There are, of course, plenty of movies to play with gender roles and attempt to make a point about the equality of men and women. However, I personally find Mulan to be the most successful of these films (at least of those I’ve seen.) I think it does a very good job of highlighting the issues without preaching about them, but more than anything else, I think the way the characters and their development are handled the best I’ve ever seen them.

Now, in true me fashion, I want to start by defending against some arguments I’ve seen against Mulan’s handling of gender roles that I think are misguided at best.
Mulan is subservient to Shang when she’s in the army
Seriously, if you don’t know enough about the structure of the military not to be offended by this…
See all the men following him too?

Mulan getting together with Shang is counterproductive because the movie feels the need to justify the fact that she couldn’t pass the matchmaker’s test at the beginning
Okay, I guess I can see where this is coming from, but I would respect this argument a lot more if I didn’t feel that those who posed it were really just annoyed that she was in a romantic relationship. However, I think this sends a powerful message because, ultimately, a lot of girls care about whether guys will like them. At the beginning, Mulan failed when she was trying to fit herself in the mold that society required of her. When she was pretending to be someone she wasn’t, Mulan failed at the matchmaker. A lot of times, girls feel they have to do what Mulan did at the beginning and stuff their personality, quirks, and even intelligence in order to be found attractive by guys. However, after using her personality, quirks, and intelligence to their full advantage, only then can Mulan find a romantic relationship- and with a brave, noble guy at that. Through this, the movie shows changing yourself for a guy in a negative light and enforces the idea that girls (seriously, why can’t there be an age-indiscriminant term for females that isn’t formal?) should wait for someone who accepts them the way they are.
Eccentric girls can find love too

Mulan giving her sword and medal to her father at the end enforces female submission and that idea that all her achievements are to bring honor to her family
Another one I could kind of see- except for the fact that he throws them all to the side. Mulan is used to her family caring about the honor she can bring them. Remember that she was afraid to go home when she was in the mountains because her leaving had brought dishonor to her family. She simply assumes they will care about that and her father will not accept her until she can prove that her actions have brought honor to her family because these are the values she is used to. The powerful part of the scene is that he shoves them to the side and shows that he values her for her and not the honor she brings.
The greatest gift and honor


And now on to why I think this movie handles gender issues so well.

The portrayal of women
Alright, so there isn’t as much to this as there is to the men, partly because Mulan spends a good part of the movie in the army (surrounded by men,) partly because the movie is more about her relationship with her father, and partly because the portrayal of the supporting female characters is rarely the issue in a gender role film. However, they help to add to the portrayal of gender roles and issues in this film as well.
I once read that the matchmaker was meant to be the anti-role model for the females. I’d say that’s accurate. And notice which ideals she supports- the matchmaker is the only female character in the movie to openly support the way women are treated in this society and enforce their roles and expectations. She is also seen to be rude, abrasive, overbearing, judgemental, and condescending. The matchmaker is clearly someone you wouldn’t want to be like. She is the one who condones the ways of the culture.
Fa Li and Grandmother Fa are both more ambiguous. Fa Li never does anything to go against Fa Zhou when he says Mulan is dishonorable or punishing her for her untraditional actions. Fa Li certainly took on the traditional roles of housewives in her society and time. However, Fa Li may be seen waiting anxiously for her daughter and lecturing her daughter for not appearing for preparations for the matchmaker, but she also let Mulan be herself and is never seen really punishing her for being different, and is actually seen comforting her after failing her test at the matchmaker. Despite the fact that Mulan’s differences make her so different from what she is supposed to be, Fa Li lets her be that way and supports her even when it brings dishonor to her family. Grandmother Fa is a bit more interesting. Grandmother Fa can be said to support the gender roles more than Fa Li. She, of course, brings up the point that she would have been more pleased if Mulan had brought home a man than her own honor, and Fa Li is seen looking unhappily at her. However, Grandmother Fa also supports Mulan more interestingly and openly than Fa Li, as well as apparently disagreeing with many of the ideologies of her society. When Fa Li says she should have prayed to the ancestors for luck, Grandmother Fa says that they wouldn’t be of any help. Also, when Fa Li tells Mulan to stay inside and not listen to what Chi Fu says, Grandmother Fa tells Mulan to stand on the crates so she can see and listen to the news. Fa Li and Grandmother Fa also are concerned for Mulan when she leaves. Fa Li wants Fa Zhou to go find her so that she won’t be killed, and Grandmother Fa prays for her safety.
The women in Mulan are full characters. Despite their low position, they have their own personalities and get by. Despite the requirements placed on them, they are able to lead their own lives. Despite the few of them in the movie, they are all different and play significant roles. They act as if this is life as normal, which it is of course for them, and simply live their lives as commonly as we live ours. Even Mulan acts this way, despite the fact that she wants to be free to live her life differently. Despite the fact they are suppressed, all the women in Mulan manage to fit full lives into the mold they are expected to fit.
The many sides of women in Mulan


