Gender & Identity in Mulan: Text & Commentary

The legend of Mulan, now world-famous thanks to the Disney films of 1998 and 2020 CE, is the story of a young girl who disguises herself as a man to take her aged father's place as a conscript in the army and so preserve the family honor. The success of the story hinges on an audience's acceptance of the cross-dressing protagonist and the enduring popularity of the tale – attested to from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) but, more so, from the 16th century CE onwards – would suggest such an acceptance in Chinese society but, in fact, this was not so. Eunuchs were emasculated but did not cross-dress nor were all eunuchs even all that highly respected. Actors, singers, and dancers might cross-dress for a role but they, certainly, were not among the respected professions.

The legend of Mulan, however, probably composed during the Northern Wei Period (386-535 CE) was popular enough to have been revised and rewritten during the Tang Dynasty, preserved in a compilation of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE), turned into a popular play in the 16th century CE, and reimagined in other forms in Chinese literature, and then cinema, up through the 1930s CE, long before the story found an international audience through the 1998 CE Disney animated film or the recent live-action interpretation of the legend.

Among the most interesting aspects of the legend's acceptance – even its very existence – is why it became as popular as it did when Chinese culture did not encourage women's rights and certainly not gender-fluidity or cross-dressing. Anti-establishment art does not usually find a wide audience until the cultural paradigm changes and yet the legend of Mulan seems to have appealed to the people of China. It is possible that the appeal of the story lies in its handling of gender by linking Mulan's actions with the established virtue of filial piety. Mulan does not masquerade as a man and join the army on a whim or because she enjoys it but, rather, to save her father and the family's honor. The concept of a strong woman who passes herself off as a man and performs heroic deeds would have been acceptable to a patriarchal society in that the protagonist's actions served to preserve that society and the established cultural paradigm. The woman, in this interpretation, sacrifices herself in order to save her family and preserve honor and such an act would have been seen as not only acceptable but honorable.

The story would have transcended any audience's qualms over gender identity by subtly asking people to consider what role they might be playing in life.

It is equally possible, however – and the two are not mutually exclusive – that the legend's popularity derived from how it plays with that very paradigm, turns the accepted norms around, in exploring the meaning of gender – how a man or woman is defined by society – which would have appealed to an audience by couching the message in a fiction, in a work of poetry initially, which would have had the same effect as a satirical comedy in the present day. Scholars Kwa Shiamin and Wilt. L. Idema suggest that the story's popularity stems from what it suggests concerning societal roles and the questions which arise when one questions one's role. If one accepts their theory, then the story would have transcended any audience's qualms over cross-dressing or gender identity by subtly asking people to consider what role they might be playing in life and which kind they might rather take on instead.

This foundational message of the legend, established by the 16th-century play The Female Mulan, allowed for the story to be fully developed in the late 20th and early 21st centuries CE through Disney's Mulan films which feature a female protagonist who recognizes that gender and personal identity are not synonymous and, further, that one cannot define one's self by established societal norms.

The Poem of Mulan

The story first appears in The Poem of Mulan (also known as The Ballad of Mulan) from the Northern Wei Period. In this earliest version, the king is raising an army for defense against invasion, and Mulan, engaged in the traditionally feminine work of weaving, is troubled because she has seen her father's name on the conscript rolls, knows he is too old to go to war and her brother is too young, and she resolves to go in his place – disguised as his son – to preserve the family's honor. Interestingly, however, the poem does not conclude with a statement on filial piety, personal honor, or nationalism, but makes it clear that the story has been about the equality of the sexes. The following translation is by Thomas Yue:

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On and on the spindle creaked
By the door did Mulan weave
Hear not sound of loom and pick
but the sighs of gloom and grief
"Pray tell, girl, what's on your mind?
Something roused your memories?"
"Not at all", Mulan replied,
"'Tis not my mem'ries ailing me.
I saw the notice late last night.
A great army the Khan's raising.
All twelve scrolls of battle rolls.
Father's name from none missing.
My father has no grown-up son,
Nor have I a big brother.
I wish to buy a horse 'n whip.
In his stead I shall go serve."
At north of town she bought the whip
In the south a finest steed
Bit 'n reins from west bazaar
Rug 'n saddle from the east

Leaving home in mid-morning
By night Yellow River reached
Hear not call of home and kins
But the raging river stream
Back on road at break of dawn
At camp she arrived by nightfall
Hear not call of home and kins
But the horses 'cross the wall.

A thousand miles she rode to war
Past went mountains flying by
Golden gongs in northern air
Armors in cold moonlight shined
Ten long years ere her return
From where men fell and countless died
Summoned to the grand palace
By His Majesty on high
Twelve orders of honors earned
Hundred thousands in rewards
"What you desire?", spake the Khan,
"Simply ask and it'll be yours."
"I've no use of high office.
But rather have a fastest horse
— If your Majesty so please —
to take a son home in due course."

Mom 'n dad heard of the news
At the draw-bridge they her expect
Sister hearing Mulan's back
In her best clothes she got dressed
Little brother got the word
A feast to prepare he set

Open'd the door to her room
She sits in bed where she once slept
Off she took her war-time cloak
On she puts her old-time dress
At the mirror she paints her face
By the window she combs her hair
Out she came to greet her mates
Who were caught in great dismay
Twelve years side-by-side they fought
Mulan's a girl not once they thought

Grab a rabbit by its ears
The females squint and the males would kick
While they run loose side-by-side
How could one tell which is it?

Later Versions & Commentary

The poem's narration deals primarily with Mulan's journey to war, survival, and honors bestowed, and her return home but the memorable last lines do not focus on her heroism at all but on how she becomes a woman again simply by putting on women's clothes and make-up. There has been no change in Mulan at all from a heroic soldier to her father's daughter save in her appearance. The soldiers she returned home with are shocked that they fought beside her for years and never once thought she might be a girl and the poem ends by making the clear statement that no one can tell a female rabbit from a male when the two run side by side; in other words, when the two are allowed to do the same exact thing.

The poem was rewritten during the Tang Dynasty to reflect that era's concerns and the original was later preserved in the compilation Collected Works of the Music Bureau during the Song Dynasty. The legend was most likely known through oral tradition but reached its widest audience through the play The Female Mulan by Xu Wei (l. 1521-1593 CE), which fully developed the concept of the original work.

The two-act play begins with a monologue by Mulan setting the scene and source of conflict: the bandit Leopard Skin has launched a rebellion and her father, too old to serve, has been conscripted to serve in the army to defend the Northern Wei kingdom. To preserve the family honor and save her father, she decides to take his place. She purchases what she needs to equip herself and then, in a pivotal scene, unbinds her feet in order to make the transformation from a female to a male. The practice of foot binding began in the 10th century CE during the early Song Dynasty and so its appearance in this play, set in the earlier Northern Wei Period, is an anachronism, but to the audience of Xu Wei's time, it was a well-known symbol of femininity.

Mulan assures the audience that there is no reason for concern because owing to a “secret family recipe” she will be able to return her feet to their petite size and feminine shape once she has completed her time in the army. She then demonstrates her skill with various weapons, showing the audience the completion of her transformation, receives her family's blessing, and leaves her home for the war.

The play is even more forthcoming than the poem: gender does not matter as long as the individual is able to do what needs to be done.

In the second act, she is serving in the army under the name Hua Hu, leads the raid which captures Leopard Skin, and is rewarded with a promotion. She is sent home with two comrades (who, on the way, comment how odd they have found it that they never have seen their friend use the toilet) and, when complimented by them on her bravery, she mocks her accomplishments. Upon reaching her house, she goes in to take off her uniform, apply makeup, and put on one of her old dresses.

She reveals herself as a woman to her comrades, who are suitably amazed, and lets her parents know that she is still a virgin as she shares with them the symbols of her success as a soldier. The neighbor's son, a respected government worker, then appears and it is revealed that he and Mulan have been matched by their parents. The wedding takes place and the play ends with Mulan singing a song alluding to the concluding lines of The Poem of Mulan:

I was a woman till I was seventeen

Was a man for twelve more years.

Passed under thousands of glances.

Which of them could tell cock from hen?

Only now do I believe that a distinction between male

And female isn't told by the eyes.

Who was it really occupied Black Mountain Top?

The girl Mulan went to war for her pop.

The affairs of the world are all such a mess,

Muddling boy and girl is what this play does best. (Shiamin & Idema, xix)

The play is even more forthcoming than the poem regarding the moral of the story: gender does not matter as long as the individual is able to do what needs to be done. The appeal of the legend is its exploration of personal identity. What defines an individual is self-knowledge and self-acceptance expressed through action, performance, the ability to see what needs to be done and do it well, not by social paradigms which can only regulate and restrict the self. Shiamin and Idema comment:

The Female Mulan engages the questions of gender in a much more complicated manner than the “Poem of Mulan”. The play clearly presents a case of performance, and a performance that is crucial both domestically and nationally to Mulan; yet, the character who carries out that performance dismisses her actions completely. Mulan uses the strategies of costume and speech to create a self, mocks the belief that sight can be trusted, and leaves the audience with a conundrum when considering the entire performance. If actions in battle scenes were as if performed by someone else, to whom do we direct our appreciation? Similarly, in watching a play, what constitutes our experience of what happens onstage? Does acting nullify all actions performed under cover of disguise? The Female Mulan suggests that questions of gender or loyalty are not primary considerations. Rather, the play points to more profound questions about how we define ourselves in general: aren't we all simply playing parts? If we are, how do we keep hold of our “true” selves?” (xix-xx)

The answer would seem to be through action - one is what one does – and yet Mulan is able to act as a soldier and then lay aside that persona once she comes home. Mulan is able to resume her former life because she knows who she is. She is able to assume the identity of the soldier Hua Hu, all the while remembering who she actually is, and is then able to pick up her life where she left it by applying her make-up and putting on her old dress. Whatever clothes she wears, whatever gender she assumes, does not matter because she knows who she is.

The innate knowledge of who one is maintains one's identity; what one does in life simply expresses that identity. Artificial rules, regulations, and prohibitions based on gender are shown to be clearly irrelevant – if not silly and actually dangerous – by the legend of Mulan in that the story demonstrates how a girl, prohibited from serving in the army because of gender, is forced to pretend to be a man in order to save her country.


Xu Wei's play put the Mulan legend on the map for the modern era, and other versions of the legend followed from the 17th-20th centuries CE. The most popular version of the 17th century CE – The Historical Romance of the Sui and Tang – follows the same basic storyline but ends with Mulan killing herself rather than become another concubine in the king's harem. The 19th-century CE piece – The Complete Account of Extraordinary Mulan – develops the character to a greater extent but concludes the same. In both cases, the point is made that, in spite of Mulan's great achievements, she is still a woman who is seen as an object and must submit to the dominance of men.

The character of Mulan regained her autonomy in the 20th century CE through the opera (never performed) Mu Lan Joins the Army written in 1903 CE and the 1939 film Mulan Joins the Army, which emphasizes her superiority to weak, shallow, or cowardly males who cannot serve their country as well as a woman. These pieces, the second especially, replace personal identity with nationalism and the 1939 CE piece is more propaganda than anything else, shaming men into doing more to serve their country lest they be regarded as inferior to a woman.

The 1998 CE animated Disney film Mulan returned the heroine to her position as an autonomous individual who directs her own fate, last seen in Xu Wei's play, who refuses to be defined by anyone's standards but her own. At the beginning of this version of the legend, she is not at all sure of what she is to do or whether she is capable of doing it but, by committing to her decision to save her father and serve her country, she becomes what she needs to become and does what needs to be done.

