Mulan Then and Now
Updated: Aug 18
One of my favorite things about teaching is watching students unpack things by applying new concepts and frameworks to their existing knowledge of things. In my Race and Gender in Film classes, we work with Disney films because Disney as a company is so pervasive in media and plays a role in shaping social and individual ideals, norms, and stereotypes. One of my students said that is was the most fun way to ruin a childhood. This series of posts will be inspired by a mix of current events and lectures from that class. The books we used were Diversity in Disney Films: Critical Essays on Race, Ethnicity, Gender, Sexuality and Disability by Cheu (published by McFarland and Company) and Film: A Critical Introduction by Pramaggiore and Wallis (published by Pearson).
In August 2020, there is a lot of buzz around the live action Mulan. From the release date being pushed back and reactions about the film being pulled from theaters to appear on Disney+ to speculation and commentary about the merit of charging $30 to view the film and the demise of theaters as a result, most of the discussion surrounding Mulan no longer centers around orientialism, sexuality, and correcting the mistakes of the past.
Mona Lesley Siegel of The LA Times asked the question, “Will the film be liberated enough?” Her excellent essay situates the 2020 film as being viewed through different lenses and states that audiences expect more of their female heroes today than when Mulan was breaking the Disney Princess mold in the late 1990s. The Ballad of Mulan is a starting point for Siegel to explore how Mulan inspired other women to challenge gender roles and norms, and ultimately, question what she considered a delicate balancing of “carefully wrapped Mulan’s gender-bending militancy in a blanket of domesticity” (par. 15). However, this critique largely ignores many of the spaces between that Mulan, and others, occupy on their journeys in the 1998 version of the film.
Liminality is the place between. Merriam-Webster defines liminality as “1. of, relating to, or situated at a sensory threshold : barely perceptible or capable of eliciting a response…2: of, relating to, or being an intermediate state, phase, or condition” (Merriam-Webster). What are some of the in-between spaces that characters occupy in Mulan?
Gender is a liminal space, and Mulan explores transvestitism, as expressed in Limbach’s essay on Mulan found in the Diversity in Disney collection of essays. However, liminal spaces don’t end there. The space between duty for a boy and girl child as well as filial piety are comfortably lived in spaces worthy of exploration. Each character also grapples with learning how to love themselves when they don’t fit into prescribed societal gender roles. This is evident in “Make you a Man” and the stories of Ling, Chien-Po, and Yao. Bisexuality and queerness are also explored through Shang’s developing emotions for Ping, and the most prevalent example of liminal spaces is that between reality and the lie.
My hope for the 2020 Mulan is that this liminality, living in the in between spaces is not lost. This was part of the heart of the 1998 Mulan and why it was an enduring story that provides deep meaning even today.