the lion king

21 03 2007

Roger Allers / Rob minkoff (dir.)  1994

So just how does The Lion King perpetuate an insidious right-wing ideal of patriarchal hegemony (a society ruled by men and based on cultural values that keep it that way)? While Clare was working on her dissertation, an analysis of femininity in Disney films, I watched The Lion King for the first time, and I’ll tell you right now, I saw straight through that ‘circle of life’ rubbish.

I first posted this argument on the IMDb message board (but it’s gone now) and got a bit of stick from some quarters (“It’s just a kid’s movie, dude!”) but to me that’s exactly why we should think about them, analyse them, and tear apart the subconscious meanings that they contain. It could be shaping your kids’ whole worldview!

That said, this is a pretty extreme reading of Disney films, and there is an element of tongue-in-cheekness about some of the points. So don’t take it too seriously (and remember I’m discussing negative stereotypes, not endorsing them). But think about this: how many Disney films are about a young character who hates their life, but discovers that things go bad when they fall in with the wrong crowd, and therefore finds a happy ending by returning to and embracing the very life that made them so unhappy in the first place? In fact how many children’s films in general are about that one thing: your parents are right all along.

Princes and prides

The Lion King tells the story of Simba, a young lion prince on the African veldt. When his father, Mufasa, is killed through the machinations of his villainous uncle Scar, Simba enters a self-imposed exile from the lush pridelands where he lives. He later returns to the now-blighted pridelands, where he defeats Scar and belatedly fulfils his monarchical destiny, becoming the new lion king.

Dealing as do so many Disney films with kings, queens and royal offspring, The Lion King reinforces the same patriarchal hegemony. As with Aladdin’s Princess Jasmine, Simba yearns for freedom from predetermined monarchical destiny and enjoys a brief transgressive period, before not only assuming monarchical mantle but realising that that was what he actually wanted all along. Unlike Aladdin, The Lion King deals explicitly with the transfer of masculine power, positing the birth of a male royal heir as a guarantee of future security and good times for all who inhabit the pridelands.

The second act of the film even posits a dire warning of the perils for society of the absence of strong male governance. During Simba’s self-imposed exile, the bountiful pridelands are blighted under the rule of the craven, cowardly Scar and his equally ineffectual – unless in sufficient numbers – hyena cohorts.

By allowing the essentially weak Scar/hyena faction to subjugate the proud and resourceful female lions, the film even seems to be suggesting that weak male government has more will to power than strong female government. It seems odd that a society portrayed as so civilised would capitulate completely to invasion, famine, treacherous governance and total ruin, rather than simply accept a female leader.

Complacency rules

Perhaps though this section of the film is also a warning of the need for society to avoid complacency. This fully integrated, harmonious Pridelands society has it so good that there is a collective failure to recognise and respond to enemies within and without. This leads to the promotion of certain right-wing ideology in The Lion King, which can be demonstrated through a racial as well as gender/sexuality-based reading of the film.

The circle of life

It is reasonable to assume, given the production origins and intended audience of The Lion King, as well as the Americanised characterisations, accents and modes of expression, that the African veldt connotes the United States of America. The lions, at the top, are the white males. Their grip on authority is secured by hegemonic forces. They are perceived as the strongest, the noblest, the wisest.

The other animals accept this and revere the lions. The presence of the lions guarantees their prosperity and safety against outside forces. The only price for this arrangement is that some of them occasionally get killed and eaten. But even this is neatly, hegemonically rationalised by the pridelands own religion: the ‘circle of life’.

This concept, that each and every animal has a necessary function as a point in the food chain, justifies the rule of the stronger/larger/faster animals over the weak/smaller/slower animals. Even more insidious, it gives the weaker (in comparison to their predators) animals a sense of duty in their very weakness, discouraging a desire to question or rebel against their lot.

Melting pot on the veldt

The ruling lions display a great deal of pride in the harmonious integration of all animals within prideland society. This represents the ‘melting-pot’ myth of American national identity, in which immigrants from all across the globe came to the USA and prospered, making a place for themselves and making the nation great. But only, as in the pridelands, if they did what the ruling patriarchs told them: the lions/white males, for whom might makes right.

There are elements of the veldt society that remain unintegrated: the hyenas. They live in wasted, dangerous ground outside the lush bountiful pridelands. If the pridelands are the suburbs and the towns of white middle America, the hyenas’ home is the ghetto.

Ghetto hyena, that is what you are

The rebellious young lions are drawn to the mystery and danger of the hyena’s land, just as young white people are drawn to the perceived mystery and authenticity of black culture. Many mods were attracted to soul, many punks listened to reggae and dub, and modern white western youth loves hip-hop and ‘urban’ (ie black) music. The Lion King warns of the ‘danger’ to white youth of getting involved with black culture, presenting a stereotype of animalistic, craven, black antagonists that would turn on white youth and destroy the joys of white civilisation if given the chance.

The hyenas are voiced by a black woman (Whoopi Goldberg), and a Mexican (Cheech Marin). In the film’s defence, some would point out that the Lion King himself, epitome of wisdom, strength, pride and nobility, is voiced by a black actor (James Earl Jones.) However, Jones represents the fully-assimilated black man, unquestioning of white patriarchy because his place and prosperity is guaranteed in it.

