I love Disney’s Mulan. In addition to being entertaining with a non-annoying and actually quite hilarious sidekick in Mushu, it holds forth several great character traits, such as the selflessness and loyalty of Mulan’s desire to save her father’s life and Mulan’s determination in her insistence. Furthermore, I think there’s an unintentional anti-feminist, pro-realist proposal in depicting Mulan’s physical progress in “I’ll Make a Man Out of You.” Many people are probably aware that the U.S. Armed Forces has a different set of standards for women than for men because most women can’t meet the male standards, and so the Armed Forces would appear sexist if the only thing reported was the proportion of women disqualified versus the proportion of men disqualified. Unfortunately, while it seems like kind of a “duh” moment that women might have a different set of physical standards, given that most women in the Armed Forces have non-combat roles such as desk jobs, it is nevertheless true that women in the Armed Forces do occasionally take on combat roles and having a physically sub-standard soldier in such a role can prove dangerous for her fellow soldiers. Mulan, however, by virtue of pretending to be male, is held to the same physical standards as the other men; knowing that having a physically sub-standard man in the Army endangers the other warriors, she is treated fairly—that is, when she fails to meet male standards, she’s kicked out. Nevertheless, as yet another evidence of her determination, she works harder in order to meet the standard and is only readmitted into the Army when she succeeds.
However, I have one big problem with the movie: it pictures a woman’s power as being solely related to her physical prowess, her similarity to men. There are valid arguments against this thesis statement—for example, people might argue that it’s not her fault none of the men will listen to her when she looks like a woman and, furthermore, she did use her feminine characteristics to get close to the villain. However, she then defeated the bulky, physically powerful villain who’s at least twice her size in the most unrealistic way possible: physically.
This sort of characterization of women is common in post-feminism Disney films. Early films created prior to feminism’s attaining a strong foothold in American society depict strong women as being feminine. Think about it…
Snow White (1937) carves out a comfortable life in awful circumstances by caring (cooking, cleaning, etc.) for the dwarves—very strong, but very traditionally feminine. Perhaps if created today, Snow White would have devised a plan to reenter the palace and take away her stepmother the queen’s power (though not by killing her directly, since that also seems to be forbidden in Disney movies post-feminism). Bambi’s mother (1942) saves her son by sacrificing herself—very strong, but very feminine—while Bambi saves Faline twice by attacking first Ronno and then the dogs—very strong, and very masculine. Perhaps if created today, Bambi’s mother would have saved him by attacking the hunter. Cinderella (1950) also carves out a comfortable life in awful circumstances by caring for her evil stepmother and stepsisters, and then exits the awful circumstances by marriage, which itself was a feat involving determination not to be beaten down by her stepmother—very strong but very feminine. Perhaps if created today, the story would have involved Cinderella rebelling against and defeating her stepmother without resorting to marriage. Briar Rose/Princess Aurora (Sleeping Beauty, 1959) did, in my opinion, nothing particularly remarkable. She was the traditional damsel in distress rescued by a dragon-slaying prince. Perhaps if created today, Briar Rose would have been the one to slay the dragon.
Fast forward. Belle (Beauty and the Beast, 1991) physically attacks Gaston and physically rescues the Beast, though she is feminine in other ways. Pocahontas (1995) demonstrates physical prowess superior to that of John Smith (interestingly, he was a perfect climber on the ship, but he suddenly becomes an utterly incompetent climber when facing off against Pocahontas in a tree) and her greatest strengths are shown in rescuing him by running to his aid and facing off against her father, who was armed with a club, though she is feminine in other ways. Ariel (The Little Mermaid, 1989) physically attacked Ursula and several times physically rescued Prince Eric, though she is feminine in other ways. What’s interesting about these women is that they are feminine in many ways, but when they face off against the villains or against difficult situations, they do so in very physical ways.
Fast forward even further. Although Megara (Hercules, 1997) fulfills the required role of damsel in distress, Esmeralda (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1996), Mulan (1998), to some degree, Jane (Tarzan, 1999), Kida (Atlantis, 2001), and Nani (Lilo & Stitch, 2002) are more physical than feminine.
So what does strength look like in modern Disney women? In their most tense moments requiring a display of strength, most female characters who play major roles do so in masculine ways. I’m not saying that a strong woman who is genuinely feminine shouldn’t physically stop a wicked sea-witch from shooting their beloved with magic underwater lightning bolts… I know I would… I’m just saying that women in traditional Disney movies were strong while being genuinely feminine whereas modern Disney women seem unable to rely on anything genuinely feminine—that is, that they need to be masculine in order to be strong. There are some notable exceptions, but my point is that there has been a huge shift from feminine-strong women to masculine-strong women. In some ways, it may just be a lazy shortcut. We all recognize masculine strength as strength and so it’s much easier than trying to display feminine strength, which is more often quiet and unobtrusive or calm and collected and coolly reasoning, as opposed to hastily swinging a sword around and drawing blood. However, I can’t help but think feminism has something to do with it, too. If we’re just like men, we have to erase the gender differences. In so many ways today, it’s considered offensive to suggest that males and females are inherently different in any area other than the anatomical. So to show a woman in a traditional role can often be considered offensive, like she’s not fulfilling her true purpose in life if she doesn’t try to be more like a man.
