We must be swift as a coursing river
BE A MAN
With all the force of a great typhoon
BE A MAN
With all the strength of a raging fire
Mysterious as the dark side of the moon
–Mulan, 1998, Walt Disney Pictures
We’re re-watching the Disney canon with Oscar, at his insistence, and enjoying the movies again, one by one. Back in the day, when the kids were small, I had an early mp3 player packed with kid music, which helped pacify them as we drove to and from daycare. The “Be a man,” song from Mulan stands out as one of my favorites, and watching that segment again was fun.
Mulan is a young woman in imperial China posing as a man to save her father from military service she fears might kill him. She’s also searching for herself, as a young woman having trouble becoming a bride. The film plays with gender norms and expectations–being a man, in this context, means trying hard, being brave, being strong, fighting for one’s people, for a common good.
Mulan proves she’s a man, or as good as one, throughout the film. She’s also heterosexual, of course. This is Disney. This is the 90s.
The song is reprised at the film’s close by a group of warriors crossdressing as courtesans in order to infiltrate the emperors household–they’re men enough to dress as woman for the cause.
The messages are good, empowering, going as far as one could imagine going for a mass audience in that time and place. Even now, they work. Heterosexual people defying and thus enlarging gender norms are important. The 70s Free to Be You and Me’s William Wants a Doll song is another example.
But the reality is, most-but-not-all of this gender play does mean something and most often what it means is gayness. So telling the stories without the gay… well. It is what it is.
We need new stories, new characters, new role models; the culture is moving so fast that the progressive messages of twenty years ago are completely inadequate for the world in which we now find ourselves. The first wave of stories have come and gone, and they’re always tragedies. Gwen Arujo, murdered for being who she was. Hillary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry. Abused and bullied GLBTQ teens in half a dozen sitcoms and dramas, where they fight to be who they are in the face of prejudice. Good stuff, true stuff, but in a way, these stories reinforce the very stereotypes they claim to be liberating us from. One fears the reason the mainstream culture tolerates these stories is that they have the effect of reminding the non-conforming of the price they will pay for stepping outside the gender binary.
Bu the new stories, the second and third generation stories, are coming, where these characters aren’t victims, aren’t victimized. The stories that move past where we are now, to where we are going, and tell us different truths. To the world where Femme stops meaning weak. Where femme dosn’t mean victim, where femme doesn’t mean slut, where femme doesn’t mean less than.
A world where femme is cool. My son Oscar lives there now–and he seems to be doing just fine, waiting for the rest of us to catch up.