Strong female characters. Women’s empowerment. “Badass” women.
These are phrases we hear throughout the media, resounding from Hollywood and, especially, from Disney Studios. More and more we’re bombarded with marketing campaigns for female-led movies — from Black Widow to Star Wars to Mulan. The passive feminist might look at this progressivism from Hollywood and conclude that more female-led movies can only be a positive good for women as a whole, furthering their desire to see more equity between women and men in this industry.
Unfortunately, when we dig further down into the portrayal of women in the media, particularly by Disney, there’s an alarming trend toward a negative connotation now being associated with the value of women in society.
Modern Feminism Ruined Mulan
When Mulan hit Disney+, I was cautiously optimistic as to whether it would recapture the essence of the 1998 original, and I hoped to enjoy the movie for what it was, even if that meant merely a shot-for-shot remake in live-action. To my surprise, instead of simply remaking the cartoon predecessor, Disney had other plans.
What concerned me the most was Mulan’s radical character change from a young girl with no particular skill who makes the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of her father, to a gravity-defying creature of supernatural abilities. Mulan is now a hyper-powered entity, whose struggles are merely to shake off the backward traditions of her society.
Instead of having to learn hand-to-hand combat and skills with a sword, the new Mulan already possesses these skills because she’s naturally had these abilities since she was a child. This reduces the gravity and greatness of Mulan’s decision to take her father’s place in battle almost to nothing, considering she never had any physical limitations that would have placed her at risk in the first place.
Mulan’s supernatural abilities reduce the gravity of her decision to take her father’s place almost to nothing.
This is my primary issue with Disney’s new and “improved” Mulan — it subconsciously tells women and young girls that without some kind of superpower, such a sacrifice, as was made by the original Mulan, would be far beneath the ability of a real woman. The entire crux of the original Mulan's story was that she was an average woman, she had no skills, and she was literally signing her death warrant by taking her father’s place due to that reality. The addition of superhuman abilities to the new Mulan takes away the gravity of her decision, and it’s a backhanded slap to any young girl or woman who has looked to Mulan’s original depiction as an inspiring role model for courageous self-sacrifice.
The Feminism of Mulan Is Part of a Bad Trend at Disney
You might say that the new Mulan is an isolated incident, a superhuman character designed to pander to the Chinese audience Disney continues to court. However, we’ve seen this very famously from another floundering Disney franchise: Star Wars.
Disney seems to think that the only way to portray strong female characters is to make them unrealistic.
The character of Rey, in particular, has been highly criticized for her lack of depth as a character, plot armor, and inability to do wrong, all major characteristics of the infamous “Mary Sue.” Disney seems to be under this impression that the only way they can portray strong female characters is by stripping them of any element that makes them flawed or imperfect, thereby stripping them of any characteristic that might make us believe in their humanity.
True Feminism in Film Is Achievable
When I think of strong female characters, I want to see women who overcome natural and realistic obstacles that others can relate to in the real world.
In Frank Capra’s classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Jean Arthur plays a cynical woman who has to overcome her jaded view of politics and turn her knowledge of the industry into a winning political strategy. In the movie Made for Each Other, Carole Lombard portrays a woman who must overcome poor financial decisions and avoid an impending divorce after she rushes into a marriage with a man she barely knows. And let’s not forget Disney’s Belle, who is able to change the heart of her hideous captor.
I want to see women who overcome realistic obstacles that others can relate to in the real world.
Hollywood can and has created beautiful, compelling, and realistic women on screen in the past; if true feminists start holding moviemakers’ feet to the fire, they will again.
As much as I enjoy watching superheroes fight each other on the big screen, it would be nice to see some balance between the superhuman and the average individual. Women can do amazing things, make incredible sacrifices, and lead nations without the need for supernatural abilities. Women are not shallow, emotionless, or without fault. It’s time that Disney, and Hollywood as a whole, acknowledged this and presented us with real characters that celebrate women’s ability to overcome adversity in spite of their flaws or physical limitations.
For more about my thoughts on Mulan, check out my YouTube review here.