Gender Roles in Movies: Unmasking Stereotypes in Disney’s Mulan
When Disney released the film Mulan in 1998, it was seen as a rather progressive development for the company due to the message of female empowerment. However, when watching Mulan in 2019, it becomes clear that the film’s underlying storyline solidifies gender theory and the structure of society’s gender roles. Gender theory is the explanation as to how each person becomes gendered and how it is maintained by societal expectations throughout the individual’s life. The film takes place during the Han Dynasty and follows Fa Mulan as she leaves her home and duty to become the perfect bride. Mulan impersonates a man so that she can take her injured father’s place in the Imperial Army during the Hun invasion. Mulan fortifies masculine stereotypes of men and feminine stereotypes of women and portrays the difficulty of breaking these traditional gender roles.
Masculine Stereotypes in Mulan
Throughout Mulan, the qualities that society has come to expect of men are continually brought to the forefront of the film. While the Imperial army is training for battle, the song I’ll Make a Man Out of You plays. The song’s opening lines include, “Let’s get down to business, to defeat the Huns; did they send me daughters when I asked for sons?” (Mulan 1998). This portrays that men are the only gender fit for fighting in a war and that there is no place for femininity. Even though all of the recruits, with the exception of Mulan, are men, they are still not masculine enough; Captain Shang Yu must train them to become real men. This translates that any traces of femininity must be oppressed. The song goes on to compare the strength of men to that of “typhoons” and a “raging fire” (Mulan 1998). This suggests that men are supposed to be strong or tough, reinforces masculine stereotypes, and can be harmful to those who are uncomfortable with their own gender because they don’t have these characteristics. I’ll Make a Man Out of You is also sexist and offensive towards women. Because men are the only gender seen as fit to honor their country, it places them as the dominant gender above women. This idea that men are superior is seen throughout the entirety of the movie and is consistent with gender theory.
How it works
The Film’s Reinforcement of Feminine Stereotypes
Mulan also portrays the basis of gender theory by reinforcing feminine stereotypes in many scenes of the film. Honor to Us All is the song that plays when we are first introduced to Mulan during the matchmaker scene. It depicts Fa Mulan as she struggles to master the characteristics of the perfect bride in order to please the matchmaker who will find her a husband. The song’s lyrics include, “A girl can bring her family; Great honor in one way; By striking a good match; And this could be the day” (Mulan 1998). This idea that a woman can only honor her family by finding a husband is what has helped to characterize gender theory. It implies that a woman’s goal in life should be to find marriage. While this may have been acceptable in 206 B.C., it is not today. Many people will be quick to point out that Mulan goes against this ideal by leaving home to fight in the war. However, the fact that all the other women in this scene are set on finding a husband and the embarrassment that Mulan goes through when she disappoints the matchmaker is enough for young girls to understand this message. The song Honor to Us All closes a few lines “We all must serve our Emperor; Who guards us against the Huns; A man by bearing arms; A girl by bearing sons” (Mulan 1998). This is yet another scene that reinforces feminine stereotypes. These lyrics imply and refer to the standard belief that a woman’s job after marriage is to bear children and raise them.
The Challenge of Breaking Gender Binaries in Mulan
While Mulan does an excellent job of showcasing both feminine and masculine stereotypes, it does an even better job of showing how difficult it is to break these boundaries associated with gender binaries. Gender theory points to the fact that feminine and masculine qualities for the corresponding genders have become so institutionalized that it is seemingly impossible to break them. This concept is supported by all of the previous points in the sense that they all reassert given characteristics as either masculine or feminine One example that shows the difficulty involved in breaking these margins can be seen within an argument between Captain Shang Yu and Chi-Fu, a member of the Emperor’s Council after Mulan saved both Shang and the Emperor’s life. Shang Yu, defending Mulan, says, “She’s a hero,” and Chi-Fu quickly responds, “She’s a woman. She’ll never be worth anything” (Mulan 1998). After Mulan successfully stops the Hun invasion and saves the Emperor’s life, she is still not considered significant merely because she is a woman.
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- Wells, P. (2002). Animation and America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.