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Mike Pence’s Mulan Problem

So, here I am again discussing another Disney reading – or rather a conspiracy theory. This one concerns Mulan and was proffered by newly-minted Vice Presidential candidate Mike Pence when he was a conservative talk show host in Indiana. On his show’s site he penned an op-ed which postulated that Mulan was liberal propaganda, and, in his mind, proof that women should not serve in the armed forces.

The approach I will take to examining this claim is a mostly film theory based. He’s politicizing the apolitical and therefore I will keep most of my discussion focused on his assessments and whether they are truly contextualizing plot and themes correctly.

So let’s begin.

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It starts with the title of the piece (pictured at the bottom of this post): “Women in the Mulan Military.” It’s objectively nonsensical. In the film Mulan there is one woman in the military. She is not allowed to be in the military and poses as male. Or is the lack of proper italicizing to indicate that allowing women to serve “Mulans” our military? Which also makes no sense.

Lack of coherence in titling already paves the way for flawed reasoning.

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In a not-so-minor grammatical note he writes “Fathers Day.” Sorry. It’s Father’s Day. If you are a father it’s your day rather than the day of all fathers. Possessives are important. Already he’s not even made his point and I’m less likely to give any credence to his arguments.

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Then he claims the popularity of the film was all induced by McDonald’s. This gives you a sense of his understanding of the film industry. Disney animated films were on a hot-streak at the time, they always appeal to kids, and McDonald’s tie-in is the work of Disney Marketing not some insidious McDonald’s agenda. Furthermore, it shows his bias from the start. He’s not even synopsized the film yet.

In a film with an anthropomorphized dragon, a fictional creature to begin with, and a cricket in the same vein, he critiques the likelihood of Mulan’s military prowess:

Despite her delicate features and voice, Disney expects us to believe that Mulan’s ingenuity and courage were enough to carry her to military success on an equal basis with her cloddish cohorts.

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Mulan and the voice actress who played her Ming-Na Wen

It’s uncertain how one can read that sentence any thing other than sexist. Apparently, Pence can suspend disbelief on common Disney tropes but a pretty girl who can fight is crazy. Not to mention the fact that this film establishes her as accident prone, and then does a traditional training montage to show the improvement of her martial skills. To Pence’s mind she has to look like G.I. Jane or a butch lesbian to be able to fight.

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If anything in this piece almost holds water it’s this next passage, but even that misses the mark:

Obviously, this is Walt Disney’s attempt to add childhood expectation to the cultural debate over the role of women in the military. I suspect that some mischievous liberal at Disney assumes that Mulan’s story will cause a quiet change in the next generation’s attitude about women in combat and they just might be right. (Just think about how often we think of Bambi every time the subject of deer hunting comes into the mainstream media debate.)

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This is another case of vastly overrating the influence of media on reality. Apparently the integration of women in combat roles during the Gulf War or on combat ships in 1993 or flying combat missions during operation Desert Fox in 1998 doesn’t set-up a childhood expectation just movie about a Imperial Era Chinese girl, who goes only to protect her father and promptly quits when the war is over. That’ll get girls wanting to be in 21st Century wars they “shouldn’t be in.”

As for Bambi, I don’t know anything about deer hunting debates. I didn’t know they existed. I know there is a season for it and regulations around it. Maybe that’s an Indiana thing. Bambi, however, I do know. It was the first movie I remember seeing at the movies. Bambi’s mother’s death is scarring because it’s his mother not because it’s a deer taken down by a hunter. Hunters shoot deer. That’s a fact. In anthropomorphizing forest animals a logical assumption, divorced of political leanings, is that animals would fear hunters. If you think Walt Disney knowingly put liberal propaganda in his films, you don’t know enough about Walt Disney – which he probably doesn’t because even though this piece is from the late ’90s he refers to Walt Disney, the man who was dead more than 30 years, and not Disney, the company that bears his name. Lastly, people twist things up over time. Like the fact that the name Bambi is used almost exclusively for girls in real life even though Bambi in the film is a buck.

From there Pence goes on a tangent about scandals like Tailhook and the Aberdeen Proving Grounds. His assessment: men and women stuff will happen. It’s classic victim blaming. It’s like saying “Well, if they weren’t in the military they wouldn’t have been raped and molested.” Try weeding out the rapists and molesters instead.

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When he ties it back to Mulan he states, in closing:

It is instructive that even in the Disney film, young Ms. Mulan falls in love with her superior officer! Me thinks the politically correct Disney types completely missed the irony of this part of the story. They likely added it because it added realism with which the viewer could identify with the characters. You see, now stay with me on this, many young men find many young women to be attractive sexually. Many young women find many young men to be attractive sexually. Put them together, in close quarters, for long periods of time, and things will get interesting. Just like they eventually did for young Mulan. Moral of story: women in military, bad idea.

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Methinks methinks is a compound word.

As for the supposed irony, it’s irony that is informed by Pence’s sexist viewpoint. The subtext of that sentence is: a woman in the military either falls in love with her superior officer or is raped. Yes, there’s Disneyfication like the addition of animal sidekicks, and yes there is a romantic interest; however, that builds additional conflict (the key to drama) as to show one’s feelings could betray her gender, which she is hiding after all.

This is the same kind of knee-jerk reactionary propaganda decree that leads to people thinking Muppets want their children to be Communists or that Frozen will make their daughters lesbians.

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Jenn Lewis/BuzzFeed

The film is actually one of the earliest feminist characters in the Disney pantheon. She takes matters into her own hands, is a non-conformist, and almost never allows herself to fall to the mercy of a patriarchal society. Pence’s oversimplified statement would make sense if we lived in a bygone era, but we don’t. Politics aside he misses the moral entirely. Mulan doesn’t join the military because she really wants to behead some Huns nor does it caution us about our daughters running off to fight wars incognito.

Mulan pleads for her father to be excused as he is aging and injured. This plea is rebuked. She runs off and takes her father’s place. She risks her freedom and life to protect him. It’s a story about courage, sacrifice, and the family value of honoring elders.

The story is set when it was first written in a poem in about the 5th century. It was a far more impressively progressive statement then than it is now. Apparently, some aren’t ready to come out of the 600s.

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