Overanalyzing Disney: Why Mulan Did Everything Wrong

Disney-related posts continue to be my most popular content, so this week I'm giving the masses what they want - this time, with Mulan. Released in 1998, Mulan is a heartwarming tale of courage, family, and the importance of semi-convincing cross-dressing.

Fierce.

For those of you who spent the late 90s living in a Soviet-era bomb shelter, Mulan tells the story of Hua Mulan, a maybe-real-maybe-fictional woman who, according to a popular ancient poem, may have lived sometime in the 5th century. For once, the Disney adaptation is relatively faithful to its source material - in both the movie and the original poem, Mulan takes her elderly father's place in the Chinese army and manages to excel while successfully concealing her true sex. It's the perfect story of honour, deception and self-sacrifice, except for two little things:

Mulan is terrible at hiding the fact that she's female. 


Mulan's complete guide to gender-bending.

Before racing off to join the army in the middle of the night, Mulan makes a few quick adjustments to her appearance to help her pass as male. She slices off her hair with a sword, slips into some armour, and... that's it. The animators made subtle chances to her face to make her disguise more convincing, but seriously - she could be stuck in the army for months or years at a time, and the only thing saving her from decapitation is a vague hope that her funny-shaped ears are unfeminine.


She's shocked because she's picking up an FM easy listening station from the future.

And when I say decapitation, I'm not exaggerating. Mulan happened to live in that wide, "most of human history" window when impersonation of the opposite sex was considered a capital offense. The movie never comes right out and says it - because there's no G-rated way of telling three-year-olds that the only reward for female heroism is death by having your head sawed off - but when Mulan's deception is finally revealed (sixteen-year-old spoiler alert), the movie does show us what would have been Mulan's execution scene. In some versions of the Hua Mulan legend, that really is how her story ends; she gives the army twelve years of excellent service and gets beheaded by a commanding officer for her troubles. 

Mulan, coming uncomfortably close to being the Chinese Joan of Arc.

But let's give Mulan the benefit of the doubt here. Contrary to popular belief, East Asians have just as much sexual dimorphism as any other race - they have the same weight-height ratios between males and females that most ethnic groups do. This actually gives Mulan an advantage. We can see from her lifestyle at the beginning of the movie that she comes from a wealthy family; no one in her immediate area has to farm their own food (they actually have the luxury of using fertile land to grow pretty gardens), her family can afford nice clothes, makeup, matchmaking services and fancy temples without complaint, and her parents are elderly, which means that her healthy, still-living grandmother must be positively prehistoric. Remember, she's living a historical stone's throw away from the birth of Jesus - living in that kind of comfort is no small thing. Compared to her same-age peer group, she's probably pretty well-fed, which means her physical stature most likely matches up to that of the average, under-fed boy. Fine. 

She also seems to have convenient, magical face-morphing abilities to help her out. She changes her facial structure and jawline to be more masculine, which is useful. She grows a widow's peak in her hairline from out of nowhere (Women have lower hairlines than men, which makes widow's peaks less pronounced, and you are more accustomed to seeing widow's peaks on men, since they're easier to spot on people with short hairstyles.) and she darkens her complexion, which is a particularly remarkable feat for a woman who spends most of her waking life in the shade of a roof, tree or parasol (You associate darker complexions with masculinity. Trust me on this one. You just do.) But that's a rant for another day.

Apparently DIY jaw and chin implants were a thing in the year 400.

No, Mulan's face isn't the thing that gives her away. We've all seen some slightly feminine-looking men and masculine-looking women in our lifetimes, but if you were raised by civilized humans, you probably didn't march up and demand to know the person's true sex. Facial features are graded on a bell curve with a heck of a lot of overlap between the sexes - "Ping" isn't overly suspicious-looking. It's not Mulan's hesitation and general weirdness around bathing that gives her away either. In every group of people, you're bound to find one or two who keep to themselves and don't relish the thought of scrubbing their junk in public. Not even Mulan's physical strength - or lack thereof - gives her away; physical strength also grades on a curve, with enough overlap that you'll find generous quantities of women who can out-run, out-jump and out-water-polo most average men. Even Mulan has her moment in the sun - she figures out how to shimmy up a pole with two weights before anyone else can.

And that little trick is exactly what should have given her away. 

Whoops.

