The Music of: Mulan

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The last time I talked about Mulan, it was in the context of my People of Color in Animation meta. Today I went to delve into Mulan a bit more and shift the focus to its amazing music. The music of Mulan exemplifies the gender roles and key conflicts of the film. And it’s freaking awesome, okay? I know every lyric.

Honor to us All

This song is so disturbing, I can’t even. Okay, so this is the film’s big opening number and the gender roles are out of control. We all know how this sequence goes, Mulan shows up late and there’s an amusing make-over scene and she gets a cricket and then the women parade to the matchmaker and all hell breaks loose.

The second verse of this song is where I want to start:

We’ll have you washed and dried
Primped and polished
till you glow with pride
Trust me recipe for instant bride
You’ll bring honor to us all

Lets start with what is supposed to give women pride: their looks. As the sequence shows us, Mulan’s face is powdered, her lips painted red, her waist squeezed and that’s really all she’s there for. But more so, she should not feel proud of her looks to boost her self-confidence, but rather so she can snatch up a man and become a wife. Instant bride is what’s promised to the prettiest woman. She’s nothing more than a pretty trophy for the man.

Boys will gladly go to war for you
With good fortune
And a great hairdo
You’ll bring honor to us all

These lines continue to put the emphasis on the physical. Boys will only go to war for you if you make them weak in the knees with your pretty physique. Never mind having ideas and opinions or a kind heart. None of those are valuable.

However, I do love that the writing in that verse kind of foreshadows A Girl Worth Fighting For and the even more pressing gender roles there, but that is songs away, so back to Honor.

So much is placed on the woman to be beautiful and bring honor to her family. The fate of the family rests on her shoulders and at first glance it doesn’t seem like she’s being asked to do anything strenuous or hard. But so much pressure is heaped upon women to look a certain way and meet man-made standards. The phrase “Beauty is pain?” Um, yeah, it is.

Next, the song fleshes out that there is a bit more than beauty to go along with striking a good match:

Men want girls with good taste
Calm
Obedient
Who work fast-paced
With good breeding
And a tiny waist
You’ll bring honor to us all

“Tiny waist” ties right back into beauty and is so damaging to a girl’s sense of worth and esteem, but we get the words calm, obedient, good work ethic, and breeding. Lets break each of those down.

Reading between the lines, calm probably means a woman is not allowed to challenge her husband. She cannot have differing opinions and she definitely can’t voice them. She can’t raise her voice for any reason, she can’t be angry, she can’t be sad, she must always be calm and collected. Obedient for sure relates to her having the opinions. She must listen to her husband at all times. It’s like she has no free will. “Work fast-paced” to get all cooking, cleaning, and childcare duties done in a timely fashion. Oh, man, good breeding just gets me, though. Wrap that all up and women exist to be pretty, clean the house, cook, reproduce, and not have one original thought.

Gender roles are bad enough today and we’re already better off compared to our ancestors and even other parts of the world. But this idea, especially the pretty facet, resonates so strongly even today.

We all must serve our Emperor
Who guards us from the Huns
A man by bearing arms
A girl by bearing sons

This is just great, though. I never noticed this part as a kid. It’s sung really high and in the background of Mulan racing to join the others, so my attention was always elsewhere. Even if I had noticed, though, the gravity wouldn’t have registered for me. But man, this just makes everything so clear. Mulan has one role and it is to have a son that can go off to war and protect his country and then he needs to marry a beautiful woman who can bear more sons and the cycle goes on and on. There are gender roles for both sexes: men must be warriors and women must be reproductively fit. But that’s SUCH a double standard because reproduction is literally 50/50 and yet women were mostly the ones who got all the shit if a couple had a difficulty conceiving. This was because the science wasn’t really understood but it doesn’t change the fact that women were made scapegoats the moment the opportunity presented itself.

When we’re through
You can’t fail
Like a lotus blossom
Soft and pale
How could any fellow
Say “No Sale”
You’ll bring honor to us all

Here’s another verse I never understood as a kid. No sale. NO SALE.

Women were reduced to a commodity. Something men could buy—like they were looking for the newest car model. No one was buying cars in Mulan’s time, but that’s essentially it. You want a car that works fast paced, one that is obedient (ie the radio works, windshield wipers turn on when you turn them on), a sexy car.

And finally, finally, we hear from our heroine:

Ancestors
Hear my plea
Help me not to make a
fool of me
And to not uproot
my family tree
Keep my father standing tall

Mulan’s focus is on pleasing her family. She plays her part because she loves them and she’s so scared of disappointing/failing them. All she wants is for this day to not end horribly. Spoiler alert: it does.

Scarier than the undertaker
We are meeting our matchmaker
Destiny
Guard our girls
And our future
as it fast unfurls
Please look kindly on
these cultured pearls
Each a perfect porcelain doll

As we reach the end of the song, Honor to Us All finally uses the word it has artfully avoided until now: doll.

Ibsen’s play “A Doll’s House” is all about a woman trapped in a marriage that adheres to strict gender roles. She is treated like a doll and their home is her her husband’s doll house where he gets to manipulate every scenario. Mulan and all women of this time were treated no better than dolls. They were expected to have no minds and be pretty accessories that bore children and nothing else. But this is not the story we watch. Instead, Mulan bucks against these gender roles. She has nothing against marriage and neither do I or Disney. What Disney seeks to show us how wrong GENDER ROLES are. This is not about marriage. Marriage is fantastic when done out of love and by two willing parties. But Honor to Us All is not about a woman meeting her soul mate. It is about her conforming to a patriarchy and submitting. Mulan does not submit.

