Disney’s Mulan: A Dark Film Rife with Racism, Sexism, and Questionable Morals

For this assignment, I decided to watch and review the 1998 animated film “Mulan” and criticize the hell out of it. Let me preface this blog post by saying that this is one of my all time favorite Disney movies, so pretty much none of the following are really my beliefs. But it was fun to put on such a negative attitude while watching the movie.

First off, this film is certainly a lot darker than the average animated Disney flick. It opens with the murder of a nameless soldier and the invasion of China. The entire film is about war. Mulan is the only Disney princess with a body count. And Disney doesn’t shy away from the violence too much, either. When the soldiers come across the destroyed village in the mountains, there are no bodies or wounded civilians, but the houses are all in ruins, the sky is blood red, and Mulan finds a doll on the ground—hinting that everyone, even children, has died. And then the frame widens to reveal the rest of the carnage, and there are a few seconds in the shot of dead soldiers and horses as far as the eye can see. For Disney—that’s pretty dark stuff. Although no one is really shown dying on screen, there are several instances like the subtext with the doll, where viewers are meant to understand that someone is being killed. For instance, when the Huns capture two Imperial soldiers, the Hun leader, Shan Yu sends them away to tell their commanding officers that the Huns are coming. As the two soldiers flee, Shan Yu turns to an archer and asks, “How many men does it take to deliver a message?” The archer replies, “One.” And smirks as he shoots an arrow. I can see many smaller children getting upset over instances like this, especially if they weren’t prepared for it. And who would think to prepare a child for so much darkness before sitting down to watch a Disney movie?

Secondly, this is another Disney film that deals with other cultures—outside of the traditional European folk/fairytale that they are so comfortable with. And it has to be asked—how much of the Chinese culture portrayed in the film is authentic, and how much is Disney’s and America’s perception of Chinese culture?

The most stereotyped characters are the annoying council member Chi Fu, the Emperor himself, and the villain. In the case of Chi Fu, the character is drawn like a racist caricature, and his voice actor has one of the most pronounced and heavy accents. He is annoying and pompous, and most often used for comedic effect. Other characters make fun of him, and he is portrayed as less manly than any of the other soldiers. The Emperor, though certainly a “good guy”, often sounds like he is quoting from slips of paper inside fortune cookies, with his many wise, cryptic sayings.

The villainous Shan Yu, and the rest of the Huns, are dehumanized extensively. Shan Yu is grey-faced and yellow-eyed with long, pointed fingernails like claws, and pointed fang-like teeth. He is also very hulking and animal-like, with seemingly super-human strength, and his constant hanging from trees and the roofs, of buildings. But, it’s all right for Disney to villainize the Huns—they’re not really around as a people anymore!

All of these examples may not seem so bad on their own, except that they are contrasted against the rest of the characters, who, while still being Asian, are a much less over-the-top portrayal of their ethnicity. Mulan has paler skin than any of the other characters, as well as rounder eyes. The hunky male lead, Captain Li Shang has a square jaw and no trace of an Asian accent.

Thirdly, the biggest problem in the movie is the constant enforcing of both male and female stereotypes. While many cite “Mulan” as a feminist film, there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The first song, “Honor To Us All”, has the following lyrics: “A girl can bring her family great honor in one way, by striking a good match, and this could be the day. Men want girls with good taste, calm, obedient, who work fast-paced. With good breeding and a tiny waist…” Mulan’s only worth is in how suitable she is for marriage and domestic life. And while she doesn’t necessarily fit in at home, or do well when she meets the matchmaker for assessment, it is still something she wants. The shame and sadness is clear on her face when she returns home after disgracing her family with the matchmaker.

Additionally, there are a number of other times in the movie where “girl” is used as an insult. When Mulan is found out as a woman, Chi Fu says, “I knew there was something wrong with you! A woman!” and later he says, “She’ll never be worth anything! She’s a woman!” When she is about to be executed for impersonating a soldier, at first her friends plead for her life, until Chi Fu reminds them that it is the law, at which point they stop trying to save her and merely watch sadly. And in the Imperial City, Mulan discovers that no one will listen to her warnings that the Huns are still alive because, as her sidekick Mushu puts it, “you’re a girl again”.  All of this points to the clear message that women are worth less than men. And if you would argue that Mulan proves her worth by becoming a soldier and saving her country, it must be remembered that she did it all, as a man and not as a woman.

The enforcing of gender roles applies for men as well in this movie, though not to the same degree. The song “Be A Man”, while undeniably catchy, seems to suggest both that all men and only men should be “swift as a coursing river, [have] all the force of a great typhoon, …the strength of a raging fire, and [be] mysterious as the dark side of the moon”. Mulan embracing these ideas and becoming the best soldier in the camp only shows that she “became a man” in order to do so.

Finally, it could be argued that the film promotes the idea that the ends justify the means. Mulan “ran away from home, impersonated a soldier, deceived her commanding officer, dishonored the Chinese Army, destroyed the Emperor’s palace…”  BUT she also saved them all, so that makes it okay. Plus, she was “true to her heart” in doing all of it.  Imagine if she hadn’t saved China. She would have had to suffer some pretty serious consequences! The overall message of the film seems to be that it’s alright to defy your parents, lie to your superiors, etc… as long as it is all for a good cause, and as long as you’re being true to what you believe to be right, which is certainly not a good message for children to be left with.

16 thoughts on “Disney’s Mulan: A Dark Film Rife with Racism, Sexism, and Questionable Morals

  1. bee says:

    You would mock a bee colony for the way you look at a cartoon movie. Of course this would mean your brain would have to be bigger than a bees brain which I doubt.

    • w00tandyay says:

      This is my favorite comment of all time. Of everything I have ever posted online– youtube videos, art, writing, blog posts… No comment has ever been as adorably surreal as this one. Thank you. I love you.

  2. Cindy Wong says:

    Don’t forget the blatant ignorance of Chinese culture. If anyone had hugged the emperor the way Mulan did in China, they’d probably be executed, hero or no hero.

  3. Sarah S. says:

    Hmm but all the sexism is shown to contrast with Mulan’s actual worth… to show how the widely-held cultural belief that women are only good for marriage is wrong… that’s the whole point. The part that made me cringe was definitely hugging the emperor, though… that just felt really “Western” to me. I agree with Cindy.

  4. Actually, I have vastly different views of this. I think the song that played while Mulan got ready to see the matchmaker was trying to show that back then, especially in China (and this is neither racist nor stereotypical. I have researched and back in the time period where Mulan was, women were only meant to breed sons and that was all they were worth), women were only good as wives. Mulan was sad she couldn’t fit into this role, but not because she wanted to be a good wife – she wanted to please her family. She didn’t care whether she brought honor to them by being a wife or being in the army, she just wanted to bring them honor period, but she couldn’t do that any other way because of the time period. The song isn’t trying to be sexist, it’s trying to show how Mulan doesn’t fit in to the sexist views of women back then, and how she defied the song by bringing honor to her family in a different way than being obedient, calm, and a good wife. It’s meant to defy the sexist views that many characters stated throughout the movie. When the men ignored her warnings, Mushu pointing out that Mulan was a girl again was also meant to show that as a girl she was said to have no worth. But Mulan proves every sexist thing in the movie wrong by saving China. That was the whole point- people called her worthless for being a girl, for not being able to be a good, obedient wife. They didn’t believe in her intelligence or strength or worth because she was a woman, and she failed to be a good wife. By saving China she proved them wrong. I think you missed the big idea of the movie. They put in those sexist songs and words (“She’s a woman, she’s not worth anything!”) on purpose to show a woman does have worth and has more things to do in life than being a wife. I agree, the movie was darker than most Disney ones, but I came to appreciate that as I got older, and even as I child I liked it because it showed not everything was happy and bright. Guess I was a weird child.

  5. Rebecca says:

    Why do people always miss the point? Yes the songs, every one of them, are SUPER sexist on both accounts. BUT THAT IS THE POINT! You say the first song is offensive about the roles of women, and yes it is true, but the point is to show the culture women were forced into. Didn’t you notice on her walk to the matchmaker she didn’t act like the perfect porcelain doll? she helped the guy win chess and gave the girl back her doll. She didn’t want to live that life but she wanted to no uproot her family tree and to keep her father standing tall. what is a girl to do when honour is that important and in her society there is only 1 way? Well Mulan broke tradition to do what’s right.

    in a girl worth fighting for, people seem to miss the irony that these guys are all singing about the ideal women, WITH a woman! They are meant to sound ridiculous which is even seen in the second (al beit much worse) movie where the matchmaker says they have no personalities and they have unrealistic views of women. It’s all exaggerated.

    in I’ll make a man out of you, once again the irony is that the ‘manliest’ of all was a woman. They are in war and the fighting is necessary. the point is that being a man isn’t what’s important. “did they send me daughters when I asked for sons?” HELL YES! and she kicks ass saves theirs over and over again so clearly being a ‘man’ doesn’t mean being male. it’s irony and even as a child I could pick that out!

    as far as chi fu goes with the whole woman thing, he was FIRED! everyone stood up for her as a woman, who killed shan yu AS A WOMAN, and was bowed to by everyone AS A WOMAN. she was even offered a prestigious and traditionally male job.

    also, part of the movie’s message is about the consequences of war. yes it’s dark, but so is war and that’s the message. have you ever watched frollo’s song hellfire from hunchback of notre dame? he’s literally singing about burning a woman if she doesn’t reciprocate his love. in terms of the asianness of the movie, it’s true, no accents, but what’s a movie to do? you got to be able to understand the characters!

