Niti Majethia is an international award-winning writer, editor and spoken word activist.

Mulan: An Existential Crisis


Mulan, a 1998 Disney animation film, is a coming-of-age story of a Chinese girl named Fa Mulan. Set during Han Dynasty China, girls in the movie are deemed as subordinate to males, their sole duty in life set to please their husbands and families by marrying at a young age and perform household chores with prestige. However, Mulan could not be constrained into the female stereotype because, unlike other girls, Mulan prefers to be active and fight alongside men, rather than serve them. However, society refuses to accept her as a women because of her difference, thus prompting Mulan to impersonate a man named Ping and join the Imperial Army.

Mulan’s original excuse to serve is to save her father Fa-Zhou, who is drafted into the army due to military demands to fight a war against the invading Huns. Yet, throughout her military adventures, Mulan learns to appreciate and embrace herself for who she is, and not who she should become. Overcoming society’s perception of women as “the Other”, a concept formed de Beauvoir and Sartre’s idea of the gaze that establish women to be subordinate to males, Mulan found her true identity as a women by embracing her societal definitions of masculine characteristics and choosing to accept herself for who she is, disregarding the opinions of the rest of society to act for herself and accept the consequences following her actions.

As one of the most famous existentialist philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir is a French philosopher during the 1950s known for her prominence in the feminist movement. A lifelong friend of fellow existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, de Beauvoir’s much-celebrated novel, The Second Sex brings attention to the origins of female inequality and oppression that serves as a prominent foundation for contemporary feminism. In the novel, de Beauvoir wrote that “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” She argues that girls are not innately inferior, but learn to become “inward-looking, passive, self-doubting and overeager to please” as a result of societal pressures to conform to gender stereotypes. These traits are considered “natural expressions of femininity,” in which the traits of traditional gender stereotypes girls acquire in their childhood remain with them into adulthood, and is then passed onto future generation in an unending cycle. Since a young age, boys and girls are subjected to gender stereotypes, taught to act in different ways. While boys are taught to be brave, girls are taught to be weak and cry. When boys are taught to run, climb, play, and fight, girls are taught to stay still and wear makeup. In fairytales, females are portrayed as the damsel in distress, while males are portrayed as heroes that save the day. When young girls look up at at their mothers for guidance, they would see that their mother stays at home most of the time while their dad go out everyday and works, realizing that one day they will be just like their mother. As a result, women have evolved the acquired tendency to “see themselves as the other”, an object that awaits assistance from the subject, the male. Male, as the subject, are capable to transcend, act, and create, while females, as the other, is unable to transcend and thus become subordinate to the male (Bakewell 208-215).

Similarly, in Mulan, aspects of de Beauvoir’s argument in The Second Sex could be seen. The movie strongly reinforces de Beauvoir’s beliefs of gender disparity between men and women through scenes that establish men as powerful and women as housewives, in which women are subjugated as the Other while their male counterparts as the subject. For instance, childhood gender differentiation can be seen in the streets of China as small boys are seen fighting with each other, while girls are seen immobile and playing with dolls. In addition, women in the movie are taught to hold their tongues in front of male, and to be careful about their looks and mannerism, so that they could be the perfect bride and please their husband with their submissive nature. For example, in the scene after Mulan protested out loud against her father’s military drafting, Chi-Fu, the Emperor’s adviser, said “Silence! You will do well to teach your daughter to hold her tongue in a man’s presence,” further solidifying society’s bias against women as subordinate to males. As sung in the lyrics of the song “Honor to Us All,” an attractive women should “work fast-paced, have good breeding and a tiny waist,” as well as be “calm and obedient.” Thus, by possessing these qualities, women are able to fulfill their duties by “bearing sons” while the men “bear arms” to complete their duties to the Emperor and the nation. However, while women are the main victims of social stereotypes, men are not free from them either. In Mulan, the male stereotype could be portrayed by Captain Li-Shang of the Chinese army, who is a strong, muscular, and capable solider that provokes fear wherever he goes. Yet, unlike Li-Shang, much of his comrades, such asLing, Ping, and Yao, are obese, slim, and short, thus not considered to be ‘true men’ because of their lack of physical strength. In the song “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”, the characters are trained to “be a man” by being “swift as the coursing river…with all the force of a great typhoon..all the strength of a raging fire…mysterious as the dark side of the moon,” that define the essential qualities of masculinity (Mulan). Social stereotypes are farther explored in Sartre’s concept of the gaze that is present in his play No Exit. The gaze represents the omnipresent judgmental eyes of society in a community with set social values that all people are required to obey, in which those who do not conform would be isolated from society. Everybody is a victim of the gaze, but some are more effected by others. Those who are not affected by the gaze are not bothered by the judgmental gazes of others around him/her and act true to themselves.

