Sunday, June 23, 2024

The True Villain Of Mulan

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If you’re anything like me, you probably spend way too much time thinking about how exactly you’d rank Disney movies in regards as to which one is your favorite. Well, okay, we all do that, probably more than we should. And my personal favorite has always been Mulan.

I say personal favorite, knowing full well that there are technically better Disney movies, even Disney Princess movies, out there, that it’s not the prettiest, or the one with the best musical score, and that the, ah, handling of Chinese culture is… Well. Not exactly the worst thing Disney has ever done on that front, but not exactly the best, either, so let’s just leave it at that.

This is a personal pick. Mulan was the first movie I ever saw in theaters, it has been my favorite Disney movie ever since, and probably always will be. It’s like saying my favorite Tarantino movie is Kill Bill, which it is – it’s absolutely not his best, also has issues regarding the usage and appropriation of Asian cultures (almost like I have a type… Good lord), and the second movie has a lot of pacing problems, but it is still the movie(s) I personally like best.

“But what about Pulp Fiction? Or Inglorious Basterds?”

Of course, if you are anything like me, you will also feel the need to rationalize and intellectualize why you like what you like. Hey, I recently wrote an essay longer than most college papers about the thematic significance of my third ever OTP, I’ll intellectualize anything if you let me.

Another thing I highly enjoy doing is applying formulas and patterns to things. And when you have something as ultimately homogenous as the Disney Animated Canon, specifically the works of the Disney Renaissance, finding these formulas in place is pretty easy.

(For the sake of argument, and since they’re attempting to capitalize upon this exact formula, I’m going to be counting The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, and Frozen as part of this. I haven’t seen Moana yet, so I have no idea how that measures up.)

So let’s talk about musical numbers!

Roughly 90% of Disney Renaissance Movie Songs fall under one of these neat little categories:

  1. The Exposition Song:

Usually, but not always, the opening number. Introduces us to the setting, and sometimes the main character, and gives the audience all the context needed to get into the movie.

Examples: Belle, Daughters of Triton, Circle of Life, Arabian Nights AND One Jump Ahead , Down in New Orleans, The Gospel Truth might be the most egregious example, and Bells of Note Dame probably my favorite.

  1. The “I Want” Song:

If the Exposition song wasn’t explicit enough, this is where usually the protagonist sings about what they want out of the movie. Can overlap with the Exposition Song.

Examples: Do You Want To Build A Snowman and For the First Time in Forever, which also do double-duty as exposition songs, same as When Will My Life Begin, Belle (Reprise), Part of Your World, I Just Can’t Wait to be King, Almost There, Out There, Go The Distance, and even Just Around The Riverbend  fits in here, though Pocahontas might be the vaguest about what she wants in the history of Disney Princess-dom. Well. I guess Cinderella just sings about what she dreams about without ever putting a name on it until the ball happens, but hey, anything pre Mermaid is not relevant here.

  1. The Villain Song:

Quite often the most memorable song of the movie. The Villain sings about what they do. Or don’t do. Or will do. Or their minions sing about how great they are. Or all of the above. You know the drill.

Examples: Poor, Unfortunate Souls, Gaston, Be Prepared, Mine, Mine, Mine, Hellfire, Friends On the Other Side, Mother Knows Best, Let It Go, also arguably Love Is An Open Door. The distinction gets messy sometimes.

  1. The “Falling in Love” Song:

The one where Honest Trailers makes the characters sing about how they’re going to pork. That’s also usually what the characters sing about, albeit a bit more eloquently and child-friendly.

Examples: Part Of Your World (Reprise) and Kiss The Girl, Something There and Tale As Old As Time, A Whole New World, Can You Feel The Love Tonight, Colors of the Wind kind of, I Won’t Say I’m in Love ironically, Ma Belle Evangeline, I See The Light, and you can technically argue for both Love is an Open Door and Fixer Upper, but I’d support neither. Oh, an also Heaven’s Light/Hellfire when regarded as one song because Hunchback is dark and twisted and I love it.

