Mulan isn't a perfect Disney film, that's for sure. It's got loads of issues. But that's not what I want to talk about here ...
Dear M. Night Shyamalan, here's how you do it:
M. Night Shyamalan, director of the recently critically panned "The Last Airbender" likes to make excuses for his mostly-Caucasian cast. Never mind that "Avatar: The Last Airbender" obviously took place in an Asia-inspired land, or that the show was built on respect for various Asian-Inuit cultures.
Disney decided to create one of their classic fairy tale movies, this time surrounding the tale of Mulan, a hero in Chinese folklore. Two of the three main characters (Mulan and Shang) are voiced by Ming-Na, born in China, and B.D. Wong, of Chinese descent. Plenty of others are of Korean or Japanese descent as well.
Additionally, the characters themselves, as they appear on screen, are obviously Chinese without being caricatures. As Lea Salonga, who provides Mulan's singing voice, mentioned in a live show, she was expecially pleased that unlike just about every other Disney heroine, Mulan is not busty beyond belief (she's not flat, but her breasts aren't so obvious that you can't stop looking, as is the case with Jasmine, Ariel, and others).
Gender is a performance--gotta make these men into men!
This is the biggest gold star of the whole movie, and just about most of the Disney franchise. This film is about gender as a performance, not as an inherent set of traits. That's the take-home message.
In the beginning of the film, Mulan's family is extremely concerned. Their daughter is not any of the things she's supposed to be--that is, that a woman is supposed to be. Instead of dutifully learning what is expected of her, Mulan cheats by writing notes on her forearm. She's late for the matchmaker (unbecoming!), and while she technically does her chore (feeding the chickens), she really finds a way to get around it. Plus, she's clumsy!! How will she ever attract a dude?!
She heads into town to get all dressed up for the matchmaker, and she's even worse than before when she arrives. Now she's dirty as well as late, lazy, and dishonest (cheater!). Clearly, this woman doesn't have her family's honor at the top of her priorities. And so her mother and some other ladies sing to her about how she'll bring honor to the family because they're going to clean her up and make her all womanly. Mulan is more than visibily uncomfortable in this situation; she does nothing to help speed along the process, and she's obviously nervous and unhappy. Upon arriving at the matchmaker, she procedes to, as many outstanding young woman in this country and century would say, fuck everything the hell up. She's not being malicious; she just sucks at being a lady, and also, did no one explain to the cricket what was going on?
So now we have a depressed Mulan, who begins to sing a pop song about how she doesn't recognize the person in her reflection. As she wipes off her make-up, it's clear: Mulan cannot pull off this gender performance. It makes her sick and unhappy. And at dinner, things are made worse when it's clear that her family will no longer support her lack of performance.
Mulan decides to join the army in her father's place (he's a disabled veteran; it's a bit assholey to even ask him to serve), and now she must perform a gender on the other end of the perspective, one she's gotten just about no practice with. Mushu tries to help her by explaining how to walk, how to talk, how men greet each other (punching each other in the face), and so on. Mulan is clearly not on either end of this spectrum, and yet there's no in between for her. Boo! She can't handle exaggerated femininity, and she clearly sucks at exaggerated masculinity.
And then we get to THE BEST DISNEY SONG EVER. Okay, so many other movies have great music ("Part of Your World," "Under the Sea," "Kiss de Girl," "Be Our Guest," "Beauty and the Beast," "Can You Feel the Love Tonight," etc.), but really, this is the best song to ever find its way into a Disney movie, and it's at its best in two contexts. The first? When you're drunk with your friends and you keep repeating the first verse and the chorus. The second? Within the movie itself, with everything that's happening on screen.
Let's see ...
The song, in any other context, would seem sexist. But in this one, it's hilarious. Shang is singing about how he's gotta make men outta his recruits. But ... Mulan is a gurl! HAHA.
But it's more than that. Mulan isn't the only person struggling. Her three eventual friends, who represent the other soldiers, are similarly incompetent at doing all those important man things, like grabbing fish out of rivers and being as mysterious as the dark side of the moon. Mulan isn't NOT a man because she's a woman. She and the others are all not men until they learn how to be men. Hmmm, performativity maybe?
Anyway, now they all know how to be all manly, and now they're going to go show off. On the way, we have a song that makes Mulan super uncomfortable about the kind of woman these guys all want to fuck: someone quiet, who cooks, who fawns over her man, who's goddamn HOT, etc. As a hetero woman, for Mulan, this is like eavesdropping on someone saying horrible things about you. Nice.
So there's a battle, and Mulan saves everyone, and Shang's all, OMG HERO, but then she's a woman, so that's bad. Shang seems to feel betrayed, which, to me, carries implications that the movie in no way addresses.* Anyway, he doesn't kill her, which is good because it really affects the outcome of the movie.
Mulan doesn't go home, though. She knows the Huns are still alive, and although she obviously has a crush on Shang, who now hates her, she's not going to do as he asks. She goes to China, gets pissed that people are treating her like a woman and stuff, and gets in Shang's face about the Huns. He ignores her and is stupidly wrong. Everyone screams and freaks when Shan Yu appears, but Mulan just gets this look on her face like, "Oh hell no, fucker, now I gotta kill you."