The 2020 CE film Mulan deepens and expands upon this same theme to present a heroine who understands that personal identity is defined by how one values one's self as well as how one expresses that self to others and has nothing to do with other's opinions or one's gender. This point of view is completely acceptable in the 21st century CE but not so in ancient China. Mulan's initial popularity, therefore, must be attributed to its appeal to individual, rather than collective, identity: the suggestion that one can do more than play the role society has assigned even as one recognizes the values which have dictated that role.

Discovering Literature: Shakespeare & Renaissance

Shakespearean performance is an arena for exploring desire, sexuality and gender roles and for challenging audience expectations, especially when it comes to the female performer. Actresses have long claimed their right to Olympian roles like Hamlet: Sarah Bernhardt&rsquos 1899 performance sits in a long tradition, most recently added to by Maxine Peake in her performance at Manchester&rsquos Royal Exchange in 2014. Bernhardt&rsquos performance divided audiences: this was certainly at least partly to do with the crossing of gender boundaries, with one early London reviewer revealing how polarised ideas of gender could be when he complained that &lsquoA woman is positively no more capable of beating out the music of Hamlet than is a man of expressing the plaintive and half-accomplished surrender of Ophelia&rsquo. [1] That said, it had become increasingly common by the turn of the 20th century for star actresses to take male parts, often called &lsquobreeches&rsquo roles, and it is possible that one difficulty for London audiences lay in the fact that Bernhardt&rsquos Hamlet was not Shakespeare&rsquos text but a prose translation. Over a century later, Maxine Peake&rsquos interpretation was widely praised, though reviewers still focussed on the presence of a female actor in the role, contextualising it against the rich history of female Hamlets and interrogating the opportunities open to women in theatre in the early 21st century. [2]

Postcard of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet in 1899

The French actress, Sarah Bernhardt, crossed gender boundaries when she played the male hero in Hamlet.

Usage terms © Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

The feminist principle that skilled female actors should have equality of access to meaty theatrical parts lay behind the all-female production of Julius Caesar directed by Phyllida Lloyd at the Donmar Warehouse in 2012, in which Frances Barber took the title role and Cush Jumbo played Mark Antony opposite Harriet Walter&rsquos Brutus. This production deliberately offered its performers a far greater range and number of roles than the standard repertory usually allows. This is partly so because modern repertory stands in the long shadow of Shakespearean casting conditions. The stages of the earlier 17th-century commercial theatres were all-male preserves: women were part of the play-going audience and worked in the theatre buildings but they did not act on the commercial stages. [3] So when Hamlet was first staged in 1600&ndash01 and Julius Caesar in 1599, female roles were taken by a small cohort of highly trained boys. The small number of female roles in each play (usually no more than three or four roles that could be described as more than walk-on parts), have shaped and constrained opportunities for actresses on the modern stage. This kind of Shakespearean casting has been explored by productions such as the Shakespeare&rsquos Globe Theatre&rsquos Twelfth Night in 2002. In having the parts of Olivia and Viola taken by Mark Rylance and Eddie Redmayne, respectively, the Globe production partially recovered the casting practices of Shakespeare&rsquos own time and, in asking audiences to focus on the actor&rsquos skill rather than gender, examined both contemporary gender roles and their relationship to performance itself.

Photograph of Mark Rylance in Olivia costume in Shakespeare's Globe's production of Twelfth Night, 2002

Mark Rylance plays Olivia in a modern return to the original practice of all-male casting.

Usage terms © Photo of John Tramper, courtesy of Shakespeare's Globe

Women and Shakespeare in the early 20th century

Shakespearean theatre&rsquos habit of exploring gender&rsquos multiple possibilities, and indeed women&rsquos central involvement in this exploration, is not a recent phenomenon. During World War I, in a hut in Bloomsbury built to offer respite for soldiers on leave from the front, a group of pro-suffrage women called on a heady mix of Shakespeare and patriotism to authorise their performances. [4] Ellen Terry, one of the most famous actresses of her day and herself a performer at the Shakespeare Hut, wrote that a debt was owed to Shakespeare &lsquofor his vindication of women in [his] fearless, high-spirited, resolute and intelligent heroines&rsquo. [5] Inside the Hut, actresses performed Shakespearean pageants for the troops: on one occasion Terry herself played the cross-dressing Portia of The Merchant of Venice while younger actresses performed scenes from Henry V. [6] This echoed earlier suffragist work that had appropriated carefully chosen female characters such as Portia or the charismatic Cleopatra (Antony and Cleopatra), using Shakespeare to both inspire and legitimise political action. [7]

Programme for the Ellen Terry jubilee celebration

The Victorian actress, Ellen Terry, praised Shakespeare for his &lsquofearless, high-spirited, resolute and intelligent heroines&rsquo.

Usage terms Walter Crane: This material is in the Public Domain. Bernard Partridge: This material is in the Public Domain.

Henry Irving as Shylock and Ellen Terry as Portia

Ellen Terry as the cross-dressing Portia, a woman who disguises herself as a male lawyer.

At times, though, Shakespeare has become an authority figure for writers to kick against in despair. In 1929, several years after the Bloomsbury Shakespeare pageants, Virginia Woolf gave a very different picture of Shakespeare&rsquos relationship to women&rsquos lived experience. In A Room of One&rsquos Own, Woolf writes, &lsquoLet me imagine, since facts are so hard to come by, what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say&rsquo. [8] Famously, Woolf then laments Judith&rsquos short, frustrated life: denied education and theatrical training, having fled her Stratford home for London, she commits suicide when she finds herself pregnant. It is a moving, deeply thoughtful account. And yet it is not the whole story. Almost 100 years later, new facts have emerged about women&rsquos relationship to theatre in the 17th century and, while it&rsquos true that were we to reimagine Judith Shakespeare now she would still not be able to act on the commercial stage, she would have been aware of women who did have access to education and who were actually required to train in the performing arts of dance, eloquence and music. This is a new history of women and early theatre, and for it we have to look back to the 17th century, first to the Restoration, then to Shakespeare&rsquos own time.

A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf

Title page from the first edition of A Room of One&rsquos Own by Virginia Woolf, published by the Hogarth Press in 1929.

Usage terms © The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Virginia Woolf. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

The first English actress?

On 8 December 1660 something remarkable happened. That day, a woman, probably Anne Marshall (later Quin, or Guin), took to the stage of London&rsquos Vere Street Theatre to play Desdemona in a production of Othello: Marshall is the first recorded professional actress to take a Shakespearean role and she would go on to have a long, albeit patchy career in the London theatre. [9] Her performance has an air of backstreet mystery and, in a prologue written especially for it, Thomas Jordan excites his audience with a provocative backstage glimpse of the actress:

I saw the Lady drest
The Woman playes to day, mistake me not,
No Man in Gown, or Page in Petty-Coat
A Woman to my knowledge. [10]

Just as Shakespeare&rsquos Othello will demand &lsquoocular proof&rsquo about his wife&rsquos character and behaviour (3.3.360), the English Restoration theatre audience seem to need to have the presence of the woman on stage &lsquoproved&rsquo to them by the implicit revelation of her body to their gaze. As is clear from the frontispiece of Othello in Nicholas Rowe&rsquos 1709 edition, this voyeuristic impulse characterises much of Restoration theatre.

The first illustrated works of Shakespeare edited by Nicholas Rowe, 1709

In this frontispiece for Othello, Desdemona&rsquos exposed body reflects the presence of actresses on the English stage in 1709.

Boy actors and the &lsquoall-male stage&rsquo

As we know, and as Thomas Jordan&rsquos prologue makes very clear, prior to Marshall, women did not play Shakespearean roles. Instead, the practice of casting boy actors in female parts meant that the playful exploration of gender was written into these plays from the start. Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre used cosmetics and cross-dressing to exploit audiences&rsquo awareness that they were watching a boy playing a female character and to tease them with that knowledge. So, to return to Twelfth Night (1600&ndash01), its early audiences saw a boy actor playing the part of Viola, who then disguises herself as a boy called Cesario. Shakespeare&rsquos theatre layered gender roles to tantalise audiences, drawing on the virtuosic skill of the highly trained young men (aged between 12 and 21 years old) who played these complex female characters. [11] Not that the boy-as-woman was universally accepted: those opposed to the theatre feared that cross-dressing would corrupt its audience and destroy the distinction between the sexes. Much of this fear and much of the energy of Shakespeare&rsquos cross-dressed dramas depends on desire. In Twelfth Night, for instance, Viola/Cesario quickly falls in love with her new master, Orsino, and he himself seems to desire his new page, hinting at his pleasure in the layering of male and female as he describes Cesario:

they shall yet belie thy happy years,
That say thou art a man. Diana&rsquos lip
Is not more smooth and rubious thy small pipe
Is as the maiden&rsquos organ, shrill and sound,
And all is semblative a woman&rsquos part. ( 1.4.30&ndash34)

What&rsquos perhaps most striking here is that there is no attempt to hide the presence of the boy playing the female role in fact, attention is drawn to it because the &lsquowoman&rsquos part&rsquo refers both to the absent female body and the theatrical &lsquopart&rsquo of Viola that the boy performs. Such moments revel in the layering of gender identity and disguise.

Photograph of Michael Brown as Viola/Cesario and Rhys Meredith as Sebastian in Shakespeare's Globe production of Twelfth Night, 2002

Men playing women disguised as men: Michael Brown as Viola/Cesario (right), alongside Rhys Meredith as Sebastian.

Usage terms © Colin Willoughby / ArenaPal

Women and Shakespearean theatre: a new history

Pivotal as it was, Anne Marshall&rsquos star turn as Desdemona did not change English theatre overnight. For one thing, boy actors performed female roles well into the Restoration. In 1660 Pepys famously called Edward Kynaston, one of the last of these boys, &lsquothe loveliest lady that ever I saw in my life, only her voice not very good&rsquo. What&rsquos more, Marshall may have been a pioneer but, as she stepped out onto the Vere Street stage, she took her place in a long line of theatrical Englishwomen who, though absent from the early 17th-century playhouse stages, did in fact perform in a range of other venues and ways. Two extreme examples offer a glimpse into this alternative history of women and Shakespearean theatre.

The first theatrical woman is a notorious London underworld figure: the cross-dressing fence Mary Frith, aka Moll Cutpurse (c. 1584–1659). In late April or early May 1611, an astonishing spectacle unfolded at the Fortune playhouse. At a performance of Middleton and Dekker’s Roaring Girl, a sanitised version of Frith’s life, Moll Cutpurse herself watched from the side of the stage as a boy acted her part. Once the play was over, Frith took up a lute, played, sang and taunted the crowd that

many of them were of opinion that she was a man, but if any of them would come to her lodging they should finde that she is a woman. [12]

Close to the stage yet not truly on it, the cross-dressed Frith offers a glimpse into the ways costume and gender roles could be exploited both on and off stage.

The second theatrical woman emphatically takes centre stage. Queen Anna of Denmark (1574&ndash1619), wife of King James VI and I, commissioned and performed in the lavish theatricals of the Jacobean court masque. Luxurious one-off events that employed the court&rsquos full resources, the masque had elite performance at its heart and, in the first years of the 17th century, women were the masque&rsquos main performers. On the court stage, Anna and her women took silent, symbolic roles, creating meaning through the display and movement of their bodies. In fact, court masques often exposed the female body, giving the invited audience visible proof of the difference between the noblewomen and the cross-dressed boys who acted alongside them and took the speaking roles that the silent women were denied. This is at an extreme in Ben Jonson&rsquos The Masque of Queens, performed at court in 1609. In it, Anna and her ladies danced as exalted queens of history, banishing grotesque witches played by male performers in female dress.

