December 3, 2010

In which I take Mulan a little too seriously

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When I get stressed out, I like to indulge in the things that I couldn't get enough of as a kid. I color. I draw spirographs. I eat bigsquare crackers (as my family still calls them). And recently, I watched Mulan again.

Mulan came out when I was nine, and I watched it obsessively as a kid. Since realising I am trans I've been joking that it should've been a hint that the only "Disney princess" I ever identified with spent half her time as a man. But I haven't actually seen it since coming to my epiphany, and... well, I cried. A lot. But mostly in the good way.

I think Mulan might be the perfect movie for gender-non-conforming kids whose families expect them to be girls. Let me tell you what I see when I watch Mulan.

First, this montage is pretty much about drag for me:

In my mind, much of femininity (like masculinity) consists of a performance, and this sequence highlights that. (I'm trying to draw a distinction here between gender and gender expression. It's the latter that involves the most social construction.) For a lot people the performance comes naturally, feels congruent, and is even enjoyable-- if this is how you feel about the gender you were assigned at birth, congratulations, you're cisgendered! It probably doesn't even feel like a performance to you. I still feel like many of my gendered actions (like my choice in clothes) are performative, but because they feel congruent now, I simply feel like I am expressing my gender, rather than going around in drag.

Mulan, here and elsewhere in the movie, is pretty unhappy about having to perform femininity, and it seems clear to me that it's not really an expression of who she is. Which is why, to me, the montage is about drag.

In the next sequence, with the matchmaker, it becomes clear that Mulan isn't just uncomfortable with femininity-- she is a big failure at it.

I always really empathized with Mulan here, as a kid. She is trying so hard! It just doesn't come naturally to her, so she fails, fails, fails. Just like I always did. The clumsiness is particularly familiar to me-- I am incredibly clumsy, and nowadays I attribute it to my fundamental discomfort with my body. I bump my too-large hips into corners and doorways, and I actually knock things off my desk with my breasts with embarrassing regularity. It's hard to be graceful when you're fundamentally uncomfortable in your own skin.

And now, for the song that makes me cry every single time I hear it:

Seriously. Those lyrics. Literally every single line deserves to be quoted, as the narrative of a young transboy's coming out:

Look at me.
I will never pass for a perfect bride
Or a perfect daughter.
Can it be
I'm not meant to play this part?
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?

Yeah, I choked up just typing that. I was going to say something about the vocabulary-- passing as a daughter, playing the part, etc.-- but it's too close to my heart for an English-class close reading. This was the song my heart sang for ten years. It speaks for itself.

The best part of Mulan, though, is that it offers hope. Mulan's father tells her to learn her place, and she goes, "Okay, you know what my place is? The fucking army." And... she does it! Ping becomes a fucking war hero! Ping succeeds at masculinity just as much as Mulan originally failed at femininity. Sure, it's a little rough at first, but it's rough for all the men, and the movie explains how to get better:

Isn't that, like, the least-toxic definition of How To Be A Man that you've ever seen? This song is the song of my heart right now. Swift as a river, force of a typhoon, strength of a fire, mysterious as the moon. Gotcha. I can do that!

The parts where Ping is in the army are my favourites of the whole movie, because they just make me so happy. I always feel that I am watching the story of Ping, as he embraces his identity and kicks ass. That moment when all his friends cheer on the snowy mountaintop, after he has saved the army, the country, and his boyfriend-- it's such a perfect crowning moment.

Except, of course, for the fact that the movie keeps going. Here is where I begin to feel conflicted. The story requires Ping to become Mulan again. It always breaks my heart, just like Christine Daniels' transition back to Mike Penner. I just can't understand how Ping can go back. I mean, I definitely understand the societal pressures, and once Ping has been outed he doesn't exactly have a lot of options, but-- how can I accept this as the best possible ending for him?

Mulan gets everything I wanted as a kid. She gets to hug the emperor and she gets to hug her dad, and they love her. She gets the guy, and he loves her. But she only gets the happy ending because she puts the dress back on. Can't people love me when I am myself?

Like with the reflection song, I lose my facility with words at this point. So I am moving on.

This scene is super gratuitous in the movie-- seriously, they didn't have to get all dressed up just to climb those pillars, as Shang himself demonstrates-- and so my inclusion of the clip is also gratuitous:

I particularly like the reprise of the "Be A Man" song. Sure, maybe for most people it's seen as ironic-- but to me, it's saying that maybe "being a man" can include wearing dresses just for fun.

So maybe the movie doesn't give us a perfect transgender narrative-- but it does seem to imagine a radical re-definition of how we understand gender expression, and I think that can be enough. If nothing else, I am glad to have had this:

A montage that makes transitioning look epic. With swords! Everything a nine-year-old needs.


  1. Also: the Mulan sing-a-long at Griffith is TONIGHT, at midnight! I am 100% going to be there, so I hope I see you, too! I'll be the short dude who is bawling his eyes out.

  2. Ahhhh! I see the last video as so, so inspirational. Just the idea of being courageous enough to live exactly as who you are. SO GOOD. Thanks for sharing these. =)

  3. Gah! I LOVE this!!!!!

    I wish I could be there tonight but I'm in typing up a paper...

    Mulan=Absolutely Fantastic and this post kind of made my night. Thanks Lawrence!

  4. Mulan was always my favorite Disney movie.

    "Make a man out of you" is the best Disney sound. Period.

    I never thought about Mulan like this...

  5. I really wish they make a mulan 3, mulan was my absolute favorite movie when it ended i cried my eyes out lion king was good too but mulan was better in my opinion. It was the perfect mix of inspiration and humor it inspired me to live my life to the fullest =C

  6. Me too! Everything you've said is just a giant me too! Other than the trans boy bit. I'm agender, which everyone just takes as "you're not *insert opposite well-known gender here*? Well surely you can just pretend to be the one we expect you to be!" It's not like non-gendered people can get dysphoric too :/