Mulan is a young Chinese girl who, after learning that the Chinese empire requires every family’s male to fight against the invasion of the Huns, she decides to volunteer in order to save her old and weak father, but as only males are allowed to go to war, she impersonates a male in order to be accepted (Mulan 1998).
What is peculiar to Mulan is that she does not comply with the feminine standards of her society (Jones 2015), as she is an outspoken, resourceful and bold woman, in comparison with the woman’s features expected by the society: “Quiet, demure, graceful, polite, delicate, refined, poised and punctual” (Mulan 1998). Therefore, she has to reject completely her feminine side in order to be accepted by a society (2015), in which women are considered passive, second-class citizens.
Ideology is “a system or collection of views and values shared by a certain group of people” (Brown 2015, p. 156). All the films contain ideology, as they are determined by the ideology of the person or the people who produce them, and because they are based on the reproduction of events, which is subject to human interpretation (Herd 2013).
This film conveys conflicting messages: On the one hand, the society reflects the dominant ideology regarding gender roles. Dominant ideology is defined as a set of ideas and beliefs that represent and privilege the more powerful social groups (Brown 2015, p.159). We can see this in several aspects of the film:
First of all, the form of government is an empire, an undemocratic system where the leader is elected by blood ties and is considered a kind of living god. However, the people seem to be happy with this fact, as they sing “We all must serve our emperor” (Mulan 1998).
Secondly, women are considered second-class citizens whose only expectation in life is being the pretty and obedient wife of a man, which will bring honour to the family (“With good fortune and a great hairdo, you’ll bring honour to us all”, “a girl can bring her family great honour in one way: by striking a good match”, “men want girls, with good taste, calm, obedient, who work fast-paced, with good breeding and tiny waist” (Mulan 1998)). In this patriarchal society, women’s opinion is not worth anything and is even discredited, they cannot speak for their own, but rather they must remain silent and subjugated to men (“You would do well to teach your daughter to hold her tongue in a man’s presence” (1998)). For instance, when Mulan saves the whole country from the Huns, her deed is detracted: When her captain says that “She is a hero”, the Emperor’s counsellor says that “She is a woman. She’ll never be worth anything.” (1998) Another example is when men are singing how they would like their women to be: One says that he wants her “paler than the moon, with eyes that shine like stars”, and another soldier says that “It all depends on what she cooks like” (1998). However, when Mulan asks them “How about a girl who’s got a brain, who always speaks her mind?”, they answer “Nah!” (1998) Finally, when Mulan is trying to convince her folk that some Huns have not died and are coming, she is not listened by anyone, and the dragon explains her: “You are a girl, remember?” (1998).
Finally, men are depicted as heroes who, in times of war, sacrifice in order to fight for their country. This is the way they bring honour, whereas women bring it “by bearing songs” (Mulan 1998). This reinforces the passive role of women and the active character of men. Furthermore, men have to be strong (“be a man, with all the force of a great typhoon; be a man, with all the strength of a raging fire” (1998)), and cannot show their emotions. When Mulan learns that her father has to go to war, she gets down in the dumps and starts crying, whereas when the captain’s father dies, he does not shed a single tear, and seems to repress his sadness. In addition, when Mulan succeeds in doing a difficult task, she is said “I knew you could do it, you are a man” (1998), which conveys the idea that men are almighty and capable of everything. To finish with, the Dragon says that in order to fit in the men’s group, she needs to punch them, because “that is how men say hello” (1998) (even though it is an exaggeration, it perfectly describes men’s gender role).
All these examples that we have seen are negative ideological messages, because instead of challenging negative deep-seated values, they reinforce them. However, not all the messages that the film conveys are negative. Mulan is eventually accepted by her male friend and even the emperor for who she is. This conveys the idea that there is no need to be a man in order to succeed (even though it will be infinitely harder for women to do so), and that although one does not meet the expectations, they can still be accepted. Therefore, this last ideological message can be considered subversive, because it challenges, contradicts and undermines the dominant ideology (Brown 2015, p.159), namely, the patriarchy.
It is important to mention that all these messages are communicated in an implicit way, and are therefore passive. This is how most messages are expressed, especially in children movies. On the contrary, surface ideologies would be consciously communicated through films narratives (Brown 2015, p.159), such as in Westerns or patriotic films.
Finally, the reaction of the viewer to the ideological messages of the film will determine the dominant, resistant or negotiated reading. In these case, I have made both a dominant and resistant reading. On the one hand, I have rejected some intended meanings of the film’s creator (Warren 2015, p. 282) such as the representation of women and men, and have come up with my own alternative and conflicting ideas. On the other hand, I have made a dominant reading when I have accepted the idea that there is no need to be a man in order to be accepted by society and that one should be accepted despite not meeting the expectations of society.
Brown, A 2015, ‘Reading Film: Techniques, Identification and Ideology’, in T Chalkley, M Hobbs, A Brown, T Cinque, B Warren & M Finn (eds), Communication, digital media and everyday life, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, pp. 155-169.
Herd, S 2013, ‘Implicit and Explicit Ideology in Film’, Cinema and Sociey. Steven Herd, 4th April 2013, retrieved 1st January 2017, <https://steveherd.wordpress.com/2013/04/09/implicit-and-explicit-ideology-in-film/>.
Jones, L 2015, Masculinity and the Disney Princess, The Artifice, retrieved 1 st January 2017, <http://the-artifice.com/masculinity- disney-princess/>.
Mulan 1998, film, Walt Disney Pictures, United States.
Warren, B 2015, ‘Reality TV and Constructed Reality’, in T Chalkley, M Hobbs, A Brown, T Cinque, B Warren & M Finn (eds), Communication, digital media and everyday life, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, pp. 273-285.