Mulan is the title of a 1998 Disney feature film, inspired by the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan. It has found considerable success and has become a classic among animated films over time.
Fa Mulan is the only daughter of Fa Zhou, an elderly warrior in poor health. The girl must be examined by the procuress to honor her family in the only way a woman can do so in Chinese society of the time: marrying a man of good family.
The values of the family and the role of the woman as hostess are very important and Mulan feels a lot of pressure. She knows she is not prepared, she has other aspirations, other desires. The meeting turns out to be a disaster and the girl feels guilty for dishonoring her family and not finding her place in society.
Meanwhile, the Chinese army has waged a war against the Huns, so at the call of the emperor each family must help defend the country with a male member. Mulan’s father is the only man in the family and to prevent him from being drafted and dying in battle, the daughter disguises herself as a man, runs away from home and joins the army.
Honor and a sense of duty in Mulan
The values of the traditional family and patriarchal society (which sees the man as the hero and the woman overshadowed by taking care of the house) are now well established, but Mulan does not seem to recognize them as her own.
For the meeting with the procuress, the young women make themselves beautiful in the hope of finding a husband. Mulan, on the other hand, prepares at the last moment, writes down some suggestions to remember what to say, she doesn’t quite know how to behave. Mulan knows she has to honor her family and wishes to do so, but, after failing the matchmaking exam, she ponders what her real obligations should be.
She decides to break the rules, to go beyond the norms and join the army instead of her father and she doesn’t do it just to save his life, she also does it for herself. Mulan must find her place in society and she wants to prove that she can be useful for something beyond being an exemplary bride.
Mulan’s man disguise has a symbolic meaning. It is an easily overlooked detail, to be understood as the simple transition of the girl, her change and the beginning of her adventure. Not so: the hair and the sword carry a symbolic connotation.
In mythology and chivalric novels, the sword is always linked to honor. It is part of man, it represents victories, personal growth and honor in battle. All knights have a sword and it is with it that they win battles.
The sword Mulan uses belongs to her father, it is the sword with which she honored the Fa family. Mulan appropriates it and uses it to cut her hair. Hair also has a symbolic meaning linked to honor: let’s think of Samson, who draws his strength and honor from his hair. Long hair, then, is associated with femininity.
In Il Poema del mio Cid the hero’s beard is a reflection of his honor, the more battles he wins, the thicker and longer the beard. In Mulan the emperor has a thick white beard, a symbol of great wisdom and honor that distinguish him from all the other characters.
Mulan has failed, she has dishonored her family, so she decides to cut her hair using the blade that once represented her father’s honor. When she returns from the war, after saving China, Mulan returns the sword and the gifts of the emperor to her father, thus restoring the honor to her family.
Women in Mulan
The role of women in the society described by the film is entirely secondary. Mulan is an atypical female character and never seen before in Disney filmography: she is a rebel, a woman who defies the rules and who shows us that a woman can do whatever she wants and that no man is worth more.
When the emperor asks for the help of his people, he asks only for the contribution of the men of each family. Mulan’s father, despite being old and without strength, cannot be replaced, much less by a woman. Mulan considers it unfair, she is young and in good health and is convinced that she can serve her country better than her father, who probably would not be able to survive due to his health conditions.
Mulan has to measure her words and act like a man to go unnoticed. In one scene the soldiers sing a song about women; everyone wants them “white as lotus flowers”, “that they can cook”, etc. Mulan, on the other hand, appeals to intelligence and cunning, sings of a woman with whom one can talk, which arouses the rejection of other companions because they are not qualities that they expect to find in a woman.
For Mulan, things are not easy at first. Over time, he manages to outdo himself and earn the respect and recognition of other soldiers. Once the first obstacles are overcome, the soldiers discover that she is a woman and some do not accept her, even though Mulan saved them by proving to be a skilled warrior.
There are many occasions that demonstrate how difficult it is to be a woman in a world of men, where many no longer listen or even tell a woman to bite her tongue in the presence of a man or to be worthless precisely because they are women. Despite the adversities, Mulan turns out to be a real heroine and, breaking the mold and stereotypes, she will save her country by proving that she is no less than her male fellow citizens.
We see Mulan’s change: the young and inexperienced girl from the beginning gives way to a strong and courageous woman, just like any man can be.
Mulan is likely unaware of the severity of the war until she reaches a camp where no survivors remain. There she finds a doll, a doll that symbolizes the feminine and infantile part of her and which she decides to abandon to the now deserted camp. For Mulan, finding the doll is actually an intimate encounter with herself, with her true self, which marks the end of innocence and the passage to maturity.
Mulan is not a princess and there is hardly any hint of her beauty. It is a far cry from the prototype of a Disney-style princess. It is the portrait of a woman like many others, with her aspirations, her ambitions, with a great desire to overcome herself and to prove that she is not inferior to men.