As it got chilly out, it seemed like a good time to curl up with a warm beverage and travel back in time to an old favorite. And what better way to combat the fall chill than to watch one of our greatest bi+ icons in two-dimensional action? That’s right, Unicorns – today I am focusing on the surprising emergence of Captain Li's sexuality in my personal favorite of the Disney animation features, Mulan!
Before we step back in time to ancient China, let’s go through the ropes for the uninitiated. There will be SPOILERS ahead when discussing the film and its implications. Also, if you’re not familiar with what this magical scale is all about, head over to the OG article that started (and explained) it all.
Sorry-not-sorry, folx. I couldn’t help myself.
Mulan centers on a millennia-old folk tale about Hua Mulan, the daughter of a famed Chinese warrior. When the emperor calls for male soldiers to join his army, Mulan’s father is too old, frail, or ill to answer the call (this depends on which version we hear). To save his life, she disguises herself as a man and goes in his place. In the original ballad, Mulan rises in the ranks and gains much praise over the course of twelve years of service.
While the legend was celebrated for centuries throughout China, it also experienced a lot of variations. For example, in the original ballad, Mulan refused any reward and just wanted to return home. In another version, Mulan only asked for the army’s finest horse to aide her journey home. (If you’d like to learn more about the history and adaptations on this tale, there is a fantastic episode of the podcast The History Chicks that does a deep dive on the subject – Episode 81).
So, the tale is no stranger to a rewrite. When Disney came around to the property, though, they gave it a lot of the typical Disney treatment – adding talking animals, simplifying the story, and adding material. That included adding a love interest in Captain Li – a handsome, smart, but stubborn military leader. But he and Ping (Mulan’s male pseudonym) grow closer until he discovers she is a woman. Is it valid to read this closeness as a same-sex attraction? With the live action Disney movie of Mulan in production and the social media backlash at discovering Shang’s removal from the narrative, it seemed like a good time to revisit the 1998 flick.
What I Liked
Mulan, both in this Disney version and in the original ballad, is all about challenging gender expectations. This is a great feminist movie, that premiered during the height of the “girl power” moment of the late 1990s. But it wasn’t until the last few years that I looked at Shang’s arc again with a critical eye.
I think it’s completely fair to read Shang as bi. He truly is drawn with the exact same admiring glances at Mulan as he displays at times for Ping. And as for the critics arguing he just admired her bravery as a soldier… I don’t know about you, but my admiration for a co-worker does not always immediately translate into attraction. Let alone riding across provinces under the guise of returning a helmet.
There are lots of other things to admire in Shang as well. He’s a smart, capable character with a fully fleshed-out inner life and story beyond his attraction to Ping/Mulan. He makes mistakes and cops to them. And he displays substantial growth throughout the tale, learning from Ping’s resourcefulness and quick thinking.
Also, looking back further into Chinese history, the ballad was created and refined over millennia, spanning multiple dynasties that did not maintain such a homophobic hold on society. This is, after all, the country that conceived of the Passion of the Cut Sleeve. Having a bi captain in the army isn’t the biggest of stretches.
What I Didn't Like:
Of course it would have been nice for Shang (or someone around him) to use the term “bi.” But the term didn’t exist in the time. (Neither did talking dragons, I know, but…) I do think it might have taken away from the heart of the story. Luckily, being queer is not entirely the captain’s core conflict.
And as progressive as this flick was as far as addressing gender dynamics, not all of its jokes hold up to the test of time. A lot of regrettable, lazy “cross-dresser” jokes are strewn throughout the retelling, and effeminate male characters are often characterized as villainous or played up for laughs. It seems to work against what the rest of the story is doing if femininity in unexpected places is implied as untrustworthy or lacking integrity.
My quibbles aside, I still really enjoyed watching Mulan with my queer revisionist hat on. (It has bells and a pinwheel, FYI.) And Shang definitely hits a lot of the marks for me. So I see you, Shang. Let your bi flag fly.