When I worked at Walt Disney World, people would ask me which Disney princess was my favorite. I always answered Mulan- even though she’s not a princess. She’s my favorite Disney heroine, and has been long before I developed an interest in Chinese culture or started learning the language.
I’ve never been a princess girl. Don’t get me wrong, princesses have good qualities too, but come on, Mulan doesn’t just break a curse or marry the prince, she joins the army and saves her country!
Mulan is also one of the few heroines who actually has a good relationship with her father- or even has a father! The whole plot set-up is that Mulan loves her father so much, that she would rather take his place in a war than watch him go away and presumably never return.
Her dad is a pretty awesome character too. He loves Mulan and wants the best for her. He’s angry when she takes his place- what dad wouldn’t be? But the moment she returns he has his arms around her telling her he’s proud of her.
That relationship means a lot to me, because I’m very close to my own dad.
My dad is okay with me not being a princess girl.
Around age thirteen, I finally mustered up the courage to declare to him that I didn’t want to get married, and I wanted to go into filmmaking.
My dad just laughed and said he figured I’d want to do something like that. He’s okay with me being unconventional, and that means the world to me.
I wasn’t going to bring gender identity into this... but it couldn’t be avoided.
The truth is, Mulan was a touchstone for me during a difficult time. You see, for many years, I wanted to be a boy.
I can see the eyebrows rising now...
As a young teenager, I hated being a girl. I wanted to be a boy. I wanted to be strong. I wanted to fight, and just like Mulan, I would look in the mirror and not recognize the face staring back at me.
That was complicated enough, but pretty soon I started liking boys. Wanting to be a boy, but having crushes on boys at the same time is just... confusing. And pretty embarrassing.
I wondered what was wrong with me. I wondered if God had made a mistake and that I was really supposed to be a guy.
During that difficult time, I latched onto the story of Mulan. She was cool. She dressed like a boy and she fought.
I could never figure out why I wanted to be a boy, and it was so weird and awkward I was never brave enough to try and ask someone for help. So instead I watched Mulan, and felt somewhat comforted that maybe somewhere out there, there was another girl like me.
In my early twenties, my mom stumbled across a phenomenon known as “Vanishing Twin Syndrome”. She handed me a book on it one day and said I might find it interesting.
Very very interesting.
The basic idea of Vanishing Twin Syndrome is that one out of eight people start out having a twin in the womb. The weird part is that fewer than one of eight people are actually born with a twin.
Very early on in a twin pregnancy, for whatever reason, one twin may die and the embryo is absorbed into the mother.
And you thought I only studied movies.
This can happen so early that no one, not the doctors or even the mother, are aware that another baby existed. The surviving twin grows normally and is born alone.
Sadly, even though it happens so young in a person’s existence, it can leave some deep emotional scarring.
There are some very interesting studies done on the survivors of VTS, and one of them has to do with gender identity.
If a person’s twin was of the opposite sex, then the survivor might “take on” the dead twin’s identity unconsciously. They will try to live two lives at once and end up being totally confused and upset.
There are a lot of other symptoms that VTS survivors may experience as well. I won’t go into them all, but it’s suffice to say that the psychological profile fits me like a glove.
Suddenly things started making sense.
I was probably a twin, and my brother died. When I looked in the mirror, I saw his face not mine.
At long last I began to go through the process of finding my own identity. I stopped cutting my hair super short. I realized I didn’t really want to become a car mechanic. For the first time in my life, I thought about a new and scary concept.
What is it like to be a girl?
No, seriously! Gender roles and gender identity can be really touchy subjects. Also, depending on which culture you live in, they can be unrealistic or even contradicting.
I tend to have close ties to two cultures: the conservative Christian homeschooling community and well... American Western culture.
Both of those have some pretty strong messages about what being female means. Sadly, I almost went back to wanting to be male again, because some of those messages are really not appealing.
Hollywood portrays women as either super girly or super tough. They’re emotionally unstable or they have no emotions at all. However, they all have perfect bodies and poofy lips.
On the other side, some Christians expect women to wear ankle length dresses and never cut their hair. The most advertised careers for conservative ladies are either: Missionary’s wife, Woman’s counselor, or Pastor’s wife.
