One of the weirdest and most unexpected changes over the past decade has been the recent hardening of gender stereotypes. A generation ago, we were all immersed in stories of women such as Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly in space. The message was straightforward: Any girl, any woman can do anything she wants, if only she tries hard enough.
Although lip service is still paid to that message, the reality has shifted. Today, a girl who wants to go against gender stereotypes—for example, a girl who wants to fly for the United States Air Force, as my teenage daughter dreams of doing—encounters new questions: Are you trans? What are your preferred pronouns? Are you presenting as male or female? Or maybe you are non-binary? As others have observed: trans activism has had the ironic effect of reinforcing gender stereotypes. Girls who want to fight in combat are now asked if they are really boys. Boys who want to study ballet are asked if they are really girls.
That’s one reason I found Disney’s new Mulan so refreshing. Forget the 1998 animated cartoon of the same name. This Mulan is not a remake of that children’s movie. It is an imaginative exploration of the question: what happens to a girl whose talents and passion lie in a domain—martial arts and physical combat—traditionally reserved to boys and men?
In the first half of the movie, Mulan takes the road that might be prescribed by a woke 21st-century counselor: she adopts the male role, taking a man’s name and dressing and fighting as a man. But in one of the movie’s most powerful sequences, midway through the movie, the witch Xiannang challenges her and calls her a liar. “Your deceit weakens you,” Xiannang says. “It poisons your qi.” The narrator then tells us that “A lie can only live so long.” Mulan throws off the trappings of the male role she had adopted. Her helmet falls to the ground. She pulls off her father’s armor and she fights much better without it, doing aerial pirouettes to disarm and kill her opponents— a scene which reminded me of David’s decision not to wear armor when fighting Goliath.
Mulan contains no overt sex. There is a hint of romantic attraction between Mulan and her fellow warrior Honghui, but not even a kiss to consummate their relationship. The message is that a girl can be fully feminine without being sexual or conforming to traditional gender stereotypes. Most girls are unlikely to get such a message from contemporary American culture, where “WAP”— a song celebrating vaginal lubrication—last month reached #1 on the Billboard Top 100. In addition, American children and teens are now bombarded with the message that transitioning to the opposite sex is the road to fulfillment for girls who want to fight in combat and for boys who want to do ballet. But Mulan does not find fulfillment in cross-dressing or in transitioning to the male role: on the contrary, the cross-dressing is a lie that blocks fulfillment of her potential.
Great art ennobles us. Trashy art degrades us. The kind of story your child hears, the kind of art your child experiences, influences the kind of person she or he will become. A child who is reared on stories and songs celebrating instant gratification of desire will grow up to be a different person from the child who is reared on stories and songs celebrating heroic self-sacrifice. Children are not born knowing how to distinguish trashy art from sublime art; they have to be taught. Likewise, children are not born knowing that they must sometimes delay gratification in order to achieve something more worthwhile. We, the parents and elders, must teach them.
Mulan is worth watching, first of all, because it is a great movie with a compelling plot. It engages powerful themes that transcend time and place: heroism and self-sacrifice, courage and duty. And it also teaches an important truth, communicated more effectively because there is no preaching involved: a girl does not have to pretend to be a man in order to excel in a traditionally male domain.
I am aware of the various controversies surrounding the new Mulan. The producers, anxious to emphasize the authenticity of their movie, scouted out numerous sites for filming in China. Unfortunately, among the twenty sites they chose in China was the desert near Urumqui, the capital of Xinjiang. That desert background is seen for less than one minute in a film almost two hours long. Nevertheless, it didn’t take viewers long to discover, nine minutes into the credits at the end of the movie, the filmmakers’ thank-you to various government entities in Xinjiang, including some of the same government entities responsible for oppression of the Muslim community in Xinjiang. Calls for a boycott immediately ensued.
I understand the calls for a boycott. I too am horrified by the ongoing mistreatment of Muslims in Xinjiang. We now have overwhelming evidence of brutal conditions in the “re-education” camps, to which Muslims in Xinjiang may be sent merely for practicing their faith. Children are being taken away from their families and placed in state-run facilities to be indoctrinated in Communism. “The Chinese government’s forced separation of children is perhaps the cruelest element of its oppression in Xinjiang,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. Recent claims by China that it is winding down the camps are undercut by satellite images, provided by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, suggesting that detainees are merely being moved from temporary camps to permanent prisons, and those prisons are expanding.
Fearful of offending the Communist authorities, Disney has said not a word in criticism of the human rights abuses taking place in Xinjiang. Disney doesn’t hesitate to take political action when it sees fit: for example, when it threatened to stop doing business in the state of Georgia after Georgia lawmakers enacted a bill limiting abortion after detection of a fetal heartbeat. Disney has offered no explanation for why it was willing to publicly condemn and boycott the state of Georgia for passing a bill limiting abortion, while it was unwilling even to whisper a word of protest against the Chinese oppression of Muslims in Xinjiang.
But here at Public Discourse, Mark Bauerlein recently reminded us that we must “hold firmly to the separation of aesthetics from politics.” A film should be judged on its artistic merits, not on the political implications of credits in the end titles. If you watch Mulan, you are not endorsing the Chinese Communist Party, any more than you are endorsing the German Nazi Party if you attend a performance of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. If one allowed politics to infiltrate one’s aesthetic judgment, one would have to boycott Wagner’s operas. After all, Wagner was a virulent anti-Semite who became Hitler’s favorite composer. Götterdämmerung was Hitler’s favorite opera. Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg specifically exalts “die heil’ge deutsche Kunst”— holy German art—an idea that was dear to Hitler’s own heart. But Wagner’s operas are great art. They are majestic. They exalt the soul.
The inappropriateness of credits thanking Communist authorities responsible for the oppression in Xinjiang is not the only problem faced by the new Mulan. At the same time that many critics worldwide were excoriating the producers of Mulan for the credits, Chinese viewers were pointing out implausibilities in the film itself. One Chinese critic denounced the film as “General Tso’s chicken”—an Americanized version of a Chinese original. Other Chinese have criticized Mulan’s feminism, as depicted in the film, as anachronistic. Yet another Chinese critic was angry that the film depicts Mulan and her family living in a Fujian tulou, the large circular communal dwelling found only in southern China; the Mulan of legend was from northern China.
Again, these criticisms are beside the point. Mulan is not a documentary. Any movie with a shape-changing witch and a magical phoenix is not pretending to be factual. The film is telling a story and making a point about family and communal obligation, a point that is arguably enhanced by showing Mulan living in a communal dwelling rather than in a free-standing single-family home.
Mulan’s feminism may be anachronistic, but it is no accident. The director, Niki Caro, has been thinking about these issues for many years. Her first success, Whale Rider, set in her native New Zealand, also featured a girl whose talents and passion lay in a domain traditionally reserved for boys and men. As Caro said in an interview several years before Mulan, “Femininity has way too often been equated with weakness. And it’s not . . . you can be strong and soft at the same time.”
If it’s hard for you to imagine how a woman can “be strong and soft at the same time,” I encourage you—and your daughter—to watch Mulan.