And how does she help Shang and the boys get into the palace? By acting like women (and crossdressing), to the reprise of "I'll Make a Man Outta You." It's meant to be hilarious, and the reason it's funny is because men are dressing like women. But it goes deeper than that. It's funny because they're using gender performativity (just like they used it when they were trying to be masculine, in combat) to achieve their goal. It's a performance, not an inherent set of traits.
Meanwhile, unlike some Disney movies (coughcoughTHE LITTLE MERMAIDcoughcough), while Mulan does have help from her friends (namely, Mushu has the rocket), she defeats Shan Yu through combat and quick thinking. She also uses a fan, which is a real move in martial arts, therefore using another piece of gender performance to her advantage, and seriously mixing up genders.
And in the end, all of these things that would be considered dishonorable (DESTROYED MY PALACE!) are deemed to be beyond heroic. Badass.
And in the end, there's no kiss. Just Shang joining Mulan's family for dinner. And parents very proud of their daughter, whose own gender, somewhere between the extremes, resulted in badassness.
Real women come in all shapes and sizes
So, I've already pointed out what Lea Salonga mentioned, that Mulan is not Boobsaplenty. But consider something else:
Mulan wears her hair up in a bun and is mistaken for a man (Shan Yu doesn't recognize her in her dress until she pulls up her hair again). I've worn my hair like that before, and I don't think I've looked that masculine (maybe if I were wearing men's clothes?). She doesn't keep up her macho masculine voice throughout her deception. At one point, she is naked in the water with men who do not notice that she's a she.
What's the point? Mulan is not so classically, obviously femininely beautiful that she has difficulty passing as a man. That's not a problem, obviously. She looks femininely beautiful when she's all dolled up for the matchmaker, especially compared to the other young women. To the viewer, she looks beautiful. But it's obvious that she has no trouble passing as male. Again, this isn't a problem. Just as Mulan's gender is a mix of masculine and feminine, mostly something in between, her appearance is pleasant without being excessively feminine or masculine. She is quite normal.
Romance ... or gawking, whatever
The love story between Mulan and Shang is really what goes on in the shitty sequel, Mulan II: More Money for Disney. In this movie, there's no wedding at the end. There isn't even a kiss.
And Mulan isn't obviously made the object of Shang's gaze. He never stares at her body, even after he finds out she's female. It's not even her appearance that leads to his feelings for her. It's the whole package: here's a woman who not only is at least JUST as good a soldier as he is (and has a knack for strategy), but she has no problem doing whatever she thinks is the right thing, regardless of her ladyparts. You don't find a girl like that every dynasty.
And Mulan is not Shang's reward for being valiant in battle. He does not win the love of a beautiful young woman by being badass.
Mulan doesn't go head over heels for Shang when she first sees him. He's just the guy who's all, "YOU'RE GOING TO BE MY BITCHES TRANQUIL AS A FOREST BUT ON FIRE WITHIN." But when he takes off his shirt, didn't you smirk at Mulan's reaction? She's checking him out! Who cares if he's handsome--she didn't seem bowled over by his face. Nope, when he takes off that shirt, even I'm drooling over his animated hot bod. And it's clear that Mulan isn't simply shocked because she's seeing a semi-nude man (nah, we get to see her reaction to naked-dude later on, and it's pretty funny). She's impressed. She thinks he's hot. None of this lovey-dovey, oh-he's-so-handsome, I-want-to-be-your-wife crap Disney usually dishes out. It's a moment where she's just a person finding another person attractive--sexually.
And in the end, this not-feminine, not-gorgeously-feminine-looking-in-the-context-of-the-film woman has this amazingly hot guy coming over to awkwardly, "Derrrr," over her until she smoothly invites him to dinner.
And Shang's affections aren't Mulan's goal. That's not the resolution of the film. The resolution is that Mulan has brought honor to her family by defeating Shan Yu, and she did so without playing either gender. THAT'S the message. Having Shang follow her home like a lovesick puppy is just icing on the cake. Delicious icing. All over his chiseled abs--
Compare this movie to Sleeping Beauty. Feminism isn't done, obviously, but this is a pretty decent success.
* I really get the impression that Shang finds himself attracted to Mulan-as-Ping. I've got little to base this on, but it makes more sense than him just developing feelings due to her heroics at the end of the movie. I think that if he just felt gratitude towards Ping-Mulan for saving his live, and respected Ping-Mulan as a soldier, he might not have been as livid to find that Mulan was a girl. But instead, he's very obviously angry, and it's very difficult for him to make the decision to spare her life; he almost goes through with her execution. I believe that he had been developing feelings for Ping-Mulan, felt uncomfortable with those feelings, and then was angry because of how her deception led him to feel.**
** I'm not saying that it's a good thing if he was that homophobic, especially considering that Shang is portrayed by a gay man. I'm just analyzing D: