Maria Laquerre LMFT, RPTS
Mulan: An icon of individuality
It's no secret that as human beings, we are prone to similarities and vast differences regardless of the lens through which we view life. Whether you look at your struggles or global ones, many would argue that problems today differ significantly from those our society struggled with in the past. A great example of this would be the multitude of similar and differing experiences viewers go through when watching either of Disney's Mulan adaptations, be it our animated childhood favorite or the live-action reboot.
As a kid, we can often relate to the animated rendition shown through Mulan's experience, delivered to us through animation, song, and humorous storylines. Nevertheless, Disney makes it a point over 20 years later to offer us a new experience in the form of a live-action film with familiar notes of our childhood storyline paired with a current view in the name of shared experiences. As a parent, our perceptions are often more layered than the lens with which our children are viewing things, with the pressing thought of how to explain the magnitude of what they are taking in when the inevitable questions arise.
Mulan's story questions and challenges gender roles and the traditional expectations of women in China; born into a family of only daughters; she finds herself rarely acting in line with what a girl "should" want to do. It's often common for girls to feel like they can't do activities designed for boys simply because they're female. And so, the truth of her battle, facing societal expectations, sacrifice, and sexism is not country-specific or even tied to a single moment in history. Still, our vision for our children in this world is often one of hope for their place inside of it, in which they are heard and valued regardless of gender. We must have these hard conversations with our children to stand up against these ideas and teach them to push back against the idea that their worth is tied to their anatomy.
Expectations of One's Existence Don't Dictate Who They Become.
Perhaps one of the most striking lines within this new take on Mulan's life is in the opening narration, in which you're reminded, "There have been many tales of the great warrior Mulan. This one is mine." Despite the enduring popularity of Mulan's legend, very little is known about the story's origins. The first written record of it, a ballad likely composed in the fifth or sixth century, is just over 300 characters long. In a concise and elegant style, it tells the story of her departure, hardship, battles, and victorious return. The significant information gaps gave future generations room for reinterpretations; themes of loyalty, patriotism, martial prowess, and female empowerment have been inserted over time. "There is so much uncertainty in this story; no matter who you are or your purpose, you can reshape the story to express your own vision." In a way, each version reflects more of the philosophy and politics of the beholder's era than that of the original Mulan story. It serves as a reminder that there are many tales of Mulan's experience and any human experience as it is lived, viewed, and shared.
In our Disney renditions, Mulan begins by showing us the struggles she faces in continuing to try and conform, looking to gain acceptance from all of those around her. Trying to show she can be "the perfect wife" for the matchmaker or "the perfect daughter" for her family. Yet ultimately, she stands tall in the face of countless rejections, as her true self shines through and doesn't conform to the image that others have or want of her. As she steps into her true self, Mulan begins to show us that you don't have to reside in the box others want to put you in. It isn't until we near the end of her journey, as she accepts herself and leads by actions and ideals that fit her, that she begins to be shown true acceptance by others.
Walking the Line: Facing the Balancing Act of Sacrifice.
We see a switch as she's about to be expelled from the army. Her desire to be there for herself drives her training and determination as she is no longer fighting only for others but also for herself.
Mulan shows us that while it can be easier at times to think about the happiness of others rather than your own, it rarely stops there. If we continue to do things solely for others, the expectations will never stop. We shouldn't listen to any other voice than our own when it comes to what drives us. Everyone has different abilities and strengths to power our will and determination. This is the fine line of sacrifice: knowing when our beliefs, values, and love for others are enough to put our goals and dreams in the back seat.
We see the difference between putting our focus elsewhere for a more significant benefit to ourselves rather than being expected to give away any hope of owning the life we aim to live for the sake of someone else. We can learn here that it's okay to focus on yourself, your goals, and your dreams and that, in the end, it should be your heart to lead you when faced with varying paths along the way. Be brave enough to disagree with others, confident enough to stand up for yourself, and kind enough to lead your life for yourself rather than others.
Mulan shows us what happens when we live our passion fueled by our values and sense of self. We transform in a way that allows our light to inspire others. And isn't this more beneficial than simply sacrificing who we are to align with the expectations of others?
Finding Power in Your Authentic Self, NOT Your Gender.
When Mulan first arrives at the soldier's camp, she struggles a lot. She cannot keep up with the men around her and is behind them when they must climb the mountain. We know that she ultimately doubts herself before she even enters the camp. But then, why is there such a transformation between this and when Shang tells her to leave the army? In the shift in her mindset, she finds a drastic difference in her ability to perform. She decides that she doesn't want to leave. As mentioned before, she uses her strengths to get to the top of the pole, and after that, she starts excelling in more than just her physical capabilities.
We also are shown this in Mulan's roles of acting her part, both as a female should and later how a male should. We are privy to scenes of Mulan being "shown" how to perform as a woman, being bathed, polished, and taught attributes of grace in how to walk, talk, and serve others. In these same views, we see that she isn't so naturally adept at these glimpses of stereotypical "femininity," ultimately showcasing her displeasure and trouble with fitting into this gender role. Similarly, when faced with "acting like a man," Disney's animated film showcases this performance well through its song "I'll Make a Man Out of You," reinforcing the idea that being a man comes naturally to those born in the role. Mulan is shown how to walk, spit, and act tough, which is supposedly attributed to her newfound ability to fight alongside her fellow soldiers.
Yet, as we near the end of our animated journey, Disney shows us the other end of the gender spectrum when the other male soldiers take part in Mulan's idea to disguise themselves as women to save the emperor. In the notable song "Make a Man Out of You," we see the roles reversed as they are expected to dress and behave like women to be overlooked in their quest for entrance past the Huns. This shows that the idea of gender is solely a physical performance as the line between male and female is taught to us, and consequently, our actions aren't naturally more aligned with one over the other. Gender roles are not static, unchanging behaviors but instead are culturally defined and changeable.
If, in your mind, you're telling yourself you're not going to make it or that you can't do something because you're a female, you're likely to set yourself up for failure or to be boxed in by the gender-defining roles being pushed upon you. But if you believe in your worth and strengths and fight for what you want, you have a much higher chance of success.
Everything starts in your mind! Negative thoughts will tell you to give up when you can go on for much longer. If you can work past these thoughts and the struggle, you will see that your limits are much higher than you imagined.
Mulan's story illustrates the true dedication and power of the human spirit. Through her experiences, audiences can believe that women can do anything and everything men can do. She sacrifices everything for the love she holds for her father, putting life on the line to save him, and is bold enough to speak her beliefs even where she's been taught to stay silent. Let Mulan's lesson inspire you here. You are so much stronger than what you think you are! Trust yourself!
A self-described geek, Maria Laquerre-Diego is a CEO and Owner who is committed to increasing access to mental health services and breaking down the stigma surrounding therapy services. As a therapist turned CEO, Maria has developed a unique perspective when it comes to mental health and the barriers surrounding mental health treatment. Influenced by her time at New Mexico State University in the Family and Consumer Science department, and University of New Hampshire’s Marriage and Family Therapy department, Maria has turned her dedication to giving back and supporting future generations of therapists. In addition to supporting mental health providers, Maria takes an active role in addressing the continued stigma of mental health services through the use of pop culture – everything from movies and television shows to superheroes and Disney characters. Maria has spoken about mental health at several local events, has served as an officer on professional boards and has provided training to clinicians all over the country while maintaining her and her family’s roots as Aggies! Outside of the office, Maria can be found spending time with her family and loved ones, exploring the world through travel, and creating cosplays for herself, her husband and their two little ones. Maria is always happy to talk about Star Wars, Marvel and mental health and can be contacted through her practice website www.anewhopetc.org