Stepping Into the (Mu)shoes of Asian American Women—How “Mulan” Brings Honor to Us All

The story of Mulan has inspired many Stuyvesant students to be proud of their identities.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

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By Sunny Bok

“Mulan” redefined what it meant to be an Asian woman in a man’s world and brought Asian characters to the big screen in 1998. Disney’s animated movie is based on the poem “The Ballad of Mulan,” which is about an elderly war veteran who is forced to join the army because he is the man of the house. Mulan fearlessly breaks the law and goes against societal standards to save her father from enlisting by taking his place. Mulan understands the risks of posing in the military as a man, but she cares more about saving her father and bringing honor to her family. She uses her wit and strength to accomplish tasks that her male counterparts could never achieve. As Disney’s eighth princess, she challenges the traditional definition of a princess by proving that anyone who is kind, brave, and smart can be one. Mulan is an icon for females and Asians, especially at Stuyvesant.

Student (A), one of the many students who chose to be anonymous due to the fact that they feel uncomfortable with their names being associated with their responses, first watched the 1998 animated film when she was just five years old. “I admired Mulan, who was able to fight so courageously when I wouldn't have even been able to take a single step onto that battlefield. I figured that because I was kind of like her in that I was also Asian (and female), but young me didn't realize that yet one day, I might also have a chance to become someone like her,” A said. For A, Mulan was a role model who looked like her and gave her hope that she, too, could accomplish great things. Having someone like Mulan to look up to became increasingly important as A grew up and began to experience the microaggressions that come with being female and Asian American. As a female, she was often told that it wasn’t her place to speak and was denied her voice. And because she was Asian American, classmates at school told her daily that her rice was a weird and disgusting thing to bring for lunch. As time went on, A began to internalize these messages: “I slowly started to adopt those same sentiments; I started to think that maybe I shouldn't have spoken up, the men were talking, and women/girls didn't have a say in that matter, or that eating rice for lunch instead of a turkey sandwich was kind [of] weird, so I should just stop bringing lunch to school. [Those comments] made me feel small, and even though it made me uncomfortable, I couldn't find the voice to tell them that it did.” Though frequently belittled and pushed down for her own identity, she slowly came to the realization that perhaps there was no need to subscribe to other people’s notions of “correct” behavior for girls, especially Asian girls. Mulan certainly wouldn’t. A began to realize, as Mulan did when she donned her father’s armor and went into battle, “how much potential […] I could have even if society had already assigned a role for me based on my sex and race.” Mulan stayed a constant role model who proved that being Asian American or female was not a disadvantage but rather something to be proud of.

Another student (B) has long been held to a double standard by her parents. “I could be doing homework and my brother [could] be gaming, but I’ll still have to help my mom do housework while he can continue gaming,” B said. On top of being held to different standards for being female, B was raised in a distinctly Asian household that valued education and certain careers. Her family expects her to keep her grades up and then, after attending a (reputable) college, pursue an acceptable career. In essence—bring honor to us all. B watched “Mulan” seven years ago with her friends. When she watched, she observed that Mulan was able to bring honor to her family without following the path that was explicitly laid out for her. Mulan empowered B as both a woman and an Asian American. “It made me realize that we don’t need to conform to the standards set for us. We can make our own standards and walk our own path,” B said. Though B’s shoulders were weighed down by standards and expectations from her parents, Mulan stood as a symbol that it was okay to create her own path and make her own decisions.

For sophomore Sharon Liu, “Mulan” is a lesson on self-acceptance. From a young age, Liu was called derogatory terms by strangers for being Asian American. Even some of her family members put her down for wearing certain clothes or acting differently from the mold they made for her. Liu was forced to change out of or cover up any clothing that was considered too revealing for her family. She was pressured to commit to more feminine hobbies instead of masculine activities like sports. Even her emotions were forced to be suppressed. “If I were ecstatic about something, it would be strange for me to yell out in celebration. If I were sad or angry, it didn’t feel right to yell from rage,” Liu said. A female was supposed to be observant, polite, and elegant in her family. It took years, during middle school and beyond, for Liu to fully embrace her identity as an Asian American girl, for her reflection to show who she is inside. Liu gives a lot of credit to the support of her friends: “The key is to surround yourself with people who encourage you to appreciate your culture. I've learned to form relationships that make me feel proud of my identity instead of trying to hide it away.” But perhaps Liu’s biggest influence as she struggled to find herself was Mulan: “Initially, I was amazed that she had the courage to step in for her father and fake her identity, knowing the punishment, but […] what really showed me she was extraordinary was her ability to reveal her true self. Not only is she brave, [but] she is also selfless.”

Mandarin teacher Shu Shi grew up with “木兰辞 The Ballad of Mulan.” Shi has known the story since she was just a little girl, as it is considered a classic in China. The ballad was a required reading in mainland China, and Shi was told to memorize it from the characters to the punctuation. The famous heroine’s bravery and willingness to sacrifice for both her family and country are moving to Shi. Shi hopes that her students can be kind and grateful just as Mulan was to her father. “A lot of Stuyvesant students’ parents work very hard to support their kids. At the parent-teacher conferences, when I [see] my students show great respect to their parents and my students are grateful for what their family has done for them, I feel very gratified,” Shi said.

Sophomore Jet Li notes that the 1998 animated version of “Mulan” had a great impression on him. “Mulan was just a simple girl with no chi powers or anything, and so, she struggled a lot [at] the beginning of the training camp. However, she rose up to the challenge and managed to become the most hardworking person in the camp [who] reached the top when none of the men could,” Li said. Li still thinks that even though “Mulan” defied the norms of her time, there are still doubts today about what women are capable of. Li strongly disagrees with this societal norm: “Women can do anything men can do. One's gender does not define their capabilities. Instead, intellect and the effort put in are what really [determine] what a person can or can't do.”

Mulan inspires many different messages in her audience. As the younger generation watches “Mulan” for the first time, the princess will continue to be a role model for Asian American girls (and maybe even a few boys). Liu hopes that Mulan will be a lasting role model in the lives of younger viewers. “The movie teaches you that you’re in charge of your own life,” she said. “Your life is in your hands, and you’re completely responsible for how it plays out. The moment Mulan embraced that, she was able to accomplish what she put her heart to.”