Talking Pictures

Wild Girl-Child

Feminist theologian Patricia Lynn Reilly cheers for Disney’s Mulan

By David Templeton

David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This time out, he turns to e-mail for an online discussion–with author Patricia Lynn Reilly–of Disney’s wonderful new animated adventure, Mulan.

“You have mail,” announces my computer.

“Hmmmmm. I imagined I might,” I woefully murmur, catching my breath and taking a seat before the softly glowing screen. indeed, I’ve received an e-mail from author Patricia Lynn Reilly, the best-selling author and esteemed feminist theologian with whom I had hoped to witness Disney’s latest animated miracle, Mulan. Unfortunately, owing to a series of last-minute changes and a volley of mutually unreceived messages, we each ended up arriving on time, but at different theaters. (Fortunately, Reilly had seen Mulan once already, in Berkeley)

Lacking any better plan, I decided to see the film without Reilly and pray that I hadn’t, you know, alienated one of my favorite authors.

Happily, Reilly is fairly philosophical about the mix-up.

“Dear David,” she writes. “We missed each other all the way around. Too bad.”

As for the film–an artfully crafted retelling of the ancient Chinese legend of Mulan, a daring and inventive young woman who, disguised as a man, became a national hero as a soldier in her country’s all-male imperial army–Reilly is pleased. “It was a fantastic movie,” she says. “I love Mulan! Women of all ages were cheering and laughing and clapping all the way through … at least in Berkeley they were.

“Let’s continue by e-mail,” she finishes, signing off with her initials, PLR.

After gaining world-wide prominence with A God Who Looks Like Me (Ballantine, 1996)–an insightful, icon-dissolving exploration of female-centered spirituality–Patricia Lynn Reilly found herself battling against forces within the publishing industry, forces that sought to push her next book to even greater heights of financial success by limiting its central themes and concepts to mass market standards. Reilly ended up returning the majority of a five-figure advance, choosing to publish and market the new book–Be Full of Yourself : the Journey from Self-Criticism to Self-Celebration (Open Windows Press, 1998)–on her own, rather than submit to further compromises.

A guide for women locked into feelings of inadequacy and fear, Be Full of Yourself includes dozens of stories told by some extraordinary women, women who overcame years of insecurity and self-criticism by learning to trust their own innate inner wisdom and strength. Like Mulan, Reilly and friends have answered the statement, “You can’t do that. You’re a woman,” with, “I can do it because I’m a woman. Just watch me.”

It is somewhat surprising that Disney–the same people who’ve traipsed out one formula-female character after another since Snow White and the Seven Dwarves–have ended up with a heroine as strikingly non-Disneyish as Mulan, a woman who–though she does fall in love with a handsome soldier–never sacrifices her own dreams and ideas in order to earn the protection of the man.

“Mulan represents the girl-child we all were in the very beginning of our lives,” Reilly writes in her next e-mail. “She tells the truth. She is creative. She is in her body. She feels her feelings. She is presented as a whole human being.

“She is full of herself.

“The audience is supporting her, cheering her on as she rebels against traditional socialization. For those of us who rebelled, she reminds us of our courage. For those of us who capitulated, she is our daughter, granddaughter and niece. In cheering her on, we are cheering them on. We hope with all our hearts that Mulan is able to hold on to her fullness, truth, intellect, originality, and strength. So many of us lost it … the fight was too hard. We capitulated and became formula females.”

An early scene shows Mulan enduring a humiliating session at the house of the village matchmaker; her face, per tradition for wives-to-be, is painted white with bright red lips, her hair ratcheted into a motionless knot atop her head. Later, when she secretly dons her father’s armor and sword, she gazes in pleasant recognition at what she sees in the mirror.

“Mulan refused to be twisted out of shape to marry, to become the quintessential female,” Reilly continues. “She longed for her true reflection. When Mulan looked at herself in the mirror after preparing as warrior, she was satisfied with her reflection … an androgynous, strong face peered back at her. This felt closer to her essence than the clown-like face she saw reflected upon returning from disastrous wife-training session in town.”

At one point in the film–after her secret is revealed and her bravery firmly established–Mulan turns down the offer of a seat on the Emperor’s council.

“Do you wish she’d have taken the position?” I send to Reilly.

“We were not told the rest of her story,” she replies. “Mulan matures into a wise old crone whose wisdom is sought after by emperors and generals. She and her husband join the council together as partners. They are committed to the peaceful resolution of political and personal conflicts. They teach/model for their country a new way of being … woman and man side by side as partners and allies.”

“So is Mulan an acceptable role model for modern girls?”

Reilly is enthusiastic in her response. “Mulan is a wonderful role model,” she sends back. “It is my prayer that the image of Mulan will linger within every girl-child’s heart and support her to hold onto herself, to descend into herself, to discover and explore the richness of her capacities, to vow faithfulness to herself.”

Reilly goes one further.

“I imagine Mulan whispering these words into the ears of every girl-child who sees the movie:

‘Your body is your own. Do not allow society to twist it out of shape.
Your body is strong. Move in it with courage.
Your thoughts are your own. Do not allow others to mold them.
Your thoughts are strong. They create an impact on others. Speak them with courage.
Your feelings are your own. Do not allow others to express them.
Your feelings are strong. They are to be shared. Express them with courage.
Your life is your own. Do not allow it to be shaped by the expectations of others.
Your life is strong. It will not fall apart. Live it with courage.
Exert, initiate, and move on your own behalf without guilt or shame.
Hold onto your power. Don’t let others squash it.
Hold onto your courage. Don’t let others preach it out of you.
Hold onto your independence. Don’t let others scare it out of you.
You were not created to please others.
Refuse to surrender except to your truest self and wisest voice.'”

From the July 2-8, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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