Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Ode to Mulan

I hate the movie Beauty and the Beast.

We recently retrieved the movie from the jaws of the Disney Vault. I think I liked it the first time I saw it, when I was a kid, but this time it just left a bad taste in my mouth. The music is good, I suppose. But Belle is so annoying. What a horrible role model for girls. Here is a woman who is "smart" because she reads books about princesses falling in love, and has absolutely no aspirations of her own to accomplish anything.

Yes, she wants to leave the town she lives in. And true, she doesn't want to marry the arrogant jackass. But the joyous ending for her is just falling in love with some guy who isn't an arrogant jackass (anymore). Who appears to only like her because she's pretty. Plus she does nothing to help him when he's fighting the bad guy... aside from loving him, I guess.

My daughter has a bit of an obsession with the Disney princesses, as evidenced by the drawings on her underwear, so I can't help but notice that all the movies are like that. Ariel and Jasmine are spoiled little brats. Cinderella falls in love with a guy so generic that he doesn't even have a name and is merely defined by being "charming." It's kind of sickening.

That said, I love Mulan.

We just rewatched it as travel entertainment, and each time, I like Mulan better. If you've never seen the movie, it's about a Chinese girl who poses as a male soldier so that her ailing father is spared joining the army. She completely kicks ass as a soldier and there is only passing mention of her romantic interest in her commander.

But you know what I really love about that movie? Not that Mulan kicks ass, but I love how in the beginning, she sucks at everything. She is terrible at every part of training, and her only comfort is that everyone else is equally terrible. I totally relate to Mulan! Granted, she gets really good within the span of a two minute training montage, but I still like her for it. And I love that she continues to doubt herself until she finally gains confidence in the last sequence.

I think it's such a great movie to show to young girls. Every time my daughter watches it, I want to yell, "Isn't she awesome??!"

Does anyone have any other examples of movies we can show our daughters to inspire them not to turn into whiny brats ogling some handsome prince?


  1. From a body image standpoint, I vote for Shrek. It never fails to make me happy that Fiona chooses to stay an ogre when so many writers would have made the 'happy ending' about how she turned into a beautiful princess again.

    ... other than that, the only thing that even remotely touches on how life happiness does not necessarily equal finding a man would be - and this is embarrassing to admit - a lot of the Barbie movies. (I used to babysit A LOT). Barbie and The Diamond Castle is good - it's all about friendship, and even though two guys are interested in Barbie and her friend, they're all "Eh, our business selling flowers is what really makes us happy, we don't need you."

  2. Onc15: no controversy I promise. Yeah, it was a bummer when my girls graduated from Dora the explorer to the princesses. My girls like Jasmine, not only because they look more like her, but because she likes to do stuff. But it is still paltry and largely condescending to little girls. My older one is a writer so I get her to change around the stories so the girl characters do stuff. The stories are hilarious.

  3. Onc: Yeah, I tried to write something a little less controversial this week :)

    AP: Barbie?? Srsly??? My husband is going to crack up when he reads that :)

  4. :-D Mulan is my fave Disney movie for that exact reason!! Go you!!

  5. Also, Whale Rider.

  6. I haven't gotten around to watching it yet, but I hear The Princess and the Frog is better than most of the other Disney princess movies in terms of the main female character having personality and actually knowing the guy she marries. Shrek and Mulan definitely get my vote though.

    I've also yet to see Tangled. I heard it's fun but not so good on the girl-power message aspect.

    It's been over a decade since I've seen The Little Mermaid... I remember Ariel being at least somewhat pro-active? I guess she's still more Belle than Mulan in the end.

  7. I'm just going to remind everyone that Ariel gives up her VOICE to be what the Prince wants (ie, a sexy, leggy red head, and not half a fish). This causes me no small amount of feministic agony. The Little Mermaid is one of my least favourites for this reason.
    A good one though is Pocahontas, if you can suspend the knowledge that the real Pocahontas was about 12. She is smart, and holds on to her own beliefs about nature and her way of life, despite the handsome charming white guy, even choosing to stay to lead her tribe, rather than follow him back to England (again, suspend disbelief at this point - the real story didn't end anywhere near as nicely as this).

  8. The Good? They graduate from that and move onto someone like Hannah Montana... Blech. Thankfully, my 11 year old has now moved on from Hannah Montana as well.

    I can only handle animation in small doses.

  9. Have you tried the Princess Diaries? Just watched Princess Diaries 2 this evening (with daughter and husband, brother watching something else), and I won't tell you what happens, but there is plenty to empower women (but also some old school princessing).

  10. I love Beauty and the Beast. The music and story is beautiful. She reads stories about princess but we don't know the other books she has read. I do believe that she has dreams in goals. She even sings in one of her songs about wanting something more than normal life. I just don't see Belle in the same way as you do. She doesn't come off as a helpless princess to me but she does seem very selfless and giving.

