Disney’s “Mulan” is one of my favorite movies of all time. It is coming out of “The Vault” for its 15th anniversary. Here, I will explore one of the most poignant themes of this powerful film.
Warning: There are spoilers for Disney’s Mulan in the following discussion
Mulan and Cultural Expectations
Mulan is a warrior. She is powerful, capable, and determined.
Oh, and I forgot: she is a woman.
It is that “shocking” pronouncement which is the focus of the Disney’s Mulan, which is one of the deepest films in Disney’s arsenal, so far as I’m concerned. Mulan is a woman who wants to be respected for her abilities, not placed into the mold of what society expects women to be.
Mulan is challenged at numerous points throughout the movie. She does not fit into her society’s gender ideals. She is expected to be clean, quiet, submissive, and “womanly.” And she tries to fit into these expectations. The culture wants her to be a good wife, so she tries to match what her culture’s idea is in order to become a good wife. Those who have seen the movie knows she fails miserably. When she visits the matchmaker, she recites, in a stumbling way, the right sayings: “Fulfill your duties, calmly and respectively. Reflect before you… Act!” She lacks grace, poise, and ultimately ends up comically ruining the whole scene, setting the matchmaker on fire and dousing that fire with hot tea, running the matchmaker’s makeup and earning the pronouncement that she will never fit society’s expectations for her.
Yet this reveals another cultural shock: it is the very fact that Mulan is placed into a one-size-fits-all box to take on roles which do not match her abilities that leads to her triumph. It is not that she should be trying harder, or that she is wrong; instead, the fact is that it is her culture’s expectations which are wrong. Mulan destroys those expectations. She saves China, and the Emperor himself honors her. Thus, the expectations are shattered, and Mulan remains “true to herself.” Her abilities destroyed the cultural norms that people had tried to apply to her.
“So what!?” you may be asking. “I already knew this, though I may not have outlined it like this.” After all, telling women to be submissive and arguing that there are very specific roles that they should fit into is a thing of the past.
Have you never heard the phrase “she wears the pants in that family”? That speaks to a division of roles that is still at least unconsciously acknowledged in our culture. What about “make me a sandwich” or “get in the kitchen”? What of more subtle distinctions? “I would never vote for a woman president.” “A man is in charge of the family.”
Moreover, some theological traditions continue to argue that there are very explicit roles for man and woman in leadership and the home. It is to that concept that we will turn to, with a focus on Mulan.
Mulan and Theology
The shock of Mulan’s story may seem almost comical to us, but the fact remains that there are women whose talents are not being acknowledged. They do not fit the mold. It is said within some branches of contemporary theology that women are to submit to their husbands. These theologians teach that women have very specific roles: that of “helper,” servant, or anything but “leader” or “teacher.” According to these views, women can teach other women and even male children, but when it comes to man, she is always subordinate. Consider the following passage, from a book endorsing this view (“Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood“):
[I]t is simply impossible that from time to time a woman not be put in a position of influencing or guiding men. For example, a housewife in her backyard may be asked by a man how to get to the freeway. At that point she is giving a kind of leadership… But we all know that there is a way for that housewife to direct the man that neither of them feels their mature femininity or masculinity compromised. (John Piper, 50, cited below)
Moreover, women, on this view, must be careful about how they give their advice; they must remember that they are to be submissive:
A wife who ‘comes on strong’ with her advice will probably drive a husband into passive silence, or into active anger (Ibid, 52)
I can’t help but think of the scene from Mulan just before she saves the Emperor when she is trying to get people to listen to her about the great danger of the Huns in the Imperial City. They pull away from her forcibly, ignoring what she says. Finally, her trusty sidekick, Mushu, points out that “You’re a woman.”
Such is the way in which manhood and womanhood is supposed to play out within those branches of contemporary theology which lean towards complementarianism–the view that men and women are to occupy different “roles” in the church and the home. Women are to be submissive, even when they try to give directions to a man. Mulan, in this view, perhaps came on “too strong” in her insistence that the Emperor was in danger. If she had only been more submissive, then she would not have provoked “passive silence” or “active anger.”
The absurdity of this notion can be found in the fact that it is the victim who is blamed for the abuse. “Passive silence” can be just as harmful as “active anger.” Is it really acceptable to say that a woman, by offering advice, “provokes” the man? Moreover, is it really honorable to men to turn us into seething machines, who, if the right button is pressed, turn into active aggressors or passively-aggressive “victims”? Again, the movie “Mulan” has presented a more balanced approach: there are women who transcend society’s–and religion’s–expectations.
There are Mulans among us. There are women who challenge this perceived view of manhood and womanhood. There are women who are gifted greatly to be leaders, not followers. There are women with the gift of teaching. There are women whose very existence shatters the notion that woman’s role is to be submissive. Their talents and abilities call us to use them, not to force them to singular submission. The Bible calls us to mutual submission, not a singular silence from one gender. These Mulans are powerful missionaries, leaders, teachers, yes, even pastors: gifted and called by God to take on roles that their cultural milieu often wants to deny to them.
I pray that more of these women would arise and use their gifts for the church. Many women have already done so, but our church’s culture has too often tried to silence women. Instead, we need to acknowledge the Mulans we know.
Check the links below for more discussions of women and the church. For all my posts on the topic, check out my egalitarianism category (scroll down for more posts).
For information on egalitarianism–the view that the Bible teaches us women and men should fill equal roles–check out “Christians for Biblical Equality.”
Women in the Ministry: The philosophy of equality and why complementarianism fails– I argue that the position in which women are excluded from church leadership entails inequality of being.
Book Review: “Good News for Women” by Rebecca Groothuis– I review an excellent book on the issue of gender equality in the Bible.
Religious Dialogue: A case study in science fiction with Bova and Weber– I take a look at how science fiction has dealt with theological topics, with a particular focus on dialogue about religion and women.
I discuss the notion of having my expectations of women shattered here.
John Piper, “A Vision of Biblical Complementarity: Manhood and Womanhood defined According to the Bible” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem, 31-59 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006). There is a newer edition which is linked to in this post and citation.
Mulan– Disney, 1998.
The image used in this post is credited to the Mulan Facebook page.
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