NOTE: For this post, I am referring SOLELY to the Disney movie.
Out of the official Disney Princesses, I think the one most popular among fans is Mulan. Her narrative doesn’t entirely drive on her getting a man, she can hold her own in a fight, saves an entire nation, and is pretty relatable in her own right.
But one thing I found out through Tumblr and other social media is that she is very popular with trans and non-binary people. To the point where a lot of people headcanon her as such. Yet I’m starting to wonder if she actually might be non-binary in canon.
We all know that in the movie she’s very socially awkward and very clever, but you’ll also notice she’s not very competent with interacting with men or women. She doesn’t seem to have any friends beyond her family and animal companions.
We see that she feels very uncomfortable being overly feminine. She looks almost horrified seeing herself made up in the mirror, and throughout getting dressed and ready she doesn’t look too happy. She’s only really doing it in the hope of getting her family honour (needing notes in order to feel prepared to present) but throughout the whole thing she is extremely uncomfortable (the runaway cricket didn’t help). And then when it all goes south, there comes the famous song.
On the surface, it’s a song about someone who doesn’t fit in and wants to find their place in the world, but take a close listen to the lyrics:
Now I see / that if I were truly to be myself /I would break my family’s heart /Who is that is that girl I see / staring straight back at me? / why is my reflection someone I don’t know / somehow I cannot hide who I am / though I try /when will my reflection show /who I am inside?
And the first thing she does is take off her makeup and look at herself with confusion and sadness. But it’s now starting to sound a lot like a coming out (trans/non-binary) song.
You can listen to both the original and the extended Christina Aguilera versions with the lyrics HERE, but with lyrics like “and be loved for who I am” “I can’t fool my heart” “Must I pretend that I’m someone else for all time” and “Must there be a secret me that I’m forced to hide”.
Like…that sounds a lot more passionate and beyond just someone sick of traditional gender roles. It actually sounds like a woman coming to grips with the fact that she’s queer/not a real ‘woman’ and it’s tearing her up in side.
Then, when Mulan begs her father not to go to war, he tells her “I know my place! It is time you learned yours!”, she gets beyond upset. I think what’s important to note is that she doesn’t just go to her room; she hides by her family’s dragon statue in the rain. This scene can double as being both scared and sad for her father and feeling like she no longer belongs with her family.
Yet because she still loves and is loyal to her family (the original story was about familial piety, and it’s still relevant in the movie) she decides to take her father’s place. When she joins the soldiers, she learns that she’s not comfortable with masculinity either. She becomes good at learning to fight and be a soldier and seems to like it well enough, but she doesn’t like actually being a man, and finds a lot of manly habits weird and gross.
She fights and succeeds in the war, but is immediately outed in a very invasive way (a pretty common narrative in a lot of stories with trans characters). She is soon shunned and left on her own. That’s when she delivers this line:
“Maybe I didn’t go for my father. Maybe what I really wanted was to prove I could do things right. So when I looked in the mirror, I’d see someone worthwhile. But I was wrong. I see NOTHING!”
Depression and self image issues are very common with LGBT people, and while Mulan shows signs of it throughout the movie, this scene, where Mulan has essentially failed as both a man and a woman, is really poignant in hindsight.
When Mulan decides to go defeat the Huns once and for all and gets the help of her friends, she is shown somewhere between being masculine and feminine; she wears a simpler blue dress that she can still fight in, keeps her hair short, and has no makeup. She uses her skills as both a soldier and as a bride to defeat Shan Yu. It’s at the climax, when she is accepted and seen for a hero, when she realizes that she doesn’t have to be either a man or a woman. She can be both. She can be neither.
And ultimately, when she comes home, her family accepts her for who she is. The film ends with Mulan happy with who she is and starting to get to know Shang more without immediately rushing into a relationship with him (another potential piece of evidence of her being queer, since during the 90s, every Disney female lead would end up in a relationship with a man at the end).
As you can see, there’s a very valid interpretation of Mulan being a queer narrative. And given how Beauty and the Beast has more or less been confirmed to be a queer narrative (since Howard Ashman, who was a gay man dying of AIDS, was heavily involved with the story and characters in addition to the songs), it’s not completely out of the question.
Now, a lot of people will have different interpretations. Some people would like to see Mulan solely as a story about a woman defying gender roles and being empowered. Others might say that Mulan’s three male friends dressing in drag is transmisogynistic and therefore would hurt a queer narrative for Mulan herself. Others still might say seeing Mulan as non-binary is culturally insensitive, though the movie itself isn’t really culturally or historically accurate, and non-binary genders in China do exist (and in the original poem, Mulan says “How can they tell I am he or a she?”; make what you will of that). And, ultimately, Disney has yet to come out and say if she’s non-binary.
Yet what’s important is that Mulan, no matter what gender she is, has inspired so many people. She has helped trans and non-binary people feel valid, helped cis women feel empowered, and provided a cool and unconventional female lead for cis men. She is a great role model for people of all genders, and that’s what matters the most.