The portrayal of men
    This where I feel Mulan really excels, because this is usually have complaints in other gender-bending movies *cough*Brave*cough*. Unlike other films of this type, such as Brave, the men aren’t all oafs. There are some genuinely respectable men, such as the Emperor, Fa Zhou[/]i], [i]Shang, and I suppose General Li as well, despite my desperate dislike for him. There are some oafish men as well- Yao, Ling, and Chien Po, of course- but they all have their redeeming qualities. I’ll get to that more later. However, they show some of this while they still think Mulan is a man. At first, of course, they’re total jerks and are just generally unpleasant. After that, however we see them apologize in the bathing scene. Also, Yao is always rallying the soldiers in his call of “Come on! We’ve got to help!” Chi Fu is a generally dislikable human being. However, while he has prejudices and is degrading to many people for reasons other than sex, he also isn’t someone you could call an oaf. He isn’t stupid, he doesn’t act like a ruffian, he is just dislikeable. And, again, I will be getting into this more later, but the one male character whose perspective is shown definitively as not changing at the and is not portrayed as an oaf. I think this gives a much more realistic feeling to the movie. While in movies, we can make it seem as though only obviously idiotic people believe that there are people who are naturally superior to others, but in real life, that is not always the case. In fact, that is rarely the case. There are almost always highly educated, high positioned, intelligent people supporting whatever form of discrimination is being enforced at the time.
I think Mulan does a highly successful job of portraying men in this society. It is so easy to label all men who are prejudiced and degrading against women as idiotic oafs, but that isn’t always the case. In fact, some of the first to change and support Mulan as a woman are those oafish men. I really like that, in Mulan, there are genuinely respectable men. I think it is reductive when all the men have to be idiots in order to make the point that women can survive among them. Think about the message that sends. Look, the women can be as good as the men! See this situation where a strong woman is surrounded by idiots! See how she can hold her own! Isn’t that just supporting the idea that women are weak? If men have to be bumbling idiots that deserve no respect for women to be able to be on par with them, isn’t that sending the message that women deserve no respect too? That they can only be equal to men when the men are on their own, inferior intellectual level? And while it may be reductive for the surrounding men to have to be idiots, it is simply hypocritical when the strong, redeeming woman acts the exact same way but is shown to be honorable and should be respected for it, which happens all too often. However, when Mulan acts like the oafish men, she is portrayed as an idiot as well. In Mulan, she gives up her place for a noble man, she is led by a noble man, she is fighting for a noble man, and she can take the place for a noble man, she can meet the expectations of noble men, she can protect a noble man. Doesn’t that make a stronger statement than if the men were weak?