See, one of the most consistent human sex differences is the distribution of strength in the body. Women mostly depend on their lower body strength; on average, women have proportionally larger thighs than men, and can match lower body strength with an average-sized male. When it comes to comes to upper-body strength, however, men have a clear advantage. An average woman has roughly half the upper body strength of an average man. This is due to two things - women tend to have smaller upper body muscles with weaker skeletal attachments, and women also tend to have more fat stores in the upper body, since their veins are full of hormones that constantly scream "PREPARE FOR INCOMING BABY" whether she likes it or not. You can't train this difference away. Even among super-elite athletes who spend their whole lives grunting into protein shakes and wearing Lycra because they can, man have the upper hand (Ha ha. This is what my humor has become.) in the upper body department. 

So what does this have to do with Mulan's climbing? 

Go ask a young, reasonably athletic male to shimmy up a vertical pole. In case there aren't any in your immediate area, I'll have this young man demonstrate:

Brought to you by "Big Willy D".

That's the easiest way for a man to climb a pole. They use their legs to grip and hold them in place, and then they use their allegedly hulking man arms to pull themselves upwards, shimmying with their legs so they don't slide back down. It takes advantage of the male body's natural strengths and conserves effort. If a guy wants to climb a pole with two weights, all he has to do is tie them to his ankles; he'll have to exert a little more effort to pull himself up, but he won't be thrown off-balance. 

Scroll back up and compare that to Mulan's climbing. She's not using the weights like that because it's clever and flashy - she's using them because it is literally the only way she's able to get up the pole. Instead of bracing herself with her legs and pulling with her arms, she's compensating for weak upper body strength by using her own weight to hold her in place so she can get her legs under herself and walk up the pole. All it would take is one little misstep to upset this delicate counter-balance and turn this two-dimensional character into a two-dimensional red stain on the ground below.

Ouch.

The fact that Mulan's little trick with the weights gets her hero status - instead of tipping off the captain that she's got womanly biceps - is nothing short of a Disney miracle.

Her father was never in any real danger.

As reckless and transparent as Mulan is, there's a method to her madness - she's just trying to keep her aging father from having to serve in the army. The military summons Mulan responds to wasn't sent out so that they could camp out together doing icebreakers and karate lessons together - the Chinese are about to face a serious invasion from the ruthless Hun tribe, led by an apparently-immortal falconer with a very serious eye disease.

Seriously, dude, you should get that looked at.

It's made very clear throughout the movie that the situation is desperate, and China needs all the men it can get - even if they're too old to fight. Mulan's father is elderly, and walks with a serious limp, relying on a cane to get himself around. It's clear that if he went off to war, he'd end up as cannon fodder for the Huns; the Chinese army doesn't care if he can defend himself or not, so long as he can stand upright and hold onto a sword. Mulan's whole family knows that he has no chance of returning from battle alive - his daughter's haphazard attempt to take his place is her only chance of saving her father.

At least, that's what the movie leads you to believe.

This is no place for an old man.

Mulan's summons scroll takes her to a training camp in the countryside, where new recruits undergo the physical and mental training they need to take on the Hun army. For what appears to be weeks, the men practice fighting with bamboo poles, carrying weights on their shoulders, hopping across rivers on rocks, picking up individual grains of rice, and other skills that will doubtlessly be useless on the actual battlefield. 

Their plan to defeat the Huns with shirtless yelling was quickly scrapped.

All this training culminates in the beloved training montage song/college student battle cry "I'll Make a Man Out of You". During the song, Mulan falls behind in the training regime, gets kicked out of the army, and stages a dramatic comeback by shimmying her feminine ass up the pole to retrieve the arrow. Naturally, she's welcomed back into the army and instantly becomes the best at every activity, racing ahead of the toned captain who literally had to carry her weight just days before, because in the Disney universe, 'believing in yourself' is a performance-enhancing drug.

Yeah, you want to watch it again.

In case you missed the movie's gaping plot hole in the above paragraph, let me say it again: Mulan gets kicked out of the army. For poor performance. China is desperate for soldiers, and she's a healthy, able-bodied eighteen-to-twenty-something-year-old... and she still gets booted out for not living up to their rigorous training standards. Now imagine Mulan's father. He's so old and crippled that he has difficultly standing up without the assistance of a cane; when he tried to walk unaided to his armour, he limps so badly, he could churn butter just by holding a jug of cream in his hands. There's no way he can manage any of the running, jumping, swimming, fishing, archery or bucket-balancing rock-fencing required by the Chinese Boy Scout Summer Camp army training camp. Captain Shang would take one look at him hobbling to his tent and send him straight home to safety.

'Fake it 'til you make it' doesn't seem to work here.

