It seems to me that a lot of people are missing the point of the brilliant beautiful masterpiece of a story that is Mulan. So I decided to offer my own analysis of the film because I'm an English major and we get off on stuff like that. So here, my friends, I offer you my explanation of Mulan and why it is one of the most feminist-forward movies of all time ever.
Enter the first song, Honor to Us All. This song explains what role Chinese women are expected to play in society.
"A girl can bring her family great honor in one way: by striking a good match, and this could be the day."
"Men want girls with good taste. Calm, obedient, who work fast paced. With good breeding and a tiny waist, you'll bring honor to us all."
"We all must serve our emperor who guards us from the Huns. A man by bearing arms; a girl by bearing sons."
The song explains that the role of a woman is to find a good husband and do what is necessary to make him happy. The girls in this song are described as "perfect porcelain doll[s]," which furthers the idea that a women are delicate and are meant to be seen but not heard. The expectations listed in this song are all superficial; items such as strength and intelligence are not important, or even desired.
Meanwhile, while the women around her are singing about the role she is meant to play, Mulan is subtly acting outside of them throughout the song. For example, while the women sing about how a woman's biggest responsibility to the country is giving birth to sons, Mulan stops to consider a chess match between two men and makes what is clearly a brilliant move judging by the men's reactions, showing how intelligent she is.
Mulan is not very good and the "perfect bride" role she is supposed to be playing. Her matchmaker meeting is a complete disaster. She becomes deeply troubled about not being allowed to be herself, as she is restricted from doing so by the social expectations placed upon her as a woman.
Fast forward to Mulan disguising herself and running off to join the army in her father's place. (Definitely not one of the listed roles women are meant to play, just to be clear.)
So considering Mulan was not very good at the "girl" stuff, you'd think she'd probably be pretty good at the "boy" stuff, right? Not so much. Turns out, Mulan does not make a very good man.
Remember this. This is important.
Okay coming to the part of the movie that I think is the cause of much of the confusion surrounding the story: Make a Man Out of You.
"Did they send me daughters when I asked for sons?"
"(Be a man) You must be swift as the 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."
Here is the song where we learn what is expected of men. To be swift, strong, and mysterious. Shang mocks his soldiers by suggesting they are daughters rather than sons, making it clear that this is a man-only territory.
A lot of the misguided posts I see stem from this song, with gifs and photosets of Mulan during it labeled "he made a man out of me."
After Mulan fails to keep up in training, Shang tries to send her home saying, "how could I make a man out of you?" This line is important because he is right. He could not, cannot, and will never be able to make a man out of Mulan. She is not a man and never will be because she is not meant to be. What she does turn out to be, however, is a damn good soldier.
When Mulan finally succeeds in reaching the arrow, showing Shang and everyone else that she is capable, she does not do it with any strength that Shang taught her, but with the smarts she already had by using the weights to her advantage.
The role that women are supposed to play is brought up again during A Girl Worth Fighting For.
"I want'em paler than the moon, with eyes that shine like stars. My girl will marvel at my strength, adore my battle scars. I couldn't care less what she'll wear or what she looks like; it all depends on what she cooks like."
Mulan: "How about a girl whose got a brain, who always speaks her mind(?) *resounding from the men*: "nahhh"
The men describe the type of girl they would prefer during this song. None of them offering a particular personality trait, and when Mulan suggests an intelligent woman who shares her thoughts and opinions the men all agree they do not want one of those. One again we see women described as merely objects to please men, silently and without thoughts or lives of their own.
Remember how smart Mulan has continuously proven herself to be? Turns out that really comes in handy when the entire Hun army is charging down towards you.
She sees the snow covered mountain and instantly recognizes her opportunity. She fires the rocket onto the mountain, starting an avalanche that swallows up the entire Hun army.
She then saves Shang's life, risking her own in the process, and does this all while injured.
Of course all good things must come to an end. Mulan is revealed while being treated for her injury.
And just like that everything she did is meaningless. The fact that she single handedly saved them from the huns and saved Shang's life turns her from hero to traitor, because a woman is not supposed to do things like that. Had Shang followed the laws she would have been killed then and there, after having saved everyone, because she dared to do it as a woman.
Fast forward to the Imperial City. The huns have captured the emperor and Shang and his men are helpless and unable to reach him. Once again Mulan's genius saves the day.
This part is probably the most important part of the entire movie. Because when she saves the day for real, she does it as a woman. She is 100% being herself. More so, the men end up cross-dressing as women in order for her plan to work. Be a Man plays in the background during this scene, as if to say the real way to be a man is for those men to give gender constrictions the big middle finger.
When Mulan saves the day she does it dressed in her normal clothes, as a girl. That, to me, really drives the point of this movie home. In the end, she did not hide herself or who she was. And it is the first time she does this throughout the entire movie. At the beginning she was pretending to be someone she wasn't in order to please her parents and play the role that society said was her's as a woman to fill. After joining the army she pretends to be a man in order to do what she knew was right. But here, at the end, she is just Mulan. She is more confident than we see her in the entire rest of the movie because she is no longer being forced to hide. She is both a woman and a wicked brilliant soldier who saves all of China.
Mulan never becomes a man; she discovers herself. She is Mulan the female warrior. She proves that women an do anything a man can do.
At the end of the movie Chi-fu still insists that Mulan "is a woman [and] will never be worth anything." He represents those people in society who, despite all evidence to the contrary, refuse to believe that women are equal to men. He is made a fool of by the emperor who suggests Mulan take his job. This should be sending a message; the people who believe women are not equal to men are foolish and ignorant.
I have also heard complaints about the fact that she ends up marrying Shang in the second movie because they feel it undermines her story. I respectfully disagree. I think it is great because it shows that women can marry and still have their own life and be their own person. Where most movies about female characters are entirely focused on her finding true love and getting married, Mulan's is about her finding herself, no longer hiding who she is in order to please society, and proving that she as a woman is equal to any man. The romance is a side-story, even in the second one where it is more prevalent. Mulan's story tells us that women can fall in love and get married without giving up their own stories.
What it comes down to is that Mulan struggled to fine her place because society said who she was was wrong. Society said she had to live a certain life because she was a woman and that was that. Mulan's is a story about fighting gender roles and societal constraints. She is a woman, always was, always will be. She never wanted to be a man; she wanted to be a woman who was free to be herself and to live the life she wanted.