I’ll Make a (Wo)Man Out of You

I’ll be completely honest, I didn’t particularly care for a lot of Disney princess movies growing up. I guess a part of it has to do with the fact that I am simply not a part of the target audience for princess movies. Don’t get me wrong, these movies were always entertaining to me, but I never particularly found them to be all that relatable. I could enjoy the well-crafted, heartwarming stories of Cinderella and The Little Mermaid, but I couldn’t identify with the main characters because I was not an innocent, young girl searching for my Prince Charming to save me from the hardships in my life. 

I thought that I would never be able to relate to a Disney princess movie musical until I saw Mulan for the first time. Mulan made me realize that I didn’t have to be a young girl to relate to a Disney princess film, and once I got past the gender barrier I was able to see the deeper, more widely applicable messages buried underneath the princess story. Mulan was the first time I saw my Chinese heritage represented on screen in a way that was empowering and made me realize how important representation is in speaking to the experiences of a wider audience. By showing stories that normally aren’t told, media companies can connect with broader audiences and break down race and gender barriers in unique ways.

Mulan is a Disney princess musical unlike any other. For one, the movie strives to represent Chinese culture at the forefront, rather than a typical white story with white characters. The movie is based on the traditional Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, but revised to fit a more kid-friendly audience. The titular character isn’t even a princess, she is just a young woman who wants to bring honor to her family – a concept that is very important in traditional Chinese culture. 

The music also drives home concepts important to Chinese culture in a way that is relatable to Western cultures. The song “Reflection” serves as Mulan’s “I am” song, and describes Mulan’s desire to make her family proud and failing, which reflects the importance of collectivism and family in Asian culture but also serves to have a broader message about not living up to familial expectations. This song happens as Mulan slowly walks around her family’s altar and melancholically looks at her own reflection, doubling down on the sense of failure she feels toward her family duties. As she wipes away makeup from half of her face and belts the line “when will my reflection show who I am in inside,” she ties her own self worth to her failures as a woman to be a good wife. 

It is so rare for any race other than Caucasian to have representation in media like this, which is why it was so important for me to see my culture represented on a screen. Hollywood is full of white actors and even animation rarely features anything other than white leads. Minorities and especially Asians are typically relegated to side characters, if they are even represented at all in popular media. In extreme cases, white actors can actively harm Asian representation by taking roles intended for Asian people, such as Scarlet Johanssen, a white actor, being cast as a Japanese character in the 2017 live-action Ghost in the Shell adaptation. To have a musical, regardless of animated or live-action, take place in China and have Chinese actors and characters and tell a Chinese story is so refreshing to see in a high-profile movie by a high-profile studio like Disney and creates conversation about why representation matters.

The plot of Mulan largely hinges on breaking down gender stereotypes. When the Huns invade China, the emperor orders a man from each family to join the Chinese Army to fight back. From the very beginning, the Chinese Imperial Army establishes that male status is the only factor that they care about when determining who can fight for the country. Mulan’s elderly and crippled father is the only man in the family, which means that he is the only one who can fight even if he isn’t physically able to. Mulan decides to take her father’s place in the army to protect him and bring honor to her family, and in doing so breaks down toxic standards of masculinity and femininity and proves that a woman can be as powerful as a man by the end of the story. 

The musical number “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” directly references the standards of masculinity placed on the members of the Imperial Army, and the movie uses dramatic irony to break down these gender norms. The song’s key lyric, “I’ll make a man out of you” idealizes masculinity as peak strength and power, implying that the untrained soldiers were more feminine because they were weaker and less skilled as fighters, and that to become better warriors they have to “be a man.” Other lyrics of the song analogize the qualities of a man to natural processes like the swiftness of a coursing river, with the force of a typhoon, and with the strength of a raging fire, all of which elevate masculinity to beyond-human levels. While these lyrics are being sung, Mulan, disguised as a man under the alias “Ping,” is training with the other army recruits under Captain Shang. At first, Mulan is unable to overcome the obstacles thrown at her and is told by Shang to return home because she is too weak for the war, upon which she proves her worth using her intelligence to retrieve an arrow stuck to the top of a pillar, all while the lyrics “be a man” are being chanted repeatedly in the background. There is a beautiful irony in this scene where Mulan proves herself worthy as a woman of things previously built up to be things only a man can succeed in. 

The booming percussion and horns give the song a very masculine war-march sound to complement the lyrics. In terms of choreography, at the beginning of the musical number the characters are all very uncoordinated with the only coordinated one being Shang. By the end, once the characters have trained and persevered, they are coordinated and manly enough to join Shang in unison, showing their progression into the men the Imperial Army wants them to be. Yet again, Mulan defies these gender stereotypes by proving herself to be as strong if not stronger than the men in army with her intelligence and quick thinking, qualities of hers that come back later in the story to eventually aid in defeating the Huns and saving China. 

Listen to a new version of 'I'll Make a Man Out of You' that was pitched  for Disney's live-action 'Mulan'


All in all, Mulan the Disney animated musical succeeds in connecting a broad audience to a fairly specific story through the use of race and gender to say universal messages about gender roles. It’s nice to see a big studio like Disney be so progressive in its representation as early as 1998, even if the live-action remake in 2020 ruined everything good about the original movie (which is a conversation for another day, seriously it’s not even a musical anymore). Disney has always been great at telling princess stories, and it’s especially great when these stories are used as an effective medium to connect more general lessons in an easily digestible way.

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