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Saturday, August 5, 2017

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Should Mulan Adaptations Be Feminist? | Guest Post by Alyssa Carlier

Hello booklings!

Saturday posts are a rare thing here at BWT, but it's been busy enough (post wise) that uh... I had to squeeze another post in on the weekend.

Okay, okay, I'm not really squeezing a post in aside from an intro, but today's guest blogger is Alyssa from The Devil Orders Take Out!

Mulan is one of my favorite Chinese legends that Disney made into animated movies decades ago, and they are now considering a live-action movie of. There aren't many retellings either, but when there are... should they be feminist? Alyssa answers the question in today's guest post!

Mulan. It's odd to talk about everyone's favourite cross-dressing warrior online because I mean something different from what most people think. I mean the legend, the ballad; the Internet gushes over that Disney cartoon I watched half-heartedly years ago.

With Disney's live action remake in the works, Twitter has buzzed about Mulan now and then, especially the girly martial arts fiasco. So that set me wondering ... is the story of Mulan feminist? And should adaptations be feminist?
Disclaimer: You may choose to take my opinions with your preferred pinch of salt. I was forced into reciting the ballad in grade school (just like everyone else receiving a Chinese education), and later read up enough on the legend to translate the ballad of Mulan.

But hey, at least I won't be calling that Disney cartoon the "original."

Is the story of Mulan feminist? 

Well, first of all, I'm delighted to inform you that my Shakespeare classes have paid off. Since Mulan is a legend that predates the rise of the feminist movement, I'm told it can only be proto-feminist.

... I hate literature class sometimes.

At first glance, Mulan certainly seems feminist! The plotline obviously gives the titular character (sorry, I'm still in literature mode) room to bend gender roles. Which is always awesome.

(But in my own experience, practically every awful-CGI wuxia flick TV features their token warrior woman. It's honestly not that ~feminist~ in their portrayal, but that's a discussion for another time.)

Plus, the last couple lines of the ballad make an awkward attempt at claiming how rabbits look the same regardless of gender.

Yes, rabbits. I know I sound like I'm making this up, because how many people online will bother to read an ancient Chinese text, but I swear I am not.

But ultimately, I don't see that the story of Mulan is a feminist narrative. The entire point is how Mulan joins the army for her father and ultimately remains—to perhaps state it more strongly—subservient to Confucian concepts of patriarchy. (Which doesn't mean filial loyalty is a bad thing, just that as a theme it doesn't exactly pave the way for her independence.)

And in fact, it's important to note that the ballad both begins and ends in the domestic sphere and associated with feminine qualities. Which doesn't reduce the badassery of going to war!

Sadly, the context of the setting, the plotline, and the bare-bones nature of the legend, it's not very possible for the story to have an overt feminist message in addition to the more crucial element of family and duty.

But the fact that Mulan is not a feminist work, doesn't mean it cannot have any feminist interpretations.

And you can definitely make those interpretations for yourself—by looking it up if you can read ancient Chinese (ha! grade school memories), or with this nifty translation I wrote after realising the Internet only offered Google Translate versions.

So if interpretations can be feminist, that begs the question ...

Should Mulan adaptations be feminist?

I know I wrote that header, but it's honestly an odd question to ask.

A better question would be, should Mulan adaptations include a talking cartoon dragon? Answer: Probably not, but it turned out for the better.

Another better question, should Mulan adaptations include a love interest? Answer: Only if it results in bisexual icon Li Shang. (He's honestly one of the few parts of the animation I approve of.)

But back to the topic! Can Mulan adaptations be feminist? That has the easier answer of it's pretty difficult. 

Here are just a couple of reasons why straight-up feminist remakes might end up difficult:
  • You can't alter the context of the patriarchal society.
  • Mulan fundamentally acts out of duty, not out of self-determination. If she desires her own glory, that makes balancing the familial duty that much more difficult.
  • People involved could lose their head and decide that "girly martial arts" is the direction they want to take.
I obviously don't have the highest hopes for Disney-style remakes ... but I definitely think feminist! Mulan could show up in books, where looser reimaginings and retellings are common.
  • There's more artistic license to the context.
  • Include more well-written women characters!
  • And have the room to shape Mulan as a more complex, independent character without sacrificing the plot point of familial duty.
And ultimately, while the existence of overtly feminist and empowering books are important, it's equally valuable to read books which don't make a big deal out of women being awesome.

(Like the Mulan + Swan Lake retelling that I'm writing and sharing riiiight here.)

Thanks to Sophia for having me and my Mulan Thoughts™ on this blog! I've just relaunched my blog and hope you'll join my international book merch giveaway:
3 bookish prize packs giveaway: V.E. Schwab swag, Society6, and more!

About Alyssa:
Alyssa Carlier writes (and more often rewrites) novels about girls in worlds of magic, madness and murder. Sometimes she remembers to blog about books and shares her best book blogging tips with other booklings. Alyssa hasn't noticed Jedi mind tricks work better in second person than third.
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Sophia is the owner and founder of Bookwyrming Thoughts, but also found on various parts of the internet. She's a 19-year-old communications major who has weird humor and doesn't fit the Asian stereotype (maybe a little). Books, chocolate, technology, and music are among some of her favorite things. For more of her work, visit her personal website.