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Analytical Essay


Goals of Paper Two (choose one):

(a) Study the transition of images and storylines between early and recent Disney feature film—images of manhood, womanhood, male-female relations, age, race, ethnicity, class (you would study one or more of these images). OR

(b) Relate characters and events in one or more films to some historical phenomena. OR

c) Combine [a] and [b] above. For example, you could do a paper on the changing perceptions of women and work between Snow White and Seven Dwarves and Mulan, and include an explanation of how women’s changing roles in American society are reflected in the difference between Snow White and Mulan.


Primary sources:

1) For topic A above: Please use at least one (or more than one) of the films we have studied since Paper One. You are free to use some materials from Paper One as well.

2) For topics B or C above: I encourage you to choose one other source of primary data (pictorial or factual) that you have found–such as advertisements, tables, charts and graphs, case studies, government records, etc. To find these, look on the web.

Secondary Sources:

You must use at least one (or more than one) of the articles we have read since Paper One. You could also draw on the articles you read for Paper One.



To prepare an outline for Paper Two, please follow the steps listed below.

a) STEP ONE: Please view Mulan, Frozen, and Maleficent as needed to prepare for writing Paper Two. If you have chosen to write on topic A, “transitions,” you will find it especially beneficial to view Maleficent as well. All the films are streaming on your class website.


Write down your main topic. This means that you must come up with a focus. For example, it is not enough to say that you want to compare and contrast Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Maleficent. You must narrow down your idea and decide on the focus or theme of your comparison and contrast. Will you be comparing beauty standards? Leadership roles? Family roles (mother, wife, lover)? Changing images of body types? The meaning of magic in relation to gender? The changing meanings of true love and the kiss? These are just examples of a focus. You should come up with your own thematic focus. And you should try to make it sound as sensible and direct as you can.


Make a short list of the examples you want to use for each sub-topic. Examples include (a) specific scenes or images from the films of your choice, and (b) examples from outside sources (even if you have not found all the outside sources, list what you feel you need to find to back up the topic of your choice.


d) STEP FOUR: Based on Feedback from your Peer Group, draft a formal outline. Formulate a thesis idea and classify your examples into groups and sections in a way that backs up your thesis idea.

Disney’s “Mulan”—the “True” Deconstructed Heroine? Author(s): Lisa Brocklebank Reviewed work(s): Source: Marvels & Tales, Vol. 14, No. 2 (2000), pp. 268-283 Published by: Wayne State University Press Stable URL: . Accessed: 05/01/2013 23:22

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Lisa Brocklebank

Disney’s Mulan –

the “True” Deconstructed Heroine?

The familiar and traditional fairy tale often seems a repository of culturally approved values and behavior. In this sense, it forms an imaginary world which reflects the same process of defining differences and distinguishing categories by which we construct and apprehend the world around us. These fairy-tale distinctions may extend from good and evil to rich and poor, to earthly and sublime, to male and female. They form motifs and patterns which surface and resurface, weaving their way in and out of tales, traveling from fireside stories to the gossip of women at the loom, to the songs of workers in the field, to the notebook of the collector. This process of delineating differences becomes as familiar as the process of storytelling itself, and its topoi as recognizable. The tale, moreover, often falls within the guidelines of established social morals and mores. It becomes, if not a pedagogical tool to instill cultural values, and often a means of enforcing the status quo, then certainly the narrative voicing of a society’s most pervasive patterns of belief, behavior, and conviction.

Some tales, however, reveal an inherent subversiveness that projects a deeply rooted Utopian vision of change and transformation. For, as part of the genre’s continual engagement with some aspect of the marvelous, amazing, or unexpected, the fairy tale, in its very essence and role, must inevitably transcend expectations. Indeed, it must contain and offer the possibility of a vision which circumvents the conventional knowledge of society: a vision which exists beyond the dichotomous categories shaping our beliefs, which poses a riddle that challenges habitual patterns of thought, and which seeks to somehow redefine notions of reality.

Marvels & Tales: Journal of Fairy-Tale Studies, Vol. 14, No. 2 (2000), pp. 268-83. Copyright © 2000 by Wayne State University Press, Detroit, MI 48201.

