Disney’s new live-action “Mulan” will be available on Disney+ September 4.
First released as an animated movie by Disney in 1998, the story of “Mulan” is based on the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan. In Disney’s telling, Mulan joins the army in place of her elderly father. To do so, she must present herself as a man. Mulan learns to fight and bravely helps defeat the Huns. But, before the war is over, treatment of a wound reveals she is a woman. Immediately, she is considered disgraced and kicked out of the military. Still, she successfully fights the invaders, now appearing as a woman. In the end, the townspeople and emperor honor Mulan for her courage and skill.
Seems like a great story with the power to show children their sex does not define them regardless of cultural expectations, right? According to our vice president, wrong.
In 1999, the website for Mike Pence’s radio show published an op-ed in which the future Vice President argued Mulan is liberal propaganda to convince children women should be in the military. (You just can’t make this up.)
Pence writes, “Despite her delicate features and voice, Disney expects us to believe that Mulan’s ingenuity and courage were enough to carry her to military success on an equal basis with her cloddish cohorts” and goes on to explain this was likely the idea of a “mischievous liberal” at Disney.
Strange that “ingenuity and courage” are not considered precisely the skills necessary to be successful in this arena—but Pence’s point is clearly that “delicate” women simply cannot be successful in this supposedly manly sphere.
The most virulent danger, Pence explains, is for women themselves, who may be subject to sexual violence. Instead of arguing that these attacks should be more seriously prevented and investigated, Pence believes women should simply not be in the military. This same logic is often applied to dress codes to prevent women from “distracting” men.
Of course, the male fallacy of protecting women is a powerful tool of the patriarchy. Many of these ideas are based on sexual dimorphism—that is, on average, women are smaller than men. To justify the oppression of women, patriarchalism describes women as in need of protection and frames women being barred from institutions like the military as for their own good; supposedly stronger men will valiantly fulfill leadership positions that women “cannot.” Time and time again, women demonstrate their abilities in historically male roles—yet many continue to insist women do not belong in these places.
Apparently astounded at the idea of men and women in the same living space, Pence writes that housing two sexes together “at the height of their physical and sexual potential is the height of stupidity.”
There are so many illogical layers to this statement; let’s unpack perhaps the most glaring: Pence’s binary view of sex and gender. His argument leaves all sexes but male and female out of the equation and does not consider anything beyond cisgender individuals as relevant. Of course, he does not believe the men in the room are a problem; the women are. If two adults are not mature enough to manage a professional relationship, I suppose they are not mature enough for the role—just as in any other professional environment.
The vice president’s dismissal of LGBTQ+ individuals is of no surprise. Pence has a long history of advocating for discriminatory laws towards the LGBTQ+ community, even coming out in support of creating a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman.
Trump, too, has banned transgender individuals from military service after a series of tweets on the subject, and Pence has advocated for adoption agencies being able to ban gay parents. (A book could easily be written regarding Pence’s horrid treatment of LGBTQ+ folks, but it’ll be left at that today.)
Pence concludes his op-ed with: “Moral of story: Women in military, bad idea.”
Here, Pence advocates for the exclusion of women from an entire government institution. He does not state that women and men should not be housed together or that women should be barred from combat (both of which would be terrible). Instead, he argues simply that women in the military is a “bad idea.”
Pence’s stringent views in regards to sex and gender have shown up in more than just his views of the military. It has been widely reported that Pence refuses to dine with women alone and does not attend events with alcohol without his wife present. Although Pence’s relationship with his wife is nobody’s business but their own, the refusal of powerful men to interact one-on-one with women allows young men more access than young women to those in leadership positions.
Of course, women are already underrepresented in the halls of power, and excluding them from conversations recreates current power structures. Until men are forced to interact with women on an equal basis, women will continue to be left out.
Throughout his time as vice president, Pence has presented himself as a steadfast supporter of the military—yet his 1999 remarks demonstrate the dangerous thoughts Pence presented when describing how he was “victimized” by “Mulan.”
The blatant and institutionalized discrimination of women for which Pence argues in this op-ed is astounding—considering all positions in the armed forces were only opened to women during the Obama administration and many roles have yet to have been filled by a woman.
In this context, it is easy to see why the U.S. has yet to elect a woman president nor vice president. We must choose leaders who welcome women into the room, into leadership positions and into the White House.
I hope children today do watch “Mulan,” believe they are capable of anything and continue the work of deconstructing the binary world we are in.