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).
Be sure to check out my looks at other movies. If you like Mulan, what about Brave?
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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Thanks very much for your blog. it ministered to me. One of the the reasons I started blogging is that there is no room in the church I attend for women (except the pastor’s wives) to teach anyone but children. So its great to have a blog and the freedom to express my thoughts. Hopefully someone will be touched and blessed. God bless you!
Thank you for sharing your own struggles. Praise God for your work and your willingness to stand up and work towards giving women a voice.
Thank you J.W. I’m going to see Mulan again! Yes, I totally relate to her character as well. Thanks for this post.
Thanks for your kind words! I love the movie, and I think it really speaks to the issue of gender equality.
Let me leave you with my two cents, one cent at a time. Penny one: I liked the movie, but I disagree with you on the husband/wife thing. And fortunately for me, my wife does, too. We have our own marital roles, it’s just I’m more likely to burn mine. Penny two: my little girl, Haley, desires to be the first female Navy S.E.A.L. I am not going to try to stop her, either. She is girly-girl through and through (loves pink, shiny dresses, and makeup), but she can play ball, shoot, loves knives, and takes martial arts in an adult class (she’s 12). As a matter of fact, she was late to ball practice because her knife-fighting class went long. God made men and women different for reasons beyond sexual function, but He did not limit us, either.
Maybe that was 2.5 cents.
I should note I’m not saying that men and women are exactly the same. My point is that we are equal.
Well, I would disagree with you there, too. My wife is better than me.
Mulan reminds me of Esther who took leadership when the men failed. I think there is indeed some amazing women of God out there. Though I do not think traditional manhood and womanhood to be a curse, it seems to me that a good deal of people operate within those norms by their natural inclinations. There are of course exceptions and I do not think we should discourage them, but just like Paul’s celibacy, it’s not something that every woman is capable of doing. So I think we should recognize the inherently complementary nature of marriage in most circumstances, but not discount those other marriages where woman take charge because the male lacks such qualities. We all have leaders all throughout our society from our political government to companies and to our families, it’s not a crime to have a leader in the family. It is a crime, however, to silence a woman and treat them as if they have no authority to offer advice. That’s just nonsense. So I’m sympathetic to your view, I just don’t want to go too far in bashing the traditional way either.
Thank you for bringing up Esther; she along with several other Biblical women were the Mulans of their time (since she is the character under discussion here), yet I disagree with your comment about “natural inclination.” I would instead present the idea of “societal expectations.” It is the society in which we are raised that molds those “inclinations.” What you are calling “natural” is simply the behavior expected of a woman by society. If that same person were to exhibit that same behavior in a different society, there would be nothing “natural” about it. This is, I think, the point that J.W. is making. Our societal mindset is still molded from a male-dominated perspective, just as Mulan’s was and as such, it is still creating inequities towards women. It wasn’t too many centuries ago that a male of peasant standing could repeat a phrase until he was blue in the face and be completely ignored (no matter how respectfully he presented it), yet if a knight repeated word-for-word the same phrase, those words would all of a sudden carry weight simply because a man of noble blood said them. We readily acknowledge that class-bigotry as an inequity, yet too many people still today refuse to see that the same inequity exists toward women. We toss it off as “natural inclinations” or the “female role”…far less threatening to our worldview.
Thank you for mentioning Esther. She came to mind as I read this too. I do, though, disagree with your use of the phrase “natural inclinations.” These are rather societal expectations placed upon women…and men. Society has molded and formed each of us to the point that we label these expectations as “natural.” Yet if that same woman (or man, for that matter) displayed that same behavior in a different society, there would be nothing “natural” about it, and she (or he) would be ridiculed for it. It wasn’t too many centuries ago that class-bigotry was considered natural: if a peasant expressed an opinion, no matter how respectfully, he would be ignored by the majority, yet if a lord repeated word-for-word what the peasant had said, his words would carry weight. Keep in mind, I am not talking about orders or suggestions as the lord, with his powerful clout, would have fear to motivate listening. But rather a simply opinion. We look at this and easily see the class-bigotry and say it is wrong. Yet we are blind to the same thing happening to a woman. Instead we ridicule her for stepping outside of her role, for discarding a woman’s “natural inclinations,” and for forgetting her place just as the crowds did to Mulan when she brought them truth about the danger to the emperor. There is nothing wrong with traditions until we allow those traditions bind us like law and refuse to acknowledge that sometimes the best leader may naturally be a woman.