Sunday, March 09, 2003

One of the lamentable facts of my lifetime is the decline of American animation. Time was when you could come home from school and be regaled on a daily basis by two hours of quality cartoons during the Disney Afternoon. And there was C.O.P.S. and Swat Kats and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and MASK and Dino Riders ... really, what happened to good cartoons? And that doesn't even count the fact that I was a child during the great revival of good Disney movies: Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Lion King. After that Disney movies kind of fluctuated between okay and not-so-hot. Oh, and Tarzan, which I would say goes all the way up to "pretty good" (it's one of my favorite movies, but that doesn't make it a good movie).

I would say that Mulan comes pretty close to "pretty good" too. Its soundtrack doesn't exactly sparkle, and Eddie Murphy is no Robin Williams, but it's got a good cast of supporting characters and the army schtick is pretty fun. "I'll Make A Man Out of You" is by far the best number in the show, and not just because it's got cool accompanying animation or good voice acting ("hope he doesn't see right through me!"). The use of the army in Mulan is really clever, though in my opinion underplayed because the show isn't marketed to people who know how to analyze literature. The army is what makes the whole gender-questioning thing work: as the great manly activity, it provides a forum to show that in point of fact none of these characters is men. Interesting side-note: they become men (that is, they become "tranquil as a forest, but on fire within ... swift as the coursing river, with all the force of a great typhoon, with all the strength of a raging fire, mysterious as the dark side of the moon") after triumphing over the villains. In other words, Shang's training didn't do it, and their self-confidence didn't do it: while masculinity is something which must be internalized to be held, it requires validated accomplishments to exist at all.

Anyway, the army also provides the venue for "A Girl Worth Fighting For," which is not exactly a great song but is wonderfully conceived. Well, with the exception of Mulan's line: "How about a girl who's got a brain? Who always speaks her mind?" (to which her buddies go "nah!"). That line should not be in the song, because it tries to reduce the masculine desire for "a girl worth fighting for" to some sort of chauvinistic objectification of women. In fact that is nearly the exact opposite of the truth, and it is a well-attested fact that men on campaign spend a great deal of time and emotional energy thinking about their women. Heinlein remarks in Starship Troopers that women are the ultimate reason men go to war. And I think that's true, for what symbolizes what makes life worth living more than Beauty's love?

Note that I capitalized Beauty there. I did that on purpose, because Beauty is an archetype who need not be beautiful. As the song points out, "a girl worth fighting for" has very little to do with physical attractiveness. What do the soldiers imagine their girls will have? Ling wants a girl "paler than the moon, with eyes that shine like stars," true - but he also dreams, "my manly ways and turn of phrase are sure to thrill her." Yao says, "my girl will marvel at my strength, adore my battle scars," and Chien-Po says, "I couldn't care less what she'll wear, or what she'll look like: it all depends on what she cooks like." To these wistful dreams all Mulan can say is, "huh?"

But what are they really asking for? What those lines are all saying is I want a girl who thinks I'm Somebody. Yao and Ling are looking for girls who will look at them and see something other than the pathetic losers they really are ("my girl will think I've got no faults, that I'm a major find"). Chien-Po is looking for one who understands what's important to him and thinks it's important too.

In my opinion there are other factors which make a girl Worth Fighting For, but this song touches on one of the fundamentals (besides - with that one stupid line aside - being a poignant exposition of character for the soldiers who are otherwise merely comic relief): if a girl is to be worth fighting for, she must think that you're a man worthy to fight for her. What makes Beauty beautiful is not what she looks like but the beauty she has to unveil - and the fact that you have stood at the bars of her woman's soul and been judged worthy for that beauty to be unveiled to.

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