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The Utopian vision of an ideal society created by these alternative and subversive tales often arises out of the imaginative dreamscape of those who dwell at the bottom or on the outskirts of the social order. As primarily oral tales these visions have, for the most part, their origins in the narratives and stories of peasants (Zipes, “Once” 5). They then “express the creative fantasies of the rural and less educated layers of the population” (von Franz 1). The tellers of these tales seek to express through the stories their hopes of change and transformation, and to criticize the reality which prevents such dreams from

taking form. The “outsider” status of the tellers, moreover, yields the clarity of vision which so often comes with one’s removal from the social structure. At times, this wisdom gives voice to a scathing ridicule of society in an attempt to change the premises upon which “reality” operates. Moreover, as Marina Warner remarks, the tellers of the tales were, more often than not, women, for “[f]airy tale offers a case where the very contempt for women opened an opportunity for them to exercise their wit and communicate their ideas” (Warner xix). Tales could therefore become opportunities for women tellers to voice and propagate alternative visions of social reality and cultural codes of conduct – specifically within the arena of gender behavior and plausibly with a revolutionary or feminist agenda.

The first shift in the form and, hence, in the reception of these tales occurred with the shift from the oral to the literary tale. The appropriation of the oral form

by the literary necessarily precipitated an alteration in its structure and function, as the genre shifted from the domain of public storytelling to private reading and from the mouths of the folk to the pens of the ruling classes (Zipes, “Breaking the Disney Spell” 24). This displacement of the oral by the literary culminated in the nineteenth-century sanitization of the fairy tale for children and the birth or revisioning of those “classic” or enduring tales which form an intrinsic

part of Western cultural awareness. These classical fairy tales reinforced the

patriarchal symbolic order – one based on ossified concepts of gender behavior

(Zipes, “Breaking the Disney Spell” 26). Various feminist literary and cultural critics have highlighted the warped

and biased portrayal of women proffered by these literary tales and the detri- mental gender expectations they purvey. Indeed, feminist critics have been instrumental in bringing to attention the pervasive cultural ramifications of these tales, which serve as social mechanisms for inculcating roles and be- havioral patterns (Rowe 326). According to the standards of gender behavior delineated within canonical tales such as “Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Snow White,” passivity, victimization, feminine charm, and physical beauty are the necessary precursors to marriage and fortune (Lieberman). Within these

stories, therefore, the strident voice of the female storytellers becomes quelled by the enforced silence of the fictional heroines. For, as Ruth B. Bottigheimer


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remarks, the discursive pattern of such tales “produces functionally silent heroines” (53).

If the movement of the tale from oral to literary acted to silence the female voice, then arguably the movement from literature to film further muzzled independent female expression. According to Zipes, the second significant movement in the institutionalization of the fairy-tale genre was the shift to film, for visual images now imposed themselves on the text, creating their own separate textual meaning (“Breaking the Disney Spell” 27). Walt Disney Pro- ductions, with its cultural hegemony on the fairy tale film, has been influential in the articulation of this separate textual meaning. In the production of films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs , Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella – which all star passive heroines and female villains – Disney becomes responsible for amplifying the already sexist stereotype of womanhood represented within the verbal texts (Stone 44).

Disney’s status as a producer and distributer of the genre of animated fantasy and children’s film often results in audience members placing its products in a safe niche above cultural reproach or interrogation. Yet, ignoring Disney’s resonant popular impact only strengthens its position as a purveyor of social pedagogy and ideology Disney critics have thus called for the need to “break the spell” and “interrogate the magic.” Such an interrogation entails an intervention in Disney’s formation and representation of identity and gender through oppo- sitional readings (Bell, Haas, and Sells 2). This paper proposes to employ such a methodology in the examination of the recent film Mulan. Firstly, this paper will discuss Mulan in terms of a paradigm shift within the Disney production of gender. Secondly, this paper will look at Mulan in light of the folktale motif of cross-dressing, briefly exploring similar tales of transgendered warriors. Lastly, the paper will progress to a discussion of the film itself, analyzing the performance of gender within the film, evaluating the extent to which Mulan offers a depiction of a deconstructed heroine, and examining the possible effects of the “Disneyfication” of a marginal and subversive form such as the folktale.

With the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Walt Disney Productions at once became the canonical interpreter of the fairy-tale genre and an influential purveyor of gendered images. The representation of a victim- ized princess contentedly keeping domestic order in a diminutive house and dreamily singing “someday my prince will come” proved immensely popular as “top ten” lists of movies from newspapers and journals included the film without fail, and often placed it at the very top (Watts 161). The influence of this cinematic representation of femininity reached far beyond the limits of the theater and extended past the confines of a child-centered audience. Indeed, Snow White became not simply an animated figure, but a model which real women strove to emulate. In this vein, women’s clothing served as a means of


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vicariously experiencing a fairy-tale world. Women’s Wear Daily, for instance, ran a special twenty-page section that highlighted movie-inspired clothing ranging from underwear and negligees to dresses and accessories (Watts 161).

