Mulan: The Breakthrough Girl Power Disney Movie
By: Angela Russo (@Amaruki99)
Aside from the intelligent, imaginative, literature-loving Belle, I can honestly say I never felt I could relate to any of the early Disney princesses. It may not be the most popular opinion out there, but to me, it’s kind of hard to find much in common with girls who spend the majority of the film in a coma, or who land the guy by sheer happenstance when he proves to be surprisingly adept at using footwear to track down the hottie from the dance last night. Don’t get me wrong, the early princess films are delightful lighthearted tales of whimsical romance and magical adventure. However, they never inspired me to develop a passion for Disney. My apathy continued until 1998 when my mother took me to see Mulan. Suddenly a fire was lit within me. The books and movies that stand the test of time are the ones that really punch me right in the feels. It doesn’t matter if it makes me cry or infuses me with an uplifting sensation of excitement. There’s nothing quite like the rush of affinity one gets from recognizing a parallel to yourself in a character.
There is a profound depth of raw emotional honesty in Mulan’s character that transcends her animated predecessors. The fact that she is not a perfectly polished elegantly dressed model of serene fairytale bliss is a refreshing change of pace. For the first time we had an authentic representation of the poignant vulnerability and self-doubt inherent to the growing pains of life. Mulan is an everyday girl with relatable problems. She knows who she is, but all the same wrestles with feelings of inadequacy since that does not conform to the ideals and behavior considered normal for the young women of her village. It’s definitely a struggle that is all too familiar to myself and countless girls of all ages. It can be so easy to fall into the trap of comparing yourself to the people around you. It’s an internal battle that doesn’t seem to abate even in adulthood. In a world still obsessed with fitting in, many girls operate under the assumption that if you don’t measure up, there is something inherently wrong with you. I can certainly empathize with this. While most little girls my age were playing princess and enrolled in dance lessons, I was taking karate and rambling through my neighborhood with a pink scrap of cloth tied around my waist pretending to be the pink ranger. It didn’t exactly score me points on the playground.
The story of Mulan confronts the fallacy that being different means being less than. You are not a disappointment just because you are different. Her journey explores one of the more amusing quirks of life – the things we hate most about ourselves can often become a surprising source of unique strengths that lead to our greatest joys, and fuel our most remarkable accomplishments. Gaining a sense of acceptance does not require sacrificing your own identity. We see this message clearly throughout Mulan’s selfless quest to protect her father. Tapping into the very qualities once deemed to be flaws, she finds them transformed into invaluable resources in the face of countless challenges. This realization empowers her to become comfortable not hiding who she is – a girl who has a brain and always speaks her mind. Finding your place in the world begins with embracing your true inner-self, for there is no one tried and true formula for success.
Set in an age when it was illegal for women to enroll in the army, the entire country adhered to one formula in particular, rooted in the belief that women can only bring honor through marriage and domestic duty. Regardless what century it is, forging your own path can be a daunting task. I grew up ingrained with the now-baffling idea that a life lived well is defined by accomplishing things in a particular order and time frame. Now I know that when I deviate from what feels right in an attempt to live up to expectations, things tend to go sideways. The manner in which Mulan refuses to compromise who she is at her core is a truly inspiring example of this. Once she gives up trying to please everyone and follows her heart, she ceases to be the uncertain clumsy farm girl and transforms into a competent young woman. In doing so she inadvertently flips the process on its head. Her individuality serves her as well in matters of love as it does on the battlefield. Instead of being a stumbling block, her personality is the key factor that attracts a match who is desirable in more ways than one.
Prior to 1998, most female Disney protagonists were princesses whose happy ending was entirely reliant on landing the prince. While romance is a factor of Mulan’s happy ending, it is not treated as a cure-all tonic for life’s problems. Clearly not the central focus of her newfound happiness, the victory lies not in “landing the prince,” or “getting the guy,” but in the fact that Shang sees her for who she is inside and finds that to be beautiful. Definitely a message that is either glossed over or completely absent from previous films. Her happy ending promotes a healthy view of self esteem and relationships. Happiness is not something we automatically get from a love relationship. It is depicted as something that blooms as a result of a combination of being true to yourself, and building a loving relationship on a foundation of mutual respect, trust, and admiration, wisely choosing to surround yourself with the people who love and cherish you for exactly who you are.
Mulan provided young viewers with a relatable role model whose daring exploits and journey of self-acceptance embody a positive, attainable example of female empowerment. A hero in her own right, the film shattered the old unspoken message that a woman is a passive participant in her life. Every time I sit down to watch Mulan I’m struck by just how applicable it is at any age. As an adult, I still tear up when she strides through the thunderstorm to don her father’s armor. Viewing it for the first time at eight years old I left the theater completely invigorated. I was awestruck by this courageous daring groundbreaking character. In truth, Mulan is such an exceptionally timeless movie because it is chock full of many defining elements of true girl power:
Loving and accepting yourself exactly as you are without needing the approval of others. Confident, competent independence. Celebrating and delighting in the unique traits that set you apart. Wielding the power of your mind to overcome challenges. Possibly most important of all, is the understanding that no matter what your talents may be, your value is intrinsic. It is not conditional to fulfilling a predetermined set of factors, behaviors or accomplishments. As a down to earth champion of the beauty and power of individuality, Mulan reminds us that average circumstances hardly equate to an average person or an average destiny.