  1. The Sidekick Song:

The plot comes to a screeching halt so the sidekick(s) get to sing and be marketable or something. Most people seem to genuinely like these, I never really did, with a few exceptions.

Examples: Under The Sea, Friend Like Me, Be Our Guest, Hakuna Matata, Court of Miracles, Gonna Take You There, I Have A Dream, and I’d personally argue that Reindeer are Better Than People, In The Summer and Fixer Upper all fall under this category as well.

Most other songs in these movie are usually either there as a transition or a crowd sequence – Prince Ali, The Mob Song, Savages, Topsy Turvy. At the end of the day, all of these songs have a very clear purpose in the narrative and are easily sorted by their function.

Now some time ago, I found myself thinking about this for some reason – maybe because Lindsay Ellis, the artist formerly known as the Nostalgia Chick, analyzed the hell out of Hercules and back (and yes, she also did a pretty excellent review of Mulan back in the day. Warning for images of feet after traditional Chinese foot binding.) and bemoaned the fact that Hades didn’t get a villain song, even though that would have been epic. And as pointed out above, the villain songs usually are some of the best songs Disney movies have to offer.

Mulan, at first glance, also doesn’t seem to have a villain song – Shan Yu never sings. Probably for the best, the Huns are some of the least cartoonized villains in all of Disney-dom, what with the actual war crimes they commit. I mean, that comes with the territory of making an actual war movie – for children! Featuring the only Disney Princess with a body count. In the thousands. Well, until Tiana broke locket thing, but Mulan still outdoes her by a few thousand people crushed in an avalanche, and however many more died during the fireworks at the end.

So, yeah, no real villain song here. And also no sidekick song. Mushu is around, and basically the only thing keeping the movie’s middle part from being too grim dark, but he never sings. He was supposed to, but that was scrapped, because it didn’t fit with the rest of the movie, somehow.

Another thing that is missing is the “Falling in Love”-song. The love story between Mulan and Shang is probably the most subdued in the entire Disney Princess Canon – they don’t even kiss in the movie (Do not mention the sequel. Do not ever mention the sequel.) . Sure, things can be implied during “I’ll Make a Man Out Of You”. A lot of things.

But nope, no straight love song to be found in the entire thing. And no, not a queer love song, either; the queer subtext of this movie is also seriously low hanging fruit that this piece isn’t supposed to be about. My two cents: While it is easy to joke about how Shang is actually gay because he fell for Mulan while he thought she was a guy, that’s… kind of simplifying things. He’s never shown to be attracted to any other man in this movie at all, and his attraction to her doesn’t change after her gender is revealed. I’d read him as bi- or pansexual if anything.

Unless, of course, you subscribe to a certain other interpretation of Mulan that I will address later on.

That leaves only two song types for the grand total of four songs of the movie.

“Honor To Us All” seems to be the easiest case – it’s the first musical number and explains how society works, so it’s the exposition song, duh! It’s even sung by a crowd while getting Mulan ready for her first plot point. Fifteen minutes into the movie. And it introduces us to the rules to a setting we’re going to leave forever within the next ten minutes.

And I feel like relevance for the rest of the movie is an essential part for a true exposition song; that befuddled crowd singing about Belle stays relevant for the entire movie. The way Triton handles his daughters might possibly be the central plot of the entire movie, considering how Triton gets the character arc Ariel doesn’t. All the characters we’re introduced to here, except for maybe the mother and grandmother, and they were more poignantly introduced in the dialogue before the song, are going to be irrelevant after the Matchmaker scene. The song doesn’t even feature any backstory in the form of flashbacks. And it doesn’t tell us anything about our protagonist, either. Well, a few character moments during the montage notwithstanding, but those don’t really matter to the song or lyrics.

Those are odd choices, but, you know, maybe just a funny coincidence.

