Mulan & A History of Gender-Bending Movies

A Montage of Gender-Bending Movies

A young woman pretends to be a man, fearful of what could happen if her deception is found out, but willing to risk everything to keep her father safe. This dramatic tension at the heart of Mulan is both the story’s main draw and the narrative element that makes it one of the most feminist and fascinating stories Disney has ever told. As in so many other gender-bending movies, Mulan’s plan starts out straightforward enough: pretend to be a man in order to keep her father home and alive. It snowballs from there, as she must keep up with training, win over her fellow soldiers, avoid nudity, and (in the animated version) process the feelings she develops for her commander, who thinks she is a man.

Mulan is far from the first film to use gender-bending (when someone pretends to be a gender other than their own) as a main narrative element. It is one example in film’s long history of gender-bending, and all the complicated dynamics it can bring. Gender bending on screen creates a world of possibility, one where we can see people doing and saying things they’re normally not “allowed” to, while also illuminating some of our own preconceptions about gender, as we process what, if anything, chafes about what we’re seeing, and why. 

An obvious appeal to gender-bending movies that feature girls or women pretending to be boys or men is that they allow young women to do things that they might not otherwise be allowed to do within the world of their story. But perhaps more importantly, the depictions can also mean strides for what women and girls can do on screen in general, or even in real life. As a historical drama, Mulan allows viewers to hold it at arm’s length rather than feel the full heat of the gender-based critique. Yet it’s noteworthy that this movie, of all Disney’s animated films and their live-action remakes, has one of the most independent protagonists, whose story is the least driven by a male lead. Mulan’s achievements while in disguise as a man help to create a film that is, overall, far more equitable to her as a protagonist.

Girls Will Be Boys

When women dress up as men on screen, it allows for men to break gender roles, too—even if it’s only a woman pretending to be a man who does so, at least at first. In the Disney Channel Original Movie Motocrossed (oh yes, we’re going there), Andy (nee Andrea) secretly takes her injured brother Andrew’s place on the motocross track. She cuts her hair to fit in, but forgets about her lime green nail polish. When a competitor asks her about it, she improvises an excuse about it helping her handle the bike’s vibrations. Since Andy, whose father wouldn’t let her compete because the sport is “too dangerous” for girls, is excellent at motocross, nail polish becomes a trend among the male riders chasing Andy’s success.

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Another frequent flyer is the use of pads and tampons, like Amanda Bynes in landmark teen gender-bender She’s The Man sticking one in her nose (“I get really bad nose bleeds… Beckham does it all the time.”) Like Motocrossed, She’s the Man is based on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, although it draws its parallels a bit more directly, with Bynes’s Viola transferring from her school of Cornwall to the boys-only Illyria prep when Cornwall cuts their girls’ soccer team. Her twin brother, Sebastian, is abroad, so she impersonates him in order to keep playing soccer. Viola, of course, falls for her roommate, Duke, while Olivia, the object of Duke’s affections, falls for “Sebastian,” and Bynes brings plenty of her signature physical comedy to the entire affair. 

Boys Will Be Girls

In the most compelling example of a woman’s gender-bending opening space for men to follow suit, in the animated original, Mulan’s own history of gender-bending sets a precedent for her fellow soldiers. At her suggestion, they (minus Shang) disguise themselves as women in the movie’s final act to help save the emperor and defend the imperial city. They literally use instruments of femininity, parts of their “women’s” clothing, to help them scale the walls, sneak up on the Huns and defeat them with strength. Her example opened a door for others to follow her lead and explicitly bend gender as it suited them in the moment, without losing any of their strength or sense of self. And like her comrades, Mulan uses a mix of the masculine and feminine – a fan and a sword – plus something uniquely her own, her clever mind, to save the day.