Cinderella , released in February 1950 as Disney’s first full-length feature film in eight years, followed the resonant success of Snow White , possessing as it did the same motifs of charming heroine and villainous stepmother (Thomas 100). Yet again, Disney producers succeeded in creating a heroine which both reflected and influenced gender roles of the time. Disney studio artists admitted that they wanted Cinderella to be “a universal type, so that any woman looking into a mirror will see something of Cinderella in herself” (Watts 329). While seeking to mirror an American ideal, the fictional character also became a means of ensuring that just such an idealistic vision of femininity was perpetuated and emulated. As with Snow White, Cinderella inspired a line of clothing for young women and, in the early 1950s, Disney officially sanctioned a series of contests in cities around the US to find local “Cinderellas” (Watts 329).

The 1989 release of The Little Mermaid saw Disney Productions’ first commercially successful animated feature since the death of Walt Disney in 1966, and reauthorized Disney’s role as an influential producer of role models fór girls and women (Sells 176). Disney producers displayed their marketing acumen by updating their traditional gender portrayal to include a somewhat more feisty and liberated heroine. Their tactic worked, for the film sold $84 million worth of tickets in the US and Canada – a record for the first release of an animated feature film (Thomas 120). Film critic Roger Ebert lauded Disney for their depiction of “a fully realized female character who thinks and acts

independently, even rebelliously, instead of hanging around passively while the fates decide her destiny.”

Beauty and the Beast (1991) topped The Little Mermaid’s success, becoming the first animated film to generate more than $300 million at the box office worldwide (Grover 258). Linda Woolverton, the scriptwriter for Beauty and the Beast, offers the following explanation for her conception of Belle: “You have to consider what kids are like now in terms of sophistication, you have to make sure that your themes are strong, that people can relate to the characters, that the story isn’t sexist. Belle is a strong, smart, courageous woman. She sacrifices herself for her father. There are great themes of passionate love in the story, almost operatic themes. She’s a Disney heroine who reads books. It excites me. We’ve never seen that before” (Thomas 143). Film reviewers echoed Woolverton’s excitement, heralding Belle as “a feminist” (Berardinelli), “one of the few truly independent minds amongst Disney’s bevy of babes” (“Disney’s Beauty”) , and as “a bookworm with gumption, and a mind of her own” (Hinson) .

While 1995’s Pocahontas grossed $342.6 million worldwide ( Internet Movie Database), its heroine received a mixed reception among critics and viewers.

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Although some praised the representation of a “spunky but idealistic princess” with “impish curiosity and willfullness” (Corliss) , others took issue with Disney’s fanciful transformation of a plain, factual person into a glamorous fictional char- acter, remarking that “the real Pocahontas probably didn’t have Tina Turner’s

posture and Iman’s neck” (Corliss) and that the animated character had a “too- slender Barbie-doll look” (Stack).

Pocahontas – with its supposed portrayal of a “new” sort of heroine yet its obstinate focus on romantic relationships, and with its split depiction and reception of the heroine as “one of the smartest, most spirited Disney heroines ever [ . . . and . . . ] also a babe – a veritable Barbie in buckskin” (Buckland) – illustrates the ambivalence which surrounds the gender portrayals within the more recent, supposedly nontraditional Disney films. For, while both Ariel and Belle deviate from the gender stereotypes of previous fairy-tale films by following their own unconventional desires, they yet conform, in the end, to the comic culmination of marriage. In fact, Ariel’s upward mobility costs her her voice and identity, and Belle sacrifices her dreams of adventure in the outside world to a circumscribed domestic existence. Additionally, descriptions of Ariel as “Barbie-doll cute” (Hinson) and Belle as “Bambi with curves” (Howe) reveal that there still exists a persistent insistence upon portraying/viewing “strong” female characters as “dolls” or sexual playthings. If their more recent film Mulan (1998) is any indication, perhaps the only way for Disney to transcend these ambivalences is to transcend gender itself – in effect, to literally make the heroine a hero. Paradoxically, as Salon reviewer Jenn Shreve indicates, the only way Disney can “get it right” is by portraying a transgendered female:

The strong and feisty female coming of age in the face of adversity has long been a favorite subject of Disney’s animated films. [ . . . ]

Yet in spite of their accomplishments, neither of these charming young heroines rings true. Perhaps it’s because the ultimate reward for their efforts is usually a cardboard cut-out prince. What’s worse, the leading ladies have settled for that. [ . . . ] They’ve got spunk, sure, but it’s only ink-deep. No, Disney’s storytellers and animators have never gotten women right.

That is, until now

Disney draws upon a long folk tradition of transgendering in order to create just such a heroine. The woman in disguise has woven her way through the fairy tale, from its oral inception to its consolidation in written form, to its emergence as a literary genre. Just what makes the transvestite female such a compelling figure in wonder tales? She seems to conflate, in a single character, all the evocative traits of the genre in general: the subversive power of transformation and shape-shifting, the magical ambiguity of metamorphosis,

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the transgression of boundaries, and the resistance to classification. The cross- dresser is perhaps the most radical form of the transformation motif, for she contravenes not just social rules but “natural” “fact.” The cross-dressed woman, with her illusion of “maleness,” often reveals the arbitrary and cultural – or fictional – nature of gender inscriptions, and the instability of related codes and categories. Within this theme, the cross-dresser disrupts social norms. By rewriting her own role and narrative, the figure exposes the narrativity of social “reality,” both confronting and interrogating its values and regulations.

Hence the cross-dresser, as with the fairy tale which she often inhabits, through her transgressive behavior inverts and undermines the predominant social discourse. The cross-dresser and the fairy tale share the same discursive space, and both position themselves in opposition to the dominant signifying practice. Through the text of the body and the text of the tale, they seek to rewrite official reality through an alternative and unofficial representation, yet, paradoxically, one which seems categorically dependent upon that which it seeks to subvert. For, although both the cross-dresser and unofficial literature may reverse or invert the conventional order, they still subscribe to that order. Indeed, the tales involving cross-dressing often tend to obey the conventional

fairy-tale narrative, either through the comic culmination of marriage or the return to proper roles, in so doing, moving toward a closure which contains or even quells any threateningly subversive representation.

What prompts and instigates the at least temporary dislocation of gender, social, and narrative boundaries? Within tales featuring female cross-dressing, the disguise of the woman seems most often to result from socioeconomic

necessity, the need to prove one’s worth as equal to that of a male, the exigencies of survival, the yearning to escape an undesirable situation or, at times, from a combination of all of the above factors. The temporary release created by this disguise and dislocation, however, seems to inevitably end in the return to

previous roles, and in the subsequent re-imposition of ossified categories and the stifling of any potentially incendiary actions.

Tales of transgendered warriors exemplify this pattern. Rudolf Dekker and Lotte van de Pol, in their study of transvestism in early modern Europe, state that the number of women who dressed as men peaked during periods of war (30). Tales of transgendering reflect and explicate this peak. In most of the tales which feature a cross-dressed woman entering battle,1 the youngest daughter departs for war in the place of an absent son. Her disguise as a soldier affords a liberation from the confines of domestic responsibility, and entrance into the army bestows upon the woman a status and identity otherwise absent as a mere “daughter.” As a soldier the woman finds, along with acceptance into the male community, the opportunity to exercise different skills and the freedom to interact on an equal social level with males. However, the restitution


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of peace inevitably precurses the restitution of social boundaries. As a result, when the battle ends, there no longer exists the pretense for male dress, and the disguised woman must doff her costume as what was, during the period of crisis, a legitimate means of protecting society becomes a socially threatening form of unruly behavior. The end of the war thus brings the restitution of prior social roles and regulations, and the end of the tale contains its own narrative disruption within conventional parameters.

Hence, although a marginal and countercultural form, these fairy tales still persist in following the dominant cultural patterns, be they narrative, political or gender. Even though they ostensibly protest against the established order, they could then paradoxically serve to protect and strengthen that same order, in effect, serving as safety valves which ultimately uphold the order and hierarchy Is the inversion of sex roles and representation but an outlet to diffuse disruptive and potentially antisocial behavior through a vicarious wish fulfillment which provides for the audience an imagined sexual and social transgression?

Yet, the persistence of the cross-dressed figure, who traverses cultural and historical boundaries, suggests that it does indeed carry some potency and symbolic signification that extends beyond the image in the tale, and that resonantly responds to the continually shifting needs of continually evolving societies. Disney’s 1998 release of Mulan attests to the enduring evocativeness not only of the cross-dresser, but of the fairy-tale form itself. The film harnesses many of the narrative arid ideological currents which flow through the cross- dressed tales, such as the need to rewrite a confining role and articulate a new vision of female heroism, the questioning and flouting of social conventions and, through the deconstruction of gender binarisms, the interrogation of the precepts by which we order and construct reality.

