, and prove yourself and worthiness. In the beginning of the film, Mulan is not seen more than a beautiful future bride who has no business taking part in masculine things such as war. These easily noticeable cliche messages act as an ethos appeal and establish an immense amount of credibility to the films, allowing more and more parents to let their kids watch them. As Andrea Lunsford states in Everything’s an Argument, “Audiences pay attention to ethos and the values that it represents” (Lunsford 53). With these positive cliche messages, Disney becomes an easy target for critics who claim that Disney films can include whatever they want in their films without any credibility consequences.
Similarly to other Disney films, Mulan receives significant criticism for this positive cliche message to be also sending a negative message to children; more specifically gender roles. In the beginning of the film, a scene takes place as Mulan is dressed up to visit the sacred “match maker” who is in charge of finding Mulan and other Chinese girls a man to marry. During this scene, the characters sing a song about how this is pretty much the most important moment in their life, and that the way they look is priority number one when meeting a man. Mulan’s mother and her friends tell Mulan that “men want girls who are calm, obedient, work fast paced, make good breeding with a tiny waist.” Writing it out in words makes the message that women are products that are matched up with men with a “match maker” much more present. Unfortunately, when the lyrics are coincided with a catchy cute song, they are looked past.
Another scene and song that supports this message of specific gender roles is during Mulan and the Chinese Army’s training in the catchy popular song “I’ll Make a Man Out of You.” During this song, the captain and trainer sings about how to “become a man,” and the things that one does to achieve that; to be more specific, he explicitly states that to be a man you must be “swift, forceful, strong, fierce, and mysterious.” If you watch the matchmaker scene and this scene back to back, it becomes very evident how much of a “joke” the women’s displayed roles in this movie are. This is not just potentially harmful to young girls but young boys too. This song and scene is explaining that to be a man you need to be “strong, fierce, and forceful,” and includes nothing about inner self or personality except maybe being “mysterious.”
The strategy to include these themes subliminally in the film takes its place with the use of pathos. In case you haven’t noticed, everything mentioned so far about subliminal messages in gender roles have involved the music. If in the matchmaker scene, one of the characters overtly stated “in order for a man to like you, you need to be calm, obedient, work fast paced, make good breeding with a tiny waist,” then Mulan would probably receive a lot more criticism for sexism than it does now. What gets the message across that it is okay to state these things is the catchy cute song that goes along with it and the positive fun mood and emotions it brings. In Understanding Movies Louis Giannetti states, “music can serve as a kind of overture to suggest the mood or sprit of the film as a whole” (Giannetti 214). Without the uplifting emotional spirit that both of these songs include, the hidden messages would not be as successful in reaching the audience.
So does this movie have a negative impact on children? Many Disney critics say yes. But think about the setting and time period of this movie. It is indeed a fact that during the Han Dynasty in China, these gender roles were completely accurate. During this time period, China was threatened by Mongolia as they invaded their land and burned down villages, in response men would fight back while women took care of everything else; just as in World War II, men would fight and women would raise and teach the kids. During a time of war, things change and it would be inaccurate to say that strength and fierceness of men was not important at this time of destruction of China’s homeland. In the movie, Mulan ends up breaking her stereotypical gender role and instead becomes a war hero. So in a way, Mulan shows that gender roles are NOT necessarily a good thing.
Mulan’s positive themes of courage, family importance, and not letting people hold you back based on judgements absolutely outweigh the noticeable negative messages of gender stereotypes. In fact, they need to be there in order for this movie to be accurate and portray a positive theme. Disney films receive an immense amount of criticism for being racist, sexist, and teaching bad messages to kids, but growing up as a Disney watching kid myself, I believe the things that people say are wrong with Disney films are not major problems in my generation. In order for a movie to be great, there needs to be a problem and a solution, and this is exactly what is present in Mulan; a girl is underestimated, she proves herself in a way not even the strongest man could do. Five slurpees.