This parent-child discussion guide for Walt Disney Studios’ Mulan is a supplement to The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls through the Princess-Obsessed Years.
Mulan (1995): A parent-child discussion guide
by Elline Lipkin, Ph.D., and Rebecca Hains, Ph.D.
Elline Lipkin is a scholar, poet, and nonfiction writer who has also worked as an editor for a variety of newspapers, magazines, and journals. Her first book, The Errant Thread, was chosen by Eavan Boland to receive the Kore Press First Book Award and was published in 2006. Her second book, Girls’ Studies, was published by Seal Press in 2009. Endorsed by Peggy Orenstein and part of the Seal Studies series, Girls’ Studies explores the state of contemporary girlhood in the United States and how gender is imprinted from birth forward.
At the start of this film, main character Mulan is being groomed to meet the village matchmaker. Unhappy about the prospect of entering into marriage, she sings about how the feminine traits attributed to the role of wife are not those that feel natural to her. Her visit to the matchmaker ends in disgrace for her mother and grandmother, but relief for Mulan.
Shortly thereafter, war is declared between the Chinese and the Huns and an army representative comes to Mulan’s village to declare that one male from each family must serve. Mulan is aghast when she realizes her father, a former war hero who has been wounded, plans to enlist. She decides to disguise herself as a man and take his place instead. During basic military training Mulan keeps her identity secret and participates in all the challenges the men undergo. In a pivotal battle scene with the Huns she saves the life of her commander, Li Shang. But, after she is wounded, her true identity is revealed. Her life is spared only because she has saved Shang’s life, and he considers this a debt repaid. She is then abandoned by the army on a snowy mountainside.
Left to fend for herself, Mulan suddenly realizes the Huns are still nearby and, in fact, poised to attack. She rushes to the city and tries to warn everyone but they won’t listen to her because she’s female. Finally, she is able to convince Shang that the Emperor is in danger and conceives of the plan that saves him. Her daring and ingenuity lead to triumph and, ultimately, the entire crowd bows down to her as she is offered a seat on the city council. She returns to her village a heroine who has “saved” her family’s honor as well as the emperor. As the film concludes Shang shyly visits in hopes of becoming her suitor.
Here are some suggestions for discussion, roughly categorized by age level. Use these as a rough guide: tailor them to your own child’s level.
1. The Pretty Princess Mandate
This film presents an opportunity to speak with kids about how Disney presents gender stereotypes and how Mulan moves in and out of states of compliance and defiance with them. When the story begins, Mulan clearly is unhappy about how she must change (in physical appearance and behavior) to be presented to the matchmaker. She also mentions that she must hide her “true self.”
With children ages 4 and 5, comment on what qualities Mulan seems to initially exhibit in the film and how she is transformed in appearance and behavior against her will. Be as specific as possible. Here are some examples:
- “Mulan seems unhappy about going to the matchmaker. It’s too bad she has to change the way she looks and acts before seeing the matchmaker.”
- “It’s too bad Mulan has to hide her true self. She doesn’t seem very happy after visiting the matchmaker, either, even though she got a makeover. I think she just wants to be herself.”
- At one point during the film, Mulan’s father is told that he should “teach your daughter to hold her tongue in a man’s presence.” You can talk back at the screen, perhaps saying something like, “That’s not fair! Girls have important voices, too.”
- “Wow, Mulan is able to use her body with more freedom once she’s dressed in pants like the men. She can go into battle and run around in ways she wouldn’t have been able to in her hanfu dress. I think the same thing is true at school and on the playground. Girls can play in so many more ways when they’re wearing pants!”
With children ages 6 to 8, feel free to make these observations while co-viewing, then plan a conversation about expectations that surround stereotypical femininity and the ways in which girls are valued in relationship to their marriageability. For example, you might say:
- “I noticed that at the beginning of Mulan, she has to change her dress, wear makeup, and display more graceful physical mannerisms. What do you think about that?”
- “When Mulan spills tea all over the matchmaker, her mother and grandmother are very upset. What do you think pouring tea is supposed to test?”
- “One quality the movie says that a ‘dutiful wife’ performs is bearing sons. That makes it sound like boys are more important than girls. That’s not right!”
- “Mulan’s marriage is described as something that will bring ‘honor’ to her family. What if someone chooses to never marry? I think people can find happiness either way—a lot of people stay single nowadays. What do you think?”
2. War and Male Stereotypes
The presence of an army, basic training, and several battle scenes are a chance to explore some of the dynamics of war and gender expectations around masculinity. Consider this an opportunity to comment on the ways in which the male figures are also stereotyped and why Mulan must cross-dress in order to access the privileges available to men.