Also, he is signified as being just as golden-haired and Aryan as the other lions. Perhaps his character is simply the reverse of the dreaded African-American insult ‘Oreo’, applied to a black person perceived to be acting “too white” – they are black on the outside but white in the middle. Either way, ‘white’ can be considered here to stand for patriarchal, heterosexual, hegemonous, and the superficialities of appearance are irrelevant if the person/lion is ‘white’ where it counts: in their beliefs, actions and perpetuation of hegemony.

Veldt-er skelter

The pridelands-set part of the second act of The Lion King presents the ‘inevitable’ consequences of allowing black culture to overrun white society. The animalistic, cowardly hyenas consume but do not produce. They have no place in the circle of life.

The film suggests that they are able to invade and blight the pridelands through an alliance with the villainous Scar. If the hyenas are the enemy without, Scar is the enemy within, thus promoting the erroneous extreme right-wing viewpoint that all deviant groups could potentially unite to infect or destroy ‘civilised society’.

Scar-ed for life

Scar is presented as cowardly and manipulative. He does not take the active role in his monarchical challenge, by confronting his brother; rather he subtly directs the actions of others, setting in motion carefully-planned chains of events to achieve his goals.

He exhibits all the characteristics of the monstrous-feminine archetype of the wicked stepmother: rejected from the love of the father, he manipulates his replacement in order to reclaim his place. In this case the love of the father represents the position of power.

Yet Scar, like Disney’s other wicked stepmothers trapped in men’s bodies, Gaston and Jafar, is signified as male. Once again masculine signifiers disguise the presence of the monstrous-feminine.

In Scar’s case, the tension between masculine signifiers and monstrous-feminine characteristics add an extra dimension when considered in the context of a right-wing ideology within The Lion King. Scar is lazy, decadent and flamboyant: all the negative aspects of the insidious homosexual stereotype.

Jeremy Irons’ sinuous, theatrical vocal performance, coupled with his louche movements and camp gestures, makes an extreme contrast with his ‘brother’ James Earl Jones’ exaggeratedly deep voice and upright, proud stance, pointing to a deliberate effort to demarcate straight and gay within the context of the film.

Are they or aren’t they?

Much internet debate has occurred over the question of whether Timon and Pumba are gay (Timon is voiced by Nathan lane, who is gay). Once again, it is necessary to disregard the superficial signifiers of their outward appearance and consider their behaviour and place within the patriarchal, hegemonic society of the pridelands.

If Scar is the predatory homosexual, Timon and Pumba are non-threatening homosexuals, just as Mufasa could be seen as an assimilated, and therefore non-threatening black character. Their role in The Lion King is of comic relief and musical light-heartedness, the traditional role of the camp but desexualised gay character.

“What do you want me to do, dress in drag and do the hula?”

Timon and Pumba are expelled from society due to an unspoken act: the sexual act? They exist on society’s margins, where they are perfectly happy, tolerated as entertainers for their camp playfulness but with any ‘deviant tendencies’ kept out of sight and without full access to society. Like the hyenas they are kept at a distance, so that their culture or practises cannot ‘infect’ the pride of white youth, yet unlike the hyenas they are allowed partial access to society, on conditions.

Simba is allowed to join in the singing and playfulness because his own heterosexuality has already been firmly established by his relationship with a female lion, Nala. His sexual horizons are not broadened because this period is seen as an interlude in his relationship with Nala. There is no question that his sojourn in society’s margins will alter him or ‘infect’ him with any other sexual preferences. He could be seen as ‘sewing his oats’, perhaps as a metaphor for a college or traveling experience.

“I’m free”

In this way this section of the film is suggesting a socially endorsed model of youth rebellion. It is OK for Simba, representing white youth, to hang out with Timon and Pumba, representing non-threatening homosexuals, as long as he does not compromise his own sexuality. This uneasy acceptance of the need for youthful expression and partial repudiation of parental culture is the lesser of two evils when contrasted with the dire consequences of getting involved with black culture.

The section of the film in which Simba is raise by Timon and Pumba is however sympathetic to the idea of a non-traditional family unit. Simba is raised by ‘two fathers’. But it is seen as inevitable that he will return to his ‘rightful’ place within the heterosexual, traditional family into which he was born.

Fear of difference

The Lion King therefore seems to be perpetuating the right-wing concept that all ‘deviant’ groups, regardless of the fact that they have few aims and objectives in common, may decide to unite over the one thing they do have in common: that they are not welcome within white patriarchy. This is to repeat the arrogant but pervasive assumption that such groups actually want to be part of white patriarchy.

By presenting such ideology to children, however subconsciously and garnished with nice songs, The Lion King perpetuates patriarchal hegemony and the fear of difference that is so crucial to patriarchal hegemonic strategies.

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One response

6 12 2009
anonymous

Wonderful essay- I think you make great, valid points. Your sociological viewpoint clearly looks at the assumed stereotypes/archetypes commonly used in films- be it on purpose or subconsciously- and how they can perpetrate negative ideologies in our community.

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