Disney's Mulan

Honor to Us All: What Trans Men Gained and Lost in Mulan (2020)

My parents took me to see Mulan for my ninth birthday. Appropriately for someone raised as a girl, they bought me a Mulan doll that featured prominently in my playtime (as I’ve written before, I could never honestly tell my gender therapist that I hated dolls). Later, “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” became a personal anthem of both my transition and my graduate school experience, and I wasn’t alone. The song resonates with many trans men because the song’s campy, tongue-in-cheek portrayal of what makes a man is welcome comic relief amidst the battle fatigue of explaining ourselves to our friends, our families, our educators, our employers, our doctors, and our politicians.[1]

Word of the live-action adaptation spread shortly after I came out as a trans man and submitted my undergraduate thesis on “male impersonators” in early America. The remake’s relative absence of campiness is the most obvious, and most noted, departure from the original, setting off an avalanche of related changes with the potential to reshape trans viewers’ interpretations. The original’s whimsical take on “passing” as a man gets buried in this avalanche, but it is replaced by a more frank, and more mature, portrayal of the anxiety, fear, doubt, discomfort, and pain—physical and emotional—surrounding trans men’s experiences. As a white American with little knowledge or experience in Chinese history, culture, and politics, I will defer to those in a better position to comment on the political controversy that the film generated and focus on the response from a trans perspective.

Iron statue of Mulan
Iron statue of Mulan and her Father in Xinxiang, China. (Wikimedia Commons)

Trans men who “pass” as men, and especially those who decide to live “stealth,”[2] can easily relate to the endearing awkwardness of Mulan’s passing experience in the original. Although the remake takes itself more seriously, those moments are still there, if you’re looking for them. For example, Mulan remembering to crack a joke at the end of an otherwise heartfelt admission to her fellow soldiers hits familiar notes of the original’s playful, ironic take on masculinity. At the same time, cutting most of the original’s whimsical and campy poking-fun at gender takes away a significant amount of the catharsis that appeals to a trans audience.

Where the remake more viscerally resonates with many trans men than the original, however, is more focused attention on the body in the experience of passing. More time is dedicated to the issue of Mulan bathing. The original offers one scene of Mulan attempting to bathe alone, but the remake draws more attention to her avoidance of bathing with her cohort and increasing need for a bath before she finally manages to. I thought back to a time I spent two weeks living in a dormitory setting with cisgender men who did not know my gender history, carefully planning the details of showering and changing discreetly. Although the original features a brief glimpse of Mulan’s chest binding, the remake gives it more screen time, focusing on the discomfort it causes and the work and planning that goes into doing it without getting caught. Mulan must wind her bindings around her, wincing in pain, before any of her fellow soldiers wake up–after staying up most of the night on guard duty to avoid the nightly bath. Especially without the support of the original’s wise-cracking sidekick, Mushu, we get a more realistic portrayal of how lonely, isolating, demanding, and painful the passing experience can be.

But for all that my trans experience informed my viewing, Mulan is firmly established as not trans. Her deception, however noble her reasons, weakens her Qi, depicted in this film as a life force ordinarily only present in men (and criticized as a distortion of an important aspect of Chinese culture into something that belongs in Star Wars). While Mulan is also banished for her deception in the original, the condemnation of Mulan as an imposter and a fraud by her cohort, her enemies, and her family is much more strongly emphasized in the remake. This has powerful implications during a time when politicians and the general public are doing much more talking about the civil rights of trans people than they were in 1998, as a viewer who believes that trans people are imposters and frauds could easily interpret the film as a reinforcement of their views.

For women and girls, that the film ends with Mulan’s triumphant acceptance of her womanhood is empowering. But it knocked the wind out of me, reminding me of the people in my own life and beyond who, for religious or ideological reasons, see my transition as a delusional, dishonest abandonment of womanhood. As I’ve been accused of being “narcissistic” and “selfish” many times for transitioning to male, a transphobic audience could latch on to the implied difference between Mulan’s experience as a trans experience: her selflessness. Far fewer members of the general public would have picked up on this potential implication in 1998, when the trans community had far less visibility than it does now, which makes allowing this implication much more damaging to trans people.

My intention here is not to suggest that Mulan should be depicted as a trans man. I am not suggesting that Mulan existing as a cis woman is transphobic. However, flatly depicting the experience of passing as a man as a shameful and dishonest act to only resort to in desperation, without any mitigation whatsoever to that depiction, could be understood as a transphobic dog whistle. There are things Disney could have done to make the film just as empowering for women and girls without leaving the door open for transphobic implications. Director Niki Caro hinted at the possibility of other people passing as men in Mulan’s ranks. Including more AFAB[3] people passing as men in the film could have made room for affirming other reasons to pass as a man, including gender identity. When, as far as I could tell, this possibility did not materialize, I felt deceived and defrauded.

Twenty-two years after the release of the original, the battle for trans rights is no longer being waged on a remote, snowy mountain. The fighting is now in the villages, and even civilians know its bitter costs. Given how much attention transgender issues garner in 2020, I find it impossible to believe that the trans community was not in mind in the production of Mulan. Put simply, there is no way that the extra time devoted to practices like binding and bathing had absolutely nothing to do with increased awareness that this is something many trans and nonbinary people must negotiate regularly.

It is possible that no one involved in the production was made aware of how a trans audience would receive the film. It is possible that creative forces behind the film were made aware, and simply did not care. It is also possible that the potential to read transphobic dog-whistling into the remake was deliberate. I believe that “didn’t know” or “didn’t care” are the two likeliest options, but a trans viewer would be forgiven for entertaining the third possibility.

In the end, regardless of the filmmakers’ or the studio’s intentions, this was a film about experiences with passing that, in the twenty-first century, trans men and nonbinary people are much more likely to have direct experience with than cisgender people. This film was built squarely on the voice we’ve given to our experiences in the twenty-two years since the release of the original, yet this movie isn’t actually for us. Watching this film as a trans man was a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if I looked into a mirror and saw nothing.[4] Like guests at the Magic Kingdom in line for a brand-new roller coaster, we will simply have to wait for a very long time before our reflections in an entertainment empire like Disney show who we are inside.

Notes

    1. Teresa Jusino has discussed Mulan’s popularity with trans men for The Mary Sue, and Jes Tom has written on Mulan’s popularity with queer audiences in general.
    2. “Stealth” is a term used in the trans community to refer to complete, or near complete, concealment of one’s assigned gender at birth in all circumstances, often breaking ties with anyone who knew them before gender transition.
    3. Assigned female at birth.
    4. Paraphrased from Adrienne Rich, “Invisibility in Academe” (1984).

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