Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 2, May 1999

Walt Disney's

Directed by Barry Cook and Tony Bancroft.
Voices of: Ming-Na Wen and Eddie Murphy. 1998.
Running time 87 minutes.

film review by Christina Lee

Mulan: Woman Warrior as Embodied Ambiguity

  1. Mulan (1998) is one of the latest feature length animations to be released from Walt Disney Pictures. Based upon Chinese folklore, the film follows the escapades of a young girl called Fa Mulan. Problems arise when her aged father is summoned to join the war against invading Huns. In an act of filial devotion (and obligation) Mulan secretly takes his place in the army by disguising herself as a man; knowing full well that such an act is punishable by death under military law.
  2. Although Mulan looks the part of the male with her newly cropped hair and bulky armour, she must train in the art of performing the masculine - in order to be seen to possess it. Mulan undergoes gruelling drills to reconstruct her body as 'hard' and to reconfigure her psychical aspect in the frame of masculine fearlessness. Under the command of Captain Li Shang, the small battalion braves and defeats Shan-Yu and his hideous Hun henchmen. Mulan is central to this conquest. However her true gender identity is unmasked in the process. With the battalion shocked that 'he' is actually a 'she' (but perhaps more so that a woman was responsible for having saved their lives), Mulan is reprimanded severely. Although her life is spared, she is ordered to return home in disgrace.
  3. Mulan soon after discovers that the Hun army has survived. Our heroine rushes to the Emperor's palace to warn of the impeding danger to little avail. When the nefarious Shan-Yu threatens to overthrow the Emperor, again it is Mulan who saves the day. She is praised and duly recognized for her bravery and sagacity. Upon arriving home to her proud family, Mulan trades in her armoury for the garb of the 'perfect daughter' and domestic life. All ends well when the dashing Li Shang reviews his recrimination of Mulan and realises his love for her; after which they 'lived happily ever after.'
  4. In true Disney style, Mulan is filled with obligatory bursts of song, archetypal hero(in)es, vile villains, adorable sidekicks (such as the fast-talking hyperactive guardian dragon Mushu), plenty of comic situations, strong morals, and an idyllic conclusion. Despite its marketed appeal to younger audiences, Mulan resists being read as simply a banal piece of Disney fluff. The film offers an opportunity to see the unobvious made more obvious; that is the constructedness of gendered identity and sexuality, and the instability of such constructions.
  5. Mulan manages to avoid many of the stereotypical pitfalls that normally plague Western takes on aspects of Asian culture; the buck-toothed, slit-eyed characters who exist in 'Chop-sockydom' (as Chen eloquently puts it).[1] Mulan defies the image of the passive oriental female. She is a woman warrior; a classic character type in Chinese culture and film who is 'an independent outsider, resolute and aggressive in her efforts to institute correct order.'[2] However it is important to realise that Mulan is refused recognition as 'warrior' and therefore entry into the discourse of (male) power, until she reconstructs her feminine self into a masculine form. She must go beyond simply performance of maleness, such as her comically exaggerated gruff voice and John Wayne-like stagger; she must embody it. Mulan's social visibility in the army can only be attained when she is defined as being male, not being like a male. It is the thing in itself, not the simulacrum that is required. This suggestively aligns positions of power and powerlessness with male and female respectively. To this extent the story confirms the conventional perception of women's incapacity to exert power other than the power of the womb. Nevertheless the success (even if temporary) of the heroine to reconfigure herself as male in the social eye attests to the constructed nature of gendered identity and its fallacies. Despite anatomical differences, Mulan shows that it is the psychical inscription onto the body politic, which bears the weightiest claim to the definition of the social self.
  6. Mulan is an ambiguous character occupying a space that is neither of the feminine or the masculine exclusively. Kristeva defines ambiguity as that fearful place where imaginary (and imagineered) borders that separate are collapsed, leaving a dangerous space which 'disturbs identity, system, order... does not respect borders, positions, rules.'[3] Mulan's fluid state of being is problematic to social order for it reveals the instability of definitions of normative gender identity and the permeability of supposedly impermeable parameters separating masculine from feminine. This is most evident in the film's conclusion.
  7. We as the audience, along with several select characters, are privileged to the knowledge that Mulan is really female and performing the masculine. However, this is not enough. Her 'true' (gender) identity must be publicly reinstated to re-establish social (gender) order. Mulan resuming her role as the filial daughter and surrendering her 'warrior' aspect, and her physical metamorphosis into a female again; but more importantly her affectionate relationship to Li Shang, which explicitly verifies her heteronormativity, achieve this. In this crucial scene Mulan's necessary reappropriation into the symbolic social suggests the uneasiness of her ambiguous condition to the social body; that of the female as capable of embodying the masculine. This is reinforced by the portrayal of the film's male characters. It is no coincidence that we cheer for Li Shang and boo at the sight of Chi Fu, the Emperor's consultant. Li Shang is beefed up and characteristically macho; he is the epitome of the masculine. On the other hand, Chi Fu is physically scrawny, wimpish 'like a woman' and dare I say 'campish' in some respects. His problematic gendered identity is rendered insignificant by the fact that he is an intolerable buffoon whom we (are made to) despise.
  8. Read at a surface level, Mulan is just another visually stunning Disney production. However if we dare to scratch this surface, Mulan provides a window in which we can examine how the social imaginary configures and defines the engendered self. Mulan's embodied ambiguity is not only illustrative of the impermanence of cultural constructions of identity; but also the vehement contestation to preserve imaginary boundaries that refuse to acknowledge the woman as powerful and feminine simultaneously. Although we champion Mulan's brave actions, it is the easiness at which we accept her wedded familial fate which is cause for unease. Passing it off as just another 'kids' movie', we threaten ignoring the hegemonic discourses at work which seek our implicit consent to maintain restrictive conceptions of engendered identity; and intrinsically who are (or are limited to be) as social beings.


    [1] A. Chen, 'Beyond Chop-sockydom,' Sight and Sound, vol. 3, no. 10, (1993):64.

    [2] Chris Berry, 'The Sublimative Text: Sex and Revolution in Big Road,' in East-West Film Journal, vol. 2, no. 2, (1988):66-86, p. 68.

    [3] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, New York: Columbia University Press, 1982, p. 4.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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