Sexual orientation and gender identity

Although we can choose whether to act on our feelings, psychologists do not consider sexual orientation to be a conscious choice that can be voluntarily changed.

    This pamphlet is designed to provide accurate information for those who want to better understand sexual orientation and the impact of prejudice and discrimination on those who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. The brochure is also available in Russian and Spanish.
    Transgender is an umbrella term used to describe people whose gender identity (sense of themselves as male or female) or gender expression differs from socially constructed norms associated with their birth sex. This includes androgynous, bigendered, and gender queer people, who tend to see traditional concepts of gender as restrictive.
    The psychological and social aspects of committed relationships between same-sex partners resemble those of heterosexual partnerships, living in a state where same-sex marriage is outlawed can lead to chronic social stress and mental health problems, and same-sex couples are as fit and capable parents as heterosexual couples.
    Just the Facts provides information and resources for principals, educators, and school personnel who confront sensitive issues involving gay, lesbian, and bisexual students.

What the Torah Teaches Us About Gender Fluidity and Transgender Justice

For our Israelite ancestors, the most important festival of the year was Sukkot, and the most widely practiced ritual was the bringing of the first fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem. The Talmud recalls for us the pageantry, the colorful parades, the music and the feasting that lasted for eight straight days and nights. An entire tractate of Talmud, in fact, is devoted to the laws and rituals of bringing the First Fruits, detailing the ornamentation of the offerings, and how the gifts would be offered by the men and women.

During the course of this discussion, the text poses a question that many today might find quite stunning. While reviewing the differing obligations of men and women when it comes to offering the first fruits of Sukkot, the rabbis pondered the circumstances for those who fall outside the normative identities of male or female. Here’s how the discussion begins:

“An androgynous, who presents both male and female physical traits, is in some ways like men and in some ways like women. In some ways, they are like both men and women, and in other ways, like neither men nor women." (Bikkurim 4:1)

This source was originally part of a centuries-long Oral tradition, finally committed to writing in the 3 rd century. It is remarkable that a sacred text which is likely more than two thousand years old considers the circumstances of gender identity outside the assumed binary distinctions of male and female.

From the beginning of our Torah’s imaginings of the creation of humankind, gender diversity was part of the Divine plan. We read of the creation of humanity in the very first chapter of Genesis, that when God created the first human being, God said:

Let us make Adam in our image, after our likeness.

God created Adam in His image, in the image of God He created him male and female God created them (Genesis 1:26-27).

The sages explain the unusual language as meaning that God created the first human being as an androgynous person, containing both male and female characteristics simultaneously.

We understand the verse, “male and female God created them” as a merism, a figure of speech in which a totality is expressed by two contrasting parts. This verse was interpreted as such by Rabbi Margaret Wenig. For example, “old and young”, as the Prophet Joel foresees: “The old shall dream dreams, and the youth shall see visions.” That is to say: old, young, and everyone in between. Similarly, “near and far,” as in Isaiah’s call: “Greetings of peace to those near and far.” And those in between. So we learn that God created the human being as “male and female” -- and every combination in between.

In fact, and strikingly, our Jewish legal tradition identifies no fewer than six distinct “genders”, certainly assuming as normative the male and female, but including as well designations which we now refer to as “intersex” identities. To use the Hebrew terms: the androgynos, one who has both male and female characteristics, the tumtum, one whose biology is unclear, the aylonit, who identified as female at birth, but at puberty, develops male characteristics, and the saris, who appears as male at birth, but later takes on more typically female biology. I would suggest, based on the study of these legal texts that the Jewish understanding of gender is neither binary nor even a grid into which every person must be forced to fit. Rather, we see gender diversity as a spectrum, truly a rainbow of possibilities for reflecting the Image of God.

And what of the transgender, those people whose gender identity, expression, and behavior is different from those typically associated with their assigned sex at birth? In fact, Jewish traditional wisdom allowed for such possibilities, and especially our mystical texts, the Kabbalah, address the notion of transitioning from one gender to another. We have opinions that suggest that Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, was conceived with the soul of a man, but through Divine intercession, was transitioned into a woman. Likewise, the kabbalah teaches that Abraham’s son, Isaac, was ensouled as a woman, but born as a man for the purpose of carrying forward the family’s unique covenant with God. Our mystical traditions speak of gilgul ha-neshamot, the “cycling of souls”, essentially a form of reincarnation, through which it happens that the soul of a male will enter a female body and vice-versa, a circumstance which may be remedied as a transgender.

I recently participated in a documentary film that explored how religious communities of faith have treated gender non-conforming individuals, particularly the intersex, such as the androgynos described in our First Fruits text. The film’s personal narratives were primarily about Christian churches and communities, but some Jewish experiences are included as well. The testimonies of widespread rejection, dismissal, and even shame are heartbreaking. From my point of view, how tragic it is that anyone would walk into a community which carries God’s name and be made to feel that their humanity, their identity, their inner dignity have to be checked at the door. What we see in so many Jewish texts which recognize gender fluidity as part of the human condition is helping society to assure that no one is left out, left behind, or left over. The fact that these circumstances are addressed in our sacred texts is surprising to many. And I have to think that by looking into our sources, someone who identifies outside of the male/female categories might declare to those who would disregard, exclude or reject them, “See - I’m in there! They’re talking about me!”

Last year at this season, I urged my congregation to affirm our long-standing policies of being welcoming and affirming to all who seek to share in our community. I appreciate the efforts of so many volunteers that enabled us to be honored now as a partner congregation of the Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project. Part of that vision has been to make the efforts assuring the full equality, inclusion and acceptance of people of all gender identities and gender expressions – a goal we’ve been pursuing for many years. This is not always easy, and in fact, because we are talking about human beings, creating an inclusive congregation and community can be difficult and at times, complex. But because we’re dealing with human beings, the effort is nothing less than holy work, avodat kodesh.

Towards this vision and moral value, we have provided a gender-neutral restroom for nearly two decades, and it’s in the prominent location in the main hallway closest to the Sanctuary and offices. For many years, we have aimed to utilize gender-neutral theological language in our prayers and rituals.

We encourage members – especially our teens, to feel comfortable in non-conforming gender expressions, and call them by the names they themselves desire. And towards this goal, we’ve made some simple changes that send a powerful message. In the little box on the membership form that asks “Gender”, we’ve replaced the check-off boxes “Male and Female”, and now simply leave the space blank, for people to fill in however they choose. And as another example, we no longer assign to our Confirmands blue robes for boys and white robes for girls – the kids choose on their own, based on their own sense of expression.

Admittedly, we are still learning how to be fully welcoming and affirming. And that’s not always easy, because both the Hebrew language and Jewish culture, as I mentioned, are geared towards a binary – male and female – cultural norm. So for instance, on Friday nights, when we recite the blessing for our children, we include the traditional formula for boys – “May God make you as Ephraim and Manasseh”, and for girls, “May God make you as Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.” And then we now add: “And for all of our children” – specifically to include those who identify other than male and female. To all of our children, we ask God’s blessing: Y’varech’cha Adonai V’yishm’recha - “May God bless you and protect you.”

We’ve come to recognize that not all our students fit neatly into either of the options “Bar Mitzvah” or “Bat Mitzvah”, so taking a cue from another Jewish rite of passage, we have created for those who wish to use the gender-neutral term “Brit Mitzvah” – to celebrate the covenant of adult responsibility. And even the name by which one is called to the Torah can be adapted beyond the limited, binary choices of Bat, “daughter of” or Ben, “son of”. If preferable, we can use the gender inclusive formulation “mi-bet” from the house of, or the family of one’s parents.

My impetus for talking about matters of gender identity during Rosh HaShanah morning services is motivated by a ballot initiative here in Massachusetts this November. Proposition 3 has been introduced which directly affects the freedom and dignity of transgender persons. The goal of the proposition is to repeal a public accommodation law passed in 2016 that prohibits discrimination on account of gender identity, thus protecting transgender people from discrimination in public spaces such as businesses and hospitals. Voting “No” would say that the law is no longer the will of the people of the Commonwealth. That is why I stand as a supporter of the Freedom for All Massachusetts campaign urging a Yes vote on 3, in order to uphold the law protecting the dignity of everyone.

Opponents of the non-discrimination laws who have promoted this initiative justify their willingness to deny transgendered individuals their rights do so, I believe, on the basis of ignorance, and perhaps even fear. And it’s a lot of talk about bathrooms. They claim that sexual predators will take advantage of public accommodations laws in order to assault women and children in bathrooms. But in fact, anti-discrimination protections covering gender identity have been around for years, and there is no evidence they lead to attacks in public facilities. In fact, law enforcement agencies see no correlation whatsoever between public accommodation protections and an increase in bathroom assault. Far more common, civil rights groups say, are reports of transgender people being assaulted in bathrooms that don't match their gender identity.

Our neighbor state of Maine, which has had gender identity protections in its state civil rights law for more than 11 years, has not even a single reported incident. As one official remarked, "I know there is a lot of anxiety associated with this issue, but it seems to be based on fear rather than facts.”

Others may claim that being transgender is not a valid condition that transgender people are mentally ill and should not be afforded the same legal protections or healthcare guarantees as gay and lesbian Americans. But in fact, mainstream medical and psychiatric authorities agree that being transgender is not a concocted fantasy or mental illness. It's simply a valid state in which one's gender does not match what was assigned at birth. For many, simply being transgender does not cause dysfunction -- it's the social stigma and barriers to expressing one's identity that cause problems.

Our Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center is encouraging congregations to raise awareness about this opportunity to defend transgender equality in Massachusetts, so that our friends and families can continue to live without risk or fear in our public spaces. We are joining with other organizations to spread the word about voting Yes on 3, and to show up to vote come November. I believe that voting Yes on 3 is a public expression of a core, congregational principle, and fundamental value of the Jewish faith and tradition. It is part of our avodat kodesh, our holy work.

Thousands of years ago, at this season of the year, our ancestors gathered as one in Jerusalem, to offer their finest gifts, their first fruits as an expression of thanksgiving and joyful celebration. And they went to great lengths to assure that everyone would be included in their most important holy season. In our day as well, we recognize that every human being has his, her, and their own unique gifts to bring to the service of God and humanity. Let us continue to work towards the day when the dignity, safety, and respect for all is a hallmark of our community, Commonwealth and nation.

A History of “Gender”

S cholarly articles tend to have limited shelf lives , but twenty years on, Joan Scott's “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis” has no discernible date of expiration. A cursory Google search leads to dozens of syllabi that feature it as required reading, and the figures from JSTOR attest to its durable popularity. Of all the American Historical Review articles on JSTOR, Scott's has had by far the most traffic. Since JSTOR first began posting scholarly articles online in 1997, users have accessed “Gender” more than 38,000 times and printed more than 25,000 copies. For the past five years, it has consistently ranked in the top spot as the most frequently viewed and most frequently printed of JSTOR's AHR articles. 1

What elevates one article above the rest? What creates the reputation that makes an article required reading for more than twenty years? In part, it may be a matter of architecture. Scott built “Gender” with an artful use of argument. In one brief essay, she managed to summarize the advent of gender history, provide critiques of earlier theories of women's subordination, introduce historians to deconstructionist methods, and lay out an agenda for future historical studies. But as we all know, academic reputation rests on more than compellingly structured argument, even when the argument is displayed well in a top-tier scholarly journal. 2 For historians, the surest way to explain a text is to place it in historical context. Thus, a short history of “Gender” the article might help us assess its rise to prominence and its influence within the field of U.S. history. And an even shorter history of “gender” the concept might suggest the article's longer-lasting contribution to American social thought.

A s S cott noted, by 1986, feminists had already adopted the term “gender” to refer to the social construction of sex differences, and theorists had already posed “gender” as an analytic category, akin to class and race. A few historians had begun to use the term “gender history” in addition to “women's history,” and a handful had looked at men and masculinity as part of a gender history that did not focus solely on women. Scott intervened in this historiographic process at a critical moment. For some historians of women, the shift toward gender history was mostly unwelcome. To replace “women's history” with “gender history” and to include men and masculinity seemed to some at the time like a conservative retrenchment, a quest for respectability, or an abandonment of the study of marginalized and oppressed groups. Scott recognized the pitfalls and offered reassurance. She directly repudiated the use of “gender” as a de-politicized, social-scientized synonym for women or sex, and she promised to reinvigorate feminist history by expanding its realm of influence. In this way, she helped historians of women to approve (and other historians to discern) an emerging shift in historiography.

Scott outlined a problem faced by women's historians and proffered a solution. Two decades after the launching of the field, women's history was, she implied, stuck in a descriptive rut, relegated to the limited byways of social history inquiry. It had failed in its earlier claims to rewrite the master narrative of history, and it had not yet adequately explained the “persistent inequalities between women and men.” Existing theories, Scott said, were ahistorical and reductionist. She offered a different approach for rethinking and rewriting history. Influenced by Derrida's deconstructionism and Foucault's formulation of dispersed power, she asked historians to analyze the language of gender, to observe how perceived sex differences had appeared historically as a natural and fundamental opposition. These perceived differences, she wrote, had often subordinated and constrained women, yes, but they had also provided a “primary way of signifying” other hierarchical relationships. This was the heart of her contribution: she invited us to look at how “the so-called natural relationship between male and female” structured, naturalized, and legitimated relationships of power, say, between ruler and ruled or between empire and colony. The history of gender could, it seems, inhabit more of the historical turf than could the history of women. It could even enter and remap the most resistant domains, such as the history of war, politics, and foreign relations. 3

Although she promised to expand the realm of feminist influence, Scott could not deflect the critics from within her own fractious camp. Her embrace of poststructuralism and her consequent emphasis on the language of sex difference provoked a number of pointed rejoinders from prominent women's historians. Judith Bennett, for example, worried that “the Scottian study of gender ignore[d] women qua women,” avoided reckoning with “material reality,” and “intellectualize[d] and abstract[ed] the inequality of the sexes.” Likewise, Linda Gordon suspected that a “focus on gender as difference in itself” as “a kind of paradigm for all other divides” had replaced “gender as a system of domination” and thereby substituted a pluralist vision of “multiple differences” for the study of “power differentials.” Joan Hoff went further, even overboard. She accused poststructuralist gender historians, and Scott in particular, of nihilism, presentism, ahistoricism, obfuscation, elitism, obeisance to patriarchy, ethnocentrism, irrelevance, and possibly racism. Poststructuralism, she found, “erased woman as a category of analysis,” undermined the “traditional stage of historical fact-finding” for those groups of women whose history had not yet been written, and damaged political activism for women's rights. She titled her essay “Gender as a Postmodern Category of Paralysis.” 4

The critical commentary also came from historians who did not write women's history, especially those who questioned the linguistic turn. Critiques of Scott's work came from both the left and the right. Bryan Palmer, for example, decried her repudiation of historical materialism, and Gertrude Himmelfarb complained about the undermining of fact, reality, and objectivity. 5 In the United States, as others have suggested, “feminist historians” were “in the vanguard” of poststructuralist historical practice, especially in its manifestations outside of intellectual history, and Scott stood out at the front. In this sense, “Gender” came to represent something larger than itself. Scott served as the whipping girl not only for gender history but also for the challenges of poststructuralism, the revisionism of the latest new history, and the vogue—the “intellectual haute couture”—of imported French theory. 6 She may not have enjoyed the public flagellation, but it no doubt played a part in attracting readers to her essay.

D espite the misgivings of some historians , gender soon took on a life of its own. Within the field of U.S. history, much of the new work on gender had little direct connection with Scott's essay. Case studies of the intersections of race, class, and gender, for example, and accounts of how various groups of women and men participated differently in politics, labor, and consumption did not necessarily draw on Scott's Derridean, Foucauldian model. Some new histories of gender in public cited Jürgen Habermas and Nancy Fraser more often than they cited Derrida and Scott. 7 But Scott's article did have unquestionable influence, even among those authors who did not adopt the deconstructionist method wholesale. In the 1990s, it inspired a cohort of scholars who wrote gender history in a range of forms and fields. Within this cohort, a number of authors followed Scott's proposal to foreground the discursive use of perceived sex differences and track how they constituted relationships of power. In U.S. history, the case studies of “women's worlds” and “female cultures” that had proliferated in the 1980s dwindled as accounts rose of the ways in which the language of gender had shored up hierarchies of race, class, region, politics, nation, and empire.

A quick (and, forgive me, incomplete) survey of just a few subfields of U.S. history establishes the point. In southern history, Jacquelyn Dowd Hall endorsed the gender project early on. “The South,” she wrote in 1989, “provides a prime example of how gender signifies relations of power in hierarchical regimes.” Other historians took up the task. Stephanie McCurry found that proslavery ministers and politicians repeatedly drew analogies between “the subordination of women” and “that of slaves,” and thereby “endow[ed] slavery with the legitimacy of the family and especially marriage.” They used the language of gender “to naturalize other social relations—class and race, for example.” Laura Edwards reported similar analogies—between women and other “dependent” groups—in the Reconstruction-era writings of elite white southern men, who used the language of gender to legitimate their bid to monopolize political power. Historians also noted how the southern states themselves were coded as feminine within the United States. Nina Silber, for example, pointed to a postbellum northern language of gender that portrayed the South as a “submissive” wife and helped to enable the “romance” of sectional reunion. 8

In other areas, historians also attended to the ways that political theorists, government officials, and other writers used the language of sex difference to construct and sustain political and social hierarchies. In early American history, Mary Beth Norton described how seventeenth-century British male colonists established governments based on a gendered, hierarchical model of the family, and Kathleen Brown suggested that gender discourse shaped the emerging political order in Virginia from the first conflicts with the Indians through the course of Bacon's Rebellion. Jennifer Morgan illustrated how early European narratives of the New World “relied on gender,” especially on accounts of monstrous Indian and African women, “to convey an emergent notion of racialized difference,” and Toby Ditz delineated how eighteenth-century Philadelphia merchants stabilized their own fragile masculine status by feminizing and thereby stigmatizing their failed and dishonest colleagues as “weeping victims and harpies.” 9 At the other end of the chronological span, historians of twentieth-century U.S. politics examined how male politicians used the language of gender to create a hierarchy in which they stood above their male opponents. In the early twentieth century, they cast male reformers as feminine and therefore lacking, and in the late twentieth century, they attacked male liberals in somewhat similar form. Gail Bederman and Arnaldo Testi showed how Theodore Roosevelt shook off the gendered smear by combining his reform agenda with an imperialist, racist hypermasculinity, and Robert Dean and K. A. Cuordileone elucidated how John F. Kennedy attempted to repel the aspersion with an aggressive expression of liberalism. 10

Perhaps most surprising, gender history also made significant forays into the history of foreign policy, the field of U.S. history that had seemed most immune to the women's history enterprise. Scott had specifically called for such an intervention in 1990, Emily Rosenberg responded and made the case for the potential benefits of gender analysis. Gendered imagery, she said, pervaded accounts of international affairs, legitimating foreign relations of domination and dependence. Andrew Rotter pursued the lead and showed how mid-twentieth-century U.S. policymakers had imagined India as feminine and India's male leaders as passive, emotional, and lacking in virility. In this case, the “feminization” undermined the opportunity for alliance between the U.S. and India. In other cases, though, the “masculinization” of nations and their leaders damaged international relations, while “feminization” eased them. Frank Costigliola, for example, investigated the writings of Cold War architect George Kennan, who shifted from feminizing a beloved Russia in the 1930s to portraying Soviet leaders as “monstrously masculine” and rapacious in the post–World War II years. Petra Goedde traced the inverse shift with regard to Germany. During World War II, American soldiers vilified the Nazi leaders, whom they understood as brutally masculine, but after the war they “developed a feminized image” of Germans as a population in need of protection, and thus, Goedde claimed, “paved the way toward reconciliation.” 11

Historians also began to suggest that discourses of gender had promoted and sustained American military interventions. In Fighting for American Manhood, Kristin Hoganson explored “how gender politics provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine-American wars,” as the subtitle of her book stated plainly. As they advocated war, jingoes and imperialists expressed heightened concern with masculinity and looked to the military to build and prove American manhood. They posed the Spanish soon-to-be enemies as both distastefully feminine and repulsively masculine—“effeminate aristocrats” and “savage rapists”—and sometimes also feminized the Cubans and Filipinos as well as their own domestic opponents. Mary Renda outlined a somewhat different masculine discourse of “interventionist paternalism” that underwrote the American occupation of Haiti. The gendered language of fatherhood helped U.S. policymakers and marines to justify imperialist violence as a manly attempt to protect, educate, and discipline the allegedly childlike Haitians. And Robert Dean wrote of the threats to the “imperial masculinity” of the mid-twentieth-century U.S. foreign policy elite. Politicians and policymakers used the language of gender to defend their own manhood and diminish that of their rivals, and thereby engaged, Dean suggested, in a “politics of manhood” that “crucially shaped the tragedy of the Vietnam War.” Hoganson, Renda, and Dean (and the other authors mentioned above) did not confine their analyses to the deconstruction of binary oppositions, but they provided evidence of how the language of gender constructed and legitimated American imperialism and its violent manifestations. 12

Taken together, these various works point, as Scott predicted, to the multiplicity of meanings that gendered language conveyed. In different historical contexts, masculinity represented strength, protection, independence, camaraderie, discipline, rivalry, militarism, aggression, savagery, and brutality, and femininity represented weakness, fragility, helplessness, emotionality, passivity, domestication, nurturance, attractiveness, partnership, excess, and temptation. The so-called natural differences between the sexes had no fixed and unchangeable meaning, and in their variety they provided potential meaning for a range of other relationships. As other historians have protested, though, the ultimate impact of the language of gender remained hard to discern. 13 When (and how), as Scott asked, did the language of gender crucially structure experience and actually influence behavior and decision-making, and when did it simply add a convenient rhetorical flourish or embellish with a hollow cliché? When (and how), as Scott asked, did the language of gender constitute other relations of power, and when was it just a minor paragraph or a supplemental example within the narratives of social and political order? Even without all the answers, the growing number of studies of gender discourse pushed historians to recognize its pervasiveness, the diverse domains in which perceived sex differences appeared as model, analogy, and metaphor for hierarchical relationships, and the wide-ranging and changing meanings of masculinity and femininity in the modern era.

The studies also enhanced the reputation of Scott's essay and injected its message into traditional subfields of historical study. Almost all of the works cited above (and many other books and articles as well) mentioned “Gender,” in the footnotes if not in the text. Some of them quoted it directly. It became a validating authority behind the monographic works that moved gender to the center of specialized subfields in which it had earlier stood at the margins. 14 By the end of the 1990s, through a process of repetition, “Gender” had reshaped the commonplace wisdom of the discipline. As a measure of its success, Scott's essay increasingly served as a voice from the recent past stating eloquently what everybody, it seems, already knew.

