Having been born in the mid '90s, my upbringing was brimming with every princess and talking animal that the cinematic monolith known as Disney had to offer. Disney was already in the midst of what has been called the "Disney Renaissance" by that time, starting with 1989’s The Little Mermaid, and going on to bestow the world with beloved animated films like The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin over the next 11 years. One would think that after so much time, the studio would have run out of ways to reinvent their princess formula, as she can only be motivated by some prince so many times. Enter Mulan in 1998, which is a film as pivotal to Disney’s oeuvre as it is on my journey towards empowerment (while also firmly taking its place as my favorite Disney movie of all time). Besides oozing with girl power and embracing queerness, Mulan has also taught me the power in taking my time to bloom — a lesson for which I am grateful today.
For six-year-old Alejandra, that was a relatively straightforward story that I reenacted every day for weeks. Although the reenactments have stopped, 24-year old Alejandra realizes and appreciates just how much there is to unpack in those 88 minutes. It’s nothing that hasn’t been said before, but I truly believe that Mulan is a queer feminist masterpiece. Mulan’s performance of gender, both when she acts the way she is told a woman should be (“men want girls with good taste” ...you know the song) and when she acts the way she is told a man should be (“swift as the coursing river”), is really powerful stuff for 1990s Disney. What’s even more powerful is how Mulan can succeed in such an exaggerated way when she performs as a man, able to accomplish tasks like retrieving an arrow that none of the other “real” men are able to retrieve, basically rendering gender expectations obsolete.
The most lasting impression Mulan made on me was later in a reprise of the arrow retrieval scene, where her male friends are only able to succeed in climbing a pillar by embracing their femininity, represented by donning kimonos and a full face of makeup. This wasn’t only a movie for empowering little girls, but I admire that boys could watch this and learn that embracing qualities deemed as feminine could be a healthy, remarkable thing. I can’t fully explain what these scenes did for my understanding that as a woman I am capable of the great things any man can do, but I am eternally grateful that I was able to learn that at such a young age because of Mulan.