Disney’s Mulan: Almost A Heroine

Written by Katerina Daley; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson.


From the day Bambi first struggled to his feet in 1942, Disney has been a strong proponent of Hero’s Journey plot arcs. Indeed, as explained in our blog about Christopher Vogler’s  “Memo that Started It All,” for the past quarter century this has been a deliberate commercial decision. To respond to the contemporary demand for female protagonists, Disney has produced a number of films about marriageable but defiant princesses who engage in quests of one sort or another that culminate in a happily ever after ending without loose ends. The 1998 film Mulan, released four years after The Lion King, provides some interesting complications to the Disney Hero’s Journey formula.  Although the title character, Mulan, achieves great fame and honor by the film’s end, her motivations are more complex than the typical hero’s and at the film’s end it is clear that her journey is far from over.

As in Maureen Murdock’s Heroine’s Journey, the movie  begins with Mulan’s Separation from the Feminine. Fa Mulan does not fit the traditional feminine ideal of her community, evidenced by her disastrous failure at fulfilling her role as a potential bride during her meeting with a matchmaker. Due to this failing, the matchmaker chastises her for bringing “dishonor” to her family. Following this Separation, she moves on to Identification with the Masculine and Gathering of Allies when she learns that an order has been issued for sons and fathers to join the army in the fight against the Huns. Rather than allow her aging crippled father to go to war, Mulan cuts her hair and dresses in his armor. Her ally is Mushu the red dragon, the film’s stock anthropomorphic comic animal sidekick, and an alleged ancestral guide.

I'll Make a Man Out of You

The final shot of the “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” song number depicts Mulan as fully integrated among her fellow (male) soldiers.

With Mushu at her side, Mulan sets out for the army camp and finds herself traveling the Road of trials and Meeting Ogres and Dragons. Upon arrival at the camp, Mulan struggles to find acceptance, but she eventually makes a name for herself by succeeding at an exercise no other man can, depicted in the film’s most popular song, the ironically named, “I’ll Make a Man Out of You.” This is the first of many times when Mulan’s new (heroine) perspective permits her to creatively solve a problem that all the men around her are stuck on. After earning the respect of her captain, Li Shang, Mulan joins her fellow soldiers battling  the Huns. During this crucial battle, Mulan experiences the Boon of Success by aiming a firecracker at the overhanging cliffs and creating an avalanche that kills many Huns.  In this attack, Mulan is thought to have killed their savage leader, Shan Yu.

Her success is short-lived, however, and Mulan is soon propelled into Feelings of Spiritual Aridity. She is injured during the Hun attack and once the dust settles and she is treated for her injuries, her gender is revealed. Her betrayal of self was impossible to maintain and Mulan is fed up with attempting to perpetuate the lie that denies and limits who she truly is.

The sentence for having pretended to be a man would normally be death, but her life is spared since she saved her captain’s life during the battle. Instead, she is cast out of the troop and left with nothing but her horse, her armor, and her animal guides, Mushu and Cri-Kee the “lucky” cricket.  Left behind by her fellow soldiers, Mulan learns that Shan Yu and some of the Huns actually survived the avalanche.  She realizes she must go to the Imperial City to save the emperor and her comrades.

When Mulan arrives in the Imperial City, she attempts to advise Captain Li Shang about the Huns and their plans to attack again now that the city’s guard is down, but he doesn’t listen to her because she is a woman. In the face of this rebuff, Mulan realizes she alone can avert disaster and is forced into Healing the Wounded Masculine. She knows that she needs to take action to save China. Ignoring Li Shang, she enlists the help of the three close friends she made while in the army who accept and trust her even knowing that she is a woman.

Mulan Masculine Feminine

Mulan shows her skill at subverting gender expectations by working her society’s sexist views to her advantage.

The film’s rising action reaches its climax when Mulan is able to use the skills she learned training to be a soldier and her intelligence and feminine wiles to defeat Shan Yu and the Huns. In an Integration of the Masculine and Feminine, Mulan  instructs her fellow soldiers to dress as concubines in order to enter the palace, since the invisibility of women  will now finally work to her advantage. She also confronts Shan Yu personally, and by drawing her hair back to imitate the style she wore  while posing as a male soldier, she shocks Shan Yu by revealing that he was defeated by a woman the first time, and will now again be defeated by a woman. She is rewarded by the emperor for saving China and offered a prestigious position among his staff. Mulan rejects the Emperor’s offer, preferring to return home, having brought honor to her family.

Had the movie ended there, Mulan would be one of a very few heroine’s journey tales aimed at children.