“Reflection” seems to be your standard “I Want” song. It’s Mulan singing about how her life kind of sucks. But what is it that she wants, actually? For her reflection to show who she is inside. Which is not a perfect bride or a perfect daughter, but she also doesn’t exactly know who she is – or at least won’t name it, and yet just bemoans her inability to pretend. She doesn’t want adventure in the great, wide somewhere, or to be part of some other world, or to get out of her (bell) tower, open a restaurant, spend time with her sister or just people in general. In fact, she never actually vocalizes what exactly it is that she wants until just before the climax of the movie – to look into the mirror and see someone you can be proud of.

But that’s not what the song is about, really. It’s where her development is headed towards, and just admitting that during her lowest point is a big character revelation, but when it comes down to it, “Reflection” is less about what she wants and more about how much of a failure she is. At fitting in and performing femininity.

Speaking of which – given how she spends half the movie crossdressing, any kind of subtext hinting at Mulan maybe being trans was basically unavoidable. It’s not something I subscribe to, and definitely not something the movie intended, but especially during “Reflection”…

“Now I see, that if I were truly to be myself,
I would break my family’s heart.

Who is that girl I see, staring straight back at me?
Why is my reflection someone I don’t know?
Somehow I cannot hide
Who I am, though I’ve tried.
When will my reflection show, who I am, inside?“

It’s not not there. And it’s something I have an easier time buying than all the jokes about Shang actually being gay, though look, with Transman!Mulan, that one just got more plausible, too.

This is sort of getting closer to my point, but we’re not quite there yet.

Unless, of course, the point was how pretty this movie is because HOLY SHIT IS IT PRETTY

The next song is the most iconic song of the movie – “I’ll Make a Man Out Of You.” This could be one of the crowd songs, but it is more a Rocky-style training montage. And as has been pointed out by the internet before, the criteria to be a man at no point include genitalia. I mean, admittedly, I’d like to see them try and incorporate explicit nods towards dicks in their lyrics, but still.

Now, the point of this song is how Shang is going to turn his army into strapping beacons of masculinity so they can, like, contribute in the war that’s going on. That training includes a lot of fighting and showing off of his naked torso in what would be a pretty blatant display of toxic masculinity, if the entire point of the song wasn’t how you do NOT have to conform to that standard to succeed.

No, really. The people we follow through their training don’t get magically buff and sexy at the end of it when they do succeed at their tasks. They’re still a rather slender woman, a fat guy, a scrawny guy, and a comically short guy – each and every one of them far, far away from the ideal embodied by Shang. In fact, Mulan’s success at this is entirely based on subverting the buff macho guy requirement to get to the arrow and doing it with her smarts instead.

Well. And I’d be remiss not to at least mention the context in which the song is reprised in the end.

Side note: Not only does this movie feature a Disney Princess killing a few thousand people, it also mentions that the Emperor has concubines.

Alright, last song! “A Girl Worth Fighting For” – a crowd song, sung by the entire army except for Shang for some reason, in which we discover that all Mulan would have had to do to be a girl men will gladly go to war for is worship everything he does.

No, really. “Honor To Us All” gives us a list of what men want (“girls with good taste, calm, obedient, who work fast paced, with good breeding, and a tiny waist”), yet when the men get to talk, they mention looks in one line, and cooking in another, and everything else is about how they just want a girl who is readily available to tell them how great they are.

That doesn’t exactly change the fact that this is basically Locker Room Talk – The Song, and that Mulan is visibly uncomfortable during it all. She even tries to make a non-superficial point (“How about a girl who’s got a brain/Who always speaks her mind?”) that is immediately shot down.

Hell, this song isn’t even used to make cute points or something and have Shang throw meaningful glances at someone. The song itself is fun, but not endorsed by the narrative, not framed as cute or anything. The point is literally that groups of dudes objectify women and that that’s not good. And they get so distracted by that they just walk straight into the burnt down village. I’m going to quote Lindsay here:

“We were too busy being outrageously horny to see the smoking red sky of decimation in the distance!”

So, what. Is my point possibly that this movie might have a feminist agenda?  I mean, in a way, yes, that is the point I’m making, but that in and of itself is basically the lowest hanging fruit imaginable. I mean, the movie could just as well have been called “Baby’s Introduction to Feminism”. That a movie about a woman infiltrating the army to prove herself in a male-dominated field and become the biggest war hero of her country has feminist ambitions is pretty much the lowest bar to clear with that kind of story.