In other instances, gender-bending makes men more aware or even simply proximate to things associated with women and womanhood. Gender-bending classics Tootsie and Some Like it Hot both employed this, showing men who dressed up as women. In Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman’s out-of-work actor Michael Dorsey, with a reputation for causing trouble behind the scenes, decided to dress up as a woman he named Dorothy in order to get work in acting again. Dorothy is hired to act on a soap opera, but “her” new relationships quickly complicate things for Michael’s existing relationships. In the Hays code-flouting picture Some Like it Hot, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon are musicians on the run from the mob after witnessing a hit. They join a women’s band to keep a low profile, where they befriend a fellow musician, played by Marilyn Monroe. In both movies, the gender-bending men wear period-appropriate bras, pantyhose, and other, increasingly complicated undergarments, to the amusement of the audience. The reversal often involves a joke-shot of a woman looking in either dismay or disgust at a jock strap. 

Beyond the simple trappings of gender, having an undercover representative of the “other side” (all of these films are presented with an assumed gender binary and heteronormativity, even if they accidentally chip away at both) introduces the social and emotional intelligence generally perceived to be feminine traits to men’s spaces. In Motocrossed and She’s the Man, our gender-bent heroine introduces speaking more openly about emotions to their new male friends, and while at first it chafes and threatens their cover, eventually it’s welcome and leads to positive results. As both films are loose adaptations of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, our “undercover” heroines also give advice to the objects of their affection on pursuing their own romantic interests, complete with insight from life as a woman and a bit of self-interested sabotage, as they balance a desire to win over their crush with their desire to help their crush win over someone else.

Gender-Bending in the “Workplace”

Breaking with tradition, Mulan’s main contribution to the army is not tied to femininity or any masculine physical strength but rather her intelligence, (a trait whose gender coding varies), represented in moments like her retrieving the arrow at the top of the pole in the “I’ll Make a Man out of You” montage in the animated film or her quick-thinking to induce an avalanche to stop the enemy during battle in both animated and live-action adaptations. Rather than doubling down on the gender binary and trucking in the benevolent brand of the same sexism it’s trying to thwart, Mulan invests in what its lead can bring to the situation as an individual character, rather than as a representation of her gender.

On the flip side, on the set of the television soap where she works, Tootsie’s Dorothy teaches her women coworkers how to assert themselves in situations with entitled male coworkers and bosses. While that makes a certain amount of sense, it also carries a frustrating implicit message that all women ever need to do to end sexism is lean in, speak up, and assert themselves. In reality, while a hefty dose of mediocre white man confidence is helpful, it’s not enough to overcome systemic oppression.

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Mrs. Doubtfire, which features Robin Williams as Daniel Hillard, an immature dad going through divorce who loses custody of his children and regains access to them via a gender-bent alter-ego, elderly Scottish nanny Mrs. Doubtfire, teaches something more helpful and realistic. In large part, that’s because Daniel isn’t channeling his gender or his own personality through his performance as Mrs. Doubtfire, but rather an aspirational character that helps improve his non-Doubtfire life as well. After trying to rule the household both loosely and with an iron fist (and the film spending far too much time tut-tutting Sally Fields’s Miranda Hillard as a nagging harpy), Williams’ character learns to appreciate his ex-wife and lands on a more mature and effective version of fatherhood. Through Mrs. Doubtfire, the family tries to be more patient and loving with one another, while also leaving room for spontaneity and joy – the last bit being the real gift from their father.

Gender-Bending Lessons

When gender-bending, men and women characters learn different lessons – and so does the audience. When women and girls bend genders, for example, they often learn to wield the kind of born-a-straight-white-man confidence we see Michael Dorsey infuse Dorothy with when he refuses to allow a supervisor to call him the diminutive “Tootsie.” These characters often see that men have a more emotional side to them (while also doing significant emotional labor for the men they spend time with), and usually prove to the doubters in their lives that they’re just as capable as men. Mulan fares well in her gender-bending ruse, coming out with increased fighting skills, recognition for her strategic mind, and a crew of friends who mutually have one another’s backs. It’s also one of the few examples of this trope where the climax takes place after the hero’s gender bending has been exposed, and one where her newfound friends take an active role in helping her win the day, though a case could be made for the Illyria soccer team doing the same in She’s the Man.

