One of the greatest Disney movies in history is Mulan (1998), a story about how drag saves China.
Toward the end of the film, Mulan dresses up her friends (one of whom is voiced by Broadway star Harvey Fierstein) as female concubines to infiltrate a palace swarming with Huns. Said Huns underestimate them and are completely surprised by the ambush.
But a young drag king protecting China’s fate from Hun occupation isn’t the only reason the movie is so beloved.
Disney’s Mulan, interpreted from a sixth-century Chinese war ballad, tells the story of a girl who wants to bring honor to her family and protect her ailing father by pretending to be a man and joining the Chinese army.
In a country that’s historically been portrayed as valuing the lives of its boys over its girls, Mulan’s defiance is extremely powerful. Mulan is Disney’s love letter to young girls, particularly girls of Asian descent, telling them they could both be princesses (while Mulan is not royalty, she is considered, erroneously, a Disney “princess”) and also save themselves.
The 1998 version of Mulan tells this story with plenty of humor and song. Its soundtrack contains two of the greatest Disney songs ever made: “Reflection” and “I’ll Make a Man Out of You.” Either one could make for a dramatic figure skating routine or convince one to crush a mountain with their bare hands.
Mulan was a successful entrant into the Disney animated canon, and it was also a landmark triumph of representation. It showed that there’s a space in this world of fairytales and fantasies for Asian people. It showed that we can be the architects and stars of our own stories.
And to a teenager hiding in the deepest corner of the closet, this movie about how drag saved China was so meaningful and important. There is no Disney film I think about now, as a 37-year-old gay man, with more affection, gratitude, and respect than Mulan.
On Friday, Mulan will enjoy a second life as a live-action Disney remake, making now as good a time as any to remember what makes Mulan such a transformative story about who we are, who we see ourselves to be, and the struggle of finding out who that is.
How Mulan made me realize what representation feels like
Growing up, my parents didn’t believe in putting a cap on the amount of time we spent in front of a television or screen. My parents are immigrants, and I think some of their choice to let us watch TV as long as we wanted was intentional. Television shows and movies were a way for us to learn about American life, through Sesame Street, The Facts of Life, Star Wars, The Price is Right, and commercials for Gorton’s fish sticks.
Disney’s animated movies were part of that learning.
The first movie I ever saw in theaters was Snow White in 1987; I closed my eyes during the scary ending. Around the same time, I had watched Sleeping Beauty so many times — the scene where Fauna uses magic to crack eggs, measure flour, and have a cake bake itself — that the Betamax tape wore out.
Years later, my dad gave my brother and me a lecture about how Ariel was a selfish idiot in 1989’s The Little Mermaid, a lecture prompted when I asked him to explain what “reprimand” meant. I also distinctly remember Beauty and the Beast disturbing me, because I thought the enchantress turning the prince’s servants into flatware and appliances was unfair. I still believe that those three wishes were wasted on Aladdin. And The Lion King made me feel bad that I didn’t listen to or respect my dad’s lecture about Ariel.
Disney awakened my imagination and empathy.
All those movies ask you to imagine yourself in the shoes of a failed inventor’s daughter, or a lion, or a street rat, or a cake-making fairy godmother and see the world through their eyes. Those characters all want something more, something better than the life they’ve been dealt — a life where they’re supposed to be anyone but themselves. And their happy endings are the assurance that there’s a world out there for the true you. For any kid, or anyone, that’s ever felt out of step, that’s nourishment.
Disney continued that thematic tradition when it released Mulan in 1998. I was in high school at that point, but not quite old enough to drive.
Mulan, the studio’s first Asian protagonist, looked like she could’ve been related to me. She was around my age. And because she wasn’t the perfect daughter — in this case, a woman who would be an obedient bride to a dignified, accomplished man — her parents were disappointed in her. Letting your parents down because you’re not what they envisioned you to be is something most teens, especially Asian American teens with Asian parents’ expectations placed on us, can relate to.
When I saw Mulan in theaters with my friends, the one thing I distinctly remember is feeling like I didn’t have to suspend disbelief that much to put myself in her shoes. I could just relax. In the conversation about what successful representation looks like, the best way I can describe it is not having to stretch and ply yourself to see yourself in a story. And I remember Mulan as one of the first times in the hundreds of movies movies and television shows I’d seen where I felt at ease like that.
How Mulan represents a coming out story and the power of drag
At the heart of most of Disney’s animated movies are a promise and a bargain. The promise is that this story will show the hero their real self, the person who they really are meant to be. The bargain is that if you, the viewer, buy into their story, you might find glimmers of your own purpose and the courage to pursue it.
