Mulan: a reflection on gender constructs

In the 6th lecture, it was covered that gender and sexuality are ultimately social and cultural constructs. They are classifications that appear to help us make sense of the world. However, they have also created stereotypes and perpetuated the idea of what it normal and what is not, creating communities of marginalized people or minorities. In actuality, it is in our everyday lives, I feel, that we experience and live with people and environments that constantly break, change, shape and redefine these social and cultural boundaries.

As this subject was raised, one familiar Disney character came into my mind, and that was none other than Mulan. The Disney film itself could in fact have been material for a gender studies class. It is full of gender stereotypes yet the idea behind the whole film questions these stereotypes. In the film, Mulan seems to overcome the stereotypes as she ultimately prevents the the antagonist’s assassination of the Emperor. Even though she was thrown out of the army when her female identity was discovered, she proved that she could perform the ‘masculine’ tasks that were deemed unfit with her gender, foil the antagonist’s plans and save the Emperor’s life.

3 points stick out to me from the movie. Firstly, Why does Mulan’s disobedience of the gender rules seem to be forgiven and overlooked to the audience? In the beginning of the movie, Mulan’s mum, grandmother and 2 servants teach her how to behave appropriately as a lady in order to honour her family to the song “Honour to us all”. The audience is thus shown how ‘honour to the family’, as a societal value plays out as a gendered cultural elaboration as Mulan is taught to look neat and pretty and walk in a dainty manner. However, the fact that she decided ultimately to become a boy and replace her father seemed to suggest that perhaps these ‘rules of being a lady’ were merely expectations and practices held by her family and society which meant these rules were flexible in some aspects. What then, are the circumstances and qualifiers that allow us to break these social norms? In Mulan’s case, filial piety to her father, honour for her family (and ultimately, saving the city) seem to justify her actions.

Another example might be single mothers. While there are critics that doubt that the mother can replace the ‘father figure’ role entirely, generally, they do not object to a mother that does not seek a father figure for her child but tries to fill both roles. In addition, there are several success stories of children with single parents that felt that their single mother/father had raised them well and supported the family. They expressed no longing for the upbringing of the other parent who was absent in their lives. In this case, it seems there are instances where gender roles overlap without issue.

Secondly, does Mulan’s dismissal from the military reflect some truths regarding gender stereotypes in our society? Despite proving that she is well capable of performing the duties of a competent soldier, the army almost wanted to execute her when they discovered her identity as a woman. Are rules based on gender stereotypes sufficiently reviewed or still hold relevant in today’s world? After all, they are constructs defined by society and are never permanent.
A parallel to Mulan’s forced exit from the army due to her sex would be Singapore’s non-inclusion of single parents in policies such as maternity benefits and tax relief. Such a stand perpetuates the government’s opinion that single parent families are ‘incomplete’ and less functional. In this case, we see that societal norms and constructs can be influenced by government policies as well. With a growing number of single parent families in Singapore, it might not be the case that these regulations are not reviewed regularly enough but rather, the Singapore’s government’s authority in policy making which allows them to choose a view of family and gender roles. However, growing research which shows the success of single parent families has caused us to begin questioning if holding on to a conventional view of the family unit is in need of being revised.

Lastly, it is heartening to see Mulan’s 3 friends from the military, Yao, Ling and Chien Po gain acceptance of her and aid her in foiling the enemy’s plans. While these 3 friends represent an ultimate subscription to gender stereotypes and roles (they try to portray an image of the strong, fearless, competent and confident male but often proving otherwise), they accepted Mulan in the end and gave her even more respect as a female who achieved what was expected of a male. Perhaps this sheds light on the fact that gender roles and stereotypes can be succumbed in the presence of other values or conditions; that they are dependent as much on the society as the individual. This tells us that we each have an opinion that is worth expressing regarding gender roles and stereotypes which is as important as society’s version and these rules are ultimately up to us to define.
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The Online Citizen. (2012, April 13). A question of fairness. Retrieved October 15, 2012, from The Online Citizen:

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