Meanwhile, Scott herself moved in new directions. In 1999, she questioned the ongoing vitality of the term “gender.” In the 1980s, she wrote, gender had “seemed a useful category of analysis precisely because it had an unfamiliar, destabilizing effect.” Now, however, it had “lost its ability to startle and provoke.” In everyday usage, gender had become “a synonym for women, for the differences between the sexes, for sex.” The word “gender” had crept into women's history without necessarily transforming the field. It appeared often in “predictable studies of women, or .… of differences in the status, experience, and possibilities open to women and men.” Many accounts failed to “examine how the meanings of ‘women’ and ‘men’” were “discursively established” or to address the “variations of subjectively experienced ‘womanhood.’” They thereby imposed a false solidity on the unstable and variable categories of “women” and “men.” Scott now avoided the word “gender” and wrote instead about “differences between the sexes and about sex as a historically variable concept.” She turned more concertedly to psychoanalysis, to the fantasies that enable identities, including the “phantasmatic projections that mobilize individual desires into collective identifications.” In her 2005 book, Parité! Sexual Equality and the Crisis of French Universalism, and her 2007 book, The Politics of the Veil, she entered into current debates in French politics. She focused less on the language of sex difference and more on the language of universalism in contemporary France. In these books, she did not renounce the study of “gender,” but she positioned French gender relations within a discursive analysis of “the abstract individualism” that animates French republican traditions. 15

As one would expect, other historians also ventured into new territory. In U.S. women's—and now gender—history, they brought in race, sexuality, and nationality as equally useful categories of historical analysis, and they borrowed from postcolonial, critical race, queer, and political theory. Other forms of perceived difference seem to have constituted gender as much as gender constituted them. In particular, the call to address race had at least as much impact on U.S. women's history as the call to attend to gender. Historians of women and gender also turned to the policy history of welfare and wages, the legal history of marriage, and the social history of those who questioned and transgressed gender norms. Historians of women shifted away from the local community studies that had characterized social history and focused more on individual or collective biography, questions of law and citizenship, and transnational circulations of women and ideas about womanhood. They rewrote the history of women's movements with a closer eye to differences among women and conflicts among competing schools of feminists. At the same time, historians of manhood produced a series of studies of shifting conceptions, multiple variants, and repeated crises of masculinity. Gender history, then, continued (and continues) to thrive in several incarnations, and despite the fears of early (and later) critics, it coexists and overlaps with, instead of supplanting or displacing, the history of women. 16 Amid the profusion, Scott's article has taken on the emblematic role of a foundational text.

S cott's essay had its most obvious influence in the fields of women's and gender history, but it also played a significant part in the broader shift from social to cultural history, from the study of the demography, experiences, and social movements of oppressed and stigmatized groups to the study of representations, language, perception, and discourse. In U.S. history, the rise of gender history was similar to and roughly simultaneous with changes in other identity-based fields of history, including African American, Latino/a, Asian American, immigrant, gay and lesbian, and working-class history. Gender history and the historical construction of masculinity had their counterparts in the history of race and the construction of whiteness, the history of ethnicity and the construction of national identity, the history of sexuality and the construction of heterosexuality, and the history of class and the construction of middle-classness. To a certain extent, the same left-leaning political energies that had informed much of the new social history informed the new cultural history as well. The irony is that social history, the alleged source of centrifugal fragmentation, had spun out into a cultural history that seems to have gravitated back—in the histories of masculinity, whiteness, national identity, heterosexuality, and middle-classness—to return, with a new and critical torque, to the pre-social-history center of historical inquiry. 17 “Gender,” and Scott's other writings as well, provided a key piece of the theoretical grounding for this historiographic trend.

Like all historiographic moments, this one, too, will no doubt pass. And when it does, what will we remember? We might consider another context for understanding the significance of Scott's essay and its larger contribution beyond historiography. We have only begun to historicize “gender”—that is, to write the history of the concept of gender itself. Scott's essay belongs in that history it represents a turning point when U.S. feminist scholars pulled “gender” away from its scientific and social scientific origins, reworked its meaning, and suggested its broader social, cultural, and historical impact.

Scott dated the term “gender,” in its contemporary usage, to the 1970s feminist movement, but the word has a longer history, even as a reference to the non-biological components of sex. Before the 1950s, linguists used “gender,” as Scott acknowledged, to refer to a form of grammatical classification. The concept of socially constructed sex differences did not yet have a word to connote it. Nonetheless, theories of the social construction of sex differences emerged in tandem with theories of the social construction of other forms of group difference. From the early twentieth century on, social scientists engaged in a profound questioning of biological determinism and the categories on which it relied, not only with regard to sex but also with regard to race, ethnicity, national character, sexuality, criminality, and mental illness. By the mid-twentieth century, anthropologists and sociologists wrote of “sex roles” to refer to the culturally determined expected behavior of women and men and “sexual status” to acknowledge that different cultures accorded different social rankings to women and men. Psychologists used the phrases “psychological sex” and “sex-role identification” to point to a person's acquired sense of self as female or male. 18

In the mid- to late 1950s, John Money, Joan Hampson, and John Hampson, all then at Johns Hopkins University, introduced the term “gender” into this scientific literature. In a series of articles on intersexuality, they argued for the environmental determinants of “gender,” “gender role,” and “gender role and orientation,” just as others had earlier argued for the environmental determinants of “sex roles” and “psychological sex.” Children learned “gender” in early childhood, they argued, in the same way they learned a language. Biological sex, however it was defined, did not determine one's “gender role and orientation.” 19 Other scientists and social scientists picked up the new terminology. In 1962, psychoanalyst Robert Stoller and his colleagues at the University of California in Los Angeles opened the first Gender Identity Research Clinic (GIRC), and in 1968, Stoller published the book Sex and Gender, which seems to have been the first American book with the word “gender,” in its current non-linguistic form, in the title. For Stoller, gender referred to the particular balance of masculinity and femininity found in each person. It had “psychological or cultural rather than biological connotations.” Stoller was not a feminist. In fact, he worried about the erosion of gender roles and the developmental disturbance of “gender identity,” the new term he coined for “psychological sex.” He and his colleagues at the GIRC worked to instill masculinity in feminine boys and femininity in masculine girls. If gender was mostly socially constructed, then someone, they reasoned, had to repair it when it was improperly built. Stoller and his colleagues signed up for the job. 20

Influenced by the women's movement, American feminists appropriated the word “gender” in the 1970s and transformed its meaning. Like others before them, feminist social scientists used “gender” to reject the notion that the perceived sex differences in behavior, temperament, and intellect were simply natural or innate, but unlike their predecessors, they rejected functionalism and questioned whether gender and gender roles were necessary or good. If gender was artifice, then many 1970s feminists saw little reason to maintain it, especially when it played a part in subordinating women. But gender, in its multiple variations, was not so easily willed away. It was built into the structure and practice of families, education, labor markets, and government policies, and it had deep roots in the everyday behaviors and fantasies of individual women and men. Some academic feminists, especially in the humanities, turned away from the study of gender roles, gender systems, and gender segregation, and focused instead on the reconstruction and revaluation of femininities, women's writings, women's ethics, and women's worlds. 21

Others searched for theoretical approaches that could explicate how perceptions of sex difference operated in language, psyche, and symbolic order. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, some American feminist literary critics turned to French poststructuralist theory. They drew on the works of Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, and Jacques Derrida, and they translated the writings of Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigary, and Julia Kristeva. They expanded their purview from “the woman reader, women's culture, and the woman's text” to “the whole of literature and culture.” Cixous wrote: “Every theory of culture, every theory of society, the whole conglomeration of symbolic systems .… it is all ordered around hierarchical oppositions that come back to the man/woman opposition.” By the early 1980s, male literary critics recognized the feminist affinity to poststructuralism. In 1983, in Literary Theory, Terry Eagleton suggested that “the movement from structuralism to post-structuralism was in part a response” to the demands of the women's movement. In this rendition, feminism stood front and center on the poststructuralist stage. 22

In 1986, with the article “Gender,” Joan Scott helped to bridge the gap between the feminist social scientists who critiqued “gender” and “gender roles” and the feminist literary critics who deconstructed textual representations of sex difference. 23 She wrote in a moment, as she noted, “of great epistemological turmoil,” when social scientists were shifting “from scientific to literary paradigms,” and when feminists were finding “scholarly and political allies” among poststructuralists. For Scott, gender was “a constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes,” and also “a primary way of signifying relationships of power.” Scott's dual definition allowed her to bring together the social scientists who rejected biological determinism and questioned the allegedly natural differences on which it was based and the philosophers, psychoanalysts, and literary critics who suggested that the language of difference sustained Western social and political order. She was not alone in this kind of endeavor. A year earlier, for example, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (and others) had posited race as a “trope of ultimate, irreducible difference” that naturalized distinctions between “cultures, linguistic groups, or adherents of specific belief systems.” 24 Within the United States, the scholarly study of difference and inequality, once firmly grounded in social science, had migrated to the humanities and taken root in the study of language. It soon spread beyond the analysis of literature and into the reading of multifarious texts, including the kinds of texts that historians typically use as evidence.

This abbreviated genealogy of gender might help to place Scott's contribution in a broader context. For historians, Scott summarized explanations of gender inequality, captured an emerging historiographic trend, and imported theory to a discipline of committed empiricists. She promised both to expand the terrain of the new social and cultural history and to return to and revivify the traditional fields of historical study. In the 1980s and 1990s, her readers sustained her argument first by publicly debating its merits and then by applying its theory and its method of reading. Beyond the historical discipline, though, Scott's essay entered into decades-long conversations on the social and symbolic constructions of sex difference. She helped to move the American concept of gender beyond its scientific and social scientific origins and nudged the American adaptations of poststructuralism beyond their recognized place in literary criticism. She suggested how the language of sex difference had historically provided a means to articulate relationships of power. In this way, she tied gender back to other forms of difference and pushed us to ponder the metanarratives that mutually constituted various social and political hierarchies. And ponder we should. This may, in the end, prove to be the enduring legacy of “Gender.”

Joan W. Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” American Historical Review 91, no. 5 (December 1986): 1053–1075. Thanks to Robert B. Townsend, Assistant Director for Research and Publications of the American Historical Association, for supplying these figures, which were compiled on December 27, 2007. The exact figures are 38,093 viewings and 25,180 printings. The closest competitors (based on total viewings plus total printings) were Robert Finlay, “The Refashioning of Martin Guerre,” American Historical Review 93, no. 3 (June 1988): 553–571, with 21,558 viewings and 11,183 printings, and Melvyn P. Leffler, “The Cold War: What Do ‘We Now Know’?” American Historical Review 104, no. 2 (April 1999): 501–571, with 22,075 viewings and 9,495 printings.

For an attempt to theorize the sources of scholarly reputations, see, for example, Michèle Lamont, “How to Become a Dominant French Philosopher: The Case of Jacques Derrida,” American Journal of Sociology 93, no. 3 (1987): 584–622.

ML 4 – Dissecting Stereotypes: Disney’s Mulan

This paper dissects the film Mulan, created by Disney in 1998. The film is often seen as one of the less stereotypical Disney films, as it features a more independent female lead than its predecessors. This paper will analyze this theory using examples of the various stereotypes used in the film and how they may affect the audience. This essay discusses the historical inaccuracies of the film as well as the traditional roles of females in China and how they are portrayed in the film. The aim of the paper is not to disparage the film, but to point out the stereotypes that are present in even the most wholesome films.

