This midterm season, I found myself turning to the soundtrack from Mulan for some study inspiration. Listening to “Reflections” reminded me of how much I, at the tender age of 6, loved the movie when it was first released. But as I listened to “Honor to Us All” and bobbed along in my Lau cubicle, I realized that this movie helped ensure my transformation into an avid feminist.
In “Honor to Us All,” Mulan’s family prepares her to meet a matchmaker. She must impress her or she won’t be allowed to marry and thus will disgrace not only her living family members but also her ancestors. That’s some deadly pressure. So her mother and grandmother bathe her, squeeze her tightly into a dress and cover her face in makeup. She proceeds to make a fool of herself with the matchmaker — the real Mulan can’t match societal expectations for women — and is booted from the room in disgrace. Needless to say, her ancestors are not pleased.
Anyway, while I can’t totally speak for 6-year-old Victoria, if my memory 14 years later serves me correctly, I felt so bad for Mulan. She was smart and bright and kind, but no one saw any value in her because she wasn’t delicate and she couldn’t pour tea without spilling it — which is actually pretty hard. I knew this was lame and unfair and that Mulan should be allowed to be whatever she wanted, even if she were a girl. It’s a pretty basic statement, but one that this movie ingrained in me at a young age.
If you’ve never seen the movie, the Huns are coming to China, and Mulan goes into disguise to join the army in place of her sickly father. Her only companions are a talking dragon sent by her ancestors to protect her (I guess they got over the disappointment) and an indestructible cricket. It’s a bold and terrifying decision done out of undying love — who said she was worthless, again?
In the army, she’s privy to lots of the sexist crap men say when they’re bro-ing out. There’s a very catchy song called “A Girl Worth Fighting For” in which her fellow soldiers describe just what kind of girl would be worth a war. “How ’bout a girl who’s got a brain, who always speaks her mind?” Mulan adds, thinking of herself. The men give a resounding “Nah.” Boo. I knew that was garbage at the time, too — I mean, cooking is fun and being pretty is nice, but if that’s the only thing a guy’s looking for in a girl, he’s gross.
The bright people at Disney play it all the right way though — these men are portrayed as dumb, and Mulan ends up with the hot commander who loves her for her wit, kindness, perseverance and courage. Even more significantly, the emperor and the people of China who have assembled at the emperor’s castle literally bow down to her for saving all of their lives. Damn girl. You did it.
Feminism often gets a bad rap, which is unfortunate, but it’s movies like Mulan that help teach little girls and boys that they can own their destinies, that sexism is bad and that women are competent and great. That’s feminism in a nutshell, really. So while Disney gets lots of (often deserved) criticism for promoting existing hierarchies of power, I’m just not sure I’d be a feminist without Mulan. OK — I probably would still be a feminist, but I wouldn’t have been such a precocious 6-year-old. I might not have thought that being smart and outspoken were important qualities. That would have been a tragedy, because outspoken is definitely one of the top five adjectives that describe me.
There are other television shows that I was exposed to at a relatively young age that are also sneakily super feminist. A perfect example is “The Powerpuff Girls” — the show about three kindergarten superheroes who keep the city of Townsville safe from the strange villains who wreak havoc there on a daily basis. Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup taught me that being smart or girly or tough — or any combination of the three — was perfectly acceptable and that there’s nothing a girl has to be except herself. That’s why having children’s television shows full of strong female characters like the Powerpuff Girls, the pink Power Ranger or Sailor Moon is incredibly important — they inspire girls to be awesome.
Six-year-old Victoria wanted to be like Mulan and Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup, and 20-year-old Victoria kind of is. True, I probably won’t be signing up for a war anytime soon, but I like to think that I embody some of those qualities that make Mulan way more interesting than Snow White or Cinderella.
Having a talking dragon would be sweet, though.
Victoria Edel is a junior in the College. GIRL MEETS WORLD appears every other Friday in the guide.