Freud divided the mind into three parts: the id (the instincts), the ego (which reins in the instincts) and the superego (which oversees the other two). The superego is, notoriously, authoritarian. Freud calls it the representative of established morality and compares it to a garrison in a conquered town. It is the ‘cruel and sadistic ethical agency which bombards us with impossible demands and then gleefully observes our failure to meet them’ (Zizek).
However, in his book Unforbidden Pleasures, Adam Phillips argues that the superego is, sort of, ridiculous:
What does the Freudian superego look like if you take away its endemic cruelty, its unrelenting sadism? It looks like Sancho Panza. And like Sancho Panza, the absurd and obscene superego is a character we must not take too seriously
In acknowledgement of Freud’s love for Cervantes, Phillips likens the superego to Don Quixote’s sidekick, but there are plenty of other examples; including Mulan’s sidekick, Mushu.
Mushu makes such a great superego because he is literally a totem representative of Mulan’s ancestors. He is hyper-critical and self-righteous, and presents himself as a big scary dragon. But ultimately, he’s a nuisance (albeit a funny one) whom we must not take too seriously.
If we consider the story, it makes sense that Mulan would need to see her superego for what it is. She has just disobeyed her family, run away from home and is about to impersonate a male soldier (violating various taboos in the process). In fact, right before she meets Mushu, she is plagued with doubt: ‘Who am I fooling? It’s going to take a miracle to get me into the army.’
(Mushu as an absurd superego also works in relation to the trio of Mulan, Mushu and Mulan’s horse Khan, as Freud famously conceptualised the relationship between the ego and id as that of a rider and a horse.)
Phillip’s point in diminishing the superego is not that we don’t need morality, but that the superego prevents us from developing a ‘more complex and subtle’ sense of right and wrong:
[The superego] is the part of our mind that makes us lose our minds; the moralist that prevents us from evolving a personal, more complex and subtle morality; that prevents us from finding, by experiment, what may be the limits of our being