How the New Mulan Rethinks the Girl Fight

Available now to stream on Disney+ with Premier Access, the new Mulan delivers an interesting take on female rivalry

Disney Live Action Mulan

by Darcy Rive |
Updated on

Some (sort of) spoilers ahead…

Films often have a way of pitting women against each other. Think of Cady Heron and Regina George, Miranda Priestly and Andy Sachs, Elle Woods and Vivian Kensington, Dorothy and the Wicked Witch of the West… It’s a trope we see so often on our screens.

It’s also a common feature of many our favourite Disney films too. Snow White and the Evil Queen. Cinderella and her stepsisters. Rapunzel and Mother Gothel. And in the recently released live-action Mulan, out now to watch on Disney+ with Premier Access, we see our beloved heroine set against a new female villain, Xian Lang. But in this film, Disney rethinks the Girl Fight dynamic.

2020 Mulan is every bit the feminist story of Girl Power that we’ve come to know and love. A girl who doesn’t fit into a patriarchal society, under pressure to get married and settle down, who takes matters into her own hands and joins the army, saves China and finds herself. There was a lot of upset when it was announced that there would be no sidekick in this movie – no Mushu and his over-the-top jokes – but in this retelling, Mulan doesn’t need a sidekick. A phoenix appears every so often to guide her, but mostly, Mulan is doing it all on her own – and doing it very, very well.

In this version, Mulan (played to perfection by Liu Yifei) is born with an abundance of chi, which is portrayed as a (male) warrior energy. From a young age, Mulan is warned about the dangers of revealing her chi. But it’s hard to hide your brilliance, and in one scene, she is trying to retrieve stray chickens and she soars from the rooftop with supernatural ability.

Like Mulan, we learn that Xian Lang (played by the exquisite Li Gong) was also born with too much chi, and because of this, she was exiled from her home and rendered an outcast. Men who are born with this energy are celebrated as great leaders; women who embrace this gift are vilified as witches… And Xian Lang is a powerful witch – she can shapeshift into an eagle, assume the forms of other people and command swarms of bats. She is cast as baddie but Xian Lang does not become a villain because of the mistakes that she has made but simply for being herself.

Burning with hurt and vengeance (rightfully so, if you ask us), she teams up with Bori Khan, a man also set out on a path of revenge for the death of his family at the hands of the Emperor. It is striking that in their individual quests for acceptance of their gifts, Mulan must disguise herself as a man and Xian Lang must submit to the orders of one. These women, though rivals, have shared experiences that bind them together.

At their first meeting, Xian Lang sees straight through Mulan’s disguise. She calls Mulan a liar and urges her to be honest, to live as her most authentic self. Though they are on opposite sides, this is not the advice of an enemy. Xian Lang is speaking woman-to-woman, and encouraging her peer (not her opponent) to embrace the gifts she has been bestowed with. It is the sort of conversation that friends would have over a glass a wine, not the rhetoric of an enemy bent on sabotage.

Despite fighting on opposite sides, Mulan and Xian Lang share an incredible bond, both in their powers and in the way that they have been treated by those around them. Aligning herself with the side of the baddies, Xian Lang serves a warning sign of what could happen to Mulan if she were to use her chi for negative or selfish purposes. In fact, Xian Lang tries to recruit Mulan to Bori Khan’s side because she wants them to work together. Bori Khan has promised Xian Lang that when he rules China, women like her will no longer be reviled. Xian Lang is fighting by his side to create a better society for women like her – for women like Mulan.

Ultimately, it is Xian Lang who provides Mulan the opportunity to triumph in battle. She sets the pace for Mulan to become the hero that she herself has not become. In a way, it is seen as a redemption for Xian Lang, but when we look at her journey and her relationship with Mulan, it is worth questioning whether she needs redeeming.

The new Mulan gives us the empowering feminist story that we love, but it also offers us a poignant reimaging of the Girl Fight power play. Though our heroine and villain fight on different sides, they are united in their gifts, their experiences and ultimately in their triumph. They are both fighting for what they believe is right, and it’s a fight that we’re still fighting today – for a woman’s right to be anything and everything that she wants to be.

Stream Mulan on Disney Plus with Premier Access for an additional fee of £19.99__. Disney+ subscription required.

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