Last night in our living room, “Mulan” came up in conversation. I’ve seen it far too many times to count, but each time it spurs something inside of me, an emotional whirlwind that defines my love-hate relationship with the characters and the plot. When one of my friends said she’d never see it, we gasped and (in true millennial fashion) insisted she watch the old Disney classic we had grown up on.
Now, I know there are a lot of things wrong with the movie: the message girls get that the only way to bring honor to your family is to have a tiny waist and be matched with a good husband, the only way to get equality is to pretend to be a man so others respect you. There are a lot of sexist aspects to the film, but that was the culture at the time, and I still looked up to Mulan for being a total badass, despite her family’s traditional values. Can we really blame her for the place and time she was born into?
She was my first. I explored with her what it meant to be a woman in a man’s world. I learned from her to fight for what I believe is right, even if it means altering something on your own end first to level with those you’re trying to convince to change. She taught me courage, persistence, and responsibility. I still cry every time I see all of China bow down to her in one of the final scenes.
As girls, we were force-fed role models of princesses, damsels in distress, and helpless creatures too dainty for real pain. Maybe it’s not as bad today, but the fairy tales I grew up with didn’t leave much room for deviation from the norm. Mulan was the first role model to show me that a woman can do a man’s job and in fact, she might even do it better, so maybe there shouldn’t be gender associations with jobs at all.
As a society, they say we are moving forward. Free the nipple. Equal pay. Woman are realizing (or at least the media is just finally admitting that we have been realizing for a while now) the need for equality among the sexes. But can these movements last? How is it any different than it was in the past? Sure we have way more rights than we did when women first started, like voting and equal access to job listings, I’m in no way trying to minimize the work that some phenomenal women before me have done. But why are girls still growing up with these polarized views of gender, only to realize how unequal it is once they’re full-blown adult women and a lot of the damage from lost teenage years has already been done?
I’m not a parent, and I can’t claim any authority on raising or teaching children, but I have to ask. How are these gender stereotypes still getting passed down between generations? Why aren’t we teaching our young differently than we were taught? We have the power ingrain different beliefs in the minds of our future societies are we are seriously dropping the ball. Is it because we were never taught? Is it too late to change?
I consider myself lucky, and therefore I consider myself responsible. Despite the images and stereotypes I grew up with, I also had some pretty awesome female role models, teachers and family members, who showed me how to be strong and independent, probably before I was willing to admit they were right about it all. I am grateful for these women and I owe it to them, and especially to myself, to pass this message on, as soon as I learn to fully own it.
It’s hard, but I’m trying. I’m learning how to look at things differently. How to feel differently. I’m listening to the words of powerful women like Peggy Orenstein and Chimananda Ngozi Adichie, trying to make sense of it and make their message my own.