    • w00tandyay says:

      Thanks for reading, and I appreciate your feedback, but did you miss the first paragraph? The bolded, italicized, BRIGHT RED LETTERING? I wrote this for a college assignment. ‘Mulan’ is one of my favorite Disney films of all time, and none of the things I say in this blog post are actually my beliefs. That was the assignment.

    • Anonymous says:

      Screw irony! Those songs are damn sexist.

  6. Anna says:

    Well… a lot of what you said was true in a way, and I realize these aren’t you real views, but I’d like to point out that.. what you said about the song Honor to Us All and the whole “she is a girl she’s not worth anything” seems like a satire to me. The lyrics of the song have always seemed like its a foreshadow of what Mulan is going to do, and disprove everything she said. The only lyric I think’s questionable is in the other song, A Girl Worth Fighting For and one guy (forgot his name) says “I want her paler than the moon” which seems pretty racist to me, and not a satirical comment/foreshadowing/sarcasm.

    • John says:

      Just to be clear, pale skin is a standard of beauty in much of Asia and has been for millennia, its not just an imposed Western ideal. If you look at ancient depictions of Chinese, Korean or Japanese Gods or Goddesses, they are often given paler skin than the rest of the depicted figures. What is racist is insisting that a standard of beauty predicated on having paler skin is inherently the effect of European influence. Other cultures often have similar themes in their myths or traditions as those of Europe and immediately looking at those similarities and thinking that those similarities are the result of European imposition is undermining the reality of the strength of many other traditions to create their own cultural mythos.

  7. Milo says:

    When you said that this film depicts women as worthless to their counterpart men, is far wrong. A woman’s worth, throughout all of history,has always been more than a man’s worth. Women just have to be women to be more valued more than men. If you had to choose who will be saved from a burning building, the man or the woman, it will always be the woman. The boats of the sinking ship are reserved for women, men were raised to go down with the ship not vice versa. Men go to war for women, die for women, protect women. Men help women no matter what situation. The movie Mulan shows this in their songs, “Men will go to war for you”, literally taken out from the very first song.

    Imagine if the song was “Be a woman”, the lyrics would probably be “Be delicate as a flower” instead of “Be swift as the coursing river” and there isn’t anything wrong with that. In matter of fact, it’s beautiful, you are taking it the wrong way without acknowledging the fact that you’re comparing apples and oranges, what, Men should be delicate as a flower?

    Let us back track into what i said about who has more worth. If you want worth as a man, you must work for it. Worth does not come on its own for a man, a man has one choice in life, work, a woman has two. A man has no value if he has no merits, he must have something to show his worth in order to attract a female, and so on. A man can not simply go through life with out doing anything, if he does then he will be useless. A woman just has to be a woman. Men from a young age were not taught to be reliant on others or be dependent on others, men were taught that other people must be reliant of THEM. A woman, to be honest, can go either route, not work or work, she wouldnt lose any value whatsoever, She can be dependent and independent, doesn’t matter. A woman will always insist that her husband works, the husband doesn’t really care if she becomes a house mom or a working mom.

  8. Goksu says:

    As a Turk I want to say that Huns are still here we are their grandchildren and other Turk assemblages’ either. In that movie they show our ancestors like wild animals,soulless monsters but they weren’t I wish Disney knew what is our history and culture is like and was like. Since my childhood it bothers me to be shown as villains and enemies. And here is an another thing that Mongolians and Huns aren’t the same race(I am saying that but don’t get me wrong I am not a racist)

  9. Haley says:

    Thank you for making this article . thas all 030 have a nice day

  10. Barbara Ulmer says:

    Hi minna,
    I agree with your negative assessment, except I hated Mulan as a kid. (I, however loved the reference to Mulan in South Park’s “Miss teacher bangs a boy”! FYI I’m from CO, went to the same school & lived in the same dorm with Chef that the South Park boys did, so u have that bias….). What made me happiest was to find an intelligent woman with my mother’s unique first name. She was a brilliant anesthesiologist & pain management physician (board-certified in both) who had to retire a bit early because she has idiopathic dementia:( Please do her name proud:)

  11. I loved your post! I’m not sure if you still read these since it has been so long since you posted this, but I’m doing a Disney class right now – and I LOVE Disney – but I have to nit pick every single Disney movie. It’s easy to find offensive things when specifically looking for things that could be controversial 🙂

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