Sure, “[nsert property] … but make it gay” is oodles of fun. It’s lovely to reimagine fairy tales and other classics through a queer lens. And often, we’ll watch or read something and think … “Wait a second. Is this gay*?” Well, my friend, rest assured: It’s probably not your imagination.
Queerbaiting notwithstanding, many of your favorites were, in fact, queercoded. With that in mind, most of the content discussed in this column was released when it was harder for creators to openly declare their characters gay. To that end, for this column isn’t necessarily brimming with hot takes amongst the fam; it is filled with hawt takes, as it were.
In this edition, we’ll dissect Shang and Mulan from Disney’s 1998 animated film, Mulan.
*I’m using gay as a synonym for the 2SLGBTQ+ spectrum.
Most of y’all probably know the story, but in case you don’t … Hua Mulan (Ming-Na Wen, Lea Salonga) secretly, dangerously goes to war in place of her father (Soon-Tek Oh). After getting injured, her fellow soldiers realize she’s not male and kick her out. But then, Mulan saves the day and is seen as a hero for all of China.
Mulan was one of my favorite films growing up (for the reasons outlined in this article, which were unbeknownst to me at the time.). However, I developed a more complicated relationship with it as I’ve grown. For one, many Asian North Americans (and Chinese North Americans, specifically) question it. For your viewing/reading pleasure:
- “The Ballad of Mulan: The Original Poem” — The Flowering Plum and the Palace Lady: Interpretations of Chinese Poetry by Han H. Frankel
- “Everything Culturally Right and Wrong with Mulan (1998)” — Xiran Jay Zhao
- “Mulan Is Still My Problematic Fave” — Nicole Clark
- “Mulan 1998: A Moment of Joy and Anxiety for Asian-American Viewers” — Brian X. Chen
In addition to inaccuracies about Chinese/ other East Asian cultures, the film oversimplifies the Huns, who were, shockingly, not a group of people with grey skin and glowing yellow eyes.
However complex Mulan‘s cultural implications are, its force as a queer awakening isn’t to be underestimated.
Exhibit A: “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”
Honestly, I could probably just post this song with a “KTHANXBAI” and call it a day. But I wouldn’t do that to you. So, we’ll analyze it.
First, Shang sings, “Did they send me daughters/When I asked for sons?” To me, this is the greatest sign that Shang already knows he likes men. His anger at finding out Mulan is a “woman” comes from the fact that this throws his sense of identity into chaos.
That’s why he, two lines later, sings, “But you can bet before we’re through/Mister, I’ll make a man out of you.” It’s easier to stick to the status quo than to confront that our attractions might change. In any case, Mulan feeds into Shang’s desires because she wants to be made into a man. 🎤
The BODY LANGUAGE! At 2:46, after Mulan has just climbed a wooden pole (!), the smirk she gives Shang is gay AF. And tell me that Shang’s face at 2:54 isn’t that of a smitten kitten. Go on, tell me. I’m waiting. For what it’s worth, he doesn’t really look at Mulan the same way he looks at Ping (Mulan-as-a-boy).
As the song goes on, the gender euphoria that Mulan displays is palpable. (And maybe this author has a bit of gender envy. Just a tad.)
Exhibit B: “Reflection”
This is Mulan’s “I want” song, the point in the musical where she tells us every little thing her heart desires.
This song is all about the destructive nature of the roles we play. Mulan sings, “I will never pass for a perfect bride/Or a perfect daughter.” Being her true self would break her family’s heart.
She continues, “Who is that girl I see?/Staring straight back at me?/Why is my reflection someone I don’t know?” Yeesh. Most trans people have felt some variety of this sentiment: staring in the mirror and not recognizing the person — the body — in front of you. Mulan acknowledges that she can’t hide herself, even though she wants to.
Next, she wipes off the mask of her makeup, leaving half of her face ultra-femme and the other unadorned. Gasp. Is Mulan bigender? Nonbinary? She wants to know when her reflection will show who she is on the inside.
This is why I think Mulan has a queer gender identity rather than (just a) queer sexuality. Her language sounds like gender dysphoria. Sure, I suppose you could say that it’s a reflection (ha!) of despising her society’s gender roles. But considering that gender is pretty much a social construct anyway, one person’s gender identity might start where another person’s gender presentation ends.
Exhibit C: The whole rest of the dang movie.
There are other little hints peppered throughout the movie. Firstly, drag plays a big part in the film. Besides Mulan’s passing as a boy in the military, her ancestors bring it up a lot, and she and her military buddies break into the palace dressed as concubines. The ancestors even make a comment about Mulan causing “traditional values to disintegrate.”
Then there’s the way Mulan and Shang act around one another. He’s physically affectionate with Mulan-as-Ping in a way he isn’t with the other soldiers. Then, when Mulan’s secret is revealed, Shang reacts very personally hurt. He trusted her. According to Shang, Ping is “crazy,” and that’s why he trusts him. This is so not about treason, you know?
Finally, Shang does not participate in the song “A Girl Worth Fighting for.” Because he has no romantic use for women! That’s why things get so awkward when he and Mulan (not Ping!) have to start flirting. Heck, Mulan even asks Shang at one point, “You trusted Ping. Why is Mulan any different?” Oh, honey.
They’re queer, your honor. Order in the court! Fine, I guess you could read it differently. Mulan could just be fighting against cultural norms, or she’s a beacon of filial piety. And Shang could have just sensed something “different” about Ping. But I choose to believe differently.
Now make it gayer
Rather than a more outwardly gay Mulan, I’d prefer a more culturally accurate one. That being said, if we were to make Mulan gayer … I’d have Ping and Shang start a relationship. And perhaps have Mulan continue to live as Ping, at least part-time. I don’t know if they’d have words for it — but that would be cool.
In any case, rewatching Mulan was undoubtedly a lesson in … something. Which characters should I cover next? Who do you think was totally already gay?
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