Within the film, the villain Xianniang (Gong Li) provides a powerful contrast to Mulan. Xianniang invites Mulan to join forces and rebel against the Emperor. She wants to build a kingdom where strong women like them are accepted for who they are, but Mulan responds, “I know my place” – emphasising her duty is to serve her Emperor.
Ultimately, Xianniang sacrifices herself to save Mulan. By refusing to work within the system, Xianniang’s death signifies the failure of her radical approach.
Rather than being a story of female empowerment, Mulan promotes the idea that women must put male authority figures before themselves to achieve recognition.
The story of Mulan hasn’t always sent this message. In a version by the 17th century author Chu Renhuo, set at the end of the Sui Dynasty (581-618), Xianniang is a warrior princess who becomes Mulan’s sworn sister. They lead a group of women soldiers and travel together. This friendship is absent from the Disney film.