Sunday, December 27, 2009

Quintessentially Chinese?: Gender Norms and Hua Mulan

Recently, the trailer for the newest Mulan movie, by Jingle Ma, came to my attention:



I will have to be honest and say that tears came to my eyes while watching this trailer for the first time. For several reasons. 

Firstly, I am pretty starved for Chinese movies here. I mean, real Chinese movies. Even an Asian-American, or Asian-Canadian movie would be nice. They're very rare. Ping Pong Playa came closest, and it didn't have very wide distribution. Kung Fu Hustle, when it came into theatres here, made me exceedingly happy, but that was a while back. (And it was doubly awesome because it wasn't even dubbed.)

Secondly, I haven't seen a good movie with a strong Chinese heroine in a while, either. There was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and there was Hero, and there was also House of Flying Daggers, but you know what they all have in common? Most everybody dies. If they don't, they are generally completely side characters, destined to live out their lives in pain and grief and sadness and stuff. 

(You have to keep in mind, of course, that I grew up with the Heroic Trio, and lots of TV serials where the heroines who held their own could also generally have a somewhat happy ending.)

Thirdly, when was the last time we heard a woman's voice dominate the trailer? ......................................

I can't think of any recent ones either. 

And I love it. I love that we hear Vicky Zhao's voice, so loud and strident, proclaiming her loyalty to her mission and kingdom. I love that it's her demanding the soldiers, "are you afraid?!" and the soldiers respond with as much fervour as they can muster. The last time we saw something like this was in Pirates of the Caribbean 3, and it wasn't terribly inspiring, to me. 

It's the same in the longer trailer:


Again, her voice dominates the trailer, even though there's the odd line from male characters, mostly to let you know what the plot is. I also like the bit where Mulan, now a general, asks a man who's clearly her lover, "If I must die on the battlefield, will you go with me?"

The answer is so simple, so plain, without dramatics or declarations of love. "Yes." It lends a dignity to the scene that is often ruined in many Western films that's all about the romantic love, hypersexualized even though it doesn't have to be. 

In the new Mulan movie, our titular heroine won't be trying to desperately fit into patriarchal norms that dictate what people of her gender will do; she will be learning what it's like on the battlefield, what it's like to deliver the first blow, the fierceness of patriotism, the power of war, and the courage to stand up against the enemy. Not only that, but she will be recognized for her talent, and become a general of the army.

This is what happens in Lady General Hua Mulan as well - Mulan rises up the ranks of the army, and goes home to resume life as a woman after ten years of war. When her old comrades come to visit, they are shocked that she's a woman. You'll also note that the beginning of Lady General Hua Mulan is markedly different from the DIsney version: she is shown hunting at the very beginning, rather than waiting to be married off; her first reaction to the memo from the Army is to volunteer herself (her father's criticism is that she is too young) and to prove herself, she challenges her father, famous for his skill, and defeats him. 

However, even in this old movie, her experiences as a soldier are glossed over in favour of a "she was really awesome" summary towards the end. She becomes the perfect balance of yin-yang - able to be strategic and aggressive, or soft and genteel, at will and at the right times. I find it better than the Disney Mulan silliness, but I look forward to Jingle Ma's interpretation. From the news, it seems he's focused on her development as a soldier and will be really putting her through some trials, which is pretty exciting. 

In the original poem she is also a warrior who survives after twelve years of warfare, accorded high merits and offered an official post, which she refuses in exchange for a steed home. Once home, she simply changes her clothes and resumes her life. The poem ends: 

"The male rabbit's feet kick up and down,
The female rabbit's eyes are bewildered.
Two rabbits running close to the ground,
How can they tell if I am male or female?"

This isn't to say that Hua Mulan is our only Chinese superheroine. While it's true that the many wuxia and wushu stories available feature more male fighters than women, more stereotypically patriarchal storylines where there's a love interest waiting to be a prize, and excise women out of the story altogether, there tend to be notable female warriors who fight side by side male warriors. Even if they are told not to, they still will, and they are recognized for their skills and talents. 

It is a given, in all these Chinese media that I grew up with, that gender roles are natural: women are mothers and wives. Women have to resort to trickery to get the same education that men do. Women are objects to be possessed, as chattel to be bartered, as rewards. Nonetheless, women also work in the fields alongside men. (check out part 5 of Lady General Hua Mulan, in which she has an argument with some men about the roles of women. She points out that these roles, which are proof that women are inferior in the Western world, because it's "women's work," are necessary for a happy family life.) If they are especially talented, they are recognized for those talents. There isn't a hard line saying that women can never be as good as men as it seems so prevalent in Western schools of thought. Sure, we work twice as hard, but there are many different kinds of men out there: men who will refuse to mentor you, and men who will. You can't give up just because one person said you have to. 

Now, the thing about even these lax gender norms, China, like most of the rest of the world, is patriarchal. It doesn't have a good track record. Pre-unification China might have been interesting, but after unification, with kyriarchies put into place, it's not hard to see how easily gender norms got into place that oppressed women, what with the whole "bear a son or you're a failure" thing, and the foot-binding. Most of today's lax gender rules come about because of communism, where everybody had to do their fair share of work, even women, and hence, everyone got the same education and treatment. (The problem with this, of course, is that you can't treat women and men exactly the same, seeing as one gender is severely disadvantaged, culturally, compared to the other. Communists are not better than corporate capitalists in their treatment of mothers.)

It'll be interesting to see how these factor into the new Mulan movie. I hope it'll still be playing when I get home to Malaysia in early January. I'll let you know how it goes. There are also negotiations for its international distribution, so keep your fingers crossed!

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