If you have been following me, you will know that I am currently taking an upper-level Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies course on Women in Film, so I have been reading tons of scholarly work by gender and film theorists. Our most recent movie was Terminator II: Judgement Day, which stars Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor, the female protagonist. We read and discussed a particular work by Sherrie A. Inness entitled What Does it Mean to be Tough, which explores the qualities of being tough and being female at the same time.
When I wrote my post about Disney Princesses last week, I got some great feedback, so I thought I would address one of the points brought up about new-age Disney princesses in relation to what I have been studying in my class. Many Disney fans have noticed the evolution of princesses to independent, strong female characters who also find love in an equal relationship. They focus more on the transformation of a girl into a young lady, rather than focus on her finding love exclusively (though I have no problem with those movies). Mulan is a prime example of this transformation into an independent, strong woman, and interestingly enough, her change is illustrated by taking on the traditional role of a man – joining the army.
Inness, in her article, explains why this might be.
The relationship between gender, sex, and toughness is so complex that more time needs to be spent exploring how toughness is connected to both men and women and why toughness is typically linked to masculinity. This is an important concern because the connection between masculinity and toughness helps support the stereotypical idea that men are the only truly capable leaders.
Mulan, in an effort to overcome this connection, takes on masculine roles in order to show her strength, but more importantly, retains her feminine qualities in the end of the movie. Essentially, she breaks the connection between femininity and weakness, showing that women can be strong. Obviously, in order to show this point, Mulan had to take a masculine role pretending to be a man, but by the end of the movie, she is satisfied being feminine yet strong. This happy medium is demonstrated by Mulan inviting her love interest, Shang, over for dinner at her parent’s house, wearing a kimono, makeup, and acting feminine, but also talking to Shang as an equal. Additionally, Shang still retains his masculine qualities and treats Mulan as an equal, illustrating the more modern marriage based on love and equality, but also showing differences in the sexes.
One could even argue that Shang overcomes his bias of men being better fighters than women, so he, too makes a transformation. Case in point, two of Mulan’s clumsy male comrades are not tough mentally or physically, but female Mulan triumphs to not only become independent and quick-thinking, but also a superior fighter. The movie once again breaks the connection between males and toughness.
Overall, Mulan is an inspiring female character, and the story line shows that mental, physical, and/or emotional toughness is not only a masculine quality. Basically, Mulan takes the toughness out of male roles and puts it into the feminine sphere as well. So the answer to our question? Women can be tough and feminine at the same time.