Remember, Mulan is following the exact same set of instructions her father was given. It says "report to training camp", not "fling yourself under the sword of the nearest Hun". It should be painfully obvious, even to Fa Zhou's worried family, that he'll be turned away from the army before he ever has a chance to see battle. Mulan's story takes place 1,500 years before the 'one-child policy' was put in place; in that era, a family with no sons would be practically unheard of. The military summons was intended to recruit a strapping (but untrained) young man from every house, not a tired, wounded old warrior. 

This is not the hero China needs.

So what Mulan should have done was just leave well enough alone. She'd stay home, her father would go a brief, refreshing horseback ride before being immediately pitched out of the army, and Mulan could lead a happy life of sipping tea and tormenting the local matchmaker. Everyone wins. 

Except maybe the Emperor. But screw that guy.

How do you feel about Disney's first Asian princess? Leave it in the comments. Also, consider voting for me in the 'Best Funny Blog' category of the 2013 Canadian Blog Awards - anyone can vote!

12 comments

  1. Love it. You're hilarious.

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  2. I feel Mulan would've figured out she could go home and her father wouldn't, like, disappear the next day to go to the camp--after that I think it was less about saving her father and more about proving herself and (hopefully) making her family proud. Her father essentially called her a disgrace. The matchmaker refused to work with her. So what else would she have felt she had left if she went back home? Probably nothing, considering--if I remember this right--that if you were husband-less, you were basically going to be a spinster forever. She still could've ended up that way, but she would've contributed something to society in her family's name.

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    1. Also very good points! Thanks for reading! :)

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  3. There were a lot of things wrong in the movie. Except the plots and so. The director have no knowledge of ancient china.
    People won't cut their own hair, even boys, unless they want to "cut" the relationship with their parents. In the palace scene, Mulan wears a "dress" that the "flap" on the right is on top of the left. Chinese do this to a dead person. And what dynasty is this, tang, song,qing? Mulan is wearing a clothes from late qing after she takes a bath at the beginning of the movie.
    There is too much!! I think Disney have to have better knowledge before making a movie of a country they are not familiar with.

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    1. That's really interesting, I never would have known to point those things out. Although I'm not entirely surprised that they just picked and chose things that 'looked Chinese' instead of actually having respect for history.

      Come to think of it, the hairstyles on the men in this movie look very similar to the hairstyles worn by Japanese men to keep their military helmets in place.

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    2. Mulan probably expected to die and never see her family again. Also, she likely saw how dishonorable she has been already and how dishonorable her deceitful joining the army is so she may be intentionally cutting off her relationship to her family to stop dishonoring them.

      Regarding costumes, see this compilation and scroll down (though read the rest if you like. Disney clearly did do a lot of research.). The origin of the Mulan legend is unknown so there is no correct dynasty fashion to follow. And from what I've heard and what one contributor states, the right-over-left for the dead is a Japanese trait: http://www.oocities.org/hollywood/5082/culture.html

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  4. Wrong. The instructions are to report to the large recruiting camp, not the training camp specifically. Fa Zhou already trained and fought in the army. Mulan tells Chi Fu this and her father is seen practicing alone. So when recruited, he likely would not have gone to Li Shang's training camp. Shang trained NEW recruits. His father took main troops directly into battle. So, Mulan's father would have most likely joined those troops, gone straight to battle, and died. So, it still makes sense that Mulan joined the army. As for her staying when she was dismissed in I'll Make A Man Out Of You, that was a personal choice, for her and her family's honor. (But if the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, her father would totally have replaced her if she came back early anyway. As he said "it's an honor to protect my country and my family.")

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    1. As for the medallion pole climbing scene, the typical "male" way to climb entirely relies on being able to straddle the pole and shimmy up. The trunk in the movie is 3x the size of the pole in your example video and even larger than any rope. What do campers do to climb trees in forests? A modified version of what Mulan does, using a belt around one's waist or tying your shoelaces together for traction, using legs for the driving force. See the male, stronger than Mulan, Bear Gryllis do the latter below:

      http://www.discovery.com/tv-shows/man-vs-wild/videos/tree-climbing/

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  5. Dunno where you the execution from. In no version of the myth isMulan executed

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    1. no but in a late 16th century version of the story she does commit suicide after coming back home to find out her father has long been put to rest.

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  6. This is super interesting! I've also heard a theory that Mulan was the great stone dragon, hence the dragon not waking up. It could explain a lot, like the not giving up, the sudden surges in strength and ideas, and the unrelenting sense of honor.

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