Reflection

This song is so amazing and totally flies in the face of Honor and all its harsh gender roles. This song is Mulan’s response, Mulan’s inner conflict. She is torn between what everyone expects her to be and who she is and who she wants to be.

I will never pass for a perfect bride, or a perfect daughter.
Can it be,
I’m not meant to play this part?

Part. Gender role. She knows she doesn’t get a choice in what she does with the rest of her life, but she doesn’t know if she’ll be able to do it. She is a daughter and she’s supposed to become a bride and Mulan feels like she’s already failing one and she’ll most probably fail the next one.

Now I see, that if I were truly to be myself, I would break my family’s heart.
Who is that girl I see, staring straight, back at me?
Why is my reflection someone I don’t know?

She’s so disappointed in herself. All she wanted was to please her family, even if it meant not being true to herself, and she failed. This song is for anyone that as ever felt alone and like they could not be their true selves.

Somehow I cannot hide, who I am, though I’ve tried.
When will my reflection show, who I am inside?

This song is beautiful. It is an anthem against gender roles, about looking in the mirror and seeing yourself and being happy. It is Mulan’s I Want song because she wants to make her family proud, she doesn’t know how. She wants to be herself, she just doesn’t know how. This is Mulan’s quest, her character arc, and it comes full circle (a really great message by Disney, really, to fight for your right to be yourself).

I’ll Make a Man Out of You

The epic training montage! Obligatory, really. But, okay, here we go!

Did they send me daughters
When I asked for sons?

Right away, it values men over women. Worse, it uses “daughters” as an insult. It’s akin to saying, “Crying like a girl,” “Running like a girl,” and all the other phrases that make being a girl an insult.

But you can bet
Before we’re through
Mister, I’ll make a man
out of you

That implies that already physically men are not, in fact, real men. And that baffles me so much. It’s still a thing we say today: Be a man, grow some balls, man up, don’t be a pussy, etc. Let me tell you something world, if you have a penis, you are already a man. This, of course, does not go for people with male body parts that do not identify as male. But for people that have a penis and identify as male, they don’t need to BE a man, because they ARE men.

I’m never gonna catch
my breath
Say goodbye to those
who knew me
Boy, was I a fool in school
for cutting gym

I really liked how we saw guys struggling with the training, too, and not just Mulan. It really shows that they’re not training to be MEN, they’re training to be SOLDIERS—something not inherently masculine, though it is treated that way.

(To Be a man)
We must be swift as
the coursing river
(Be a man)
With all the force
of a great typhoon
( To Be a man)
With all the strength
of a raging fire
Mysterious as the
dark side of the moon

Just like we saw what makes a good wife, we also see what makes a man. I like that we get both sides of the gender roles. Most of them all relate to how to be a good fighter: fast, strong, more strength, and someone mysterious. Looking at the war aspect of Mulan, it could mean someone that can be stealthy and covert, maybe even go behind enemy lines if need be. But you could also look at it in the context of “being a man” (whatever that means) and how men are typically encouraged to keep their emotions bottled up.

The lyrics kind of repeat here, once Mulan gets sent home but then stays and triumphs. Once again, a song deeply rooted in gender roles, something Mulan excels so well at portraying.

A Girl Worth Fighting For

And here we have our final song.

I love that Mulan’s music has embraced the world-building aspect of the story, setting the society’s values in black and white. There is no love song because it would alter the tone of the music. If anything it could have had a Reflection reprise to show the growth achieved by the time we reach the end. Nevertheless, we journey forth.

I want her paler than the
moon with eyes that
shine like stars
My girl will marvel at
my strength, adore my
battle scars
I couldn’t care less what she’ll
wear or what she looks like
It all depends on what
she cooks like
Beef, pork, chicken

So: beauty, obedient, and work fast-paced. Three different guys with three different wants. When Mulan suggests an intelligent woman, the guys scoff. These are the three male characters we’re supposed to like, Mulan’s friends! And they’re just as ignorant. Everyone in Mulan is flawed and it’s great. We all know, of course, that they help her in the end, before even her lover boy Shang does. But right now they too fall prey to the harsh restrictions of their culture.

But even the title has interesting implications because it defines who is WORTH fighting for. Not every life apparently matters. Not every girl is worth fantasizing about:

Our aching feet aren’t
easy to ignore
Hey, think of instead
A girl worth fighting for

&

You can guess what we
have missed the most
Since we went off to war
What do we want?
A girl worth fighting for

And that girl is, of course, one who is pretty, etc, etc.

But when we come home
in victory they’ll line up
at the door
What do we want?
A girl worth fighting for

This final stanza plays to both gender roles. Men must be macho and warriors because it is the only way a woman will want him. And women, well, women are supposed to just want men. Their whole lives revolve around marriage. She is there to please the man. She needs to be WORTH the man’s attention by powdering her face and watching her weight and keeping her lips shut.

Conclusion

I never actually realized the weight the songs in Mulan carry. Breaking them down and examining the lyrics was really an eye opening experience for me. Mulan was a brave film that had A LOT of barriers to tackle. What we got, of course, was an amazing film. This is straying away from the music, but I love how Mulan didn’t want to bend to her gender role, but then had to completely reject her femininity to masquerade as a boy and in the end, saves China as a woman. She uses her brains and a fan, the first something a woman was not encouraged to use, and second, a fan, something more traditionally associated with women. Mulan celebrates feminism and being one’s true self. It rejects gender roles. The music of Mulan is a vital piece of the film.

Have a Happy Sunday, guys! Sorry this one’s up late a day late. You can follow Animated Meta on Tumblr and Twitter.

Cheers!

M&M

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