The bargain isn’t that different from what you’d find in superhero stories or religious parables or any kind of story with a role model. Disney’s best characters reflect back to us our frustrations, our fears, our desires, and the who and what we would like to be.
It’s become clearer and clearer to me that Mulan’s story resonated with teenage me because of its queer allegory.
Mulan, by the end of her adventure, defeats the Huns, falls in love with a man who respects her (Mulan and Shang’s relationship is sometimes read as bisexual), and lives happily ever after. It’s not unlike the majority of Disney stories that end in marriage with a chunk of a monarchy. But so much of Mulan’s story, and even its seemingly neat end, is about not fitting into what’s asked of her.
The crux of Mulan is in its two major songs. The first is the soaring “Reflection.” It’s a classic “I Want” song that takes place toward the beginning of the film, after Mulan has bumbled her meeting with the neighborhood matchmaker. She’s still in makeup as she sings about not checking the boxes of being a perfect daughter. The song, sung by Lea Salonga in the movie (and by Christina Aguilera on the radio single), goes:
Why must we all conceal
What we think, how we feel?
Must there be a secret me
I’m forced to hide?
I won’t pretend that
I’m someone else for all time
When will my reflection show
Who I am inside?
For Mulan, the song is about her belief that there’s more to life than being a bride. She sings it to herself, looking back at her own face in the mirror — though she doesn’t seem to know who that person is inside either. The movie also doesn’t depict Mulan as having any friends her age; she’s alone.
It’s not difficult to see the queerness in “Reflection” — a reason that the song resonates with so many LGBTQ+ people. I look back now, and the queer reading may not have been plainly obvious to teenage, closeted me. But it’s right there in front of me now, upon re-watch, that “Reflection” functions as song about suppressing who you’re born as and the desires you’re born with. That suppression leads to isolation, and it’s a lot like the experience of living in the closet.
In an attempt to both find herself and protect her ailing father, Mulan joins the Chinese army — an overcorrection of sorts.
She begrudgingly befriends fellow recruits Yao, Ling, and Chien-Po. They’re all together in the movie’s other show-stopping number, “I’ll Make a Man Out of You.” Sang by hyper-masculine commander Shang, it’s about his disappointment in his brigade, and how he has to whip them into shape:
Let’s get down to business, to defeat the Huns
Did they send me daughters, when I asked for sons?
You’re the saddest bunch I ever met
But you can bet before we’re through
Mister, I’ll make a man out of you
The song plays over a montage of Mulan and her fellow soldiers’ failures. They trip and fall, and they’re terrible at plucking fish out of rivers. They’re bad at climbing. And the pendulum has swung the other way with the same result: Mulan is awful at pretending to be someone she’s not.
Pretending to be someone you’re not isn’t the better way to live, the movie says quite plainly.
At the end of the montage, Mulan figures out a way to do Shang’s impossible task — climbing a pole and retrieving an arrow while carrying weights on her arms — without being “as swift as the coursing river,” having the “force of the great typhoon,” or “possessing the “strength of the raging fire.”
She relies on her instincts and qualities she’s been suppressing to succeed, like her quick thinking and ingenuity. Doing so also leads to successes like decimating the Hun army with an avalanche and saving the emperor.
Mulan’s own realization of how all types of heteronormative gender are largely performative allows her to come up with the plan to put Yao (Harvey Fierstein’s character) and her other friends in drag and sneak into the castle to free the emperor. She subversively uses society’s expectations and hangups about masculinity and femininity to her advantage and to ultimately save China. And the inclusion of a scene featuring drag as a power — especially with Fierstein in the cast — hinted that Disney maybe knew more about what it was doing for queer Mulan viewers than it seemed to on the surface.
Mulan promises that we are all made with a purpose, that we’re not meant to fit every expectation made for us, and that it’s completely fine not to fit in perfectly. The movie reinforces that suppressing your true self harms you in the end. For LGBTQ+ people, who are often told to hide if we can’t be what society deems appropriate, that’s a tremendously powerful message.
For teenage me, Mulan didn’t quite take a battering ram to the closet door. I was too scared to let that happen. But it did make me comfortable with the idea that there was something to that feeling out of place and feeling different, and that it wasn’t a bad thing. Mulan didn’t smash the door down; it knocked. And I was thankful that it did.
At the end of the movie, Mulan isn’t the perfect bride or the perfect soldier. She’s carved out her own place in the middle. We don’t really know how Mulan actually sees herself at the end. We just know that it’s something truer and better fitting than how she saw herself in the beginning. That, to me, is the beautiful parting shot — that who we are will never be as simple or as permanent as we think. But it doesn’t make us and what we feel any less real.
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