How people perceive someone's sex or gender is definitely personified in many aspects of culture, from the media to subcultural traditions and rituals. Never is this a clearer case than in the Disney films, which feature heavily-marketed ‘princesses’ (e.g. Belle, Jasmine, Snow White) who are meant to personify the media messages aimed at girls. However, in 1998 the Disney animated film Mulan presented one of these ‘princesses’ in a different light; the titular character is a strong-willed, independent girl who wishes to stand up for herself and forge her own path. In this way, the portrayal of Mulan in Mulan eliminates typical depictions of femininity and shows its audience a more progressive woman.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was Disney's first film, and the first to solidify the notion of the "Disney Princess." Disney Princesses are often the exemplified ideals of what American society at the time wishes to see in their women - they show patterns of behavior and principles that exist as evidence of what women are "supposed" to be. Snow White, in and of herself, is a fairly passive character - she is virginal, beautiful, young, and apple-cheeked, with pale skin to denote her delicate nature. She is not necessarily averse to housework, and much of her existence lies in her status as a single princess, leaving a gap in her life to which a man will fulfill. At the beginning of the film, she is making a wish to ensure that her "prince will come" and sweep her away to a better life. The only skills she finds applicable are those of housework - when she first finds the dwarves, she is convinced that they need a mother figure to help them out, doing all of the cooking and cleaning for them.
Image is seen to be absolutely important to women, whether it was through their physical appearance or their reputation: "We are in the midst of a violent backlash against feminism that uses images of female beauty as a political weapon against women’s advancement: the beauty myth" (Wolf, 2002). In essence, women are stymied by the threat of unattractiveness, ugliness or old age from career advancement. With Mulan, her beauty is immaterial to the accomplishments she has; at the same time, she makes herself intentionally ‘uglier’ in order to pass herself off better as a man. She binds her breasts so that they are not as visible, and she cuts off her hair; this shows her getting rid of what makes her a woman in order to be accepted among her peers.
To be fair, this places Mulan in the kind of category that Wolf discusses – the woman who thinks that taking good care of oneself and focusing on beauty means falling into these traps. However, given the context of the setting, Mulan is directly combating patriarchal ideas of men and women that necessitate impersonating a man to get the message across: women can still fight and serve their people.
Mulan shows a character that, unlike most other Disney princesses, does not define herself by her weakness or the need to be rescued or saved by a man. Mulan herself does the saving, and proves her mettle in a very patriarchal, man-dominated world. The media seems to be extremely concerned with perpetuating majority perspectives on gender, showing transgendered people or others who fall outside the norm to be "abnormal" and "ill". Most movies and television shows depict normal, monogamous, heterosexual relationships between a naturally-born man and naturally-born woman; entire films are made on this subject, and it does not often waver from this particular perspective. With this particular film, however, the perspective is changed appropriately, and Mulan shows that women can do anything that men can.
Bancroft, Tony and Barry Cook (dirs.) Mulan. Perf. Ming-Na, Eddie Murphy, BD Wong. Buena
Vista Pictures, 1998. Film.
Towbin, Mia Adessa, et al. "Images of Gender, Race, Age, and Sexual Orientation in Disney
Feature-Length Animated Films." Journal of Feminist Family Therapy 15.4 (2004): 19-44.
Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women. Harper Collins, 2002. Print.