The Disney animation movie Mulan (1998) shows perfectly how gender is not a one-way street. The movie begins with Mulan entering the Chinese army to fight for her family and prevent her father from going to war. It is there, where she meets the handsome army commander Shang that is trying to prepare the group to fight against the Huns.
On their journey, Mulan and Shang learn to trust and be there for each other. While all of this is developing Mulan is pretending to be a man to be able to be accepted in the army in the first place.
Although we never explicitly see Shang having feelings for Mulan before he gets to know that she is a woman we see their relationship strengthening during the story. The question that Mulan is asking him after he acts differently around her, “You said you trust Ping. Why is Mulan any different?”,(Ping being her undercover male name) underlines the triviality of gender when it comes to human connection, in particular love.
There are multiple moments where the intimacy of their relationship is getting hinted at even before Shang finds out that Mulan has been a woman all along. His admiration after Mulan proves him wrong and overseeds his expectation or his concern over her after she gets wounded are just some of many examples.
Consequently, fans were very upset when Disney announced that General Li Shang would not be part of the new Live-Action Remake of the movie. It was a decision that minimised queer representation in the media and disappointed viewers that were looking up to their fictional childhood role models.
Mulan not only was the first movie in my childhood that made me understand that it is possible to fight for your own believes no matter what obstacles you might face as a woman but also enhanced the insignificance of labels, especially in matters of the heart.
Throughout the movie, we see both Mulan and Shang struggle in their own ways. Mulan tries to prove that she can fight in the army, regardless of her gender, and Shang attempts to train a whole group for the first time, with the pressure of making a name for himself and protecting the country.
Their relationship is based on respect, trust and solidarity before love is even a matter of discussion. Both stay true to their characters and beliefs at the end and impress each other with their dedication to fight for the right cause. The love story is not the centre of attention. Moreover, the film accentuates the personal development that both characters go through. The movie is about finding yourself in a world where everyone tells you who you should be.
Furthermore, Mulan suggests her fellow soldiers dress up as women and in order to get access to the attacked palace in that way. She challenges traditional roles once again and is able to protect the dynasty by thinking outside of the box. This is one of the turning points in the movie where the past actions of the protagonist are mirrored. She shows the men that her cross-dressing had a purpose.
No matter how old I am this movie reminds me of never giving up and staying true to myself. Before I was aware of the label “queer” this film showed me that love is not defined by gender or sex. Love unites and is meant to challenge our pre-existing prejudices and attitudes. It is meant to broaden our horizons and takedown borders. If a Disney movie can do that, so can we! Don’t you agree?
(Featured Image Credit: Ksenia Degtyareva)