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Essay: Mulan and Shrek: Revisionist Humanism and Stereotyping Against Race and Gender in Disney and DreamWorks

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  • Published: 1 April 2019*
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  • Tags: Disney essays

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Mulan is based off a medieval Chinese legend about a young woman who runs away from home to join the army in place of her father. The legend has countless iterations, although the earliest is called "Mulan Shi" or "Mulan Poem", written between 386 and 533 AD. The Disney version differs from the myth while not paying attention to the accuracies of the legend, they go in the direction of looking for self-worth, feminism and romance. This creates many historical inaccuracies which make the Asian culture interchangeable "others". Mulan is described as a three in one featured film: comedy, action movie and musical. Narratives such as Mulan suggest that people of another race other than whites are less entitled to life of leisure and privilege. Non-white heroin's tend to settle more often for modest aspirations where Mulan is an example of stereotyping against race and gender. When Disney animated films are in the works there is almost always a strong relationship between daughter and father. "The greatest gift and honor is having you for a daughter" (1:19:36). Cultural beauty is a standard of women in china which was stereotyped fair skin "Paler than the moon" (48:05). Mulan wipes off the pale makeup on her face representing that she does not want a part in the gender roles that are put on her by society. An example of the stereotyping is when the emperor of china asks Mulan to serve china alongside him, she respectively declines and responds by telling him she needs to do her traditional duties. (Ward). DreamWorks animation studio was influenced by Disney fairytales which is called revisionist interpretations of humanism feature tells the narrative of not girl power but a lesson of changing their authentic given fate and to embrace themselves and their femininity humanist where men are still dominating and earning more than the woman, where woman are there to be sexual and often violence in turn, for post-feminism. Shrek is one of the fairytale freaks narratives where humans no longer want around. Shrek is still masculine showing that he is somewhat normal while Fiona has two sides, human and ogre which makes her categorized as other.  The feature in prison people that are not normal and tries to stick with order, tradition and beauty with the narrative of the story. When Shrek pulls out the page in the beginning sequence of the feature it shows that the feminine story line has ended and the masculine beings. He believes at this point that powerful, real women do not exist in fairytales. Although this changes throughout the narrative with Shrek falling in love with Fiona after she shows her true colors.

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Mulan produced by Walt Disney Animation during the 1990's was the turning point for femininity to keep up with the changing political and economic views of society.

Femininity of female characters:

Treatment of the female character during the 1980's and 1990's, no matter how strong the animation studio designed the female she must always be saved by the masculine man. Women are portrayed as seductive, over sided breasts, and tiny waists. This causes the issue of what is presented to the public especially young girls on what femininity should be. This also characterizes women and children to know what they should look like as well as act around fellow peers and men. Imagery is being shown to children which shapes their imagination. "Manipulating"- means when a female character uses their body to get things that they need and want from men. Mulan portrays an independent female who challenges femininity. In Chinese culture women are considered worthless if they are not married as well as following men's orders then to speak up for themselves. Chi Fu – an officer of the town in the animated feature doesn't believe women can amount to men. "You will do well to teach your daughter to hold her tongue in a man's presence". (18:11). Mulan's exploration of gender fluid and femininity received success while stereotyping in a man's role. Although gender is a main role in Mulan's life, they have not molded who she is, but rather stretches the boundaries of both femininity and masculinity. In the feature it does not depict Mulan's strength, but all of her heroic deeds as a man instead. It is not until the end of the feature where us as viewers witness her taking her role in society again. Mulan is one of Disney's features which embraces feminism and gender although it is not labeled. It is made clear that feminism is shared between both men and women. There was no victory but rather Mulan teaches young girls what constitutes as a happy ending, going home to her father and to fulfill domestic duties to her country. Accomplishments as a man lack the traditional white princess Disney has created so much of, which is the female strength in gender roles. Femininity comes back later when soldier men use "feminine skills" and "Manipulating" to help get things they need to save the emperor (1:22:16). This helps feminism because she is outspoken and a forward thinker, which helps gain the necessary help to get what needed to be done.  Today women are given more femininity and feminist views showing that they do not need a man to save them like in previous features during the beginning stages of Disney Princess featured films, such as Snow White, The Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty and so on. Women are less sexualized as objects to be won with big breasts, the tiny body and bashful eyes. Mulan is a strong woman with complexity of breaking out of the stereotypical damsel princess. In society where women are considered objects to men and chosen on their looks rather than personality or how they act. DreamWorks Animation studios created the female character Fiona for the Feature Shrek. She is tough, clever and does not play by the stereotypical female role of passive, domesticated, helpless and a damsel in distress, which are still many of societies view points on women today. Fiona breaks the mold of the helpless princess locked away waiting for her heroic active prince to come save her, but rather is considered a modern feminist character. Strong, powerful, confident woman who is not afraid to show the world who she is and who is proud to show her abilities without saving from her hero. When Fiona is rescued by Shrek, she leaves her female stereotype behind and acts as her own hero (49:15), showcasing Fiona taking on a crowd of desperate men and battling them all while Shrek is a bystander and watches what is happening. Beauty is a source of power while Fiona's ugliness is presented as revolutionary, she gives up being the beautiful and desired stereotype from society to become her new true self, to be truly happy in a new modern feminist way of a powerful independent woman. Female identity is not based on marriage being the only goal in life, although this was the case for Fiona in the beginning of the feature, resulting marriage will fix all women problems. This causes an issue with gender socialization, where women start to believe that they are sexual objects that were only created for men's entertainment and pleasure. The feature is considered a progressive, and a powerful feminist message to all women. Both Films are attempts to revolutionize feminism in the female characters they are showing to young children. Feminism is a shared common goal which will bring in achieving political, economic and social rights to women, as well as bringing equal rights between the sexes. Mulan is one of the first Walt Disney Animated features that although is not accurate to the legend shows a young woman who will do anything to find herself worth and how she overcame the obstacles of being a man to protect and save her father from war. Not only shows a brave determined woman but how strong a woman can be without the help of a man or be equal to one. Fiona changes what a princess should look like and act, giving children a different view point, in which you can just be yourself and a man will still love you for who you are, don't change because of a man. These two featured films during the late 1990's and early 2000's have pioneered a new generation of how animators are taking to female characters, and how women can look up to these heroin's as role models and new powerful feminists.  

