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Alwyn Hamilton on ‘Mulan’ & feminism: “You will be underestimated. You can use that.”


A few weeks ago I boldly made the declaration on Twitter that the best Disney song of all time wasn’t even up for debate. Sure, Angela Lansbury is iconic singing ‘Beauty and The Beast’’s ballroom theme song. And yes, ‘Lion King’’s music was written by the iconic Sir Elton John, one of the best selling recording artists in the world and living legend. But the clear winner was decided when ‘Mulan’ hit theatres in the Summer of 1998, and Donny Osmond Singing “I’ll make a man out of you.” appeared in everyone’s life. Disagree well, much like the titular character of the movie, I am prepared to fight you.

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I realize Donny Osmond doesn’t exactly have the same cachet to it as Angela Lansbury or Elton John, but that song and the way it is used in the movie elevates it beyond all those sincere Oscar winning love songs. And I’m not just saying that because Shang takes his shirt off at the beginning of it. I’m saying that because Mulan remains the most feminist Disney movie of my childhood and that song is the pinnacle of the movie’s message. There is also no love song in the movie and no kiss.

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Disney had started to flirt with feminism in what is referred to as the “Disney Renaissance” era. Belle, Jasmine, Nala, Pocahontas and Megara are all more fully fleshed out female characters than we’d seen before. After running a quick and informal twitter poll about who girls of my generation identified most with out of the Disney canon, these are the characters that all came up. The ones who had some incentive and some personality. Belle came in first (followed closely by Mulan). And no surprise, Belle is the first one I can remember who voices a desire for something other than marriage. Belle even sings a brief song about the sexism of the expectation that she should just give up everything and become Gaston’s wife. But there’s a clever veiled approach to her shrugging off of sexism that is designed to make it palpable to viewers within the larger context of a familiar Disney romance.

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In Mulan the cleverness of the song is that it’s pretty on the nose: While Mulan, as a female character, has disguised herself as a man, the training montage is set to the song “I’ll make a man out of you.” It’s an obvious nudge at the fact that Mulan is posing as a man and striving to acquire attributes traditionally considered male. “swift as a coursing river” “with all the force of a great typhoon” and “all the strength of a raging fire”, this list of attributes is punctuated to the repeated lyric “Be a man.”

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Looking back it’s a list of all the things that mean we constantly need to remind people this is what we’re talking about when we say that feminism helps men too. These views that to be a real man you have to be certain things, and that by being a woman, these are not things we naturally possess or are even able to possess. Heck in the first few lines of the song Shang asks “Did they send me daughters, when I asked for sons?” An echo of every, “You throw like a girl!” insult we’ve ever heard.

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It’s also no coincidence that in the end of the training montage it’s not any of these skills which act as the turning point for Mulan. It’s her brains. It’s a skill that is in no way inherently male, and which is at no point brought up in this ode to masculinity. And she uses it right after Shang sings to her “How could I make a man out of you?” It’s the beginning of her realizing that she can’t be a man and that she doesn’t have to be to succeed.

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In the summer 1998, when Mulan came out, I was 9 years old, going on 10. It would be the last Disney movie I would see before I became too old and too cool for them. And it was the first time, that on the edge of leaving becoming a Young Adult, that I’d ever seen such an unabashed admission in popular media that women are looked down on. Not just by villains like Gaston. Not just by a small minority in a “little town, full of little people.” But by otherwise well intentioned men who have been conditioned by society. I don’t know about you but it seems to me like movies aren’t usually willing to admit that there’s a problem with gender equality in such a bold faced way. Mulan stands out as the first time a movie ever said to young me, “You may have to fight to be considered equal.”

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As with any good training montage we watch Mulan’s skills improve after this turning point. She proves herself equal to the men around her even though no one knows that she is proving this as a woman. If this was the only use of the song in the movie it could easily be misread as literal. That Mulan’s strength comes from acquiring traditional masculine skill. Even though, later in the movie, it’s again her brains that save the day.

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But the song is saved from being literal and therefore inherently sexist by the final climax of the movie when the song reprises. The Emperor is trapped in the palace and the men are trying to use their brute strength to batter their way in. Then the music picks up and, the song reprises at “Be a man” in conjuction with a montage of the male characters disguising themselves as women looking just like Mulan in the early scenes of the movie, and sneak into the palace that way. Sure it’s not a perfect scene. The handsome hero stays male and the comedic side characters dressed as women are still played for laughs. But the underlying point is clear in the irony of the reprise of the song. Mulan has flipped her weakness of being undervalued by society on its head, and used it to her advantage. Women are underestimated. No one expects women to be any kind of threat. And only by being undervalued could they get close enough to save the day. The song turns back at this point to shine a light on the first use of it in the movie, giving an ironic wink at thinking that being masculine is what gives you strength and power.

That was also the first time a movie told me that. “You will be underestimated. You can use that.”

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I don’t know how much of this 9 year old Alwyn took in consciously but I know a lot of it was taken in subconsciously. I know that because I look at the story I wrote about a girl in a society heavy with gender inequality and I see the fingerprints left by Mulan.

In ‘Rebel of the Sands’, Amani is a girl who dresses as a boy as a solution to the fact that she has skills to equal a man (sharpshooting rather than brains) but can’t use them as herself.

She is also a girl who takes advantage of the fact that her gender is underestimated and thought less of. She understands she is not what society sees her as, and uses it against them, whether it’s in a physical fight, or in making a male soldier think she couldn’t possibly be hiding something, being too female and simple to do so.

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And in the end even Mulan’s way of saving the day is using a traditional female item, a fan. It’s a climax that makes pretty clear the point that this song was meant ironically. That it is a reflection of a sexist society and not the actual urging for the main character to become strong by being more masculine, not even in the wink wink nudge nudge way of the song being about a woman disguised as a man.

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The obvious arc of the movie is about a young woman who is a bit of a misfit, finding her strength, and doing it as herself, without bending to the expectations of society until she is considered equal. But the other, subtler arc of the movie is about a girl who bent society’s expectations to her advantage to save the day.

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Get Alwyn’s incredible ‘Rebel of the Sands’ HERE.

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Written by Laura Fulton

Book Channel Editor at MaxPop! Have a thing for the sea and pretty paperbacks. Saved by amazing grace.

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