Mysterious as the Trans Side of Mulan

[CN: brief suicidal ideation]

It’s a tradition in queer communities in general and trans communities in particular to analogize stories and turn subtext into text.  With so few writers writing about us, and so few writers who dare to write about us getting mainstream attention, seeing ourselves in stories that refuse to name or acknowledge us is mandatory.  This is something all humans do, often before we know why we’re doing it.

I have a lot of feelings about Mulan.

Disney films were a primary source of stories about women in my youth.  My parents treated the whole set as stories “for children,” writ large, and my mother was fond of them, so my brother and I got to enjoy these long before my sister was born.  My non-VHS entertainment determinedly centered boys and men, more and more so as I grew older, but Disney’s “princess” films told magical, heroic, curiously ahistorical stories about women, who increasingly made their own narrative decisions as the collection expanded.

I don’t remember why, at my smallest, I watched The Little Mermaid over and over again until the tape wore to static.  I do remember why my fondness for Mulan was so vividly intense that I didn’t actually watch this film very often.

Mulan, as a Disney character and a legendary figure whose story differs profoundly from the Disney version, flouts gender roles, and that makes her story easily queered.   It’s not difficult to read Disney’s Mulan as a transmasculine figure, defying her family and culture to embrace a male-coded soldier’s life.  It’s comparably easy to see her story as a cautionary tale for future gender-variant people, warning them that even if they face mortal peril and earn the highest honors while living authentically, the rest of the world will only see them as deceivers, and they will be pressed back into their prescribed roles once the fanfare quiets.

Nearly twenty years after the Disney film about her helped make Christina Aguilera one of the early 2000’s pop music darlings, I find it’s at least as satisfying to read Mulan as transfeminine.

Unlike most trans girls, Fa Mulan has the acceptance, if perhaps not the support, of her parents.  They do not stop her from wearing feminine clothing or using a feminine name, and they even push her toward the same arranged-marriage process that the local cis women must endure.  Mulan is all confusion and nerves, new to this practice and not as adept as more practiced ladies…or ladies with less at stake.  Her audition is a disaster, and the matchmaker impugns her womanhood to deepen her shame.  Her father tries to comfort her, with some success, but the experience leaves her reeling.  She tries to calm herself on the mirrored surfaces of the family shrine, but instead experiences a fit of depersonalization, complete with the desperate urge to re-anchor oneself in one’s body by touching the scenery.  Every tiny difference between her reflection and the feminine ideal she dreams will quiet the shrieking in the back of her mind becomes a cause to not see that person, see herself, as real.

“I will never pass for a perfect girl, or a perfect daughter.”

She doesn’t see that, in a culture with a more expansive view of femininity, she would be its incarnation.  She doesn’t see that her womanhood isn’t reduced by facing complex rituals and loss of agency with maladroit anxiety.  She doesn’t see that her womanhood is not contingent on fitting into an excruciatingly tiny cultural box, because her people’s acceptance of her as a woman is so fragile and conditional.  She must be better at it than the rest to be seen as worthy to stand among them, and she is not, and that means that she can see the elaborate, beautiful makeup and clothing only as a lie.

Her father is conscripted into the army.  She has no energy left to hold to her role over her morals, and protests repeatedly.  Her father, increasingly infirm with old age, coming to terms with his certain death on the battlefield, likewise has no emotional energy left for Mulan.

The twin goals of keeping her father from encountering Hun (actually Xiongnu) swords and redeeming herself bring one act into focus.  If she is a failed woman, then she shall be a successful man.

Scared, horrified, and pre-traumatized for the army’s convenience, she slashes her hair, leaves a feminine gift for her father, and takes up the masculine clothing she rejected long ago.  It fits poorly, it spooks her horse, and it wouldn’t fool anyone who wasn’t already determined to be fooled, but it would have to do.  Her erstwhile spiritual protectors whine and snigger to each other about their “cross-dresser” descendant, and one wonders whether they see her current state or the one she held moments earlier as the “cross.”

Mulan in men's 2nd-century-BCE Han Chinese armor, with a Chinese longsword at her belt, smiling awkwardly and walking with exaggerated swagger.
Mulan doing her best teenage butch lesbian impression while pretending to be a man.

She faces life among men with years of accumulated disgust and fear.  The violence they inflict on each other in this particularly testosterone-fueled space is terrifying.  The smells and sounds are off-putting and make her instinctively anxious.  Her commanding officer’s promise to “make a man out of” each of his recruits is faced with such anxiety that one can almost feel her dissociating through the screen.  She refuses to be unclothed around them, equally afraid of what would happen if her body gave her away, and if it didn’t.  The men make clear that they wouldn’t appreciate the kind of girl she is, on several levels.  But the physical challenges here provide focus.  She grows strong, learns weapon use, and hones her tactical sense to a razor’s edge.

