Deborah, Jael ... Mulan?

Michelle Reyes

High in the mountains, Mulan sits shivering alone in the cold. Abandoned by her fellow soldiers in the Chinese army because her gender has been revealed, Mulan is fraught with feelings of worthlessness. With tears streaming down her face, she speaks to herself: “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.”

Mulan’s words reflect her desire to break from stipulated gender norms in ancient China, where men are valued for “bearing arms” and women for “bearing sons.” She’s smart and strong, and the heartbreak of not being able to serve in the army in order to help save her family from invading Huns is palpably felt.

As we await the release of the live-action remake of 1998’s Mulan, which has been delayed because of COVID-19, I revisited the original Disney film. Both versions are based on the legendary Chinese warrior Hua Mulan from the poem Ballad of Mulan. The remake has promised more realistic action sequences, elevating the image of Mulan as a female warrior further and emphasizing her right to occupy a traditionally male-dominated space. The narrative arc of the 1998 animated movie spans Mulan’s trajectory from potential bride to hero of China, delving into age-old questions regarding a woman’s worth and the capacities of the female body.

Interestingly, the Eastern context of this story serves as a mirror to our own Western, Christian society. In one of the final scenes of the movie—right after Mulan saves the emperor and defeats Shan-Yu, leader of the Huns—the chancellor, Chi Fu, still insists, “’Tis a woman. She’ll never be worth anything.” His declaration is a harsh variation on the notion held in some Christian circles that women are “complementary” to men, at best, a label that still ultimately sees them as unworthy of certain roles in the church and home. Teaching, leading, and fighting are all skills beyond a woman’s reach, or so the argument goes, with verses in Scripture taken out of context as justification.

But we don’t have to look further than the Book of Judges to see stories of female action heroes physically fighting against men—killing men, even—and winning battles by both outsmarting and outmuscling them. Women like Aksah, Deborah, and Jael are forces to contend with. In Judges 4, for example, we see Israel in battle again, this time against Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army. During this time, Deborah presides as judge over Israel, holding one of the highest political positions in the land. She is an incredible example of female leadership as she determines the social, religious, and military outcomes of her people. We would be wise to hold her example up alongside passages like Proverbs 31 and Titus 2.

We don’t have to look further than the Book of Judges​ to see stories of female action heroes physically fighting against men.

In the article “Yes! Women can be leaders too!,” Rebekah Hargraves uses the example of Deborah to show that “God clearly blessed his people through the leadership of this faithful woman, this mother in Israel. Judges 2:18 makes clear that God himself rose up Deborah and put her into this position of leadership.” Paul Carter also argues that Deborah’s leadership “reminds us that God made us male and female and that a country benefits from a plurality of mixed gendered leaders just as much as does a family.”

In comparison, China also benefits from Mulan’s leadership. Think of her leading the charge against the Hun army, making the key militaristic move that leaves her opponents buried in the snow. Think also of Mulan’s strategy to bring down Shan-Yu in the finale. Here, she doesn’t need to imitate male physicality (a ploy often used in stories to reduce female agency and complexity). Though she’s trained to adopt the traditional masculinity of a soldier and has proven herself capable of it, in this climactic moment she subverts it. Instead of “being a man,” Mulan and her male comrades embrace femininity as they disguise themselves as concubines. They then take advantage of the assumption by Shan-Yu’s men that women pose no danger, drawing close enough to disarm them. Finally, Mulan successfully brings down Shan-Yu by using a woman’s fan to strip him of his sword. It’s a brilliant moment of creativity and power, in which Mulan utilizes her agility with domestic objects to save her country.

In this sense, Mulan is not just like Deborah, a leader with a brilliant mind; she also resembles Jael. Looking again to Judges 4, Deborah tells the commander of the Israelite army, Barak, that he will not be victorious over the Canaanites, but rather “the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” Not only is a woman determining the political and military outcomes of her nation, but another woman is designated as the celebrated soldier! As prophesied, a woman does indeed destroy Sisera. Jael tricks him into hiding in her tent when the battle turns. Then, as he sleeps, “Jael, Heber’s wife, picked up a tent peg and a hammer and went quietly to him while he lay fast asleep, exhausted. She drove the peg through his temple into the ground, and he died.”

Not only is a male abuser punished via death at the hands of a woman, but Jael is praised for her actions. God empowers a female warrior to save both herself and her people, intentionally making her a slayer of men. And this is seen as a noble deed. This is exactly the image of Mulan that we see in the 1998 film: a woman whose strength, intelligence, and capacity to save and protect is as much encoded into her DNA as love for family.

Mulan doesn’t subvert biblical ideals of womanhood and femininity. Rather, it gets closer to reclaiming a robust theological vision of a woman, her incredible and intrinsic worth, and the vastness of her capacities to both love God and love the people around her.

Topics: Movies