by K.P. Kulski
Camaraderie in the military is necessary for the smooth function of operations. It tends to develop easily because military life is a series of routine hardships. This sentiment intensifies as the experiences intensify, particularly in combat. Current politics have made quite a spectacle over the concept of transgender military service. I don’t necessarily believe Mulan was transgender, or at least is depicted as transgender. However for my analysis here, whether she was or was not, doesn’t really matter. What matters is the implicit commentary of her story that demonstrates the importance of military camaraderie over gender concerns.
The story depicted in the ballad reveal an important sentiment that is applicable to the presence of transgender people in the military. Given the quality of the individuals, who like Mulan, serve in a capacity that is revealing of their character and capability, the identity that is formed from respect, admiration, and deep non-romantic love that is so often framed by combat veterans, is outside of the realm of gender, but within the realm of the greater human experience. Mulan’s story and blurred gender identity shows the reader that she is greater than the sum of her private parts, that she’s a whole person, that her actions have been the most important part of her existence. The reaction of her fellow soldiers, is initial surprise, but without change in their demeanor or respect for Mulan.
If we examine the ballad in a feminist lens, that looks at her female specific experience, we can find further interesting commentary. In modern society, we are aware of studies devoted to understanding the occurrence of under promoted women. Whether it be women who are more qualified, yet are surpassed by less qualified men on the ladder to success, or women who are paid less than their male counterparts, there is a sense that to be successful as woman, it requires at least twice the effort and qualifications.
This idea isn’t lost on the world of Mulan. In the ballad, Mulan serves faithfully for twelve years, earning the great respect of her comrades-in-arms. It took twelve years for her to develop a respect that would lead to unquestionable respect of her person, without social considerations of gender.
However, she is also upheld as an example of honor and grace for her lack of interest in power. Her motivations remain pure till the end. She can be compared to the Khan, the ultimate symbol of male power. Notice the play on words, the focus on the title “daughter,” throughout the poem, “they ask Daughter who’s in her heart, they ask Daughter who’s on her mind.”
Mulan’s status as the definitively female, “daughter” does not change at the end when she returns home, “When Father and Mother hear Daughter is coming, they go outside the wall to meet her, leaning on each other.”
Who is the other prominent figure in the story? Well, oddly enough it is, “the Son of Heaven,” a reference to the Khan. It is him she meets at the end of her service and he asks her what she wants so she can be rewarded for her service and the only thing she asks is for a horse to return home. She does not seek a post as a minister or other high rank. With her lack of desire for power and only desire to return home, reflect on the idea that she never really changed, that she had always been “daughter,” despite leaving home. Along with the simultaneous existence of gender identity, Mulan also embodies opposing ideas: fierce warrior, loyal daughter; male power, rejection of male authority, soft and hard power.
With all this considered, when I take a look at the costume of Disney Mulan in the toy store, I’m baffled. It’s not the dress itself, but that the very thing Mulan is defined by, the determination to pick up a weapon, to break gender conformity and demonstrate her own power is completely lacking in the doll. It is the same as taking the ice away from Elsa and painting her with motifs of fire. I love that Mulan exists in popular culture and that has been brought to Western society through the Disney films. In fact, as a part Asian woman in a Western culture, I greatly appreciate it. As I dig further into Mulan herself, there remains, quite a bit about her, said in only 31 couplets that is strangely loud, profound and relevant to our times. She was a woman who decided to go to war. But really, what did she fight for and against? What did her battlefield look like?