Animation Style:

Although Mulan is an American made film by Walt Disney Animation, as well as the first primarily produced film feature animation at the studio in the Walt Disney World Resort Florida. This failed in the authenticity of the culture and became more of an elegant design style, from the unique flowers and trees helped push the storytelling through a stylistic approach.  During the 1990's this was considered the Disney Renaissance- which made a chain of films with three-dimensional heroin's (Walt Disney Animation). The visual storytelling goes beyond the textual limitations which makes the visuals more appeasing and complete. Mulan's animation style appears to be simpler and more on the cartoon side although when it comes to the landscapes it creates more eye-catching scenes which make for more stylized camera movements speedier and smoother. Half way through the feature there is an avalanche which makes good use of the semi-negative space. (1:06:50). The use of two-dimensional style of hand drawing which makes it artistically appeasing. The style follows Walt's process and the nine old men where the character needs to be animated from the inside out and to have a deep clear understanding of emotions and movements made by the character. Disney animation studios has always been a leader in technological breakthroughs as well as different innovative approaches to pre-existing mythologies. Multi-perspective panoramas for cell animation is a traditional technique used in two-dimensional cell animation making a single background giving a three- dimensional environment. Computer technology made big advancements such as morphing which helped create a smoother transition between scenes being filmed. Disney animation had created a new tool which allowed an easy and efficient way to freely move people separately. The term is called "Attila" – a main section with this tool is when designing and creating the feature of Mulan. When applying complex textures, the use of texture mapping allowed to help further the labor process and to conform with the cell animation to the hand drawings creating dimension. DreamWorks animation studios has the same integrity of design that can be achieved, but the more important factor is that the stylistic look and the artistic style correlate with the era. The importance in finding the underlying design style theme. "We wanted to make a fairytale come to life… as if you opened a storybook and stepped into that world", – director Andrew Adamson. Shrek has had a major computer animation breakthrough with the creation of realistic humans and human-like creatures such as donkey, the big bad wolf and the three little pigs, which they effectively express dialogue and emotions. (Tai). This is achieved through complex facial animation system developed by both DreamWorks and PDI. Shaders allow animators to effectively add layers of bone, muscle fat, skin, and clothing. Shaper also helped in the advancements in the style approach by making changes to the characters bodies for when there is a layer change from the inside of the body it corresponds to the outside appearance changes. This stylized approach helps make the process faster and a labor-saving method. The method also helps labor later on in the process for when there are multiple scenes and multiple character sequences. (Glioux)

Walt Disney Animation and DreamWorks Animation both collectively make progressive advancement in computer animation and new techniques.

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Symbolism in an animated feature gives hidden messages and in the film Mulan there are a few. Mulan cuts her hair after she decides to take her father's place in the army (22:16) Cutting the hair in Chinese culture, women are meant to keep their hair long, by cutting off the hair it symbolizes cutting herself from society and their expectations. Mulan takes the risk of being banished by society because of saving her father. This also goes to the extreme with the knowledge that she may not even be accepted back. Paper fans are a shield for women's feminine identities which has been referenced (11:28) meeting the matchmaker and (1:22:15), when the men use fans to become feminine, fans symbolize passivity. Mulan uses the fan to her advantage when she reveals she is a woman. In Hun culture woman are considered equal if not higher. Cherry blossoms symbolize womanhood and the maturity of a woman. The flower also symbolizes the father daughter relationship (1:32:54), where her father is stating that he does not care what she has done but that her coming home is one of the best things he could have asked for. (1:31:18), the sword and metal lastly symbolize the male dominance and a war trophy of unmanning the enemy.

Shrek may have a different plot line than traditional fairytales, although the symbolism stays the same. Shrek sees himself as green- the color of an ugly monster that people avoid with the understanding that he is an ogre. The onion story that he tells donkey, represents how people hide their layers of themselves because they do not want others to see or hurt them. Eventually when Shrek meets Fiona the love they share shows that love can overcome any boundary or obstacle life may put in their way. This makes them easier to relate to each other with, because they believe that they will finally be loved by someone which is one of the major driving forces within the feature. Although DreamWorks Animation created the feature film there are some references to Disneyland as in the way Lord Farquaads castle possesses the ominous nightmare or the toy figures singing a one off of it's a small world.

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Shrek is a film that is being celebrated as a landmark at DreamWorks Animation studio.

The feature shows some of the most realistic animation when it comes to animating humans. PDI, showed that with digital animation it is no longer restricted to tiny background characters in the crowd or the static, sterile surroundings. The backgrounds surrounding Fiona are more sunset related so when the sun hits her face it is in more of a flattering way. As for Shrek, the backgrounds tend to be more of a bright light. The backgrounds in the film seem to be alive and have a lot more movement and the earthy elements than other films during this time. Creating realistic, believable settings in an organic natural environment while also being in high quality, makes Shrek the "Holy Grail of CG animation". Some of the backgrounds are matte painted onto a disc, shaped geometry in order to fill in the blanks in between characters that have been rendered already in the computer.

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