Did Mike Pence Use ‘Mulan’ to ‘Prove’ Women Should Not Be in the Military?

Hours before Disney released the first trailer for a live-action adaptation of the film Mulan, social media users marked the occasion by recalling United States Vice President Mike Pence’s attack on the movie during his days as a member of the media.

As Buzzfeed reported in July 2016, Pence was a radio talk show host in Indiana when he wrote an op-ed in 1999 slamming the animated movie and using it as “proof” that allowing women to enlist in the U.S. armed forces was wrong. In doing so, he seemingly also made light of a sexual assault investigation the year before at Aberdeen Proving Ground, a United States Army base in Maryland:

When Indiana Congressman Steve Buyer was appointed to investigate the Aberdeen mess, he shocked the public with the revelation that young, nubile, 18 year old men and women were actually being HOUSED together during basic training. Whatever bone head came up with this idea should be run out of this man’s Army before sundown. Housing, in close quarters, young men and women (in some cases married to non-military personnel) at the height of their physical and sexual potential is the height of stupidity.

Pence’s flippant remark regarding “young, nubile” service members made no mention of the fact that twelves drill instructors at Aberdeen had been charged following the investigation, with ended with four of them imprisoned — including Sgt. Delmar Simpson, who was sentenced to 25 years in a military prison after being convicted of 18 counts of rape and 29 other offenses.

“Before all of this, sexual harassment was never an issue, and now they stress it a lot,” Pfc. Lorre Hendricks told the Washington Post in 1997 regarding the ripple effects of the scandal. “It’s made the Army safer.”

Pence also mistakenly called the original Mulan a “fictional account of a delicate girl.” In reality, the movie is an adaptation of “The Ballad of Hua Mulan,” an epic poem about the legendary figure Hua Mulan, who reputedly not only joined the Chinese army after posing as a man, but who served for twelve years before finally revealing herself to her comrades. According to the state-run China Internet Information Center:

It is not known whether Mulan was a real or fictional character. Scholars have deliberated her existence for centuries, but no one has been able to determine if she actually lived. The earliest accounts of the legend state that she lived during the Northern Wei dynasty (386–534); later accounts place her in different time periods.

Nonetheless, her story has become a parable, as it sets forth many honored aspects of Chinese culture, such as filial piety (devotion to one’s elders), bravery and modesty (shown through Mulan’s character, when she declines rewards from the emperor in favor of returning home to her family).

In his op-ed, Pence said he suspected whether “some mischievous liberal at Disney” hoped the original movie would change attitudes regarding womens’ military service. However, he argued, the movie’s subplot about Mulan falling for her superior officer only proved his point.

“You see, now stay with me on this, many young men find many young women to be attractive sexually. Many young women find many young men to be attractive sexually,” he wrote. “Put them together, in close quarters, for long periods of time, and things will get interesting. Just like they eventually did for young Mulan. Moral of story: women in military, bad idea.”

The rediscovery of Pence’s frankly sexist op-ed produced not only a spate of articles covering his remarks but a response published in the Washington Post in August 2016 by Kate Germano, who retired from the United States Marine Corps that year as a lieutenant colonel.

“Pence’s op-ed reminds us of how radical it once was to think women could fight alongside men,” she wrote. “Indeed, in 1999, the idea that women would ever be fully capable of competing with men for ground combat jobs would have been considered nothing short of ridiculous.”

But in 2016, Germano pointed out, three women graduated from the U.S. Army Ranger school; two more women — Brig. Gens. Diana Holland and Cindy Jebb — were selected as the commandant of cadets and dean of the academic board, respectively, at the U.S. Military Academy; and two 2nd Lts. in the Marine Corps, Virginia Brodie and Katherine Boy, graduated in high standing from the Basic Officer Leader Artillery Course.

“As the military has evolved to develop an appreciation for the potential of women to serve in the most challenging of positions, it is also time for the American public to see these women for what they bring to the fight: brains, strength and courage,” Germano wrote. “They are not victims and they are not to be sheltered from the grim realities of war because of the myth of female frailty. Their service matters.”

At the time of her op-ed’s publication, Germano was the chief operating officer of the advocacy group the Service Women’s Action Network. In 2018 she released Fight Like A Girl, a first-person account of her own experiences in the corps.