The tale’s plot line follows those stories which depict a girl disguising herself as a soldier in order to take her father’s place in battle. In the opening scene, we learn that China is under attack by the Huns, under the leadership of the evil Shan Yu. In order to supplement the imperial army, the emperor sends out conscription notices to every household, for “a single grain of rice can tip the scale [ . . . ] one man may mean the difference between victory and defeat.” The scene then shifts to a bowl of rice, and to Mulan practicing her “lady-like” lessons in preparation for her encounter with the matchmaker. Through these juxtaposed scenes, the film immediately sets up the conventional binaries of an exclusively male heroism and a conventionally female heroism which the tale will then proceed to question and erode. This binarie mode of conception permeates the tale, from the shaming and training techniques Shang employs on his profligate troops (“Did they send me daughters instead of sons?”; “Mister I’ll make a man out of you”; “Be a man”), to the process of Othering and the working out of abjection within the troops (“I am the King of the Rock and

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there’s nuttin’ you girls can do about it”; “We have to fight [ . . . ] don’t be such a girl”; “I do not squeal like a girl”).

However, these behavioral divisions and categories reveal their own insta- bility and their inability to accurately correspond to the “reality” which they claim to name and represent. In this vein, Mulan fails to fit the role of an exemplary daughter and a traditional heroine. Awkward and clumsy, she makes her dog do her chores for her, spills tea, and fails miserably in her test with the matchmaker. The only heroic role open to females is that of upholding the family honour through the formation of a respectable marriage alliance. Yet, although Mulan fails to perform this role adequately (“You will never bring your family honor”) and to “learn” her “place,” she has no other recourse for

redeeming her heroic potential and family status. Mulan’s inability to meet social expectations reveals the discrepancy be-

tween the individual and her socially allotted role and, in so doing, exposes gender behavior as a socially scripted role and an elaborately sustained perfor- mance which sociocultural codes and regulations compel her to enact. Indeed, the scene which features Mulan’s toilette in preparation for her matchmaker underscores the fabrication and performativity of gender. The painting on of a feminine face/mask and the donning of a decorative costume transform Mulan into “a perfect porcelain doll.” Such a transformation emphasizes the artificial nature of those rituals associated with “womanhood” and points to gender itself as a construction and creation, one which often fails to mirror reality as Mulan realizes when, gazing at her painted image in the river, she wonders: “When will my reflection show who I am inside?”

The realization that she is “not meant to play this part” impels Mulan to

forge her own role and write her own “part.” Her re-creation plays with these motifs of mirroring, reflection, imaging, and perception. She later admits that her decision to go to war on behalf of her father arises not so much out of

daughterly concern as from her own need to form an identity, so that when she “looked in the mirror [she] would see someone worthwhile.” Thus, she

exchanges her haircomb for the conscript, cuts her hair, and fits herself into her father’s armor. All these actions are framed, at the beginning and at the end, by the image of her face reflected in the sword (the traditionally masculine means of carving out identity) – an image in diametric opposition to the “feminine” mask reflected in the river. Only by changing her outer appearance can Mulan reflect her inner identity

She thus takes on the male heroic role and, in so doing, not only achieves her desired liberty, but exposes and undermines the interdependence of gender and role-playing. Mushu, her dragon companion, directs her towards a group of

nose-picking and phlegm-spitting “men” so that she can “learn” how to “act” just like them. Mulan duly mimics this “manly” behavior – “shoulders back, chest

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high, feet apart, head up and strut” – through her exaggerated performance of what are themselves exaggerated stereotypes (“You know when you get those manly urges and you just want to kill someone, fix things, cook outdoors”), parodying and demystifying gender roles, and shattering the illusion of fixed or sacrosanct behavior patterns. Her parody serves to contest not only gender roles, but also the very notion of a stable identity. For, through her “manly” act, she subversively reveals that actions, rather than representing a pre-existing subject, in fact create that “represented” subject. Moreover, not only does Mulan successfully enact this male role, but her innate abilities enable her to excel in it, and surpass the “real men.” Her cleverness, courage, and strategic skill save the troops from certain annihilation, earning her the titles “King of the Mountain” and “the Bravest Man of Us All.”

However, shortly after her triumph and final acceptance into the male com- munity, the treatment of a war wound precipitates the revelation of Mulan’s iden- tity. With this disclosure, her title transforms from “the Bravest Man of Us All” to “Treacherous Snake” and her heroic bravery to “high treason.” The equation of cross-dressing with treasonous behavior shows how menacing the confusion of gender roles can be to society, with its rupturing of traditional values and dangerous questioning of authoritative reality – be it gender or sociopolitical. The preservation of gender and social stability calls for the eradication of the disruptive source. Yet, instead, the Emperor invites Mulan to sit on the imperial council, thus expressing an openness to change and transformation and the desire to extend the rewriting of roles from the individual sphere to encompass society as a whole. Mulan, however, rejects his offer, returning home instead, where she is shortly joined by Shang. The tale thus ends in the beginning, with Mulan returning to her original role and the implication of future marriage.