Dissecting Stereotypes: Disney’s Mulan

Many Disney films have been criticized in the past for including stereotypical portrayals of issues like culture and gender, and while Mulan shows improvement from past Disney films, it still sends many stereotypical messages to the viewer. On one hand, the film makes great strides in the corporation’s portrayal of the typical Disney princess and sends a message of female empowerment, individuality, and independence to its audience. Mulan defies all odds laid against her, joins the army disguised as a man, and proves that her physical and mental abilities not only match the men’s, but usurp them in many cases. She saves the fate of her country using her cunning and courage, and gains the respect and admiration of society. While this message is an empowering one, there are many aspects of Mulan that contradict this message of equality.

The original legend of Mulan comes from a poem written during the Northern Wei dynasty, which spanned from 386 to 534 AD, although the poem’s exact date of origin remains unknown (Asia for Educators, 2009). A translation of the poem tells the tale of a young woman who pretends to be a man so that she can enlist in the army in the place of her father. Mulan goes on to gain recognition and respect from her fellow soldiers as well as the Khan, who the movie refers to as the Emperor. Mulan returns home after several years of fighting to be welcomed by her parents, her older sister, and her younger brother. Only when her soldier friends come to visit do they learn that Mulan is indeed a woman.

In the Disney adaptation, Mulan leaves for the army in order to fight in the place of her injured father, but also to find herself Disney’s Mulan experiences an identity crisis as she cannot fit into the role of the proper, feminine Chinese girl that society wishes her to be. She wishes to bring honor to her family, and as she cannot do that through the traditional roles of a Chinese female, she opts to take her father’s place in the army. Another difference from the poem lies in the outcome of Mulan’s war service. In the movie, Mulan is discovered to be a woman and is directly abandoned by her fellow soldiers, left shivering in the snow alone. In the poem, Mulan fights for many years alongside other soldiers and when they find out she is in fact a woman, they are “amazed and perplexed,” (Asia for Educators, 2009). The poem ends with a light commentary on this gender confusion, while the film ends with Mulan back home, accepted by all the men in her life: her father, her captain (and current suitor), and the Emperor.

One major stereotypical element of the movie is its physical portrayal of the invaders of China, the Huns. They are depicted as monstrous, with small yellow eyes. The leader of the Hun, Shan Yu, is the most grotesquely depicted of all his physical proportions are much larger and bulkier than any of the other characters in the movie, his black eyebrows point downwards to make a permanent evil scowl, his eyes are tiny yellow circles, his teeth point up at the corners like a vampire, and his deep, gravelly voice remind the viewer just how evil he is supposed to be. The Huns contrast the Chinese army strongly while the Chinese have healthy-looking tanned skin, the Huns are actually gray in color, making them look dead. The Chinese characters throughout the movie generally tie their hair up neatly, whether male or female, yet the Huns leave their hair disheveled and down, stressing their barbaric nature even further.

Not only is their physical nature striking, but the atmosphere of the scene changes when the Huns are shown. The sky is darker when they are shown there seems to be a darker filter over the lense of the camera. In some scenes, the sky is actually red when the Huns are shown and switch back to a blue, clear sky when showing the Chinese camps and lands. The music also instantly changes from cheery musical numbers to sinister, gloomy tunes when the Huns arrive.

Another aspect of the movie that aims to draw a divide between the warring peoples is the color of the horses. The Chinese military all ride clean, white horses, while the Huns ride stocky, dark, angry-looking horses. The Huns all wear dark colors, while the Chinese army wears white when they finally accomplish their physical training. The color contrast between the two cultures shows that the Chinese are depicted as the good guys, while the Huns are viewed as the bad guys, with their dark colored clothing, horses, and general appearance.

One thing to note about Disney’s depiction of the Huns and the setting of the film is that it is not entirely historically accurate. It is not certain who the Huns are comprised of exactly, as the real Huns did not invade this area of China. Also, the depiction of the leader of the Huns resembles the historical character Atilla the Hun, though this is not historically accurate. Some say they are the Xiongnu tribe, but there are conflicting factual elements of the movie that do not add up (Tunzelmann, 2010). This shows that, while creating an entertaining and inspiring film aimed at children, the messages in this Disney movie involve historical inaccuracies and misrepresentations of an entire culture of people.

Though Mulan may not be the typical leading Disney princess, the dimensions of Li Shang, the leading man, are greatly idealized pertaining to his physical looks. Li Shang sticks out as the only character to have this idealized form of the human body, with a very wide, sculpted chest leading down to a slimmer waist. He is tall and muscular, and the lines drawn to make up his body are perfectly straight. The other men vary from extra skinny, to short, to fat, none of them having the perfect male body that Li Shang has. This is also true for other Disney movies – the leading man is always tall, with broad shoulders, a slimmer waist, and there usually exists some reason to show off his chest. In this way, Disney portrays the ideal man as having this physical make-up. What this reinforces to the female youth is that this is what the perfect man looks like. What this does is reinforce to the male youth that this is what they should look like if they want to get the girl. Not only are girls affected by the images of the perfect female body, but men are becoming just as affected. According to Chris Godsey, the issue of living up to a standard is not only a female issue. He writes, “…my body image is increasingly affected (infected?) by a continuous, arbitrary onslaught of images and messages that dictate the rights and wrongs of physical appearance,” showing the effects of idealized versions of men that the public is bombarded with in the media (Godsey, 2009).

Another stereotype of the leading man occurs in the scene where Li Shang’s father is giving him the news that he will be taking over as the new captain of the army, charged with the job of training all of the new recruits. Shang becomes visibly touched, trying to form words of gratitude. When he realizes what he is doing, he quickly straightens, clears his throat, and toughens up, accepting his new duty like a man. In fact, Shang represents “the jock,” a common stereotype in the media. The jock is defined as someone who “must fight other men when necessary he must avoid being soft and he must be aggressive. By demonstrating his power and strength, the jock wins the approval of other men and the adoration of women,” (Media Awareness Network, 2010). What this does is portray the ideal man as someone who does not let his emotions or sensitivities show, but instead acts tough and ignores his emotions. This, in turn, teaches an audience of young impressionable males that this is the way they should act in order to be a real man.

The Emperor is also portrayed stereotypically. Throughout the film, he speaks using several metaphors, saying things like “he flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of all. ” and “single grain of rice can tip the scale,” (Coats, 1998). These kinds of sayings portray the Emperor as the standard wise, elderly Asian man. This stereotype can be seen in other movies, like The Karate Kid, where Mr. Miyagi (interestingly played by the same actor who does the voiceover for the Emperor in Mulan) plays the role of the wise, old Asian man perfectly. In fact, the elderly Asian community in general is commonly stereotyped as being wise, as is apparent in Mulan the elder ancestor spirit, the Emperor, and the grandmother are all portrayed as wise, using metaphors throughout the film. This is another form of racial generalization in the movie.

The movie also includes some stereotypes aimed at more trivial aspects of Asian culture. One example is that at the end of the film, Mushu the dragon yells out, “Call out for egg rolls!” (Coats, 1998). This is an obvious stereotype that Asian people love egg rolls, and equates this happy moment of celebration that Mulan has achieved honor for her family with the retrieval of egg rolls.

Another stereotype of Asian values can be seen when Mulan’s ancestors’ spirits rise and begin to bicker. In this scene, there is an Asian man who speaks about calculations and does math on an abacus. This reinforces the stereotype that Asians are good at math. Also, one of the female ancestors, amid all of the bickering, boasts that her family all went on to become acupuncturists, another Asian stereotype.

The musical scores of Mulan, while catchy and memorable, provide additional examples of stereotypes in the film. In one scene, Mulan visits the matchmaker so that she may find a husband, which will bring honor to her family. What this scene reinforces is the concept that the young Chinese woman in Mulan’s time could only bring honor to her family by getting married. To do so, Mulan needed to change her appearance, to apply make-up, wear jewelry, dress in fancy clothing, stand straight, and, according to the tune, resemble a “perfect porcelain doll,” (Coats, 1998). The limited role of the women is stressed in the song, which describes how the girls can “bring honor to us all…a man by bearing arms, a girl by bearing sons,” (Coats, 1998). It is stressed that the only way to bring honor to the family is by finding a husband. This portrays traditional Chinese values as focused on breeding calm, obedient, poised, silent girls whose sole aim is to marry a husband and bear children.

The scope of the role of the Chinese woman is stressed further later in the movie with the song “A Girl Worth Fighting For,” which describes what all of the soldiers are looking for in a woman. According to the song, she must be “paler than the moon,” she must “marvel at my strength,” and “it all depends on what she cooks like,” (Coats, 1998). When Mulan mentions brains and speaking her mind, the men respond with a “Nah!” (Coats, 1998). This further reinforces the stereotype of gender in Chinese culture. Women are not wanted for their intelligence they are instead viewed as ornamental and subservient to men.

Another aspect of the film that involves stereotypical elements is the way that women are looked down upon by the men in China. Repeatedly, Mulan is scolded by the men in society. For example, in one scene, Mulan saves the lives of her fellow soldiers. She is called a hero and gains the respect of the men. In the next scene, not one minute later, she is found out to be a woman and the men immediately look down upon her, disgusted, and abandon her half-clothed on the snowy ground. In another scene, where Mulan attempts to defend her father so that he does not have to go to war, the Emperor’s council snaps at her father (not even actually speaking to Mulan, a woman), saying he should teach his daughter to “hold her tongue in a man’s presence,” (Coats, 1998). During the song played where the men are training, Li Shang, the captain, asks, “Did they send me daughters when I asked for sons?” (Coats, 1998).

Even in the end of the movie, after Mulan has saved her country and reconciled with her family, she brings them satisfaction in the fact that she has brought a suitor (Li Shang) with her. Some critics of the film may view Mulan achieving acceptance from the men in her life (her father, the Emperor, and her suitor) as a contradiction of the film’s message of female empowerment. In the other sense, the viewer sees that Mulan has proven her self-worth and independence while retaining her cultural identity these things do not have to be mutually exclusive. The aim of the movie should not be to rise against every member of Chinese society in defiance of customs and traditions, but to prove that one can maintain their wishes and independence while balancing their own culture.

What is more, in order to save her country, Mulan uses her brain to help defeat the Hun leader. She places a strategic rocket at an angle to cause an avalanche, and she also devises a quicker way to break through the door in the palace while the men are attempting to break it down with physical strength. At the same time, she can fight as well as the other men. This portrayal of a woman, along with her wishes to bring honor to her own family, helps show a balanced idea of an idealized woman. She is not rejecting her culture, and she is not completely losing her identity in it either. Disney princesses like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty are examples of women who waited for a man to take them away from the problems of their lives, while Mulan took matters into her own hands and found something to be proud of when she looked into the mirror. In this way, the character of Mulan is more developed and empowered than many of the Disney heroines before her time. No film can be truly stereotype-free, as there always exists a representation of some sort of culture, community, or simply gender. Despite this, Mulan, and other Disney films alike, takes the easier, more entertaining way out and includes various stereotypes and inaccuracies. These may seem like light, laughing matters until one reflects upon what the impacts of such generalizations combined with mass production mean for the future generations.

Asia for Educators. (2009). The Ballad of Mulan (Ode of Mulan). Retrieved from

Coats, P. (Producer) & Cook, B. (Director). (1998). Mulan. [Motion picture]. United States: Walt Disney.

From transgender to transhuman: The expanding culture of death

Transgender advocates have a much bolder vision than just redefining gender, as is evidenced by the emerging transhuman movement that promises immortality. But how real are such promises?