I also think it is interesting to look at the way different men come to view Mulan throughout the movie. Unlike in many other films, where in one action all men come to have the same new, respectful feelings for women, the men in Mulan all come to change in their own time- some never do. That is another way in which I feel Mulan handles gender issues well.
Yao, Ling, and Chien Po are actually the first men to come to embrace Mulan as a woman. I find this to actually be very organic development. Yao, Ling, and Chien Po were Mulan’s friends in the army, so it makes sense that they would still support her even after she is revealed as a woman. In the mountains, when it looks like Shang is going to kill Mulan, Yao, Ling, and Chien Po run forward to try to stop him. However, when Chi Fu reminds him of the law, they stop. Later on, though, when Mulan comes back, we see more devotion from them. When Mulan says that she has an idea, Yao, Ling, and Chien Po are the first to drop their parts of the pillar they are using to knock down the doors and join Mulan’s plan. They join her plan immediately, changing into dresses and all in order to follow her plans. Yao, Ling, and Chien Po realize that Mulan makes the best in-the-moment decisions and comes up with good plans, and they don’t care that she is a woman.
Shang has a more labored development. He, of course, begins with his broad statement of the superiority of masculinity in what is generally considered the best song of the movie. Shang begins strongly supporting gender roles. Shang is far less close to Mulan in the army than Yao, Ling and Chien Po. In fact, for most of the movie, Shang is somewhat frustrated by Mulan. Even after she begins to prove herself in the army, tells him she believes in him as a captain, and tries to comfort him after his father’s death, Shang can still be seen to be annoyed by Mulan when the rocket shoots. It is only after Mulan saves his life that Shang respects and trusts “Ping.” It is, therefore, even more believable that he wouldn’t accept Mulan as a woman at first. After she is found as a woman, Shang, of course, almost kills her. However, he, of course, doesn’t. There have been several ideas as to why, but the most common I’ve found is that he just wanted her to realize that she’d hurt him and take out some of his anger. I really don’t like this. I’ve always felt that he was about to kill her because that was the law, and that was just the way he did things and thought- the law says, I do. However, Mulan got him to start thinking about and questioning things he had always taken as facts of life. In fact, if you look when she is on the ground, you can see his expression change when she mentions his father. However, despite the fact he began questioning whether Mulan should die, he still didn’t trust her after the way she had disguised herself- or, at least, didn’t admit to it. When Mulan followed the army to the imperial city, Shang, of course, doesn’t listen to her and tells her to leave. However, when he goes to present the sword of Shan Yu to the Emperor, you can see him looking around him, seemingly questioning his own decision to ignore her. After the Huns make themselves known in the city, Shang joins Mulan’s plan. After appearing not to believe or trust her, Shang follows her lead and takes part in her plan. He accepts that Mulan is a strong leader, and that her sex shouldn’t make her less. In fact, he even becomes attracted to her because of how unlike all the other women she is.
The Emperoronly really cares about Mulan because she saves both him and China. He chooses not to kill her and to honor her because of the actions she has taken. This is another realistic development. It makes sense that the Emperor would respect the woman who saved his life. His opinion of women in general does not seem to change, he only holds Mulan in higher esteem.
Chi Fu’s opinion of women definitively does not change. After she is found to be a woman, Chi Fu directly insults and demeans her. When she comes out of the tent, he calls her a “treacherous snake.” He stops Yao, Ling, and Chien Po from protecting her. He tries to make Shang go back and finish the job. Even after she saves the Emperor and China, Chi Fu can’t find her worthy of respect. He calls her a “creature” who is “not worth protecting.” After Shang points out her rather remarkable deeds, he responds, “She’s a woman; she’ll never be worth anything!” Chi Fu only bows to Mulan after the Emperor does the same, obviously doing it out of duty and because of the social laws of this society. Even when the Emperor tells him to find a place for her on the council, Chi Fu makes an excuse to try to keep her from being in a respected position.
The other men in the army are more ambiguous. We never really get to see whether their opinion changes by the end of the film, but we do have some to go on from the mountains and in the city. In the mountains, while Yao, Ling, and Chien Po run forward to try and stop Shang from killing her, the others have some different reactions. At first, they appear shocked and upset, just like the other three. However, when Chi Fu orders that Khan be restrained, one of the men angrily rushes forward. None of the soldiers beside Yao, Ling, and Chien Po goes to help Mulan with her plan. So while we have no real display as to what they believe, we can conclude that there were certainly some who did not respect her.
The many sides of men in Mulan