Yet Mulan’s ending, although it seems to conform to the recuperative imposition of closure present in similar tales of cross-dressing, in fact opens up new possibilities. The scriptwriters reformulate the ending to eliminate narrative ambiguity so that the return to previous categories brings with it an implicit modification of these categories. When Mulan offers her father Shan Yu’s sword and the Emperor’s medal as a sign of the honor she has brought to her family, he rejects these social symbols, embracing, instead, his daughter. This culminating tableau suggests that Mulan brings the freedom and fulfillment which she experienced in disguise back to her former role, so that although she does return to her position as daughter, the return fails to precipitate the re-imposition of the former false expectations. In effect, Mulan resignifies what constitutes the female gender. Her parents accept her for the person she is, not for the role she must perform, thus allowing Mulan to “be true to her heart”: to establish a permanent continuity between her inner reality and outer state without having to sacrifice her sex or exchange one role for another.


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One of the promotional posters of the film emphasizes this rewriting, or resignification, as the central aspect of the tale. It depicts Mulan’s face bisected by the sword which she holds upright in front of her – one half the warrior Ping, the other half, the daughter Mulan. This iconic representation emphasizes the carving of a new identity which fuses previously mutually exclusive roles – the “hero” and the “heroine” – and illustrates that they can conflate and coexist harmoniously, without sacrificing one aspect to the other. The true deconstructed heroine, Mulan is neither one thing nor the other, but everything at once. Mulan manages to construct a tale which succeeds not only in inverting but also in escaping altogether the scripted gender reality so that the cross-dresser can come out of the closet and enter the mainstream of society, without having to change any of those supposedly “deviant” tendencies which

impelled the donning of a disguise. Yet, at what expense does this new vision arise? It seems more than

coincidental that the cross-dresser becomes a mainstream heroine when the folktale itself becomes “Disneyfied.” Does the heroine then escape one form of

prescribed behavior only to become ensnared in another? Disney bases its film version upon “The Ballad of Mu-lan,” an oral ballad by an anonymous woman

poet which originated during the Northern Dynasty (420-599 ce) (The Ballad

of Mulan). The melodious lyric recounts with a powerful simplicity the story of “Daughter,” who trades her shuttle for a horse so that she can serve in the

army in “Father’s” place (Frankel lines 4, 16). In the ballad, the war lasts twelve

years, at the end of which Mu-lan sees the “Son of Heaven,” who sits in the

“Splendid Hall” (35, 36). Rejecting his offer of a minister’s post, she returns home, takes off her “wartime gown,” puts on her “oldtime clothes” and reveals herself to her comrades, who are “amazed and perplexed” that they traveled twelve years with a woman (52, 56). The ballad concludes with a characteristic riddle, which both plays with and opens up meaning and offers insight into the

larger riddle of the poem:

The he-hare’s feet go hop and skip, The she-hares’ eyes are muddled and fuddled. Two hares running side by side close to the ground, How can they tell if I am he or she? (59-62)

The ballad thus originally occupied the same generic and ideological space as other tales which feature cross-dressed heroines. Composed by a woman to recount an inspirational story which rewrites history both past and present, it threaded its way into the narratives of other women who picked up her voice and echoed her song, weaving their own dreams and worlds out of Mu-lan’s transformation, achieving the visionary sustenance to sing new life into their circumscribed existence. Each telling of the story wove a slightly


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different pattern as the tale fit itself into the dreamscape played out between each individual teller and audience, responding to the subtle pressure of needs and desires. Maxine Hong Kingston conveys the Utopian role which tales such as “Mu-lan” played in her childhood, allowing her, as they did, to write her own “story” and “role,” both offering her the hope of changing her own reality, and impressing upon her the necessity of doing so:

Night after night my mother would talk-story until we fell asleep. I couldn’t tell where the stories left off and the dreams began, her voice the voice of the heroines in my sleep [ . . . ] After I grew up, 1 heard the chant of Fa Mu Lan, the girl who took her father’s place in battle. Instantly, I remembered that as a child I had followed my mother about the house, the two of us singing about how Fa Mu Lan fought gloriously and returned alive from war to settle in the village. I had forgotten this chant that was once mine, given me by my mother, who may not have known its power to remind. She said I would grow up to be a wife and a slave, but she taught me the song of the warrior woman, Fa Mu Lan. I would have to grow up a warrior woman. (Kingston 19-20)

What happens to this marginal vehicle which offers a subversive means of warring against the status quo when it becomes an instrument of that same society and culture? How does its role and signification change when what served as a way of forming an alternative meaning becomes enlisted in the production of mass meaning – when a marginal form is subsumed under a central purveyor of canonical meaning and an unofficial representation becomes an official representation?

