For those of you that don’t know, Mulan is the leading lady of the 1998 Disney film, Mulan. Based on an old Chinese legend, the plot follows a young girl whose elderly father is conscripted into the Chinese army – so she takes his place, kicks some butt and ends up saving China from the fictional equivalent of Genghis Khan. The film was a critical success, spawning endless merchandise and the obligatory terrible direct-to-video sequel, and Mulan herself was at the centre of all this.
But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out GET DOWN TO BUSINESS!
Watch out for spoilers!
NOTE: I will be basing my review on the Disney movie, not the original Chinese legend, as I’m much more familiar with this. I’m aware that the two are very different, though, so I may choose to look at the legend in a separate post some point in the future.
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
Mulan is in control of her own destiny. Instead of letting her father fight she disguises herself as a man and takes his place, but even once she’s in the army she doesn’t just follow orders. She’s constantly using her brains to try and take control of her life and the lives of others, whether that’s by dropping an avalanche on Genghis Khan Shan Yu or saving the Chinese Emperor’s life.
SCORE SO FAR: 1
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
We don’t hear much about Mulan’s hobbies but we do know what she doesn’t like: the kind of ladylike restrictions she’s forced to adhere to before she runs off to join the army. Her beliefs and goals are much clearer. She believes in the importance of family, even above the laws of China and decrees of the Emperor, and clearly doesn’t set a lot of store by gender roles. Her goals are to stop her father from fighting, survive in the Chinese army and to stop the Huns from taking over, not necessarily in that order.
SCORE SO FAR: 2
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
Mulan is a very consistent character. She’s brave, determined, intelligent, adapts very easily and is a little unconventional. We also see her skills develop, as she goes from bumbling idiot to a soldier to be reckoned with.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
A brave, determined young woman disguises herself as a man and enlists in the Chinese army to protect her family.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
Mulan doesn’t really have much of a love life. She has a massive crush on Captain Shang –
– but it’s a subtle one, played more for laughs than romantic drama. It doesn’t affect a lot of her decisions, which are more influenced by her desire to save China. Of course, this isn’t the case in the sequel, which is more explicitly about Mulan and Shang’s relationship, but even then it doesn’t influence too many of her decisions. I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 5
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Mulan doesn’t really develop much over the course of the story. Her overall arc in the film is more about staying true to herself and learning to accept her identity, so in this light it’s easy to see character change as a bad thing. Of course you could argue that Mulan learns to accept herself for who she really is, but when you see her at the beginning of the film she seems to be pretty comfortable with herself already. I’m withholding the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 5
- Does she have a weakness?
Mulan doesn’t have many weaknesses, but she does have a few. She’s a terrible liar, which is a serious drawback when she’s disguising herself as a man, and she’s also somewhat reckless, which puts her in real danger more than once. I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 6
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
Mulan is a huge influence on the plot. Whether she’s sneaking into the Chinese army, blowing up a mountain or kicking Shan Yu in the face, Mulan drives the plot forward at every turn.
SCORE SO FAR: 7
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
Mulan is very progressive when it comes to gender stereotypes. She’s an unconventional young woman who dresses as a man to join the Chinese army – you can’t exactly do that while acting like a delicate little flower.
She does fit into some of the stereotypes that I discussed in my post about Eowyn – namely, the idea that warrior women only join up because they have to, and they give it up at the first opportunity. But even then she doesn’t fit in with all of them. She does join up because it’s the only way to stop her father being drafted, but she doesn’t give it up at the first opportunity – while she does walk away from a cushy government job at the end of the first film, in the sequel she’s still a badass warrior.
SCORE SO FAR: 8
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Mulan has quite a few relationships with other female characters, particularly if you count the sequel. She’s close with both her mother and grandmother, although it seems like her grandmother is more supportive. She clearly feels like she doesn’t fit in with the rest of the girls in her village and antagonises the matchmaker, despite her best efforts to cheat her way through the meeting. In the sequel she befriends three princesses and helps them escape an arranged marriage, and is idolised by many of the young girls in her village. That’s plenty of relationships, so she definitely passes this round.
FINAL SCORE: 9/10
Mulan is a well-rounded character who’s in control of her own destiny, isn’t dependent on gender stereotypes and has a set of clearly defined strengths, weaknesses, goals and beliefs. She may not develop all that much but that definitely isn’t enough to stop her from passing my test.
Next week, I’ll be looking at another American classic – Gone With the Wind. Scarlett O’Hara, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.