Mulan herself
And now we come to our heroine. The character in so many gender-role-challenging films that causes me so many headaches. I find Mulan to be undoubtedly one of the better. Unlike so many heroines in these kinds of movies, Mulan does not reject any femininity that is expected of her- which, really, is quite counterproductive. At the beginning of the film, Mulan is seen possessing many traditionally feminine qualities. Mulan is obedient to her family, humble, respectful of authority, and entirely selfless. Despite her growth throughout the film, Mulan still exemplifies all these qualities at the end. She rejects a government position in order to return to her family and gives the gifts from the Emperor to her father when she first returns. When China bows to her, she has an almost upset look on her face at first, as if unhappy that she would be glorified. When the Emperor comes forward, she bows before him as if having accepted her fate. Mulan goes back to the city to try to stop Shan Yu. Despite the fact that Shang wouldn’t listen to her, Mulan did whatever she could to try and find SOMEONE who would listen. She stayed and helped the effort, even though she had been shunned by Shang and the rest of her troop earlier.
Mulan is a displeasingly rare character who is neither defined by being overtly feminine nor by being overtly unfeminine (of course, she is often labeled a tomboy because so many can’t think beyond “girly girl” or “tomboy,” which is simply retroactive thinking- ironically, I think the Disney Princesses actually do a better job than most companies of giving us these sort of characters.) Mulan is a refreshing character who does not fit into either extreme. Unfortunately, in many of these types of movies, the heroine has to be a femininity-defying ultra-tomboy. Mulan shows us that the so realistic situation of fitting into neither mold is normal and okay. She shows that there is an in-between that many people fall into. Mulan is not dissatisfied with being a woman- she is dissatisfied with the requirements and restrictions on women. We can see her dissatisfaction even at the beginning. Mulan is fine acting feminine, she simply wants to be able to be feminine in her own way.
Mulan also isn’t presented as a perfect character, which anti-gender role characters often are (or, at least, their flaws aren’t meant to flaw the character, if that makes any sense.) She is clumsy at the beginning. She is socially awkward throughout the entire movie. Mulan can be very bitter at times in her movie. Think of when she got angry at the table, or when she gets angry with Shang in the city. When the Huns reveal themselves, there’s this flash of this “I told you so” look on her face. Mulan is naturally unmotivated and undisciplined. Until she is in the army, she is lazy and does not take the time to memorize a three-sentence proverb I’ve been able to memorize from watching the movie. She is even late for her first day of training. Mulan can be self-pitying and make a martyr of herself. Even though she is fully aware of the feeling toward women in society, having lived in it, she still is unhappy and upset when the men won’t listen to her. She goes to the war and fights for her family, but wasn't interested in the matchmaker and family honor enough to memorize one short paragraph. She is extremely smart and can find split-second solutions to extremely tight binds, but she doesn't think things entirely through and doesn't put effort into learning. She has a ton of talent and ability, but needs someone else to push her for it to be realized. She moves on in situations, but also is self-pitying in Reflection and because she can't measure up (though she didn't put the effort in.) Mulan has basic character flaws that make her more real and relatable.
Also, Mulan doesn’t have to do everything herself without any help- or even without the help of men. Instead of trying to do everything instead of the men, Mulan works with the men in order to achieve their common goal. While it may be entirely her idea and execution to use the cannon in the mountains, Mulan uses the help of Yao, Ling, Chien Po, and Shang in the Imperial City. All of them have to work together to save the Emperor. Mulan may have been the mastermind of the battle plan, but she needed the help of the other three to get past the Hun guards. Shang stepped in to stop Shan Yu from killing the Emperor. Chien Po carried the Emperor down to safety. Mulan lured Shan Yu onto the roof. Mushu lit the firecracker and rode it to Shan Yu. Mulan nails him down so he is stuck. Everyone had to work together in order to make the plan work. Also, the movie isn’t above having Mulan being protected by a man. Shang pushes her behind him when Shan Yu approaches them when they are unarmed. Yao, Ling, and Chien Po stand in front of her after she takes down Shan Yu to try to protect her from being executed and Shang defends her to Chi Fu. If it is alright for a woman to protect a man, then it should be alright for a man to protect a woman too- and really, it’s a pretty even draw.
This is why I find Mulan a feminist character- not because she rejects her femininity in favor of traditionally masculine behavior, but because she can truly succeed at neither. When Mulan tries to fit herself into a feminine ideal which is unnatural for her, she fails. When Mulan tries to fit herself into a masculine ideal which is unnatural for her, she fails and is portrayed as acting like an “absolute lunatic.” When Mulan allows herself to use her intelligence, she succeeds. She isn’t able to climb the pole because she just gains more brute strength. Mulan uses her incredible analytical skills and intelligence in order to find a way to use the weights to her advantage. The film in no way denies the fact that Mulan has a biological disadvantage, even when she apparently seems to defeat them physically (well, okay, other than that running thing with the buckets.) When she fights Shang in training, she does the swinging kick thing that requires a lot of flexibility- something women naturally have more of than men. She uses this same tactic against the Hun she fights against in the city. Also, after she kicks him, she uses her elbow against him, and anyone who’s read Divergent knows that those with smaller body types are more successful with their elbows and knees because they can get more power behind them. None of her victories are simply because she has more brute strength. She uses her head in all of them. She uses her intelligence to find a way to use the weights to her advantage. She finds a way to use the one remaining cannon to take out hundreds of the Hun army. When they fight the Huns in the city, Mulan does not devise a plan that involves overpowering them with force (which they had the numbers to do,) but to lull them into a false sense of security and then surprise then with an attack. I’ve seen people complain that Shan Yu is easily able to defeat Shang, a lifelong trained warrior, but Mulan is able to take him down. However, this is not due to Mulan simply overpowering him- Shan Yu underestimates Mulan because she is a woman. While he immediately charged Shang because he saw a threat in him, Shan Yu assumes Mulan can do nothing to resist him, so he takes a moment to monologue and gives mulan the opportunity she needs to find a solution to her situation. Mulan does not win over Shan Yu because she simply fights harder, she wins because she fights smarter. Mulan doesn’t succeed because she does what is expected of men when she is disguised as a man. She succeeds because being disguised as a man frees her from the limitations of her gender role and so she is able to use her intellect to its full extent and act as comes most naturally to her.
The many sides of Mulan