  11. Anon: I guess Belle is selfless, but I'm not impressed by her "wanting more than a normal life." That's either arrogant or cliched, maybe a bit of both.

    T: I think we're limited to cartoons these days.

    She's Automatic: I agree about Little Mermaid. I actually like the movie, but I find Ariel's character and the plotline really irritating. Also, if you like Pocahontas, I'm assuming you must feel the same way about Avatar:


  12. You can't go past Lilo and stitch

  13. T: OMG, I was actually going to mention Word Girl as an example of a kick ass girl from TV. I absolutely LOVE that show. (And I'm learning so many new words ;)

  14. I LOVE THIS TOPIC! Where to start?

    I started reading Cecelia (Sicily, whatever) chapter books at 4 - she still loves them at seven. I am a little frustrated that at 5 and 1/2 Jack still doesn't have the attention span for chapters, but he can run the stove, toaster oven, and coffee pot (she cannot), so each has their strengths.

    Some amazing chapter books we have read in the past three years that translated beautifully into movies (some better than others - but when you've read the book all movies get better) are:

    Matilda by Roald Dahl - actually anything by Roald Dahl is fabulous - we've read all but The Witches (I can't get her past the second chapter - it freaks her out), but Matilda has a great smart female character.

    The Secret Garden (blanking on author but this is a classic) is wonderful for girls, and the movie was surprisingly good.

    Alice in Wonderland!

    The Wizard of Oz - although I loved Elphaba making cracks about Dorothy and putting her down in Wicked, you've got to admit she's a pretty brave character in the original.

    Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien - this is one of Cecelia's favorite books ever. I think the cartoon movie adaption goes by The Secret of NIMH. Mrs. Frisby is one powerful mouse mama.

    Inkheart by Cornelia Funke - it was a little intense for Cecelia at six, but she enjoyed it and watching the movie. Meggie is a pretty wonderful female girl protagonist. I look forward to hitting some other Cornelia Funke when C is a little older, and some of her kids books (The Wildest Brother) are our favorite.

    We haven't seen the movie, but C loved the Pippi Longstocking series. If I think of anything else I'll add.

  15. By the way, I haven't seen Mulan. You've inspired me to rent it, for both C and J.

  16. Fizzy - yep, Barbie movies. Haha, I was shocked to find that out. The Fairytopia ones don't even have romantic interests in them, it's just all about young women having adventures and staying true to themselves (half-tempted to put that phrase in quotes, since it's so cliche, but hey).

  17. Great movies for girls:

    Bend it Like Beckham: our (now 12 year old) watched it over and over and over again when she was 5-8 years

    Mean Girls: this was particularly helpful because my daughter was in a mean girl situation in first grade (!) when it first came out. And even though Lindsay Lohan has issues now, it's still a great movie.

    The Aristocats is a classic, with a princessy mother cat (if you have to have princesses), great music, and a fun plot.

    Shrek, Princess Diaries, Princess Bride, Mulan are also great (but already mentioned).

  18. I'm really not a fan of Mulan or any Disney movies, really. We can discuss whether the movie is "feminist" (I think it's a step up from other Disney movies, but still... the female protagonist ends up with a guy, and not only that, a guy who is clearly inferior to her), but what bothers me about the movie is how it's full of stereotypes, and historical and cultural inaccuracies. China is essentially used as a gimmick in the movie.

  19. Why do princess shows get the bad rap? I don't really think that little girls watching a ton of movies with flimsy characters is going to really turn them into shallow, annoying people themselves. I loved those sort of shows, still do. I played "princess" to my heart's content as a child, but I'd don't think I'm a ton like the characters I loved to watch.

    Of course, if my husband turned into the characters he grew up watching, then he'd probably be flying, traveling through space, appariting, or been a light saber duel right now. Of course, he's really not anything like any of those shows. My high school musical obsessed sister, thankfully, does not start singing in the halls of her school, and she at age 11 recognizes that people don't fit into the stereotypes that HSM casts them in.

    As a current Disney employee, I'd say most of the people I interact with were obsessed with Disney movies as a child. And most of them seem pretty normal to me (though completely inept at finding a bathroom, though I blame the fact that they are on vacation). Most of my coworkers still get together to watch Disney movies, and yet they are not shallow, flimsy, or overly concerned with sexuality. I'd consider them all hard-working, ambitious individuals, who enjoy a little escape to fantasy land where magic can still exist (honestly, wouldn't you all wish that you could forget about life once in a while).

    Oh, and you need to be really young to enjoy Barbie movies, so if I remember correctly your daughter is still in the toddler/preschool phase, so you'll be good for a few years.

  20. In Wall-E, Eva was a total badass. Sadly, I can't think of another children's movie that portrays a strong female character. If I do, I will let you know.

  21. Oh, and Monsters vs. Aliens. Not a *great* movie, but at least the girl leaves her jerk bf and saves the world -- despite her oversized body and everything!!

  22. I always thought Mulan was awesome too, but I don't think your criticisms of Belle are fair.

    You wrote that Belle is "smart" because she reads books about princesses falling in love. I see no basis for this. There is no indication that Belle exclusively reads books about princesses falling in love. Yes, her favorite book is about someone who falls in love (whom Belle appears to admire because she recognizes the beauty of a young man before even discovering that he is a prince), but the fact that she was so excited about seeing an enormous library indicates to me that she is interested in multiple genres. Furthermore, she has a very knowledgeable and creative father, and while children of intelligent parents are not necessarily also intelligent, they are likely to be.

    I don't think that Belle was ever looking for love specifically. She commands respect. What she was looking for was "adventure" and "someone who understands." And above all else she wanted to take care of her father--precisely what I like most about Mulan, as well.

    Nor do I agree that the Beast (I do wish he had a better name) only loved Belle because of her looks. Things started to change when Belle maturely expressed gratitude when it was due despite feeling angry at the time. In the newer version, there is a cute scene between the two in which Belle teaches the Beast how to read, which makes the whole thing more believable because they don't seem to fall in love so quickly.

    I think a lot of people complain about the movie because of its emphasis on appearances, but I think this is a misconception. In the movie, appearances serve as a symbol for differences between people. You seem to indicate that the theme of the movie is that a misfit can find someone who loves her if she's pretty enough, but I disagree. It's about how two people who are very different from each other can find compromise and build a relationship based on mutual respect.

    What I liked most about this movie is that the bad guy dies due to his own hubris. In too many movies these days, protagonists are celebrated despite the fact that they do atrocious things (think of Batman going on an intense, violent chase that likely resulted in innocent people getting injured, or [minor spoiler] Harry Potter casting an Unforgivable torture spell). Their deeds are all forgotten once they get rid of the bad guy, regardless of how they do it. I miss the days when superheroes were great because when the bad guy gave them the choice between saving the city or saving the girl, they somehow managed to save everyone in an honorable way. I'm all for realistic movies and exploring character flaws, but come on, at least someone could have called Harry out on what he did.

    This is not to say that Belle's character is perfect, and you make a good point about what makes a good role model for girls are well taken. I just don't think Belle deserves that much criticism. Anyway, I'm just sharing my own opinions and gripes about movies!

  23. You need Ty Burr's book, The Best Old Movies for Families. I'm not sure why this book isn't better known - it's amazing! He looks at classic films from the first half of the century from the perspective of viewing them with kids. Not kids movies, regular classics. His writing is super entertaining and his advice is spot on. I love how he points out that there are NO merchandising tie-ins with these movies! We've had great luck with lots of his recommendations. And, our 7 year old son is now in his fourth year of tap dance, thanks to Gene Kelly.

    PS: Ty Burr has two daughters so he's all over the is-this-empowering-for-girls question.

  24. Therese: I'm not a Harry Potter fan, but I think Disney movies often have an ending where the good guy lets the bad guy go, then the bad guy turns on him and dies by his own stupidity. Another example would be the Lion King. Actually, when my husband and I were watch B&B, we both groaned at that cliche in the ending. And I'm sorry to say so, but that scene where Belle was teaching the Beast to read was SO groan-inducing. He's a prince and he never learned to read?? Seriously? Also, how is it a reasonable retribution for the Beast turning away on old hag for him to have to make a pretty girl fall in love with him? Shouldn't the retribution be that he has to fall in love with some ugly hag? Doesn't that seem like that would be a better demonstration that he learned his lesson? But of course, Disney movies are only about beautiful women, so that plot would never work. (Just a few of my own gripes :)

    OMDG: Agree on Eva being badass. But the movie wasn't really about Eva, so I didn't like it as much as Mulan.

    Liana: Disney movies are rife with stereotypes, it's true. I do like that she ends up with a guy who kind of admits and is okay with being inferior to her though.

    Brit: I agree, I doubt watching princess movies will damage my daughter. Mostly it's just annoying for ME :)

    Giz: I actually just started reading Mel chapter books at night and she loves it. We are mostly doing Roald Dahl right now. What do you think is good for an almost 4 year old?

  25. What about that documentary, "Babies"? I just got hold of it and I think I'm going to try it with my 5 & 3 yo -- we have a new baby as well so I think they will be right into it.

    There's a website we use, commonsensemedia.org, which I find helpful -- they give an overall rating with a sliding scale for age appropriateness, but their descriptions and the comments people write are pretty good from what I've used so far. They do books and video games as well though I'm not as familiar with those parts of their website.

