What happens when girl meets toy

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The Independent Culture
Much has been made of the fact that the new Disney epic, Mulan, is wrapped around the adventures of a feminist heroine. It does indeed sound like something of a breakthrough. In the past Disney has been criticised for persisting with a world view in which boys fight and girls simper. Some of this is inevitable when you are dealing, as Disney often is, with the animal kingdom. It is all too easy (and all too defensible on the most straightforward natural-history grounds) to paint a world in which mummy elephants long for nothing but babies and boy lions grow up wanting to be kings.

Indeed, one of the most reactionary aspects of all children's entertainments - and this includes children's books as well as the endless wildlife documentaries - is that nature is not feminist. No doubt about it: children love animals. But anthropormorphism - the giving of funny voices to our furry friends - is a very conservative notion. For the most part the daddy animals forage and fight, while the mummy animals suckle the young ("It's autumn, and the cubs are learning to fend for themselves"). Unless they're lions, in which case poor old Mum does all the work while Dad lazes about on some rock with a view.

So Mulan seemed like a fine and necessary idea. And for the first half an hour it seemed as if Disney had managed to hit most of the right buttons. There's a nice formal preamble in which gender issues are amiably raised. Mulan is an embarrassment to her family - she keeps offending the matchmaker by behaving too boisterously to qualify as a wife. She's anything but a suitable girl - far too vivacious and independent, and she refuses to kow-tow. In the real ancient China, a visit to the footbinder might have been enough to remind her of her obligations, but in Disneyland she gets to cut her hair and ride off to war on a handsome black horse, dressed as a man in her father's stolen armour.

We cut to the court. The Huns have breached the Great Wall; an army must be raised. One man, they say, may make all the difference - and of course that man turns out to be a girl. Mulan: a clever name suggesting obstinate, mulish virility. Surprisingly, her manly pseudonym is rather light and airy: Ping.

The soldiers sing merry songs about how they wish they had a girl worth fighting for. You feel you've heard the music before somewhere - it's Whitney Houston meets Les Miserables. There's plenty of talk about the desire "to be myself", and even some speculation as to "what I am inside".

None of this is in any sense new, of course. Viola was slapping men on the shoulder and lowering her voice in Twelfth Night four hundred years ago. Cross-dressing is a reliable plot-device when it comes to gags, even if they're not that funny any more (though it is probably only a matter of time before the language police insist that "cross-dressing" is derogatory, and suggest that we call it happy-dressing instead). But still, it is undeniably reassuring to see girl heroes winnings wars and saving ancient China for democracy and the American way.

It seems churlish to complain. But by insisting so strongly on her being a woman prevailing in a man's world, Mulan ends up merely as an exception, as a freak. I went to the film accompanied by a five-year-old boy, and afterwards he agreed that yes, Mulan was amazing. She won the war and saved China - even though she was a girl. The film drew so much comical attention to her femininity - we saw her hiding behind the reeds in the communal bath or gazing wistfully at the handsome captain - that she ended up spoiling the point she was supposed to be making. She was remarkable, considering. Is that a feminist argument?

In seeking to subvert a stereotype, the film ends up reinforcing one. Mulan's exploits merely make her what she had previously failed to be: marriageable. Besides, she couldn't have done what she did in any case without the help she received from a typical Disney double-act: a wise- cracking trainee dragon (Eddie Murphy) and a lucky cricket. At this point the other aspects of Disney world begin, once again, to make us bridle: the fact that we can read that the corporation was looking for a breakthrough in China; the fact that eight assorted Mulan toys are available from Macdonalds.

It's a good try. But even very young boys will not be nonplussed by the gender politics in the film. They will go into the cinema thinking that girls are kissy drips; they'll come out thinking that they are kissy drips except for Mulan, who is a made-up cartoon anyway. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. As soon as you seek to emphasise something, you can all too easily wind up drawing attention instead to the opposite. At thevery end Stevie Wonder rattles on about being true to yourself. In Mulan's case, that meant fighting a war, pleasing Dad, and getting her man into the bargain. There's having it all for you.