But what stood out to me relates back to basic structure given to any Disney movie by the songs. On paper, this seems to be a movie about the war with the Huns. But that’s not what any song is about, really. “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” mentions them twice, but is ultimately about subverting toxic masculinity while still superficially conforming.

The real point is how she got that sword

No, instead, I’d argue, every single song in this movie, all four of them, are the villain song. And the villain is the patriarchy.

A patriarchy, by the way, that is only ever enforced by the good guys – when Shan Yu recognizes Mulan, he isn’t offended that he was bested by a woman, he just goes like oh, you’re that one soldier. Even though pointing that out would have been completely in-tune with the theme!

But nope. Her gender and inability to conform to the role assigned to it is never used against Mulan by who the real villains are supposed to be. That’s only ever relevant with the “good guys”.

“Honor To Us All” outlines the box a woman is supposed to fit into under the patriarchy. They even go as far as name-dropping the while “A woman’s war is in the birthing bed” sentiment.

“We all must serve our emperor/Who guards us from the Huns
A man by bearing arms/A girl by bearing sons”

And it’s technically benevolent women perpetrating these views here. The only person in that entire sequence we’re not supposed to be sympathetic towards is the Matchmaker, who is an personification of the system at work, really. Mulan’s mother and grandmother aren’t framed as bad people for trying to make Mulan fit in here; there just is no apparent alternative for anyone.

Which, you know, is basically how most forms of casual, everyday sexism work.

When Mulan, ha ha, reflects upon her situation in the next song, she, too, doesn’t really see fault with the system, but with herself. She’s what’s wrong here, not the expectation she can’t fulfill. It’s a depiction of how internalized misogyny makes you think about yourself.

And when she then succeeds during “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” it is not even by conforming to masculinity any more than her basic cover requires her to. It’s by subverting the toxically masculine expectations, and making it through based on nothing but her intelligence.

By the way, I’m pretty sure Mulan would be one of, if not the, smartest Disney Princess in the Canon. Belle is book smart, Mulan is great with strategical thinking, and it is always what gets her out of trouble. A completely gender neutral quality, even!

And, well, “A Girl Worth Fighting For” is in so many ways the answer to “Honor To Us All”, showing what happens in a society where a woman’s greatest value is supposed to be looking like a perfect porcelain doll.

So that’s songs about the patriarchy, patriarchy brain, and what it does to people, toxic masculinity and how it is completely unnecessary to get shit done, and objectification. And these things are given more screentime than the actual war with the Huns. In a kid’s movie! That is almost 20 years old by now!

I’m sorry, I just love this movie a lot. It doesn’t quite stick the landing since at the end of it all, Mulan gets to overcome the system without changing it for anyone but her, and her turning down that council position is really, really undermining basically all the good work done until that point. The movie also never really explicitly challenges the whole “Be A Man” thing, outside of the crossdressing scene, and no one is really called out for the objectification song, but I’m still just impressed that we even got a song that showcased objectification, and how it makes the female protagonist uncomfortable.

And also, she ends up with the one dude who didn’t get a line in that song. Or was even present during it at all. So… Depiction vs. Endorsement?

We all have this grandma

At the end of it all, how much of this was actually intentional is… Questionable. But it’s, again, not not there, and that makes me happy.

And we all should just be happy about this movie while we still can without also thinking about whatever Alex “the sex became consensual” Graves is going to do with that live action version he’s directing at the moment. Yes, I know it’s an adaptation of the original ballad and not the Disney movie per se, but the Disney movie is what most people in the Western world think about first when they hear “Mulan,” and while that, you know, sucks, since it’s a Western retelling of a Chinese tale, at least it’s a good movie for the most part, and does no harm, which is not something I’m expecting from whatever Alex Graves is doing. Oh well.

If someone funds the required booze for it, try asking me about Mulan 2 some time.

Images courtesy of Disney

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