  26. The BFG was Cecelia's favorite Roald Dahl. It is incredibly silly. She also liked The Twits, but not as much as the BFG. I'll bet you will be able to read her likes and dislikes as you get going. So funny - Giants that eat children all over the world - OK. Witches that are so well disguised they might be your teacher? Not ok.

    As far as her age - since I got C to fall in love with chapter books by starting with Pippi - I'd recommend those - not as scary, just silly. She can be annoyingly insolent, but since I sometimes encourage that behavior in fun, we indulged in it.

    She reads so well this year I have to hide the chapter books in my room so she won't finish them when I leave. This week we are doing The Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling - she loves them. I tried them at 5 and she was bored to tears. It is definitely a little bit of trial and error. She loves books with animals - Mrs. Frisby and recently The Cricket in Times Square.

    Goodbye toddler TV and hello chapter books! You are going to have a blast, Fizzy. I can't wait until my son's hyper personality settles down so I can read them to him.

  27. Did you see Princess and the Frog? That princess, too, was a pretty coolgreat role model, though I am blanking on her name at the moment.

    The movies about fairies (Tinkerbell et al) in their modern incarnation are also fairly cool. Tinkerbell is so named because she has a special talent for "tinkering"--fixing things, inventing things, etc--and all of the fairies have various powers. The focus isn't really much on finding a mate, which is refreshing.

  28. You will find, that as your daughter gets older, YOU, not the t.v. shows, cartoons or what not become their biggest role model and hero. It is flattering and scary, all at the same time!

    You sound like you are doing a good job already.

  29. We had those scholastic order forms from school, and I really wanted to order the Percy Jackson series. But I know my son's still too young for them (he's 4). I can't wait till he is old enough for me to introduce all these awesome books to him. I was a voracious reader as a child and hope both my kids will be too.

  30. Oh, Fizzy, thank you. I like the Beauty and the Beast music, but I get perennially annoyed every time someone praises Belle for OMG SHE LOVES TO READ. So do we all. She really doesn't DO anything much besides that. And she has a way bad case of Stockholm Syndrome which is a bit icky.

    I'm a Mulan lover too. And I'm also very into The Princess and the Frog. Have you and Melly seen it yet? Tiana's VERY ambitious and has a serious work ethic to the point of not having any social life. Sure, she still falls inexplicably and instantly in love, but at least the prince has a personality, which is more than I can say for most Disney princes.

    C will tell you Mommy hates Snow White and Ariel, and loves Mulan and "Princess Etana".

    I pretty much let the girls watch anything though regardless of role model status. I figure the more things they see, good and bad, and the more things I can talk to them about, the better. (We're working right now on "just a story" vs. "real life".)

    (Oh, also, we love Alice in Wonderland. She's clearly a girl, not a princess, and has neat adventures, is curious, and has a few strong moments.)

  31. It should be noted that Disney is not to be credited with the general storyline of "Beauty and the Beast". Their version of the story is but one of the many versions of the fairy-tale that has been told in most of Europe from France to Russia over the last several centuries. While the different versions have variations in detail, mostly driven by local cultural tradition and mores, the general concept is the same.

    A monster traps a loving, selfless daughter's father and she decides to sacrifice herself for her father. Her deep sense of filial duty and devotion is amply rewarded when the monster turns into a rich and handsome prince, promises her eternal love and marries her.

    The story is about filial love, duty and obedience, and has very little to do with love or Belle's aspirations, etc. Considering the fact that girls generally had to marry whomever their father picked in many places (in Europe at least) until relatively recently (as in the last century or so), in order to pay off the father's debts, or to secure some political/financial favor for the father/family, etc. a tale such as "Beauty and the Beast" was likely meant to condition girls to resign themselves to their fate and to feed them false hope that maybe, just maybe, the fat 48-year-old, smelly man with ulcers on his legs and pox marks on his face whom she had to marry at age 15 for her family's sake, would some day turn into a prince.

  32. Regardless of feminist ideals, I love Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and the Little Mermaid. They are my favorite Disney movies! I liked them as a child and I think I've turned out rather well. ;)

    I absolutely LOVE WordGirl!

  33. By the way, have you guys read the kids' book "The Paper Bag Princess". Absolutely AWESOME!

  34. Lindsey: I did see Princess and the Frog with Mel, but I wasn't paying that much attention. She did seem like a fairly self-sufficient "princess" though, as opposed to Belle.

    Giz: We'll try BFG and Pippi. She really liked the Twits.

  35. I know this post is a little old, but we're in the middle of exam week (2nd year, ugh) so I haven't had a chance to catch up.

    Have ya'll seen the "Fallen Princesses" photography series? It's very thought provoking. An artists decided to depict all of the princesses years from now. Here's the link.

    I agree with you though Fizzy. We need to empower our little girls!

  36. Dude, TANGLED!!!! I don't want to spoil it for you. Go watch it!!

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