“Mary Sue” Mulan
October 9, 2020
The biggest and most disappointing move: they made Mulan a Mary Sue.
In both the 1998 animated film and the original ballad, Mulan was not born exceptionally strong or powerful. She was a typical girl in ancient China who resigned herself to the battlefield to save her father.
She struggles alongside her fellow inexperienced soldiers, and in a brilliant three-and-a-half minute montage accompanied by the iconic song “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” they transform from inept youngins to capable warriors. Mulan gains the respect of both her peers and her (bisexual) commanding officer when she reaches the top of the pole by creatively using the weights to her advantage, not through brute strength like the men had tried. The audience cheered for her—her triumph was satisfying, and her success felt like ours.
There is none of that emotional payoff in the live action. From the beginning, Mulan’s father introduces her as a girl with extraordinary amounts of chi, which she can’t use because she would otherwise be called a witch. Wow, amazing.
While chi is indeed a concept in Chinese medicine and martial arts, it isn’t some all-powerful force that can somehow allow a prepubescent girl to do parkour on the rooftops while chasing a chicken before landing perfectly from the third floor. Chi, directly translated as “air,” is essentially the physiological “life force” or “energy flow” that everyone has. In Chinese martial arts or even Chinese fantasy movies, what’s important about chi is not how much you’re born with, but rather how you practice “qigong,” or the “art of cultivating chi” to utilize it most effectively.
By establishing Mulan as someone who is naturally talented because of her “chi,” the writers gave Mulan no space to grow. They made her “The Chosen One” and removed all the relatability that we know and love. She doesn’t have to learn and fight alongside her comrades: she can just whip out her awesome chi powers and do backflips on a horse while her hair is flowing in the wind and is physically unprotected because she threw down her father’s armor for absolutely no reason. There’s no euphoria from Mulan’s success because we never see her truly fail.
It’s even worse when you consider her sister.
In the 2020 live action, the writers added a younger sister, Xiu, who represents the “ideal girl” back in the ancient times. Demure, obedient and afraid of spiders, Hua Xiu is the perfect archetype to compare Mulan to.
Combined with Mulan’s powers of chi and eventual war fame, her sister is stuck completely in her shadow. This movie tells little girls that if you’re not naturally talented like Mulan, you’re not going to amount to anything other than getting married to a man and staying inside the cycle of patriarchy. Good luck.