OWLS: “I’ll Make a Man Out of You or Not?” – Thoughts on Masculinity in Mulan
Last month, we talked about femininity. This month we are talking about masculinity.
Here’s the prompt:
Last month, we explored the meanings behind the terms, “feminine” and “feminism.” This month the OWLS bloggers will explore the concept of masculinity. We each have our own definition of what it means to be masculine and we will explore our definitions using “masculine” characters from various pop culture fandoms. We will discuss how these characters are “masculine” or show signs of a masculine persona. We will also share our personal stories about the amazing men that supported us in our lives as well as sharing some of our experiences growing up as a man or knowing men who struggled with the masculine identity.
Whenever I hear this song from the Mulan soundtrack, “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” sung by Donny Osmond, I would sing along at the top of my lungs. When I was young, I didn’t know what the lyrics meant, but now that I’m older, I know that the lyrics imply some stereotypes about men. In this post, I’ll be analyzing the lyrics of “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” and how the meanings behind the lyrics can be harmful on the mindset of young boys and what young girls expect men to be.
The first set of lyrics I would like to look at is in the opening verse. Captain Li Shang sings, “Did they send me daughters when I asked for sons?” Now, in the movie, men are required by law to serve during wartime and so, these lyrics reinforce the roles men and women have. Men serve in the war and women stay at home to watch the children and support the war efforts through economical means. Yet, Captain Li Shang’s question about whether these soldiers are sons or daughters invites readers to think of gender stereotypes, particularly the fragility and sensitivity of women which are characteristics that Captain Li Shang doesn’t want to see in his soldiers.
In fact, Li Shang views emotions and fragility as weaknesses on the battlefield. He sings, “You’re a spineless, pale, pathetic lot.” These adjectives can all be associated with being weak, physically and mentally. And so if Li Shang doesn’t want these types of guys as soldiers, what might he be suggesting how men should act? What does he mean when he sings “I’ll make a man out of you”? What does it mean to be a “man”?
Well in this song, physical and mental toughness contributes to the persona of a “real man.” The chorus repeats the phrase, “Be a man!” as a command for the listener to perform the masculine stereotype.
This phrase, “Be a man!” is followed by descriptions of what it means to be a man. The song compares typical masculine characteristics with nature as if it to say that it’s natural for men to behave in this manner. The first comparison is “We must be swift as the coursing river,” which implies that a man must be quick, being able to run fast but also to think on his feet. If life throws an unexpected curveball, a man should be able to make a decision or take action quickly. The second nature metaphor is “With all the force of a great typhoon” which refers to how a man should have determination, ambition, and willpower. They have to believe that they can survive the war and not give up so easily. The next line, “With all the strength of a raging fire” can refer to the burning passion within a man. A man’s passion can come from his work, his hobbies, his family, and his significant other. This is actually one trait within a man that I actually like and respect. Whatever a man’s passionate about, you should support them because it shows that you genuinely care about his dreams and values. Yet, I would also like to note that the two previous lines that talk about “force” and “strength” could also represent that mental and physical toughness that men should possess.
The last line I would like to talk about that connects a man’s persona to nature is “Mysterious as the dark side of the moon.” If we are talking about war tactics, this means that a man should be trained in the art of stealth. However, this could also refer to how men shouldn’t express their emotions because it’s a sign of weakness, and so they must remain emotionless or cold-hearted. I think this mentality is disheartening because if you suppress your emotions, it doesn’t help you in the long run. By suppressing your emotions, it will be difficult for you to express yourself to others and this can lead to some mental health issues such as depression, suicide, and social anxiety. The “mysterious” factor in a man seems to make him more interesting and thrilling to be around since it sparks curiosity within someone and the desire to unlock a man’s secrets or try to heal any hidden scars he has from the past. I admit that I like the mysterious charm in a man, which is what first attracts me to someone, but that can only last for so long. I think it’s better if men are more expressive and vulnerable because that creates open and honest communication with someone and strengthen one’s relationships with others.
Now, I’m not gonna argue that this song is completely sexist or young boys shouldn’t live up to these standards. In fact, most of these qualities are good to have. Yet, a man doesn’t have to perform this masculine stereotype that Captain Li Shang encourages. I think we just have to be aware that men are more than these stereotypes that we have created and that we shouldn’t expect men to act and behave in this manner all the time.
If you want more posts on masculinity, check out Jack’s post on Fullmetal Alchemist.
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Mulan does get into masculine stereotypes a bit.
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Mulan doesn’t have a true villain song (which are often the best songs in the movie), so it’s interesting that most of the songs are antagonistic to Mulan’s struggle and society as a whole. But this one versus the others (besides the ending theme of course) has the only visuals where you see it end on a positive note and Mulan confident. Of course, it has a good beat and great vocals, but seeing Mulan become a powerful warrior gives it an “Eye of the Tiger” vibe and probably helps make it the most popular song from the film. Plus it’s a nice callback for it to play when the manly thing to do is take a woman’s advice and put on a dress and makeup.
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Mmmhmm. It’s a great song and the entire soundtrack is really good too. And thanks for the comment. Mulan is on my list of fav Disney movies. She isn’t a princess. She’s a warrior.
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Owl make a man out of you?
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Only caught the tail end of the livestream but it sounded like it was lots of good discussion on the topic.
Regarding this post and the discussion on the stream (not counting the singing on the stream’s chat 😉 ):Valid points all. At the same time, aren’t we only getting part of the overall picture of Shang here? The song only explores his mindset at only this point in the movie. By the time we get to the end, hasn’t his view changed after seeing Mulan take on Shan Yu in single combat?
One could then argue, “Sure, yeah, but where’s the song about that change?”
But is a song warranted? Consider: “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” is Li Shang blustering about what being a man is about. In one sense, he’s talking the talk. By contrast, Mulan fights Shan Yu and kills him. She doesn’t just talk the talk, she walks the walk. She doesn’t need to sing about it; she just acts it. Everything Shang has sung about in that song becomes personified in Mulan in her battle with Yu.
Thought I’d throw that out there, too.
Looking forward to the next stream and post series from the members.
Thanks for the comments. You are making valid points here and I know there’s much I could have talked about in regards to the movie and the transformation that Mulan and Shang go through. For this post, though, I mainly focused only on the lyrics and what we can interpret from them and not the overall movie and content of the film.
However, you are right to say that they both go through major transformations and what it means to be a man. If I were to do an overall analysis of Li Shang and Mulan’s character transformations, I would have not only focused on the lyrics but the scenes as well.