However, rather than endorse Mulan’s family-oriented motivation to return home to an every day life to be a satisfying ending, Disney tacks on a quick and confusing love plot. Captain Li Shang arrives at the Fa family home to return Mulan’s father’s helmet, but he suddenly acts sheepish and love-struck. Mulan invites him to stay for dinner. Her grandmother asks if he would like to stay forever. Mulan has already fulfilled her mission of having worked for something greater than herself, but by introducing the marriage-with-Li Shang plot, Disney steps back toward the more familiar Snow White ending and sets up ground for the direct-to-video sequel Mulan II. In the sequel, Mulan becomes  a political escort/body guard for the Emperor’s three daughters (who are also the subjects of a series of aborted and then successful marriage plots) and a quasi-princess in marrying into the Li family. Unable to believe that Mulan’s personally motivated but ultimately selfless drive could satisfy their audience, Disney has tweaked this heroine’s journey tale enough to fit on the rack with their other princess stories and produce a sequel that lacks both the heart and truth of the original.

Wholeness Introduces Herself to Promises of Happiness and Success

Written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance Savannah Jackson.


Unlike Heroines’ Journeys, The Hero’s Journey ends with the hero returning to his tribe, kinsmen, country, or home with the Elixir. In Hero Journey stories such as the Lion King, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or Wonder Woman, the hero (male, female, or otherwise) finds the treasure, restores his tribe’s lost honor, learns the magic code, or discovers the key to success and is rewarded with recognition, status, and respect.

Maureen Murdock describes the heroine’s quest as an “inner journey toward being a fully integrated, balanced, and whole human being.”  Although Murdock focuses on the integration of feminine and masculine personality traits, the heroine’s journey can be understood as a quest to integrate almost any two dichotomies, binaries, opposing concepts, or ideologies. Victoria Schmidt’s version of the heroine’s journey concludes with a “Rebirth– the Moment of Truth” when the protagonist faces her own (and others’) fear with compassion and returns to the “perfect world” or  “the world seen for what it is.”  The reward for the journey is an integrated connection to the world and something larger than herself.

The Heroine Journeys Project team believes that the Heroine’s Journey is, in essence a search to affirm and experience wholeness. By definition, wholeness necessarily includes both sides of a binary including the masculine and feminine, but also success and failure, perfection and imperfection, joy and grief, happiness and despair, respect and disrespect, glory and stunning disappointment, etc. The world and human experience encompasses each of these things, so respite from disappointment or suffering is temporary so long as life, or the story, continues.

Creative Cycle by Nancer Ballard

Artist book by Nancer Ballard depicting pleasant and unpleasant aspects of  creative cycle

Throughout our lives, most of us are told that loyalty, hard work, sacrifice, and some notion of universal fairness (sometimes called Destiny) will bring us Happiness and Success and eradicate our suffering, frustrations, and disappointment. We are taught that it is possible to “make it,” and become our family/tribe/community leader or win a coveted personal relationship and live happily ever after…. or at least a relatively care-free comfortable life.  Many of us know differently but still secretly believe in the mythical hero’s journey arc because we have grown up in a binary-soaked culture and recoil from the unpleasant aspects of wholeness we have been led to believe are unnecessary.

A few months ago I was given a poem by Lynn Ungar (which she has graciously allowed us to share) that describes the kind of stories and lives that royalty and most of us commoners actually live rather than the make-believe myths we think we want to live.

The Story

I’ll tell you a secret.
There is no happy ending.
Also no tragic conclusion.
The prince and princess don’t
live happily ever after.
They live happily sometimes,
and sometimes they are stricken
with so much grief that they know
their hearts will explode—
which never actually happens—
and sometimes they are
well and truly and deeply
bored, and ready for the tiniest
of catastrophes to shake them awake.

They will not, of course,
live ever after.  No one does.
But they might have children
who carry on the royal line,
or friends who tell the story
of how the witch showed up
at the baby shower, or maybe
they planted trees. One way
or another the story
inevitably continues.
Pray that it is some kind of
story about love.

In this poem, love is viewed as the best glue for a full evolving life rather than the reward that ends the story-life arc with flatlining good fortune. A good working definition of “love” is an enduring, positive, attentive connection between two (or more) separate beings that creates a relationship.  The relationship is distinct and larger than its individual members or constituents. Love does not abolish loneliness and vulnerability, but having a positive, enduring connection with others can make the pain of being alone and being imperfectly understood tolerable. A loving connection also provides company in times of vulnerability.

In Maureen Murdock’s formulation of the Heroine’s Journey, the final step in the cycle is integration.  Integration has several meanings. It can refer to the act or an instance of combining disparate elements into an integral whole—as in the integration of personality.  But integration can also refer to harmonious behavior of individuals within a larger environment, or to the coordination of distinct previously segregated elements within a unitary system—as in the integration of a school system.  In other words, integration can refer to blending or synthesizing or to the coordination of parts in which the parts retain their individual distinctness and integrity within a larger whole.  Love draws upon both types of integration. Unless the individuals in a loving relationship maintain their individual selves and identities, the result is a merging of one person into another, or domination and subordination, rather than connection borne by love. Love’s connection also produces a relationship which neither person can create by themselves.  Their relationship, a product of their connection to themselves and each other, is a third thing that is something different than the sum of its parts—just as a story depends upon character, action, motivation, and result but is more than the sum of these elements. As in a relationship, each element in a story is necessary and significantly influenced by other elements but can still be somewhat differentiated from the other parts.

