It probably would have been a healthy obsession in my case—stopping after a few cute Halloween costumes, some fairly awkward conversations with animals, and an assortment of charming husbands—had it not been for Mulan.
I knew there was no going back from the moment I first watched it. I went from wearing plastic tiaras to whacking my brothers with sticks faster than you can say, “The Huns have invaded China.” Maybe it was the lucky cricket. Maybe it was the silly grandmother. It was probably Mushu. But I like to think that it was watching Mulan discover herself with a sword in hand, rather than in ballroom slippers.
Let’s fast-forward (a shamefully small amount of time) to the present.
Now that I am much older and think about things (before hitting them with sticks), I have long since come to the conclusion that I was merely drawn to a strong, empowered female character. Done. That was easy.
Events transpired, however.
I recently stumbled upon something called the Bechdel Test, which is an unofficial measure of female portrayal in films.
Here is a 20-second history to get you up to speed:
The Bechdel Test was invented by Alison Bechdel and came from a comic titled “The Rule” in her series Dykes to Watch Out For (pictured here).
A movie must meet three very simple criteria in order to pass:
- It must have two female characters (with names)
- They must have a conversation with each other
- That conversation must be about something other than a man
It sounds laughably easy to pass, but it turns out that 69% of IMDB’s top films fail that simple little test.
I’ll admit I was doubtful. I read through page after page about it.
I bet you have a favourite movie, they said. Look it up, they said. YOU WILL BE SUPPRISED BY WHAT DOESN’T PASS, they said.
So I looked it up. I saw a little green check mark next to Mulan. Hah, thought I, and gave my laptop a smug little smile. I was confident in my superior judgement. I was about to move on when the words “although dubious” caught my eye.
How could Mulan be dubious? She was the pinnacle of female kickassery, the definition of feisty and unafraid, a raw, unadulterated shock of battle tactics and brute force with some kooky chicken feeding methods to boot. What could possibly be lacking?
Well, it seems that the female conversation was very scant in Mulan. Yes, there was some chit-chat between female ancestors, but they were unnamed. Yes, there was some mother/daughter/grandmother musical numbers, but those all circled around getting ready for the matchmaker to find a good husband. And yes, the protagonist was FEMALE but get this: Mushu had more lines in the film than Mulan did.
Here’s how the movie scraped by:
Fa Li: I should have prayed to the ancestors for luck.
Grandmother Fa: How lucky can they be? They’re dead. Besides, I’ve got all the luck we’ll need.
Fa Li: Grandma, no!
Grandmother Fa: Yep! This cricket’s a lucky one!
How progressive for the dark ages of 1998.
So I re-watched Mulan and came to the conclusion that in terms of women’s representation, it’s far from perfect. But then again, so is the Bechdel Test.
Although there was an utter lack of meaningful, non-male-related conversations between women in the movie, it’s not a stretch to attribute some of that to the largely (and in this case logically) male cast. Not to mention that this test doesn’t take into account the historical context, in which Mulan shows considerable independence and strength of character compared to the rest of the female cast as well as her fellow warriors. So perhaps this test is superficial, but it’s not entirely wrong.
Re-watching Mulan, I realized it wasn’t the perfect embodiment of female power I once believed it to be. Mulan says very few noteworthy things over the course of the movie, and the speaking parts are all largely male. Mulan is fighting for the greater glory of China, but the victory of the movie is more about winning the Emperor’s and her father’s approval, and Li Shang’s admiration.
I’m sad to say that I could summarize Mulan by saying, “Girl pretends to be a man, girl successfully blends in and is a very good man, girl wins huge victory for China and is offered a place as a woman in a man’s world but rejects it to return to domesticity. Then girl gets boy.”
That being said, for me, this movie will always be full of important victories: the cross-dressing imperial army, a Disney princess in armour, the most flattering of compliments (“Um… you… fight good.”), and an unlikely girl showing up all the boys.
But maybe I’ll make room for new heroes.
-Contributed by Katie Schmidt