(Image: PapaOsmosis/Pixabay)

Most faithful Catholics have viewed the burgeoning transgender industry as encouraging a misguided belief that individuals—including even pre-school children—can change their God-given identity. However, the truth is that this rejection of human nature and natural law has opened not only the door to gender construction, it has also opened an even darker door to an emerging multi-billion dollar transhuman industry. And that industry is led by some of the wealthiest and most brilliant tech trailblazers. It is an industry that promises us that not only can we choose our own gender, but we can also choose to live forever as transhuman persons—with full citizenship rights—in a new and “perfect” body that will be created for us.

One of those trailblazers is Martine Rothblatt—born Martin Rothblatt—who was identified in a 2014 cover story at New York magazine as “the highest paid female CEO in America.” The founder of Sirius satellite radio, Rothblatt chose to undergo radical sex-reassignment surgery in 1994. But that was only Rothblatt’s first step in his real dream of immortality. In the New York interview—which was held in the Bristol, Vermont home of Terasem, the Rothblatt organization devoted to achieving immortality and “cyber-consciousness” through cryogenics and Artificial Intelligence—we learn that Bina, Martine’s wife of more than three decades, is already well on her way to helping her achieve Rothblatt’s dream of immortality. In fact, Rothblatt is so devoted to his wife Bina that when he built his first immortal “mindclone,” it was of Bina.

All of this emerged from the realization that one could “change” one’s gender. In the Preface to the most recent edition of his book The Apartheid of Sex (now re-named From Transgender to Transhuman) Rothblatt reported that:

I came to realize that choosing one’s gender is merely an important subset of choosing one’s form. By form, I mean that which encloses our beingness … I came to this realization by understanding that 21 st century software made it technologically possible to separate our minds from our bodies. This can be accomplished by downloading enough of our neural connection contents and patterns into a sufficiently advanced computer and merging the resultant mindfile with sufficiently advanced software—call it ‘mindware.’

For Rothblatt—and a growing number of wealthy investors and visionaries—transhumanism is the belief that we can and should transcend human limitations. For Rothblatt, it is the natural progression from being transgendered where “one has to be willing to disregard societal rules that require gender appearance to conform to acceptable appearances for one of two legal sexes” to a rejection that one has to give in to a new “apartheid of form.” Rothblatt claims that he is “on the threshold of creating humanity and personhood outside of DNA-driven flesh bodies.”

As Rothblatt writes in From Transgender to Transhuman:

In a similar fashion I now see that it is also too constraining for there to be but two legal forms, human and non-human. There can be limitless variation of forms from full fleshed to purely software with bodies and mind being made up of all degrees of electronic circuitry between. To be transhuman one has to be willing to accept that they have a unique personal identity beyond flesh or software and that this unique personal identity cannot be happily expressed as either human or not. It requires a unique transhuman expression.

Warnings against the manipulation of nature

More than a decade ago, Pope Benedict XVI warned of the ramifications of such thinking when he denounced all attempts to “manipulate the nature of the human being.” He stated that such exploitation leads to a “self-emancipation of man from creation and the Creator.” Rejecting the post-modern conceptualization of gender as a moveable point along a spectrum that is fluid and changeable, Pope Francis has joined Pope Benedict in denouncing the claim that gender is socially constructed rather than God-given: “With this attitude man commits a new sin, that against God the Creator.” For Pope Francis, like Benedict, the “design of the Creator is written in nature.” This is further unpacked in Amoris Laetitia, where Pope Francis denounces “the various forms of an ideology of gender” that leads to the promotion of a belief in “a personal identity and emotional intimacy radically separated from the biological difference between male and female.” Further:

It is one thing to be understanding of human weakness and the complexities of life, and another to accept ideologies that attempt to sunder what are inseparable aspects of reality. Let us not fall into the sin of trying to replace the Creator. We are creatures, and not omnipotent. Creation is prior to us and must be received as a gift. At the same time, we are called to protect our humanity, and this means, in the first place, accepting it and respecting it as it was created. (par. 56)

That is the real problem for progressive visionaries the idea that anything is created by God and thus “written in nature” is repellent and ridiculous to them. Yet, it was not too long ago that most philosophers, sociologists, psychologists and anthropologists actually believed—like the classical Greek philosophers and the Catholic Church—that a good human life was the one in accord with nature. It was uncontroversial that human nature was the source of ways of thinking, feeling and acting that occur naturally — independently of the influence of culture. Human nature was traditionally viewed as a source of norms of conduct as well as a way of presenting obstacles or constraints on living contrary to one’s nature.

Today, aside from some evolutionary and developmental psychologists, the idea of a fixed nature is now taboo in academia—and beyond. Rothblatt scoffs at what he sees as such antiquated thinking. Rothblatt writes that “transhumans” are people who have hybridized themselves with computational technology as part of humanity’s effort to control its evolutionary destiny. Rothblatt credits inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil’s 2005 book The Singularity is Near with providing some of the inspiration for his work. But, the truth is that Rothblatt has been working toward the transhuman future for a long time.

Still, Kurzweil is important because he believes that human merging with rapidly advancing technology is the path of future evolution—producing a “civilization of enormous capability with transcosmic scope via self-replication and virtually unlimited intelligence.” Of this, Rothblatt writes: “Homo sapiens will become Persona creatus as it rides the journey of near infinite growth in computational knowledge that is the Singularity.” The future for Rothblatt and his wealthy investors is a future in which “people will copy ever greater portions of their mind onto software.” He goes on:

These software analogs will work, shop and communicate on behalf of their flesh masters. The more autonomous and life-like these software analogs are, the more useful they will be and hence market forces will make them increasingly human-like. At about this time some human masters will suffer bodily death but will claim that they are still alive in the guise of their software analogs. In essence, these transhumans will claim to have had a mind transplant to save their life not unlike the heart and kidney transplants that save so many lives.

Lawsuits will be inevitable over whether the transhuman or its flesh descendants control the property and whether the transhuman can get married and if so as which sex since the old body is gone. Rothblatt suggests:

Psychologists certified to determine whether someone adequately demonstrates, consciousness, rationality, empathy and other hallmark human traits could interview transhumans. Should two or more such psychologists agree as to the transhumanist’s humanity, the virtual person should either be permitted to continue the life of their biological original, or if newly created, be granted a birth certificate and citizenship.

These “visionaries” predict a time when transhumans will need to be documented and would qualify for citizenship. They maintain that transhumans will be given voting rights and the right to marry. Rothblatt claims that “everyone will look to the historical precedents of recognizing people as persons rather than colored persons, and people as people rather than as gendered people.”

Envy as a form of status anxiety

Those with strong faith in the God of creation likely view Rothblatt or Kurzweil’s frightening future as their prideful attempt to mimic God’s creation of the world and all living creatures. It is not a coincidence that Rothblatt named his daughter Jenesis—a variation of the name of the first book of the Bible—the book of creation. But I maintain that rather than the sin of pride, the transhuman advocates—much like the transgender advocates—are more likely suffering from the effects of the sin of envy. They envy those—including the God of creation—who have the power to create life and live forever on this earth. But faithful Christians know that such a quest for power like this is more demonic than divine.

Indeed, in my new book The Politics of Envy (Sophia Books, 2020) I maintain that much of the attraction to changing one’s gender emerges from mimetic envy—a desire to become someone one is not. In The Politics of Envy, I draw upon the central theory of “mimetic desire” first postulated in the 1960s by the French philosopher of social science, René Girard (1923-2015). A devout Catholic, Girard points out that human beings desire objects and experiences not for their intrinsic value but because they are desired by someone else. Envy is really a form of status anxiety that causes a contagion of “miming” the desires of others. We are seeing that miming in the frenzy of the growth of transgenderism and we will see that in the desires of those wishing to control our very essence as human persons.

It is difficult to predict how soon the transhumanist movement will take hold. The advocate-elites are wealthy, brilliant, and politically savvy. They know where to spend their money in order to promote public policy. No one would have predicted even a few years ago that the transgender industry would attain such success as it has with President Joe Biden. His first executive order was to expand rights and privileges to the transgender community—a community that comprises less than half of one percent of the population. But most did not realize just how much influential wealth from elites undergirds the transgender movement.

There is even more wealth beginning to flow into the transhuman movement because the potential for profit is so much greater in the marketplace for transhumans. Most would be surprised to learn the names of some of the biggest funders of this movement. For many—especially those without faith in the God of Creation—the promise of living forever is indeed something to envy. This is not just some strange theory of a fictional “brave new world”, but a bold and deeply problematic promise of immortality that appears to be growing in both popularity and influence.

(Editor’s note: For more on trangenderism and transhumanism, visit Jennifer Bilek’s blog, The 11th Hour.)

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Fiction Books About Gender Identity

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

One of the classics of queer literature, Virginia Woolf&rsquos Orlando stands singular amongst its peers as a novel centering on gender and identity. For Woolf, for whom gender was a constriction both in terms of her career and her romantic life, Orlando seems an exploration of a world in which the binary is infinitely more flexible, a future in which gender boundaries are broken. With a protagonist who changes sex mid-novel and explores relationships with partners of both genders, and even includes a singular they pronoun, Orlando is one of the most important novels we have about gender.

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

While this novel primarily focuses on lesbian relationships in Victorian London, many of its characters explore gender through drag. The main character, Nan, begins performing in drag with her lover, and eventually slides into a male persona outside of the theater as well. It is certainly a commentary on gender as performance and learned characteristics, as well as how felinity and masculinity operate in society.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

This is often a bit of a controversial novel, given that it isn&rsquot #ownvoices and has faced some criticism for the portrayal of its intersex main character, Cal. Middlesex also progresses into issues of immigration, culture, and family, but primarily explores Cal&rsquos discovery of their gender identity and their coming of age. Cal (or Callie) is raised as female but later assumes a male identity and presentation, and also has sexual encounters with multiple genders. Definitely a novel not to be missed, but perhaps read with a critical eye.

Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

Science Fiction has often been a bit of a haven for novels that explore gender, and Left Hand of Darkness reigns supreme among them. A futuristic world with ambisexual inhabitants provides a setting in which the culture surrounding gender is explored, and certainly illuminates the way those from more strictly gendered societies interact with an idealized gender-neutral culture. It also postulates what the world would be like without gender roles, a perfect example of sci-fi laced with social commentary.

Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg

Rosenberg&rsquos Confessions of the Fox is historical fiction with dueling narratives&mdashprimarily that of the famed London thief Jack Sheppard, whom the novel reimagines as AFAB, and underneath, the narrative of a modern-day professor, also trans, who is authenticating the found manuscript about Sheppard. The novel is not only about the trans experience, but a commentary on the historical erasure of trans folks and people of color.

Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg

This is definitely a classic novel that explores butch identity and the blurred lines between masculine and feminine. The novel&rsquos protagonist, Jess, is found dressing in her father&rsquos clothes and is sent to a psychiatric ward by her parents. Eventually she finds an affirming community of queers, drag queens, and other butches who help her learn how to navigate the world, and later begins to take testosterone and pass as male (and even later, stops this process and lives gender-neutral). Though there is trauma, Jess and her community fight for their rights and validity, all while navigating romance and relationships.

George by Alex Gino

George is probably one of the most important books about gender because not only does it center of the story of a child dealing with gender identity, but it is written for children as well, with the intention of helping them to understand gender presentation at a young age. The story&rsquos protagonist is AMAB and struggles with being seen as her true self, Melissa. This book was definitely a spark for a wave of books geared towards young readers, and helps young people struggling with gender to feel seen and valid.