With its latest release, Walt Disney Productions make a genuine attempt to offer a positive portrayal of a female heroine – one that seems, by all counts, successful. A USA Today reviewer called Mulan a “coming-of-age heroine” and warned “all Disney cartoon princesses” to “[r]ead your fortune, cookies, and weep: Your reign is about to be kung-fu kicked across the finish line by a spunky she in he clothing named Mulan” (Wloszcyna). There is a sense of recognition, then, that Mulan instigates a definitive breaking away from past paradigms of female heroines – in this sense, forging a radically new terrain in the conception and depiction of women’s roles, not only in animated fairy tales, but also perhaps in other areas of life as well. Yet, by bringing this forgotten heroine into the limelight, does Disney paradoxically strip her of her potency and resonance? Might not the appropriation of a marginal figure (and form) by mass culture stifle its emancipatory potential? Will not a mainstream movie reflect mainstream values?

The tale’s shift from marginal culture to mass culture seems highly prob- lematic. In essence, the mass media take over the marginal voice of the teller, – –

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amplifying its stealthy whisper to titanic volumes, fixing its shifting kaleido- scope into set images, and petrifying its oscillating significance into a singular meaning. Thus, although the film assumes the voice of the storyteller, it fails to reproduce the crucial dynamics of teller-audience interaction such as immedi- acy, mutability, spontaneity, and the potential to create individual meaning. It offers the audience a neatly packaged meaning, which they passively consume.

Disney extends its storyteller role from the film itself to the internet. The Disney Mulan website offers a summary of their film – “a triumph of the heart and spirit” (Disney’s Masterpiece) – then provides the “surfer/audience” the opportunity to hear pedagogical interpretations of the tale. By clicking on “Strength,” “Honor,” “Courage,” or “Good Fortune,” they can receive pithy moral lessons easily applicable to their own lives. Disney/Internet thus usurps the place of Nurse/Mother Goose, instructing her children that “[cjourage is about being brave and selfless when you are faced with a challenging task,” (“Courage”) or that

” [s] trength means more than muscles” (“Strength”) . Clicking on the “Mushu” icon, moreover, will yield inspirational remarks such as “You’re the man!'” (“Strength”). Absent from this role, however, is the element of interaction – the “surfer” cannot question the interpretive lesson, but can only imbibe it.

One must then ask the question: Although Disney writers break free from the prescriptive depictions of Snow White and Cinderella , may they not be, in essence, simply shifting from one type of prescribed behavior to another? For, although Mulan may offer another type of heroine, it seems to reproduce the same dynamics of conditioning and socialization. In so doing, it then subscribes to the very conditions which the folk/fairy-tale genre sets itself against. A “Mulan

Essay Contest for Youth” publicized on the Internet offers young people the

opportunity to write about the heroine within, however, the boundaries of traditional forms: essays “will be judged on content, writing style and grammar & punctuation” (“Spirit of Mulan”). It would thus seem that Mulan has become a tool of pedagogical socialization. In contrast to the creation of an individual set apart from the conventions of society, the impetus seems to be toward the creation of individuals in unison with society. Although this impetus may not have been a deliberate maneuver on the part of Disney, perhaps it is inherent in the dynamics of mass culture and mass consumption; so that while it does offer the image of an alternative heroine, with its wide-scale dissemination, it

may become just another lesson on “how to behave.” The mass dissemination of a cross-dressed, liberated heroine may create

an illusion of security. A “spunky she” ousting the “cartoon heroines” produces the deceptive sense that things have finally changed. Moreover, instead of

encouraging the audience to shape their own destiny and write their own reality, this corporate maneuver seems to do it for them. We must ask ourselves if it is

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productive or potentially dangerous for young girls (or boys) to buy a Mulan dress-up costume and become themselves warrior-heroes. Furthermore, does this wide-scale dissemination of Mulan accessories actually encourage fantasy role-playing or merely facilitate mass consumption of Disney products? The fact that the “moral lessons” on Disney’s website end with injunctions to buy a video or Cri-kee pet seems to point toward the latter. It would thus seem that the movement of a marginal tale into the realm of mass culture might herald the movement from subversiveness to socialization, from revolt to complacency, from individuality to standardization.

