Here’s what the new Mulan gets right — and wrong — about women in combat.
1. We associate war with men for a reason: War is gendered.
To fight, Mulan must disguise herself as a man. Her actions reflect the view that it’s socially and culturally unacceptable for a woman to go to war, as it certainly was during the period depicted in the film. Research on gender and war shows that this view holds across time and space — women are less likely to fight or support fighting than men.
Although women now make up a minority of many national armies and up to 40 percent of some rebel forces, we still associate war with male soldiers. Feminist scholars have been writing about war and gender for decades in an effort to explain why this view is so common.
Cynthia Enloe, for instance, argues that militaries manipulate ideas about masculinity to recruit and accomplish their institutional goals. At the same time, the militarization of society impacts perceptions of femininity: Mothers must support their sons going off to war, while women who fight become seen as flawed in their femininity.
The 1998 animated “Mulan” film makes the masculine gendering of war very clear. Take the Li Shang/Donny Osmond song, “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” sung when the disguised Mulan is in training with her fellow ragtag would-be soldiers.
“Did they send me daughters, when I asked for sons? You’re the saddest bunch I ever met/But you can bet before we’re through Mister, I’ll make a man out of you.”
This song demonstrates how war and masculinity are inherently bound together. Only “real” men can fight. At the same time, the experience of war fighting makes one a man.
“My girl will marvel at my strength, adore my battle scars … Bet the local girls thought you were quite the charmer / And I’ll bet the ladies love a man in armor. You can guess what we have missed the most since we went off to war. What do we want? A girl worth fighting for.”
2. Women are active participants in war and just as capable as men
Here’s what the new “Mulan” movie gets right: depicting her as a brave and effective soldier. This is an accurate representation of women who fight, and goes against the stereotypical view.
My work on insurgent women, with Alexis Henshaw and Ora Szekely, examines women’s involvement in wars in Colombia, Syria and Ukraine. We find that male combatants can highly value their women co-combatants. In Ukraine, one commander quickly rattled off his subordinate’s skills: “She goes into the field to rescue our fighters when they are wounded. Plus she is our best sniper. She can cook for us. She can drive our tank.”
It’s important to remember that only a minority of women in armed groups — be they rebel groups or national militaries — participate in armed combat. Women more typically engage in support roles that are nevertheless vital to the group’s success, serving as medics, recruiters, fundraisers and propagandists. But when women do fight, they do it well.
3. Women fight when men can’t (or won’t)
Mulan goes off to war because her father is too old to ably fight and she has no brother to contribute to the war effort on behalf of the family.
Although women generally are less supportive of aggression and fighting, the idea that women take up arms to protect their homes and families is common and cross-cultural. In our book, my colleagues and I explain how Kurdish women fought against the Islamic State to protect their land and their rights as women. Similarly, women in Ukraine saw themselves as defending their mothers and children when fighting alongside pro-Russian rebels. Often, women’s participation is framed as a failure of men to do their part.
Armed groups may begin recruiting women because of manpower shortages — when they can’t find enough men to fill the ranks. Women’s participation in the U.S. military expanded dramatically during the World War II through programs such as the WAVES, as men were directed toward combat operations. But some rebel groups recruit women to better compete for a limited pool of skilled supporters. Others do it because of a commitment to an emancipatory and inclusive ideology.
4. Women are the “bad guys” in war, too
“Mulan” (2020) adds a new character, a sorceress who fights alongside the Huns. This is an important addition that better reflects the complexity of women’s participation in war. Women who commit acts of violence are distinguished not only from their male counterparts, but also from other women — “normal” women — who are peaceful, virtuous and restrained.
“Bad” women are far more common than we think. In my new book, “Women as War Criminals,” with Izabela Steflja, we examine the many relatively unknown women who have committed grave crimes during war, including genocide, ethnic cleansing and torture. While some women war criminals manipulate gender biases in their favor, others, such as Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, former Rwandan minister of family and women’s development, are subject to both gender and racial biases that compound violent women’s perceived exceptionalism.
Of course, this is a Hollywood film, geared toward families and a global audience. “Mulan” does not explore the full range of roles that women take on in armed groups or the complex nature of women’s participation in war. There’s no discussion of how age, race or sexuality affect many female combatants’ experiences. And there are political controversies surrounding the film, including its star’s support for China’s crackdown in Hong Kong, as well as its filming in Xinjiang province, where China is engaged in a campaign of repression against minorities.
But for understanding women and war, “Mulan” goes a long way toward reflecting what we know about why and how women fight.
Jessica Trisko Darden is an assistant professor at American University’s School of International Service and author of “Women as War Criminals: Gender, Agency, and Justice” (Stanford University Press, 2020) and “Insurgent Women: Female Combatants in Civil Wars” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).