Lizard Radio by Pat Schmatz

Using sci-fi themes, Lizard Radio explores gender fluidity and the constraints that society places on those who don&rsquot fit within the binary of male/female. Its main character, Kivali, feels like she has to hide and fit in, but feels increasingly unable to do so. However, Kivali exists in a society with oppressive expectations for its citizens, and the pressure to conform is immense. This is definitely a story for people who feel like exploring their true selves might be unsafe, and who wish for a more accepting world.

When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore

With McLemore&rsquos trademark lush and fantastical prose, this novel explores gender with magical realism and carefully researched cultural markers. One of the main characters, Sam, is trans, and struggles with the expectations that he will assume a feminine identity once he comes of age, after being raised as a boy as part of bacha posh, a Pakinstani & Afghan practice in which families without a son will raise the eldest daughter as masculine until they are of marrying age. It&rsquos a beautiful story about friendship and love, and most especially about how outsiders support each other and come together.

Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard

A novel about a young person fighting for validity and respect, Girl Mans Up centers on a butch lesbian protagonist. Pen has always presented more masculine but faces more criticism as she grows older, both from her parents and from peers. The novel explores gender expectations and performance, and the emotional toll these expectations can take on someone who doesn&rsquot fit in a specific box. It&rsquos a story about not compromising oneself, and about knowing who you are even when others want you to be otherwise.

Alex As Well by Alyssa Brugman

Another novel featuring an intersex protagonist, this story focuses on AMAB Alex, who decides to start presenting feminine, which presents logistical complications when she enrolls in a new school. This brings up issues many trans/gender-nonconforming youth face as they simply try to exist in society. The importance placed on gender markers when it comes to birth certificates, licenses, etc. becomes a fight for rights that others take for granted. It also deals with Alex&rsquos parents, who do not support her decision to present female, and the tension this brings into the family. This might be triggering for some, but ultimately important in the way it presents a protagonist who just wants to be accepted.

None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio

Homecoming queen Kristin discovers she has androgen insensitivity syndrome, an intersex condition, after a painful attempt at having sex. Of course, Krissy&rsquos social life changes significantly once her condition becomes known, something familiar to lots of queer/gender-nonconforming kids, but this allows her to make new friends and discover who she really is. It is a hopeful story that is an exploration of gender and the body, and the important distinction that sex and gender presentation are two very different concepts that don&rsquot always correlate the way society expects them to.

How Beautiful the Ordinary: Twelve Stories of Identity ed. Michael Cart

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Liu Yifei as Mulan. Disney

“Let’s get down to business!” orders the commander of the conscripted army in 1998’s Mulan, as he’s trying to whip his ragtag officers into shape. The line kicks off the excellent montage song “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” a number steeped in irony, because it’s the one thing that the commander can’t do to Mulan — a girl who’s disguised herself as a boy and run away from home to join the imperial forces.

That song, and all of its cheeky irony, doesn’t make it into Disney’s new live-action adaptation of the animated hit Mulan. Though it may be the most highly anticipated of all Disney’s recent remakes, spiritually, there’s little connective tissue between the 2020 version and its predecessor.

But then, there’s also little connective tissue within the new film. Instead, for all its screenplay’s threadbare talk about the importance of cultivating deep understanding, Mulan stays superficial and perfunctory. It gets down to business — and little else.

Mulan’s few bright spots can’t save it from clunky writing

To a degree, every one of Disney’s recent string of live-action adaptations of its animated classics has had to justify itself — its reason for existing. The many films Disney has tried to put new spins on have ranged from beloved ’90s films whose remakes failed to serve much purpose, like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, to older films, like Dumbo and The Jungle Book, which unquestionably benefited from applying more progressive contemporary lenses to their initially problematic tellings.

Mulan seems to fall outside of these two extremes. The 1998 animated film won high critical praise and legions of devoted fans. The plot of this version of Mulan is fairly simple: Mulan has been struggling to behave as a proper young lady when she learns her aging father has been drafted into the emperor’s army.

Disguising herself as a man, Mulan joins the regiment in her father’s place. There, she learns to fight, builds character, and makes friends with the guys. After her gender is inadvertently revealed and she faces disgrace, she chooses to fight as a girl, ultimately saving the emperor, winning honor, and becoming a hero. It’s all straightforward, but the presence of lots of fun side characters, a few strong musical numbers, and thrilling battle sequences, all gorgeously animated, make the original Mulan a standout in the Disney canon.

There’s plenty of potential for expansion and development in its narrative about the Chinese folk hero Hua Mulan, who rose to fame as a great warrior after risking her honor and her life to join the army in an era where no women were allowed. Hua Mulan is the stuff of legend, and like all legends, her character can stand the tests of revision and recalibration. The film also has some awkward cultural stereotyping to undo and as a story where the hero unquestionably defends the Chinese empire, the new film could also have done more to critique the geopolitics of the 1998 film through the lens of this era of protests and populism.

But the new Mulan doesn’t seem concerned with deeper characterization, deeper world-building, or even a deeper plot. Sure, it’s stylish, colorful, and decently acted, with entertaining action sequences — overall, though, the movie is a rote, flat, paint-by-numbers version of the story you already know.

With better development, these two could have been great villains. Disney

There is some new stuff added to Disney’s 2020 take on Mulan. In particular, where the first film’s villain was an invading, genocidal child-killer, Mulan’s primary antagonists are both new characters, Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and the fighting female sorcerer Xianniang (Li Gong), who each have their own reasons for standing against the emperor. Their backstories and individual motives could have made for a rich and complicated story arc, but instead, like every other potentially interesting thing in Mulan, they’re barely given more than a few lines of exposition — never enough depth or screen time to be made interesting.

At primary fault here is a weak and non-cohesive screenplay. Mulan credits four cisgender white people for the script, and I spent the entire film being mad at all of them. The script is clunky, humorless, and full of jarringly awkward exposition. Characters we love, in particular Eddie Murphy’s comical dragon Mushu, have been excised. Others who’ve been imported from the 1998 version get introduced without clear definitions, as though the writers hope the audience will simply insert pre-established characterizations from that other film into this one. That would be fine if this were a Mulan fanfic or direct sequel, but it’s incredibly frustrating to see in a standalone film more than 20 years removed from the animated feature.

Again and again, plot ideas are introduced but never delved into. Mulan apparently has extraordinary qi (the energy that powers all living things according to many Chinese spiritual practices), but we don’t know why hers is so much stronger than most people’s, or why she’s so inherently ashamed of it, since powerful qi is a highly desirable (and non-gendered) attribute in Chinese culture. A couple of nonsensical third-act plot points are tossed in for convenience and then hand-waved away.

At a few points, narration attempts to wedge in whole emotional arcs that would have been nice to have seen unfold onscreen. This voiceover thing happens most distressingly at the film’s emotional climax, which was so muddy, I wound up having to stop and rewind to see if I’d missed some major dramatic shift that led up to it. I hadn’t missed it — it just wasn’t there.

The weak writing makes Mulan’s gender issues a lot messier

The lack of emotional development especially shortchanges the movie’s main plot thread — Mulan battling, and ultimately coming to terms with, her gender. The new Mulan, I’m sorry to say, offers a much more binary reading of gender than its predecessor, which was frequently unsubtle in the way it coded Mulan’s refusal to accept her assigned gender, offering multiple readings of the character.

In the original film (as in the folklore), Mulan was able to pass successfully as a man until she was inadvertently unmasked in the new film, she isn’t fully able to pass. It’s implied that her love interest, the new character Honghui (Yoson An), knows her gender long before she decides to reveal herself. And that’s a key difference that the live-action film doesn’t come close to pulling off — making Mulan’s gender reveal make sense and feel satisfying.

To be clear, Mulan doesn’t need to work as a narrative story of trans or nonbinary identity to be successful. The original Mulan is a great film, whether you read it as a trans man coming to embrace his identity or as a cisgender girl finding empowerment to be herself.

But in this film, regardless of how you read Mulan’s gender, the story fails to present this giant conflict in a way that feels compelling. Mulan’s guilt over hiding her cis identity is what drives her big emotional shift — only we don’t really see or feel Mulan’s internal conflict, apart from a couple of repeated references to her failure to embody “truth.” What we see onscreen far more often than Mulan feeling guilty for deceiving everyone is Mulan being preoccupied with successfully passing as a man, a classic trans mentality that invites us to empathize with her as a potentially trans character.

Mulan’s sumptuous art design can’t save it. Disney

And because we see Mulan leaning so strongly toward presenting as transmasculine, the film’s conflation of “true” identity with the gender you’re assigned at birth, and Mulan’s ultimately abrupt embrace of her womanhood, feels a little like . transbaiting. If queerbaiting in the modern sense involves intentionally including overt queer subtext in a work in order to capitalize on a queer audience, only to later textually reject the possibility of queer relationships, then this version of Mulan feels a lot like that for trans identity, a tantalizing tease to trans viewers that ultimately reinforces a gender binary — like it wants to have its gender reveal party cake and eat it too.

I’m reluctant to place too much blame on the film’s director, Niki Caro, for this, especially when her most famous film, Whale Rider, deftly explores a girl’s emotional growth in very similar circumstances to Mulan, without ever shortchanging her female empowerment. I’m even less reluctant to blame Mulan’s actress Liu Yifei, who does her best to imbue personality into a lifeless and humorless script. But the script problems seem to dictate how flat the movie feels as a whole, and neither director nor star succeeded in rejuvenating the words on the page.

It’s still nice seeing Mulan as a live-action story it’s a relief that the original film’s stereotypical jokes, language, and characterizations have been excised, and there’s enough entertainment happening onscreen that most viewers will feel like they’ve, you know, watched a movie. As you’d expect from a Disney film, the art direction and scenic design are especially well done. Caro’s direction is strong at various points throughout the film, particularly during the action sequences, which are often clever despite some awkward editing. The cast boasts a litany of Asian all-stars, from martial arts legends Donnie Yen (Mulan’s commander) and Jet Li (the emperor) to Li Gong’s fascinating antihero.

But the film doesn’t really do anything with them. The original film, with all its moving parts, still managed to nudge multiple characters along paths that felt like growth. Without more attention paid to character development, in this film, character decisions largely just seem to happen out of nowhere. And it’s not like the film gives us anything else interesting in exchange for all the things it’s left out.

The new Mulan is about 20 minutes longer than the original film, yet I honestly couldn’t tell you what the new film spent most of its time on, given how fully it dropped so much of the original film. There’s none of the animated movie’s well-drawn characterization, comic relief, or fun singing and dancing, which was often juxtaposed against its sobering commentary on the horrors of war. In live action, Mulan is just bland, dry storytelling, perfunctory and joyless.

Like many viewers, I’d wanted great things from this film. Indeed, many hoped Mulan would be the crown jewel of Disney’s recent remake project. This film falls far short of that — and that’s not even considering its controversially high $30 streaming ticket price. Most viewers will be watching the new Mulan on Disney+ alongside the 1998 version. With the original Mulan right there, this kicker is just too easy: Accept no substitutes.

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Contributor Information

Kristina M. Zosuls, School of Social and Family Dynamics, Program in Family and Human Development, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, USA. School of Social and Family Dynamics, Arizona State University, P.O. Box 873701, Tempe, AZ 85287-3701, USA.

Cindy Faith Miller, School of Social and Family Dynamics, Program in Family and Human Development, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, USA.

Diane N. Ruble, Department of Psychology, New York University, New York, NY, USA.

Carol Lynn Martin, School of Social and Family Dynamics, Program in Family and Human Development, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, USA.

Richard A. Fabes, School of Social and Family Dynamics, Program in Family and Human Development, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, USA.

Watch the video: Disneys Mulan, Reflection, and Trans Identity. Dreamsounds (January 2022).