Integration of the masculine and feminine, and whatever other binaries are at stake, can involve blending, synthesis, or the coordination of separate elements that retain their individuality within a larger whole.  The best stories and fullest of lives involve evolving combinations of each of these.

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We appreciate Lynn Unger’s allowing us to share “The Story” in this post. To learn more about Lynn Unger’s work and/or purchase her book of poetry, Bread and Other Miracles, go to http://www.lynnungar.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Journey of Christopher Vogler

Written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance by Sage Calder.


While researching hero and heroine journey arcs, I came across a piece by Christopher Vogler, a Hollywood Development Executive, who claims to have played a central role in ensuring that the hero’s journey narrative has dominated American movies over the last thirty years.

Sylvester Stallone in Rocky IV, an example of the Hero's Journey

Sylvester Stallone in Rocky IV, an example of the Hero’s Journey

According to Vogler, while studying cinema at the University of Southern California, he came across Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s with a Thousand Faces.  Having seen Star Wars, he recognized the similarity between the plot of that movie and  Hero’s Journey arc described by Campbell and wrote a paper for a class theorizing that a key to the Star Wars’ success was its tracking of  the hero’s journey.  Later, when Vogler began working  as a story analyst at Fox and other Hollywood studios, he applied his theory to the scripts that came across his desk.  He also talked with several of his colleagues who apparently found his ideas interesting, but not earth shattering.

However, before long Vogler got a job at Disney which had a strong corporate culture under Michael Eisner’s and Jeffrey Katzenberg’s leadership. Vogler reports that memos were a big part of Disney’s corporate identity, and everyone who worked at Disney at that time had to learn the memo art form, following the example of Katzenberg, an absolute master.

Yoda-in-Star-Wars-Episode-1According to Vogler, the discipline of writing succinct development notes and story coverage and research memos kindled within him a desire to “once and for all” get all of Campbell’s ideas down as creative principles and to use them as building blocks for constructing stories and tools for troubleshooting story problems.  He took time off from his job as a story analyst and spent a week in New York with his friend, David McKenna, watching movie clips, then came back and wrote a seven page memo which he refers to as “The Memo that Started it All” and sent it to Disney executives.

At first not much happened but Vogler had faith, picturing his memo flying off fax machines all over town.  And sure enough some people began to take notice.  Before long a junior executive at Disney saw the memo and tried to pass it off as his own.  Vogler, alerted to the usurpation by a colleague, immediately sent a memo to Katzenberg  asserting his status as true owner and asked to be elevated to story development.  Katzenberg immediately called Vogler and put him  to work  doing research and development for The Lion King.  When Vogler arrived he found “the Memo that Started it All” had preceded him, and the animators were already outlining their story boards using the Hero’s Journey stages. Thereafter Vogler’s  memo served as a springboard for numerous other hit movies,  his own book, and a teaching gig at UCLA.  According to Vogler,  people continue to attribute special powers to the  original seven-pager, and at one point, a museum dedicated to screenwriting requested a copy for a display of milestone documents and books in the history of screenwriting.

The-Lion-King-the-lion-king-33799433-1920-1080If Vogler’s description of his success and  formative role in  American movies sounds a little contrived, perhaps its because Vogler’s story of his own success so neatly tracks  the steps of the  tale on which he has made his fortune– complete with entry into new world (Disney) absolute master mentor (Katzenberg), enemies and allies (the usurping junior exec. and Vogler’s loyal colleague), success that nearly goes off the rails twice (first when the memo goes unnoticed and a second time when the junior exec. tries to appropriate Vogler’s memo), and his kinsmen’s final affirmation  of  special powers and his place as an enduring leader of the screenwriting tribe.  Of course, it’s possible that some people experience life in exactly this fashion.

To be sure, the hero’s journey is the narrative pattern for Disney children’s movies and many American coming-of-age films and weekly television dramas. (However, many American films made prior to 1970 also follow the hero’s journey pattern, and many critically acclaimed films made in and out of the United States have more causally complex  or ambiguous patterns and themes.  To see an analysis of Academy Award winning films that follow and don’t follow the hero’s journey pattern, click here.

And, you  might also ask yourself,  what if a woman had written the memo?  And then, written another memo about what  happened to her when that young junior executive  passed off the ideas of a lowly female story analyst as his own?  Might her  second memo have plotted a  different, heroine’s tale?

We will never know.  Instead, we have this website.   We may have some catching up to do, but we are not starting from scratch– as future blogs and other pages of the site illustrate,  women such as Maureen Murdock, Victoria Schmidt, Carol Pearson, and Jean Shinoda Bolen have covered much ground that we hope to expand upon.  We  invite you to  join the conversation and contribute your stories as well.