Men who walk a mile in women’s shoes usually learn something along the lines of “Wow! Women are human – who knew?” Some Like it Hot is most successful in making this feel genuine rather than frustratingly superficial, but there’s always something inherently vexing about this realization. Importantly, women bend gender due to lack of opportunity because of gender discrimination or to help someone else – a sick father, an injured brother – while men do it to help themselves, above and beyond their built-in superior social and cultural privilege – to rehabilitate their reputation/prove a point, to go on the run from the mob, all while taking a job from women, who we know already face workplace discrimination including hiring and pay. In this way, the direction of the gender bend is not politically neutral, either for a character to undertake or for a film to portray.

How Gender-Bending Queers Romance

Then there is the queerness of it all. Nearly all of these stories involve a romantic interest between a man and a woman. However, for the majority of the film, one half of that pairing thinks the person making heart eyes at them is the same gender, and a gender they didn’t previously think they were interested in, allowing gender-bent movies to present a version of gay romance on screen, albeit through a prism. Sometimes there’s an element of changing personas, so the unaware love interest falls for our gender-bent lead as their gender at the outset while also low-key falling for them as their gender-bent self. While other films dabble more explicitly in gay panic, assuring the audience of the straightness of the leads as often as possible, some movies, like She’s the Man and Some Like it Hot, have fun with this, showing Channing Tatum screeching and clinging to the dude version of Amanda Bynes when a tarantula is loose in their room.

While most other films try not to put too fine a point on same-gender attraction, Some Like it Hot goes farther, with Jack Lemmon’s Jerry accepting a marriage proposal as Daphne and happily planning a June wedding, his honeymoon, and how to win over his future mother-in-law. The script adds in a throw-away line indicating it’s a play for alimony from the millionaire, but it’s hard to ignore Jerry/Daphne dreamily referring to themself as a “lucky girl” at the beginning of the scene and how, when Joe (Tony Curtis) insists he remind himself he’s a boy, he says, “I’m a boy, I’m a boy. I wish I were dead. I’m a boy.” It’s not hard to imagine a version of Some Like it Hot where Jerry/Daphne realizes that Daphne is who they were always meant to be, and never goes back to being Jerry. After all, when Daphne tries to “come clean” to their fiance Osgood and get out of the marriage by declaring “I’m a MAN!” Osgood is undeterred, responding, “Well—nobody’s perfect.”

There are also side characters attracted to the gender they perceive the lead to be. The animated Mulan gave us Shang, who is now recognized as a true bicon for his interest in “Ping,” Mulan’s dudely alter-ego. In Some Like it Hot, beyond Osgood, it’s the men who hit on Joe and Jerry/Daphne in the speakeasy, on the train, in the hotel – not to mention the outright sexual harassment throughout the film. In She’s the Man, it’s the popular Olivia scheming over how to win over Viola-as-Sebastian, who told Olivia she wasn’t “his type.” In Motocrossed, it’s the teen fan girls who can’t get enough of Andy. It’s hard not to read this tacitly as an expression of queer attraction, given that it’s same-gender (even if they don’t know it), and that “Sebastian” looks like an awkward-cute baby gay, or perhaps someone considering presenting as masc, and Andy is much hotter (and frankly looks more comfortable) in their masc-of-center androgynous presentation. And, oh yeah, fans ship it.

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Notes on Gender-Bending Cinema

It’s worth noting how often Tootsie is described as a movie where a man “dresses in drag” whereas drag isn’t invoked when women dress as men. That may be due in part to a general lack of cis straight knowledge that drag kings exist, but there’s also a greater overall cultural vitriol – and importantly, violence – toward men who dress as women, or are seen to. Trans women are killed at much higher rates than trans men, and stereotypically, trans women on screen are portrayed as either mentally ill perpetrators of violence or tragic victims of violence. To be clear: dressing in drag and being trans are not the same thing, though some trans people also do drag for the same reasons anyone else does. But there are many people who think they are, and in film’s long history the two have often been conflated.

Gender bending on screen creates a world of possibility, one where we can see people doing and saying things they’re normally not “allowed” to. It can illuminate aspects of characters we wouldn’t have seen otherwise, but – perhaps more importantly – it casts that same light onto what we, as an audience, bring to what we view. What chafes, what amuses, what confuses, and what excites when characters bend gender all reflect back to us more about our own expectations than they ever could about the movie we’re watching.