Ruminating on Mulan’s queerness 20 years later

5 mins read

In honor of Mulan‘s 20th anniversary, people all over the internet reflect on its importance, relevance, and, yes, queerness.

Mulan has always been the best of Disney princesses, which is to say, she’s not a princess at all — not only is she literally not connected to royal blood or ever placed in the role of royalty, but she doesn’t follow the same narrative rules as Disney princesses, with male love interests tricking her, flocking after her, or saving her. She wears men’s clothing for most of her movie. There’s no evil step-mother or witch keeping her locked in a tower. The closest Disney’s gotten since to this is Moana, but even Moana has a somewhat “royal” heritage and has to grapple with leadership in the wake of that.

Mulan is, simply, Mulan, working her way through the ways she doesn’t fit in as a woman and can’t fit in as a man, the ways she must hold her tongue or suffer consequences, and dealing with a very personal story (rescuing her father from certain death in the army) that only becomes global because our hero knows she alone has the knowledge that can save the emperor.

When most people think queerness and Mulan, they think of Shang, who’s been a bisexual icon in internet circles for quite some time now. But even besides this fan-rewritten character, Mulan’s queerness shows up in the woman herself. Over at Shondaland, Jes Tom writes about the queerness inherent in Mulan’s search for identity:

As Mulan acknowledges this failure in “Reflection,” she poses a question that most trans people know intimately: “When will my reflection show who I am inside?” And what exactly would that reflection be? If Mulan isn’t a woman, then who (or what) is she?

The physical reflection’s mismatch with the inner self is a struggle queer people know intimately. Only a short time ago I entered the soft butch age in many queer ladies’ lives of button-ups and oxfords at work. But while Tom relates to Mulan through their experience with gender identity and presentation, I think about my own experiences being a difficult daughter for my father to understand, one who resisted his politics and asserted myself unabashedly when it came to feminist theory and my own body growing up. I didn’t come into my queerness until I moved out of my parents’ home, and, like Mulan, my confrontation with my father after the change was tearful. In the movie, she kneels before him, averting her eyes and presenting the sword of Shan Yu, which he knocks aside, only to tell her he is proudest of having her as a daughter. I came out to my dad over the phone, preparing to be met with confusion and disdain only to realize he was crying as he told me to always be myself and that he loved me.

This 20th-anniversary reckoning also comes on the heels of Disney’s revelation that Shang, the aforementioned bisexual icon, won’t even be in the live action remake. Disney disappoints queer fans again and again, from queer coding villain after villain to retroactively applying queerness out of the sight of kids to expecting a pat on the back for replicating lazy sidekick stereotypes, but the nice thing about queer fandom is that it finds a way.

What Disney wants you to read into Mulan is female empowerment. For them, there is no transness in Mulan but rather an acceptance of her masculinity as a woman. There’s no bisexuality in Shang, just the banal heteronormative understanding that when friendship is experienced with a woman, it means you should date (even if that friendship is identical to the one you otherwise shared with a man). It’s not as if they are queer baiting us with Mulan’s story because it can be read in this very straightforward, and straight, lens, with meaning beyond that which fits into the lives of queer fans. But queer fans will find ways to connect with characters who bend the rules of gender and haphazardly fall in love with their friends all the same.

Rachelle Martin is a writer, media analyst and graduate student at the University of Southern California. You can find her rewatching her favorite kid's shows, writing furiously about gender, and weeping over the ‘folklore’ album. She is always wearing a sweater.

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