Ruining Your Favorite Movies: part II
Female characters in movies are rare enough. What’s worse is that the female characters we do have so often communicate such terrible messages that it’s almost better not to have them at all. Disney princess movies are an especially easy target for such criticism. Even Belle, the bookish uppity woman who rebuffed Gaston, lives out the dangerous mantra that too many battered women recite to themselves- “If I love him enough he will change!” Yikes.
But then, Mulan! She is perfect right? She is a Strong Female Character! Initially the victim of a patriarchal society, she takes action on behalf of the people she loves. The movie shows us how girls are only valued for being pretty and having babies- and intimates that this is a Bad Thing. What’s more is Mulan actually does pretty well at taking action. Even when her charade is revealed, she keeps on keeping on. The movie eventually has the characters make use of the society’s sexism against the bad guys (see where the guys dress up as concubines to get past the guards at the palace). What’s more is that for as often as Mulan is saved by someone else, she turns around and does some saving herself.
There are a few unsavory things about Mulan, and the primary one is said under the guise of praise for her by the Emperor right there in the movie itself: “You only meet a girl like that once every dynasty.” In other words Mulan succeeded because she was a special special snowflake. All the other girls? They’re good for looking pretty and having babies. Mulan could do all the things the guys could do because she was an exceptional woman. The unspoken message there is that women have a place, and only a few exceptional women are allowed to leave it.
Another unsavory message is that patriarchy, and stuffing women into boxes, is something Other People do. It is not coincidental to me that the Disney movies which are most forthright about condemning institutional sexism are also the Disney movies which take place in non-Anglo/European settings (Aladdin, and Mulan). The only condemnable forms of sexism are comfortably wrapped up in a culture that looks little to nothing like what the presumed audience lives with daily, and/or closely identifies with. This way we can feel good about promoting Girl Power! while not having to worry about our kids** rejecting our own cultural mores.
Lastly, the movie just could not leave well enough alone. Mulan saved China, defeated the Huns, earned the praise of the Emperor, and learned that her Dad loved her even though she was bad at being a girl. But it just couldn’t end until she had a man too. Every so often there is a movie or book that has both male and female leads that don’t end up paired off by the end of it. Those are rare gems that will help boys and girls see each other as peers and friends rather than strictly as potential mates.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather plunk a little kid down in front of Mulan than in front of, say, Sleeping Beauty. But that said, I’d rather plunk a kid down in front of My Neighbor Totoro than Mulan. So what are we to do when even the rare and elusive strong female characters fall prey to reinforcing sexism? My personal sentiments are to “enjoy the entertainment, but chew before you swallow,” which is to say that one can enjoy a movie, or book or whatever, but be sure to critically examine it and the messages it promotes.
* Part I was my first post here over a year ago.
** I say kids specifically, rather than just daughters. We all seem alert to the damage some things can have to girls, but many of us over look the damage observing sexism can have on boys too. Restricting this message to girls is fighting only half the battle.