The first battle she was to partake in was already lost when they arrived.  Her superior officer’s father is among the dead.  She consoles him in his grief, unable and unwilling to leave him to his emotions as the rest of the company does.  Her empathy and emotional depth is hard-won and will not be discarded, not while she watches him barely hold himself together over murdered family.  When he resumes his commander persona, she adds to his impromptu memorial a doll she found in the ruins: a tearful memorial to a truth she doesn’t know if she’ll live to resume.

She never learns or respects the military dictum of obedience and flagrantly ignores orders and implements her own plans, which are consistently better than the ones she was meant to complete.  A less competent soldier with her relationship to authority would have been assigned all of the most menial tasks, repeatedly beaten, exercised to exhaustion, and assigned the most dangerous battlefield positions until they died or learned their place.  She, instead, retains this privilege until the unthinkable and inevitable happens.

She is revealed.

The film sets this up as her breasts or vulva being discovered as she is having a wound tended, but it’s not difficult to imagine other tells.  Perhaps she has a feminine-coded tattoo, or a diary, or trust in the wrong comrade.  Perhaps one of her fellow soldiers let something slip and got her thinking that they might be an egg, and they responded to her confidential revelation with snitching.  Or perhaps, in an anachronistic miracle, she’d had hormone replacement therapy and/or bottom surgery as a teenager.

Chinese silk painting of Mulan from the album
Mulan on a cliffside, looking down.

Whatever the cause, transmisogyny demanded she be punished, but her commanding officer already owed much to her.  He spares her, and she loses all remaining incentive to maintain her masculine disguise.  She is left behind in the mountains near the imperial city, to wallow in her despair.  Having failed at being anyone, was there anything left for her?  Perhaps she thinks about the sharp objects in the wreckage of the battle below.  That’s when she sees that the Xiongnu were stalled, not defeated, and remain intent on conquest.

When she returns to her former comrades’ side with this vital news from the battlefield, they treat her as if they had never seen her before, or as if she had deeply betrayed them, though they had been willing to put themselves in mortal peril to help her just days earlier.  She asks them a question I remember asking far too many people in my life.

“You trusted Ping.  Why is Mulan any different?”

They again refuse to trust her until she reminds them of her tactical mettle, and even take a (distasteful) page from her playbook and don gender-variant disguises as part of their plan.

Fa Mulan on a rooftop, holding Shan Yu's sword, wearing a blue and gray dress.
Fa Mulan, finally being herself.

It is here that Mulan finally comes into her own.  Wearing the clothing in which she has long felt most comfortable and most familiar, combining feminine-coded tools like folding fans with the combat talents her society would not let her acquire while living authentically, she uses superior tactical sense to defeat a far stronger opponent.

She earns accolades, trophies, and medals.  Her femininity is recognized even as she is honored for acts forbidden to women.  This is how she presents herself to her parents: in the feminine clothing she prefers, bearing the welcome heft of imperial gratitude.  At home, her then-superior officer appears, asking questions that suggest romantic interest.  She invites him to dinner with her family, feeling, finally, both affirmed and accomplished.

It is a story of honesty and deception, trauma and healing, seeking and finding.  It’s a visit to the too-common tragedy of transfeminine people who, in their insecurity, throw themselves hard into masculine-coded activities to try to force themselves to be what they’ve been told they had to be, and the even more common frustration of trans women being expected to fulfill highly stereotyped visions of femininity to have their gender acknowledged.   Mulan suffers depersonalization tied to these twin pressures, even with the worried support of her family, and this psychic trial sets the goal of her journey.  Mulan endures all of these nightmares before she finds herself, a version of femininity that comes, at long last, with freedom.

This version of Mulan is an emotional rollercoaster I am delighted to ride.  The only way it could be better is if they’d included more of the 17th-century Sui-Tang Romance version and had her meet and become laotong / sworn-sisters with another disguised woman, with all the Sapphic subtext such a term implies.


Mysterious as the Trans Side of Mulan

3 thoughts on “Mysterious as the Trans Side of Mulan

  1. 3

    “It’s a visit to the too-common tragedy of transfeminine people who, in their insecurity, throw themselves hard into masculine-coded activities to try to force themselves to be what they’ve been told they had to be”

    Does this ever happen in the other direction, someone throwing themselves hard into feminine-coded activities to force themselves to be what they’re told they “have to” be?

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