Are we, however, limited to the consumption of meaning offered in brightly packaged, easily accessible Mulan Happy Meals, or is there still room for the production of our own meaning? As the dynamics surrounding the creation and production of the salon tales of seventeenth-century France have demonstrated, it is possible to produce stories within a sociopolitical framework that still succeed in insidiously criticizing that very framework.2 Perhaps, then, the very discrepancy between the social critique and championing of individualism in the tale itself, and the socialization and standardization of the movie’s production will cause the audience to question the dynamics behind the production of meaning and reality. For it is in the breaks, the ruptures, and the narrative interstices within the tales and between the tales and the environment in which they are produced that their significance lies.

Tales of cross-dressing seek to open up meaning and to suggest novel possibilities. They question the seemingly static order of surface appearance by breaking apart fixed structures and presenting a world apart from and in opposition to the world of reality. They open up meaning not only by offering an alternative vision, but also by maintaining a constant flux within the visions themselves. The tales refuse to fit into any pigeonholes because they position themselves against the very system of categorization and labeling which fixes meaning. Both the cross-dresser and the tales themselves eliminate narrative .boundaries, thereby allowing a plural, polyvocal, unfixed view of the world. It is therein that the wonder resides: in the abrogation of any solution, in the destabilization of set patterns and signification, and in the refusal to impose closure. Disney’s Mulan does seem, at first, like the most successful fairy-tale portrayal of a cross-dressed heroine. Yet, by transforming the cross-dresser into an acceptable figure, by quelling narrative play and fixing an apprehensible meaning, and by moving both the figure and the tale itself from the margins into the mainstream, it mitigates its wondrous potential. The tale becomes part of the dominant signifying practice instead of positioning itself in opposition to it. The voice of the Nurse, Granny, or Mother Goose, incorporated under the social aegis, loses its incendiary potential. Paradoxically then, in making the discordant, anomalous voice public and in increasing its volume, it serves

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only to silence it. It muffles the polyphonic voice, eliminates the riddle, fixes meaning, and imposes closure … or does it? Perhaps the film’s attempt to construct a cohesive representation actually illustrates the impossibility of successfully doing so. As we see in fairy tales themselves, meaning lies in the seeming contradictions, in the dissonant images, and in the realization that there does not necessarily have to be a set meaning – for it is in the shadowy margins and from the void that the world of fairy emerges, a world that retains its evocativeness through its very limitlessness.


1. Some examples of folktales which feature transgendered female warriors include: “Fanta-Ghiro the Beautiful” (Calvino); “Theodora in the Army” and “The Girl Who Went to War” (Dawkins); “The Girl Who Pretended to Be a Boy” (Lang); and “Guinara the Tartar Warrior” (Riordan).

2. The precieuses first voiced the sociopolitical concerns which the tellers would subsequently translate into their fairy tales. The precieuses were a group of ex- ceptional and insidious women within the Ancien Régime, dedicated to the revolt against dominant culture. Salons were first instituted by the precieuses during the reign of Louis XIII and flourished during the reign of Louis XIV In the rigidly hierarchical society of the Ancien Régime, the salon provided the opportunity to thwart this hierarchy by allowing those at the bottom of the scale to ascend, within this sphere, to influential positions. Thus, as a salonnière, a woman could create a realm over which she presided – one which placed itself in opposition to the court. Significantly, in the mid seventeenth century, salonnières turned to folktales as a means of expressing their dissident views and championing their Utopian desires. Often, the writers of these tales employed the cross-dressed female as a means of inverting and interrogating officially sanctioned representations. For examples of such tales, see: ďAulnoy; de Murat; and LHéritier. For sources on the salon tale in the Ancien Régime, see: Barchilón; Canepa; Gibson; MacLean; Seifert; and Velay-Vallantin.

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  • Article Contents
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  • Issue Table of Contents
    • Marvels & Tales, Vol. 14, No. 2 (2000), pp. 213-343
      • Front Matter
      • Complex Entities in the Universe of Fairy Tales [pp. 219-243]
      • “History’s Bearer”: The Afterlife of “Bluebeard” [pp. 244-267]
      • Disney’s “Mulan”—the “True” Deconstructed Heroine? [pp. 268-283]
        • A New Debate about “Old Marie”? Critical Observations on the Attempt to Remythologize Grimms’ Fairy Tales from a Sociohistorical Perspective [pp. 287-311]
        • One More Step [pp. 315-320]
      • Reviews
        • Review: untitled [pp. 321-323]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 323-325]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 325-328]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 329-331]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 331-332]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 332-334]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 334-335]
      • Professional Notices [pp. 337-338]
      • Contributors [pp. 339-340]
      • Back Matter
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