Obviously those are two extremes, and the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Still, neither of those extremes gave me much direction. I struggled a lot with anger and resentment towards both.
I started wondering if there was another viewpoint out there. Something that would resonate with me better.
One day I wore a T-shirt embroidered with a phoenix on it to my Chinese class. My teacher commented on it, and asked if I knew what the phoenix represented in Chinese culture.
I shook my head, and she told me.
“The phoenix represents female energy.”
Really? Weird! Cool!
Up till that point the only representations of genders I’d been exposed to, I disliked.
“Blue stuff for boys. Pink stuff for girls”
I don’t like pink.
“Pirate costumes for boys. Princess costumes for girls.”
Why can’t I be a pirate?
“The Dragon represents male. Phoenix represents female.”
That was a totally new concept for me. I went home and brushed aside the articles on being a confident career woman and the books that said things like “You are God’s Princess” on the cover.
A lot of my dissatisfaction with my gender came from always comparing myself to guys and thinking I was on the losing side. You can’t really compare dragons and phoenixes.
Is one stronger than the other? Is one better looking than the other? They’re totally different! They both have something to do with fire, but other than that...
I thought about phoenixes a long time, and finally decided I like the metaphor.
The special power of a phoenix is it’s ability to be reborn. Every time it dies, it comes back to life. I don’t know about other girls, but I feel like I’m changing all the time. I go through different phases- short hair, long hair. Unicorns, pirates. I could identify with the “many lives” of the mythological creature.
With a new metaphor in hand, I set out to think about what kind of woman I wanted to become. I started looking at the women around me, and what about them I admire.
These are some examples I found:
My mom. She was incredibly ill for nearly seventeen years, and through all that she somehow found the strength to look for a cure that doctors said didn’t exist. At the same time, she raised me and my sister, taught us at home, and never gave up.
My language teacher. She moved to New York city from Beijing when she was twenty years old. She barely knew English. Now she teaches Chinese language and culture. Her dream is to help foster a better understanding between American and Chinese cultures. She’s had an amazing life, and she shares sharp insight and hard won wisdom with all her students.
My family knows a woman who followed her husband to Saudi Arabia shortly after they got married. After living there for several years, she is back in the states. She allowed me to read some excerpts from a book she is writing about her experiences overseas. They are incredible to say the least.
But back to Mulan.
Mulan never actually wanted to be a boy. The directors made her tomboyish, but she’s not over the top. I like that she isn’t the toughest meanest member of the fighting team. She’s even sent home at one point because she’s failing at being a soldier! But she is smart, and that’s what saves her, and the rest of her group in a critical moment.
You get the idea that she didn’t set out to prove how tough she could be, or even because she wanted to fight. She did it because she wanted to protect someone she loved, and it ended up taking her down an unconventional path.
So in the end, I wasn’t like Mulan at all! I wanted to prove something about myself. That I wasn’t weak, that I was “just as good as a boy” as if boys were somehow inherently better than girls.
I’ve had to change a lot of the perceptions I used to have about myself, and what it’s like to live a good life as a girl. Often, it is simply finding a different viewpoint, and keeping an open mind- not only about what it is to be female, but what it’s like to be a person.
Interestingly enough, sometimes I feel a lot like Mulan in the filmmaking profession. There aren’t a lot of women, and while it’s nothing like joining the military, there are times when I feel out of place.
I’ve been to various conventions and classes about film, and very often the group consists of a bunch of high school guys, and me.
However, I’m more comfortable being the “token girl” these days. I don’t have to try and be “one of the guys”, and I know that as a woman, I bring a different perspective to the whole filmmaking scene.
I know I’ve shared a lot of personal stuff with this one. I tried every which way to avoid it, but apparently it had to come out.
My hope is that by sharing my story, I might encourage anyone out there who’s struggling like I did. Mulan was a comfort- but it didn’t give any answers. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m trudging forward. Sometimes you don’t even have to join the army to fight big battles.
I will be celebrating Chinese New Year this week. I even bought a dress for the occasion. It has a phoenix on it.
Year of the Horse 2002 (I'm on the left) Year of the Horse 2014