It got me to thinking: “What is a strong woman supposed to look like?” I love Disney and watch it frequently… consequently, I’ve been brainwashed with images of Disney women’s strength. I don’t trust myself to know what’s truly strong in a woman and what’s a lazy shortcut to masculine strength. So I turned to the Bible. I’m only going to look at three women, though, the three I consider the most unusual: Ruth, Deborah, and the Proverbs 31 Woman.
I consider Ruth unusual partly because she’s a Gentile who’s praised in Jewish Scripture. Furthermore, in spite of being a Gentile who married a Jew in the land of the Gentiles (and therefore spending her whole life outside of Israel/Judea), she was already apparently quite well-versed in Jewish law by the time she came to the land of her late husband. She could easily have left her mother-in-law and returned to her family—nothing was stopping her—but she chose to do the hard thing and followed Naomi to a strange land where she, Ruth, would not only be a stranger but would also potentially be ostracized as the only non-Jew in a Jewish land. To me, the most interesting part of her story is how Boaz describes her. In Ruth 3:11, he says (KJV), “…all the city of my people doth know that thou art a virtuous woman.” In some other versions, it’s rendered “excellent.” The same word was also used to describe Boaz in Ruth 2:1 as (KJV) “a mighty man of wealth,” again rendered “excellent” in some other versions. The Hebrew is chayil, and this word, oddly enough, refers to strength, usually physical strength, and is used to describe an army or warriors in about two-thirds of its appearances in the Old Testament. Is Ruth really chayil? Perhaps not at first glance, being a penniless Gentile widow living in a patriarchal Jewish society. But her character gave her power, a fact which Boaz recognized. If we are to take her example, a strong woman is selfless, righteous (sexually and otherwise), diligent, not manipulative, caring, hard-working, and more. But she definitely did not take on any traditionally masculine roles.
Deborah is exceptionally odd, in my opinion. As told in Judges 4-5, she was a prophetess and a judge over Israel—and she was married! A Jewish version of Queen Elizabeth, she was not! The prophetess told Barak that God wanted him to take 10,000 men to battle and he accepted the role but insisted that she go with them. The interesting part is that Deborah agreed and went to war, but the Bible doesn’t indicate that she fought. (Interestingly, the Bible also doesn’t say whether her husband went to war or remained home.) I suppose you could say she led from behind. I’m especially intrigued by her case because she obviously had the blessing of God; she was married, and so had a husband “over” her and yet still served as a judge when there is no indication that her husband did, too (in fact, the only mention of him is in Judges 4:4, where he is identified as her husband, which is very unusual in itself). There is no indication as to whether she had children and no references to her outside of Judges 4-5. I’ve wondered in the past whether women ought not take leadership roles in politics, but Deborah seems to indicate quite clearly that women may do so with the full blessing of God. If we are to take her example at face value, a strong woman may judge men and women alike and co-lead men, even to war, but not fight.
Finally, I’m especially intrigued by the Proverbs 31 Woman because King Lemuel describes her as being so much more than a housewife. She’s hard-working, willing to get dirty (literally speaking, not metaphorically speaking, that is, not in an unrighteous way), industrious, wise, not lazy or idle, charitable. She considers carefully before passing a judgment or making a decision, engages in commerce with or without her husband (even purchases land with no indication that she first consulted her husband), speaks wisely and kindly, takes care of her family and household. Her husband is well-known, and though the passage doesn’t explain why, I like to think it’s because of her influence. “Strength and honor are her clothing…” (Prov. 31:25)
So while it’s possible for a woman to be strong in leadership over men and even to go to war with God’s blessing, that’s certainly the exception to the rule and a woman is not Biblically considered strong due to physical prowess over others (a distinctly masculine trait), but due to diligence, wisdom, and a willingness to work hard.
Coincidentally, right after writing this post, I came across this listicle <http://www.buzzfeed.com/ariellecalderon/times-tumblr-made-harry-potter-fans-cry-all-over-again> of Tumblr Harry Potter moments that make fans cry, and number 7 specifically addresses exactly what I discussed here. In part, it states, “So often, female characters are allowed to be aggressive or rebellious, but in exchange are stripped of any traditionally feminine qualities and instead are forced to pick up traditionally masculine traits. However, Hermione is never made to do that. Most notably, she is written to be highly logical and emotionally expressive, a combination not commonly afforded to most of today’s leading ladies.”
I have nothing against women enjoying physical activities traditionally meant for men. In fact, I personally enjoyed Tae Kwon Do (a type of martial arts) and archery as a young person. However, I think we do ourselves and our daughters a disservice by portraying only women with male characteristics as strong (setting male-based standards such as physical strength which the vast majority of women cannot attain) and ignoring the possibility of feminine strength (which does not rely on impossible-to-attain male-based standards).
I’d love to hear your thoughts!