I’ll Make A Man Out Of You!
It is the age of the Han Dynasty in China. The rebellious Huns have attacked. The Han dynasty retaliates with the largest armed mobilization in the dynasty’s history, by mandating conscription of a man of age from each family in the kingdom.
Enter Mulan, whose father Fa Zhou, is a legendary but aged warrior. Mulan being his only daughter, Fa Zhou is forced to conscript in the army. In order to save her father from an almost certain death, Mulan impersonates a man and serves in the army in her father’s stead. She eventually becomes a legendary warrior, and is immortalized in history as Hua Mulan.
Thousands of years later (literally) in 1998, Walt Disney Productions released the animated feature film ‘Mulan’, marking the beginning of what is now known as the Disney Renaissance. One of the staples for those of us growing up in the 1990s, Mulan is a personal favorite.
But watching it almost 18 years later (yes, we’re that old), the movie brought an interesting angle to some of the most talked about issues of the day. Most particularly, an engaging musical sequence titled, “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You”. It details the training sessions led by a brilliant military commander, trying (and failing for the most part) to train Mulan and a bunch of amateur recruits to be quality soldiers. One of the first lines of the musical numbers is, “Did they send me daughters, when I asked for sons?” followed by, “You’re a spineless, pale, pathetic lot, and you haven’t got a clue, but somehow I’ll make a man out of you.”
For those of us in 2016, the sexist undertones of the song are glaringly evident. Here, men are supposed to be strong and capable, women are supposed to be “spineless, pale and pathetic” to say the least. These gender norms, albeit diluted, exist even today. Women are told that they need to behave in a particular way, like certain things, and have dreams and ambitions within a limited scope. They are asked to focus on possessing certain qualities and skills, and must confine themselves to doing a limited number of socially approved things (unlike Karate chopping bricks like Mulan is training to do throughout the sequence).
But let us focus for a moment on what the men are told. Throughout this song, Mulan is pretending to be a man, just like her entire unit. And the entire unit is being berated for not being ‘manly’ enough, just because they can’t run, shoot and fight like trained soldiers. In the same vein that we confine women to gender roles, we also heap unreasonable expectations and responsibilities upon men, simply because they are men.
Let me give you a personal example of how this works on a micro level. As an only child, I am aware that I will have to be responsible for my parent’s well-being as they get older. But this time, when I saw a few signs of aging in them, the realization hit hard. They were going to get older, and I would have to take care of them with all my love and resources, all on my own. And then, another realization hit me. Men around me had been made to understand this at an age much younger than my own fairly adult 22 years. I have seen male cousins, friends, characters in textual/visual media being told that they are the ‘men of the house’, the ‘protectors’ of their families, the ‘future’ of the clan, blah blah. While it always irked me, I think I grew up ignorant to the fact that it also placed immense pressure on these men to be a large number of things they didn’t always need to be. They were forced to take up responsibilities they didn’t have to take up alone, had it not been anathema to share them with their female counterparts. Undeniably, sons are showered with privileges in our societies, but this is the price they pay for it.
Going back to Mulan, the only real daughter in the training of unmanly sons – she humiliatingly, comically fails at each new task. Finally, she is informed by her commander that she is “unsuited for, the rage of war, so pack up! Go home! You’re through. How could I make a man out of you?!”
The message is clear. As a man, Mulan must show certain traits (like catching fish with bare hands from a running stream) and be prepared to represent her family in the army. And if she can’t, she is unsuited for the rage of war. In the same way, men today are made to feel unsuited for their roles in life, if they aren’t ‘manly enough’.
Of course, gender roles end up being more unfair to women. But I’d like to explore the way they effect men here. A lot of you will remember a soul crushing, disturbing advertisement a few years ago, which traced a journey of a man, since his toddler days. He was told told not to cry, to be brave, to not lose, not to express fear, all because “Ladke rote nahin (Boys don’t cry)”. Apart from the obvious sexism here, which prejudices men, the advertisement discloses a standard which all men know they have to adhere to since their boyhood.
They are told that they have to fend for themselves and their families as soon as they are adults. That taking care of their parents will ultimately fall upon their shoulders only, and looking out for their wives and children will be expected almost entirely of them. And that, if at any time, they stumble, underperform or don’t live up to these crushing expectations, they will be less of a man.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Men should be allowed to let their guard down and cry, ask for help with their responsibilities, and express fear. Women should be allowed to put their guard up, and demand to be able to decide when they want kids (shame on you, egg-freezing Facebook), to contradict men at work and be the primary breadwinners (and by that I mean out-earn their husbands without hurting the ego of the entire male clan).
But of course, I could tell you that gender roles are bad without telling you about Mulan. What I’m about to say next, though, will require Mulan’s aid. The musical number, entering its home stretch, shows Mulan shamefully leaving the training camp in the middle of the night after being dismissed. She walks past the tall wooden pole which has been erected as a challenge to the trainees to learn climbing. Nobody has been able to achieve the feat yet, although many have tried since the first day. Mulan decides to try one last time, and keeps trying all night. When dawn breaks, and her unit wakes up, they find Mulan sitting triumphantly right at the top.
She could have gone back. It was a blessing in disguise! She didn’t have to fight, her father didn’t have to fight, and she could go home to a happily ever after. But Mulan stayed anyway, because once she had committed herself to a duty as the son of her household, she held herself to that standard. She did whatever she had to in order to bring herself to par and fight.
The bond between a right and a concurrent duty has been introduced to all of us at law school. I think, to a significant extent, it can be juxtaposed to the issue of gender roles. At the outset, I realize that a lot of women are well aware of their responsibilities, and are well suited to the ‘rage of war’, and that’s great. I also realize that a lot of women are simply not given an opportunity or at the other extreme, are made to shoulder equal responsibilities without this gesture being reciprocated by the men in their lives, because society lets such pathetic men get away with it. This requires a different but equally significant battle. But for a large number of others, who for no fault of their own, do not face the pressure to fulfill duties heaped upon men and suddenly come face to face with this fact at age twenty something, I have a suggestion.
We deserve equal rights, on paper and in reality. We protest and fight for it. But additionally, I think we should also try to demand it in exchange for sharing responsibilities. For many of us, our parents/families/colleagues/the entire society will not impose responsibilities which our male counterparts will have no option but to fulfill. It may be with regards to small things such as relying on our boyfriends to navigate to every new place because we hate Google maps. As mine pointed out, it isn’t as though men are particularly suited to navigating, or particularly enjoy this tedious process. It’s just an expectation we subconsciously unload on them.
Or it could be more significant things. Our brothers may not demand that we equally partake in our parent’s well being, indeed, they might even resist it. Our husbands may not insist that we work and support them equally. If we decide to take a year off at the age of 35 to take a break, spend sometime with our children, we’ll get a flood of support. Our husbands simply won’t.
But I would suggest that we ignore this leeway, and be a Mulan. That we fulfill equal responsibilities, regardless of whether anyone asks us to. That we encourage these men in our life to share their burdens, and as a result their rights and privilege. Because then, we have an additional leverage to demand equal rights. And we free ourselves and our men from these artificially imposed confines.
And of course, if you are a man, you need only to remember Mulan. She was a pretty unmanly man. As a woman too, she was quite an unwomanly woman. But she got the opportunity that men did, and she was held to the highest standards by those around her. She became a legendary warrior, because she didn’t let either gender norm come in the way of preparing her for the rage of war. So keep calm, and be a Mulan.