When I was an eight-year-old in 1998, I had a Mulan doll. She was cool for a bit but then I lost interest to the point that the only thing I remember about her now is that she had a removable hair piece. The same thing happened with the movie. It was Disney animation so of course I saw it but it didn’t last with me the way Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King did (two movies I still love into adulthood). In the scope of the Disney Princess Pantheon, Mulan was middle of the road for me. She wasn’t a character I hated like Ariel or Snow White, but I didn’t love her the way I loved Belle or Jasmine. For 18 years I wrote off Mulan. But I realized something when I rewatched Mulan recently: Mulan is quite possibly one of the strongest female characters in the Disney Princess Pantheon.
To accurately claim Mulan is one of the strongest female characters in the Disney Princess Pantheon I would have to examine all of the Disney Princesses, which I am not doing in this article. For now, I can’t prove that Mulan is the strongest Disney Princess, but I can prove that Mulan is a strong female character in her own right.
Defining the phrase, “Strong Female Character” is the subject for another article, but what I mean when I say Mulan is a strong female character is that she is a well-developed character with a strong character arc.
Mulan starts off as a kind of clumsy yet intelligent young woman who does not fit in with her society’s expectations of women. In the film, young women are expected to be beautiful, poised, and only speak when spoken to – with marrying well and bearing sons as the only way to bring honor to oneself and one’s family. When Mulan bombs the matchmaker interview, her usefulness to society is seemingly gone as, according to the matchmaker, Mulan has no hope of marrying.
Mulan wants to make her father proud, so she feels badly for the failed matchmaker experience, for dishonoring him in front of the Emperor’s council (when he came to hand out the drafting orders), and for not knowing her place the way her father does. Mulan wants to protect her father, she wants to make him proud, she wants to make herself proud, and instead of wallowing or waiting for someone to fix things, she takes it upon herself to make that happen by stealing her father’s drafting orders and taking his place in the army.
Mulan’s first big obstacle is trying to pass for a man with the second being fitting into the army. She has help at first with both of these from Mushu and the Lucky Cricket, but when Shang sends her away having failed to preform to the army’s standards, it falls solely on Mulan to prove why she deserves to stay.
Time and time again, it is Mulan who saves the day. When the army sets off for war and they have to face the Huns, it is Mulan who saves the army from the Huns by firing a canon at the mountain and causing an avalanche. After Mulan is revealed to Shang to be a woman and is kicked out of the army, when all hope seems lost having let both her father and herself down, and she’s on her way home, Mulan doesn’t even hesitate to warn Shang and the Emperor when she sees the Huns pop out of the snow. When the Huns show up in the Imperial City and kidnap the Emperor, it is Mulan who shows Shang and the other soldiers how to reach the Emperor. And it is Mulan who ultimately defeats Shan-Yu and saves China.
Side note: You’re probably thinking it is obvious that Mulan saves the day since she is the protagonist, but Ariel didn’t save the day in The Little Mermaid.
Mulan begins her journey as a young woman who does not fit into her society, she works hard to achieve her goals, and ultimately subverts her cultures expectations of her by saving China. Mulan starts as a weak character, not only in physical strength but in emotional strength, and by the end of the film becomes a strong character, both physically and emotionally. That’s called a character arc.
One thing I love about Mulan is that she at no time became stupid. So often in movies main characters make stupid decisions for the sake of causing tension and moving the plot along, but that never happens with Mulan. She never makes a stupid decision, and when stupidity does happen in order to move the plot along it is always caused by another character.
So often with “Strong Female Characters” the focus is on their strength, their ass-kicking ability, but while Mulan is physically strong it is her intelligence which not only proves she is worthy of staying in the army but ultimately defeats the Huns. And at the end of the day, it is Mulan’s emotional journey – from unsure girl who doesn’t fit in to confident young woman who defines her place in life – that is most important.
Mulan’s character is set up well, she is well-rounded and well-defined, and she has such a strong character arc. Mulan is more relatable and just as strong as Ripley or Black Widow, and so much stronger both physically and emotionally than any woman in any romantic comedy ever. Mulan is such a strong female character that we need more of in film.