- “It’s brave of Mulan to volunteer to serve in her Dad’s place and disguise herself. She seems able to keep up with the boys who are training as well. And, later, she saves her commander’s life. That’s the way things really are: Girls can be as strong as boys and can be just as good soldiers!”
- “When Mulan decides she wants to swim in the water to get clean, she’s called ‘girly’ — but then three other soldiers jump in the water as well. It’s silly to call some actions ‘girly’ and say that some are just ‘for boys’!”
Making it real:
- If your child plays with action figures or has military-type toys consider looking at the packaging on the boxes and pointing out how often only boys are pictured, and note that with many women serving in the military and other uniformed roles today, it’s unfair for girls to be left out.
- Look at the J. Crew ad in which a mother is painting her son’s toenails and show it to your child, explaining that even though people consider nail polish to be a girls’ product, some boys like nail polish, too–and that’s okay!
For children ages 6 to 8, who may have already been exposed to films or video games about conflict or have seen examples about soldiers or war, consider adding in more nuanced comments about how the male figures are stereotyped. Consider the following ideas as a way to begin a longer discussion:
- “The soldiers sing, ‘I’ll make a man out of you’ during their training. What do you think it means to ‘act like a man’ in the army? What about in everyday life?”
- When Mulan returns to the city to warn everyone about the Huns, she hears, “No one will listen, sister — you’re a girl, remember?” Ask your child, “What did you think when you heard that no one would listen to Mulan just because she’s a girl?”
Making it real:
- Discuss that it’s unfair for certain traits to be considered “typical” for men only and for women only. You might point out that “girly” is used as an insult, and how unfair that is—that boys will be told they “throw like a girl” or told to “stop crying like a girl.” When you’re out in public, look for examples of billboards, magazine covers, or other media sources that portray men and boys in stereotypically aggressive ways—almost never in the sensitive ways women are shown—and talk back, calling out the stereotypes you see.
- Also notice that on television commercials, the vast majority of narrators are male. This is because masculine voices are considered to be the voice of authority. You could count how many narrators in a commercial break are men and how many are women and see if there’s a difference in which types of commercials have female narrators (e.g., are they products for cleaning supplies and child care items?).
3. The Romance Narrative
Mulan says in the film that she wants to “look into the mirror and see someone worthwhile.” This is a good opportunity to ask your child if this automatically means a feminized figure who is in need of a husband. Does she achieve this in the end? Ask your child what he or she thinks “being true to herself” means for her? If appropriate, ask your child what he or she thinks is typical to attract others.
For children ages 4 and 5, point out that when Shang comes courting Mulan, his behavior seems different. “I noticed that at the end of the movie, Shang’s body posture has changed, and he speaks in a stuttering way. He seems embarrassed. That’s too bad—he has nothing to be embarrassed about!”
You could also explain: “When Mulan returns home with her sword and medal, her grandmother comments ‘She should have brought home a man,’ meaning a husband would have been a more desirable ‘prize.’ I think that’s too bad—she has saved China and will now serve on an important council. Those are great things!”
For children ages 6 to 8, you might comment: “In the song ‘A girl worth fighting for,’ they joke about wanting to impress ‘a girl who has a brain and always speaks her mind’–but quickly say ‘Nah!’, as if the idea of being with a smart girl who speaks up for herself is a funny joke. That suggests they want a girl who’s not very smart and quiet. But what do you think it would be like to spend all your time with someone who’s not very smart and doesn’t say much? Would that be very interesting?”
4. Racial Stereotypes and Teaching Children About Media Creation
The Chinese and the Huns are characterized very differently in their physical attributes, with the Huns portrayed in a racist way that depicts them as only semi-human. Their portrayal is therefore quite frightening—and this, of course, is a deliberate decision on the part of the filmmakers.
On the topic of the Huns’ racist portrayal, you might consider comments such as the following: “I don’t think it’s fair that the people who made the movie Mulan made the Huns look scary like monsters with yellow eyes and enormous shoulders. The real Huns didn’t really look very different from the Chinese. I think the filmmakers just wanted them to look as scary as possible so the audience would worry more about Mulan and her friends.”
On the topic of the changes to the Mulan story for the film, you can explain that Mulan is based on an actual 6th-century legend and poem, and that nowhere in the original text is there mention of a matchmaker, marriage, or a romance theme. You might ask, “Let’s think about Disney’s other movies and try to figure something out: Why would Disney want to add a romance to the story of Mulan?”
You could also locate a copy of the original text (it’s brief and widely anthologized), read it aloud with your child, and discuss other ways in which Disney has deviated from the original. This could prompt discussions on other interesting topics, such as what constitutes a heroine today or what is considered a truly brave action.