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Gender ideology has always been a hotly debated topic throughout the last decades. Gender ideology refers to attitudes regarding the appropriate roles, rights, and responsibilities of women and men in society. These attitudes can be reflected through specific domain, such as political, economic, familial, or social domain. For example, traditional gender ideology regarding the family holds the expectation that women should perform the role of housewives and pursue feminine characteristics while men have to fulfil their role of supporting the family and obtain masculine traits. In other words, gender ideology is a reference to societal beliefs that legitimate gender inequality. According to Lorber (1994), gender ideology is defined as “the justification of gender statuses, particularly, their differential evaluation. The dominant ideology tends to suppress criticism by making these evaluations seem natural.” However, throughout the years, the attitudes have transitioned from being conservative to liberal. This can be shown through the progression in movies that reflect gender bending and governments’ adjustment on the law regarding gender equality in official documents. But is it really true that the gender ideology is now transformed into a mindset that support gender equality, or is it still retained with the old, traditional mindset of favoring masculinity over feminism?
In 1998, Mulan is released as an animated action movie by Walt Disney Pictures. Differ from any movies produced by Disney, Mulan is widely known as progressive in Disney traditional animation studio. Mulan is a movie based on a Chinese tale about a teenage girl named Hua Mulan who sacrifices to go to battlefield to fight against the Huns in replace to her old, feeble father. She masks herself as a man to be qualified for becoming a soldier, steals the family sword and seeks aid from the family ancestors for support during her journey. From the beginning, she is demanded by her family to marry a man who the matchmaker selects for her through their short and narrow interview for man preference. She is taught to behave in a feminine way and perform the tasks of traditional housewives to prepare for her marriage. Her famous quote from the movie “When will my reflection show who I am inside” is regarded as a statement for feminism. The tale of Mulan is a rare yet powerful image for women empowerment as in ancient time, women is not allowed to follow their heart and their dream. The characteristics of Mulan is described through different phases. In the beginning, she is a girl who wants to make her family proud of her achievement. However, she fails her parents’ expectation: being obedient towards arranged marriage. Later in the movie, Mulan shows her masculine side when joining the army. Through failures and challenges, she manages to be identified as a brave soldier and performs her role excellently in the army. No matter how much effort the filmmakers put into portraying a character that goes against the traditional expectation of gender roles, Mulan still seems to reinforce the gender stereotypes that praise the value of men over women.
First and foremost, in Mulan, women stereotypes are reinforced. Throughout the movie, women are portrayed as weak and vulnerable while men are described as strong, intelligent and honorable. In an argument between Shang and Chi-Fu, in respond to Shang’s saying that Mulan is a hero, Chi-Fu says: “She’s a woman! She’ll never worth anything!” (Mulan 1998). In the scene which Mulan is preparing to see the matchmaker who will arrange her marriage, the song “You’ll bring honor to us all” is sang as an evidence that shows the only way women can bring honor to their families is by becoming a good wife: knowing how to serve their husbands with grace and obedience. It might seem like Mulan does bring honor to her family by fighting in the war and save the country. However, she is seen as a hero and admired when she is disguised as a man, but not when she is being her true gender. In the song “A Girl Worth Fighting For”, the traits that people value in are once again reinforced. To be “worth fighting for”, a woman should be beautiful “paler than the moon with eyes that shine like stars” and be a good cook “it all depends on what she cooks like” (Mulan 1998). The main character, Mulan, holds strong opinion of a strong independent girl: “How ‘bout a girl who’s got a brain/ Who always speaks her mind?” (Mulan 1998). The men respond to her thought with disgust with a solid “NAH!”. This shows how society still only value women who fit the traits that they expect: being beautiful, being a good cook and most importantly being able to push their men’s ego. The men in this scene do not seem to care about women’s intelligence, their thoughts and feelings, instead, they only look for housewives and girls that “will marvel at [their] strength, adore [their] battle scars” (Mulan 1998). Intelligence and education seem to be solely pursued by man; women with those traits are useless and instead they should become great housewives in order to elevate their value.
Secondly, Mulan also reinforces the idea that masculinity traits are honorable. In the song “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You”, the lyrics, “Let’s get down to business, to defeat the Huns. Did they send me daughters, when I asked for sons?” shows the stereotypes that male is the only gender that should be fighting honorably and contribute to the country’s success. The phrase “make a man” indicates the goal of Captain Shang is to train people into “men” who has the strength, power and intelligence to be worthy to fight. The lyric “Be a man” is repeated as a way to emphasize the power of men that women seem to never have. Feminine traits are not acceptable during war and to be accepted to the army, Mulan has to transform herself into a man and pursue masculine traits to be considered “worthy”. In another scene, Mulan’s male friends dress up as females and flirt with the Huns to save the Emperor. This devalues women in some way as they are used as a mean to attract the army by flirting but not by their intelligence or physical strength. In those scenes, the masculine qualities are portrayed to be superior to feminine ones, which conflicts with the intention of promoting feminism through the movie.
Last but not least, Mulan proves that the gender roles and gender stereotypes are resilient. Having saved the Emperor, Mulan is offered an honorable job in the kingdom, but as a man. This shows that important roles are still expected to be performed and awarded to men. Mulan, instead of breaking the glass ceiling, returns to the household and performs the role of an obedient daughter. Her decision shows no matter how courageous a woman is when she plays the part of a hero, in the end, everything should be back in place as society’s expectation. Women become wives, take care of the family, raise kids and accept their private realm. Mulan saved the whole country, but that does not bring honor to her family. What solely brings honor to her family is to become a bride, as her grandmother says, “Great, she brought home a sword. If you ask me she should have brought home a man” (Mulan 1998). The ending of Mulan shows women can only perform heroic and honorable roles under the mask of men. No matter how intelligent and brave they are, their final destination is to return to home and become a housewife.
In conclusion, although Mulan is different from other Disney’s movies where female leads are portrayed as passive and victims who wait for their heroes to come, Mulan is unable to break the gender ideology that persist in society’s perception. Males are still regarded as superior to females. Masculinity comes with heroism and honor while feminine traits are only valued in terms of beauty and household skills but not mind and intelligence. Despite trying to promote feminism, Mulan is not yet able to break free from traditional gender stereotypes.
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