Yet, the majority of people are bound to the gaze, and live in constant consciousness about themselves, acting according to social values rather than their own free will, thus denying themselves the freedom to be themselves. In the play, Estelle is a victim of the gaze because her constant need for approval from the crowd regarding her looks due to her fear of isolation driven by diverging from social norms led her to use Inez as a mirror (Sartre 18-24). Consequently, her reliance on Inez, ‘her mirror,’ caused Estelle to be forever trapped under the scrutiny of the gaze with no exit. As Inez said, “Don’t be afraid; I’ll keep looking at you for ever and ever, without a flutter of my eyelids, and you’ll live in my gaze like a mote in a sunbeam” (Sartre 34). However, Mulan is different from Estelle because she is not affected as much by the gaze. Traditionally, Mulan is perceived as a women and therefore she is judged by society for her femininity and capability to be a suitable wife for her future husband. Yet, Mulan realized she cannot act in accordance with the customs associated with women because that is not who she really is. No matter how hard she tries to conform, she is always the odd one out, causing her to be viewed negatively by the crowd, causing her despair and anxiety. In the song “Reflection,” Mulan, in an attempt to judge herself for her failures, gazes into her own reflections yet not knowing who the reflected girl is because the real Mulan is not the Mulan shown in the image and is not meant to be subordinate to male authority. Knowing that she is not meant to be the “perfect bride or the perfect daughter,” Mulan struggles to fuse her identity with the wishes of society, creating a paradox where by breaking free of the gaze, Mulan will be isolated from society and “break her family’s heart.” As she continues to gaze into her reflection, she questions when will her “reflection show who I [Mulan] am inside” as someone that is accepted by all, including herself (Mulan).

Despite her identity struggles, at the end of the movie, Mulan was able to overcome her identity of being a women with masculine characteristics and act true to herself. Her actions fall in accordance with both de Beauvoir and Sartre’s belief that one’s existence is defined by themselves though choosing their own actions. By choosing for the self, one is also accepting the consequences of the action, because, as de Beauvoir said, “one’s actions always effect others, as freedom of one man almost always concerns that of other individuals” (de Beauvoir 424). Furthermore, Sartre justifies their idea by saying, “nothing stops us but our own free choosing. If we want to survive, we have to decide to live” (Bakewell 11). He used French author Jean Genet as someone who owned his identity as an societal outsider and used his identity as both a homosexual and a thief to his advantage to create artistic masterpieces. As Sartre said, “Genet embraced his flaws as an advantage to escape the oppression of conformity to be no longer someone who could be persecuted, transforming oppression into freedom” (Bakewell 218-220). Throughout the movie, Mulan also faced numerous identity crisis. Her first identity crisis occurred in the beginning of the film, where her inability to conform to social norms led to her isolation from society. Luckily, Mulan is able to find sanctuary from her isolation by joining the army, finding herself in a crowd of men who would only judge her as Ping, her “male identity.” Ping provided Mulan a temporary escape from reality, for as Ping, Mulan does not have to suffocate under oppressive feminine constraints and she has the ability to act however she wants.

Yet, after Mulan is caught by army officials to be a woman after an injury, she is once again mercilessly casted away as an outsider and secluded from proper society, for Mulan is now a criminal by joining the army as a women. Disillusioned by her current state and failure once again, Mulan sought to accept defeat and return home to a life of humiliation. In spite of that, Mulan persisted, and, just like Genet, took a leap of faith to embrace her flaws and accept herself for who she is: a girl with masculine characteristics, despite potential consequences such as isolation from society, dishonor to her family, and death. Her new found identity gave her confidence and return to Li-Shang before the final battle with the Huns, warning him about theHun’s secret arrival and their plan to overtake the country. Despite facing hostility from Li- Shang, who refuses to listen to Mulan because of her gender, Mulan harshly replied, “You said that you trusted Ping. How is Mulan any different?” This statement proved that Mulan not only feels empowered as a women to retort against her male commanding officer, but also acceptive of herself for who she is through her confidence in being Mulan, unfazed by the gaze of others. In the finale, through her bravery, intelligence and perseverance, Mulan saved China, gaining the acceptance and respect of everyone, but most of all, from herself (Mulan). By embracing her societal definitions of masculinity and choosing to accept herself for who she is, Mulan overcome society’s perception of women as “the Other” and disregarded the judgmental gaze of society while accepting the consequences of her actions. Her bravery, perseverance, and defiance against restrictive social norms enabled her to find acceptance for who she is and not who she is meant to be in terms of social stereotypes. And in the end, she was happy.

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