Symbolism and subtext
Many times, what is seen on the screen in Mulan is as important to telling the story, creating the environment, and sending the message as is what is being said. The visual side of Mulan enhances the story quite a bit. Much of this isn’t obvious at the first glance and, unfortunately, many people watch this as a surface-level movie (not that certain aspects of this film don’t lend itself to that- well, Mushu, specifically.)
Symbolism in Mulan is actually used far more than you might think (link- I’ll only be taking it into account when it comments on gender roles.) One symbol in Mulan is the symbol of the dragon. In Mulan, the dragon is a symbol of protection. From the dragon behind the Emperor to the Great Stone Dragon to Mushu himself, the dragon stands to represent protection. There are dragons on the flags that represent the Imperial city, a dragon is on the mirrored shrine in the temple, and is also depicted on the partition into Fa Zhou and Fa Li’s bedroom. In all these cases, the dragon takes on a protective role. Before making her choice to join the army, Mulan sits on the Great Stone Dragon. This goes to symbolize that she is taking on a role of protection for her family. The Great Stone Dragon is even referred to as the greatest and most powerful of the guardians. Mulan, in one shot, is also silhouetted behind the dragon “protecting” her father’s bedroom, again taking on the role of guardian and protector for her father.
Another time which symbolism is used to comment on gender roles is when Mulan is fighting Shan Yu on the roof. Shan Yu is, of course, stronger and more effectively armed than Mulan, who is slim and armed only with her fan. Shan Yu’s sword, as well as Shan Yu himself, could be seen to represent masculinity itself. Mulan and her fan could also be seen to represent femininity itself. Shan Yu would have been able to overpower Mulan easily- seeing as men are physically superior in strength. However, since Shan Yu underestimates Mulan- and her weapon of a fan- he gives her the chance to use her disadvantage to overpower him, in much the same way Mulan uses her flexibility to overcome her physical disadvantage. In this case, Mulan uses her fan (feminine symbol) to wrest Shan Yu’s sword (masculine symbol) from his hand, and eventually trap him with it. This scene could be read as saying that when a man underestimates a woman, he can end up digging his own grave and setting himself up for failure.
Symbolism in regards to gender roles in Mulan

Mulan is also full of subtext. Have you ever watched link- and I mean really watched it? There’s a ton of subtext hidden in all that cute dressing-up imagery. For instance, when Mulan passes the men playing chess and interrupts their game, that isn’t just an easy way to get the visuals on the screen to match with the lyrics of the song. The entire song is devoted to the place in society women should take. In the line where the *only* way a woman can bring honor (marrying well) is discussed, Mulan is seen using her intelligence. This shows her difference from the others and that she is not what she is expected to be. This also foreshadows that she will bring honor to her family doing something considered wrong for her to do. Another time subtext is used in Honor to Us All is when the two boys are playing with their swords and steal the little girl’s doll. The lyric playing in the background says “We all must serve the Emperor who guards us from the Huns- a man by bearing arms, a girl by bearing sons.” Not only is there subtext in the visuals, there is also in the lyric. See how the males are referred to as “men” and females as “girls.” Showing the boys playing also holds subtext. Together with the lyrics, all the players- and the children’s toys- in this scene take can take a role. The girl and her doll are the “Chinese people” terrorized by the “Huns” (the boy with the swords.) Seeing as Mulan takes the “Chinese people” from the “Huns” and gives it back to the girl (who I suppose could be “Safety,”) Mulan is seen taking on the role of “guarding us from the Huns”- which would make her the Emperor in this little scene. Again, this is foreshadowing what Mulan will do to protect both her father and her people. Another way Mulan uses subtext is in Mulan’s interactions with the men. One example is when Mulan is bathing with the men. When Ling extends his hand for Mulan to shake to extend the bond of friendship, Mulan extends her hand for him as if she is expecting him to kiss it. A lot of the humor with gender roles is like this, little things that make small statements about the gender roles and expectations of this society.


Now, none of this is to say that Mulan is perfect when it comes to gender issues. There are several lines in it that can be a bit too preachy for my taste, and of course, there is the issue that Mulan is treated as a once-in-a-dynasty type thing and no other women are in a better situation. I’m not saying Mulan is the most feminist movie, either- not even the most feminist Disney movie (Tangled and Sleeping Beauty- yes, Sleeping Beauty- come immediately to mind.) I just think that, of films which “play” with gender roles, Mulan is one of the best (especially when compared to most modern films.) I hope you got some thought from this, and I apologize if I seemed to be grasping at straws for any of my arguments and that it is so terribly long.