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.

Don’t be Gay in Indiana (or as a Straight Man)

I first watched Netflix’s The Prom during winter break of last year, right around when the movie first released for streaming. I remember inviting one of my friends over to my Blakemore dorm (we both stayed on campus over winter break) one night to watch it, as I had wanted to see the stage show on Broadway before COVID happened and we’re both gay. We played it from her old MacBook while sitting on a soft, fleece blanket spready out on the floor, and I vividly remember us having a blast with the movie’s enthralling set design, energetic choreography, catchy musical numbers, and just the fact that it was a cheesy, feel-good teen flick.

However, not even I with my shameless love of tasteless teenage films can look past the movie’s idealistic and poor depiction of the LGBTQ+ community and their struggles. None of the movie’s flashiness can’t make up for its lack of depth and nuance with regards to two of its primary queer characters, Emma Nolan and Barry Glickman.

Starting off with the lesser of the two evils, Emma Nolan isn’t actually the worst depiction of a lesbian teenager possible, it’s just a horribly idealistic one, largely due to Jo Ellen Pellman’s portrayal of the character. Emma’s introductory number “Just Breathe,” establishes her as a severe optimist, and this is hammered in through Pellman’s constant grin. No matter how sarcastic I was about being gay in Indiana, I would not be smiling if I just got verbally berated in a crowded school hallway. Pellman’s smile undermines the horrific nature of the homophobia she just experienced and makes it hard to relate or understand her pain since it seems like she’s not even feeling any pain at all. Especially since she is the only out lesbian in the entire school, I have a hard time believing she is taking her situation this well and with that big of a smile. It doesn’t help that principal Tom Hawkins supports Emma, which seems rather unrealistic for a highly conservative high school in small-town Indiana. Had absolutely no one been on Emma’s side, we would have seen a whole new dimension to the daily struggles LGBTQ+ people face that The Prom completely skips over.

Another instance of Pellman’s questionable acting is right before and during the number “Alyssa Greene.” Yet again, Pellman maintains a smile as she confronts Ariana DeBose’s Alyssa Greene. It’s hard to believe that Emma is actually mad at Alyssa when her face does not match the words coming out of her mouth, and it is even less believable when she grins while walking with Alyssa during the musical number as if they didn’t just have an intense argument. Here, Pellman’s and Debose’s great chemistry work against each other as Alyssa’s pain is simply not reciprocated by Emma, and even when Emma breaks up with Alyssa I don’t believe that Emma actually wants to break up with her. The smile Pellman maintains while saying “it hurts too much” does not show at all that Emma is hurting, but quite the opposite. This overly positive portrayal of a traumatized teenage lesbian doesn’t provide a platform for real life gay teenagers to relate to because most kids aren’t optimistic about the trauma they face, and they need representation that shows them that it is okay to feel depressed, angry, and even unforgiving.

While I don’t think Pellman’s portrayal of Emma is particularly relatable or realistic, there still is a certain charm to Emma’s hopeful optimism that might work better if it wasn’t in a story that wants to talk about the trauma of the LGBTQ+ community particularly in young adults. On the other hand, James Corden’s Barry Glickman is straight up insulting to the LGBTQ+ community and even less relatable.

The root of the problem with Barry’s character is that he is played by James Corden, a straight man. Corden cannot properly portray a gay character because he cannot understand what it is like to be gay in a straight-dominated world. It feels almost mocking to have a straight man play an overly flamboyant gay man as it plays into the stereotypes that straight men have typically used to oppress gay men. For example, Corden’s exaggerated arm movements and sassy gait feels very forced in the opening number “Changing Lives” especially when compared to Andrew Rannell’s Trent Oliver, someone whose sexuality is never explicitly stated yet played is by an actual gay man, who is much milder yet still sassy and dramatic in a natural. Barry’s suit is even a dazzling and sparkling teal blue, adding to his aggressive flamboyance, compared to Trent’s monochromatic red.

Another scene I take issue with is the shopping scene in “Tonight Belongs to You,” where Barry takes Emma to the mall to get a makeover for the prom. This scene pushes more harmful stereotypes that are perpetuated by the fact that Corden is a straight man singing these words. The lyric “you can borrow all my makeup” reinforces two gay stereotypes, in that gay men are into makeup and lesbians aren’t to be more “masculine.” This coupled with Corden’s overly affectionate and exaggerated acting create a character that doesn’t seem realistic and only serves to perpetuate stereotypes. This scene in general implies that a gay man is better at dressing someone of a different gender simply because they are more feminine despite not being able to completely understand a woman’s experience (just like how a straight man cannot completely understand a gay man’s experience!). Hearing Barry call himself “Miss Glickman” is also particularly uncomfortable because when said by a straight man, it again plays into the stereotype that one’s sexuality makes them an expert on genders that aren’t their own. It is absolutely possible for gay men in real life to fall into these stereotypes, but in real life James Corden is not a gay man, and watching him act this way only pushes straight-male dominance.

Beyond Corden’s portrayal of Barry, I take issue with the way Barry’s main plot line of his parents not accepting him resolves. Barry’s mother surprises Barry in the school hallway. While Barry is hesitant at first, his mother is quick to admit her wrongdoings and they make up. Unfortunately, not every gay person gets to reconcile with their homophobic parents. In fact, it could have easily been a very dangerous situation for Barry to meet up with his mother in case she hadn’t changed, which many parents never do. Though an incredibly heartwarming scene, this feeds into the glittery optimism that underlies the movie, and while I love cheese and happy endings, wrapping everything up in a neatly tied bow doesn’t work with how serious of a story and subject matter the movie is trying to tell.

When the entire film is full of messy plot lines that get resolved too quickly and too cleanly, it’s hard to view the individual struggles the queer characters face as realistic. The struggles these characters face only end up grazing the surface of the trauma LGBTQ+ individuals in the real world face and get resolved by sparkling glitter and spectacular dance numbers, which no matter how well-intentioned will never reach the heart of traumatized queer folk to relate to.