Mulan, Again

Three and a half years ago, pen and paper in hand, I sat down to watch Disney’s 1998 animated film Mulan for the first time since it was originally released.

I came to the task with some uneasiness. I was in the midst of writing Women Warriors. The historical (or perhaps legendary) figure Mulan is one of the women I discuss in the book* and I wanted to check out how Disney's Mulan aligned with the "real" Mulan. Although I remembered enjoying Mulan when it came out, I did not remember many details about the film, except that Eddie Murphy played a smart-mouthed dragon--not a feature of any of the Chinese versions of the story that I knew.

I was more than pleasantly surprised. The film was as delightful as I remembered: well-constructed in terms of both plot and aesthetics, with sly wit and an occasional punch to the emotional gut. And to my amazement, it kept most of the elements of the original story, with one critical exception. Mulan's fellow soldiers discover her deception when she is wounded--a historically valid change since this was the way in which women who fought disguised as men were most often exposed.

Last weekend, I sucked it up and paid the “premiere” price to watch Disney’s new, live action version of Mulan.** I came to the task with some uneasiness. And I was pleasantly surprised. Disney did not attempt to simply reproduce the animated movie. Instead it was its own thing.***  The style reminded me of the magical athleticism of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which I had greatly enjoyed when it came out in 2000. The real life version addresses the difficulties of a woman disguising herself as a man, something I don't remember the animated version doing, at least not in such a realistic way. (With the caveat that it's been morethan three years since I watched it.) The addition of a second powerful female character enriches the “girl power” theme of movie.

In short, I’m glad I saw the new version. But I must admit, I cannot imagine watching it again, unlike the animated version which I will happily watch again. In fact, the animated Mulan is in my immediate future.


*If you’re interested in seeing what I wrote about Mulan, you can check out this piece on the Beacon Press blog: Daughter Archer Soldier Man: The Enduring, Cross-Dressing Folk Heroine Mulan (If blatant self-promotion makes you queasy, close your eyes for the next bit.) Or you could buy the book.

**What else could I do? If I waited to see the film in December, the conversation would already be over.*** And, as My Own True Love pointed out, we would have paid the same amount to see the film in a first run theater. Which we certainly would have done if times were different.

*** In fact, in the week between my watching the film and sitting down to write this, the conversation has moved on, taking a political and social justice turn that makes my own discussion of the film feel a tad frivolous. I don’t think I can make a meaningful contribution to that conversation. If you are interested, I found this article in The Lily thought provoking.   I'm still processing.

****I strongly believe that this is the test of a successful movie re-make (or for that matter, a film adaptation  of a novel.) If all a director does is replicate the earlier work, point by point, why not simply watch the original?

Reading My Way to The 19th Amendment

voting rightsLike many of us, I had plans for the hundredth anniversary of the 19th Amendment. One of those plans was to run a series of blog posts about the suffrage movement in July and August. Then my life took a sharp  turn: first I wrote a history book for kids in thirty days and then headed off to the Wisconsin State Archives to do research.Instead of lots of blog posts, I gave you no blog posts.

I've just finished three out of four weeks of fishing in the archives. (If you want to know more about my experience there, check out the latest issue of my newsletter.  Since I’ve got a couple of days in which to catch my breath before I head out again, I thought I’d share some of the suffrage-related books on my shelves, with links to a few earlier blog posts related to the books. Here we go:



April Young Bennett. Ask a Suffragist: Stories and Wisdom from America’s First Feminists.

Ellen Carol Dubois. Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote.

Kimberly A. Hamlin. Free Thinker: Sex, Suffrage, and the Extraordinary Life of Helen Hamilton Gardener.

Theresa Kaminski. Dr. Mary Walker’s Civil War.

Mike Kendall and A. D’Amico. Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists: A Graphic History of Women’s Fight for Their Rights.

Nancy B. Kennedy. Women Win the Vote: 19 for the 19th Amendment

Brooke Kroeger. The Suffragents: How Women Used Men to Get the Vote.

Allison K. Lange. Picturing Political Power: Images in the Women’s Suffrage Movement.

Kate Clarke Lemay. Votes for Women! A Portrait of Persistence. (This is the catalog for the Smithsonian exhibit of the same name. )


Obviously there are many more good books on the history of the 19th amendment, but this should get you started.

Please let me know if there are other books related to the women's suffrage movement and the 19th amendment that you would recommend.

In the meantime, I have some research to do.

Stranger in the Shogun’s City

One of the major challenges historians face when writing about the lives of non-elite women of the past is the absence of sources. Sources written by men that describe their lives are rare. Those written by the women themselves are rarer yet.

Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and Her World, by historian Amy Stanley, demonstrates how rich history can be when such sources are available.

The project began when Stanley became fascinated with a family archive that included dozens of letters written in early nineteenth century a rebellious woman named Tsuneno and the letters (and legal documents) created by her family in response. Together, these letters created a rare picture of the life an unconventional, non-elite woman, written in her own words.

Born in 1804 in a rural village, Tsuneno was the daughter of a Buddhist priest. She tried to settle into the traditional (and relatively privileged) life that her family expected of her, but it didn’t take. After three divorces and faced with another arranged marriage, she ran away to Edo (now Tokyo), then one of the largest cities of the world. Her life in Edo was always hard and often scandalous by the standards of her family and society. She made horrible decisions. She moved from tenement to tenement, took menial jobs that didn’t pay enough to support her, and married, divorced, and re-married a violent man from her home region. Her life can be summed up in a single line from one of her letters: “I ended up in so much trouble.”

Stanley places Tsuneno firmly in her historical context, creating a multi-layered picture of life in Japan in the decades before it was forcibly "opened" to the West by Commodore Perry's fleet in 1854. Stranger in the Shogun’s City is a vivid and often lyrical portrait not only of Tsuneno, but of Edo, the city she loved.


Most of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers