What Disney's 'The Lion King' Teaches Children About Racism

Updated on January 20, 2020
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Ash has a bachelor's in English Lit. She loves analyzing fiction and obsessing over books, film, and television.

Yes, this is one of those articles. An article where some dork on the internet rants about the "problematic" elements in a children's film that no one with a proper life would really care about anymore.

As someone who grew up during Disney's "Golden Age," I loved The Lion King as a child. The songs were fun, the characters were funny. It was full of action and adventure. And the animation was really beautiful.

Thankfully, I was too young at the time to recognize the straight-up racism and homophobia that was going on in the film. Now that I'm older and know about this stuff, most children's films are ruined for me.

Might as well ruin them for everyone else.

The Lions Are Privileged

The lions of the Pridelands live on a beautiful rock high above the other animals, whom they happen to eat and yet expect to worship them every time another infernal royal predator is born.

Why should the herds celebrate more lions coming to eat them? And why should they care? Also, why are they expected to stand in the wind and rain and grovel in the grass while the lions alone have shelter? Are they inferior because they are herbivores?

This blatant racism is explained away by Hypocrite Mufasa with the Circle of Life, a concept that creates false equivalences by saying the herds actually eat the lions too. Because the lions become grass, and you know, grass is totally aware and in pain when the herds are eating it . . .

Nope, I'm not a vegetarian and I don't hug trees. I just don't lie and pretend like my food and I are doing equal harm to each other. I love hamburgers, and I'm pretty sure the cows they are made from would laugh at the concept of the Circle of Life if only they could make a sound besides "Moo."

As it is, there is nothing "equal" about what's going on in the Pridelands. The herds are food and are allowed to exist in the Pridelands so long as they are useful to the lions.

Meanwhile, other predators such as cheetahs must defer to the lions, living homeless in trees and never posing themselves as serious competition for resources. Otherwise, they will end up like the hyenas.

The Hyenas Are Marginalized

In exchange for allowing the lions to hunt and eat them, the Prideland herds are protected from the extremely villainized hyenas. (I'm guessing the herds have to pay one antelope a day in protection fees or something.)

The hyenas, who apparently refused to live under the lions' strict class system, are banished to the Elephant Graveyard, which is little more than a makeshift ghetto.

There, they suck on bones and scraps and are reduced to probably eating each other to get by. Is it any wonder they eventually rebelled?

The lions cite the excuse that the hyenas would overrun everything and eat all the herds, so the herds are really just choosing the lesser evil by accepting lion tyranny.

I mean, it's not like the hyenas eventually took over and ate everything because the lions were starving them and treating them like crap . . .

"The only thing worse than rebellion is the thing that causes rebellion."

-- Frederick Douglas

What's more, if the hyenas were such a menace, why haven't they overrun Pride Rock on their own long before? Where is the evidence that they are a danger aside from being Not Lions? Did Mufasa simply absorb some racist garbage his father taught him and then never questioned it?

Meanwhile, Scar, whose strength is his mind, was able to make friends with the hyenas quite easily -- even though he was a prince from the same royal line that was oppressing them!

The hyenas have been banished by Mufasa and his entire family on the irrational premise of "What If?" which is pretty much prejudice.

Though hyenas are pretty intelligent in real life, for the purposes of the film, they are presented as intellectually inferior doofs who need a Superior Master Race Lion to lead them.

Feminine People Are Apparently Evil Nazis

Scar, Mufasa's Obviously Not Straight brother, decides to take advantage of the hyenas' desperation in order to take over Pride Rock.

Though he lives a relatively carefree life of privilege (he doesn't even have to hunt!), Scar has decided it just isn't enough. He needs to assert himself by stealing a figurative crown from his jerk brother, then doing pretty much the same thing he was doing before.

What was the real benefit in taking Pride Rock for Scar? He hung out with hyenas, let the lionesses do all the hunting, and sat on his ass all day doing nothing . . . just like he did before. What was the benefit? Oh yeah. The smug satisfaction of being a "better" male than his muscular, masculine bully of a brother.

I think we can all agree Scar was very damaged by the Patriarchy.

In all honesty, Scar and Mufasa were really about the same. The films would have you think otherwise, but in reality? Both brothers hoarded resources for their own lions and sneered down their noses at the hyenas. That the Pridelands saw a drought was actually Mufasa's spirit being a jerk and had nothing to do with Scar's reign.

In the second film, The Lion King II: Simba's Pride, we learn that Scar had his own pride, a fair number of lionesses who were on his side. We never once hear Zira complain that Scar didn't share food with her. It was probably Nala, Sarabi, and the Mufasa Loyalists who were starving.

Scar probably let Nala runaway. One less Mufasa zealot whining. She and Sarabi harping at him constantly was probably why he kept snapping whenever Mufasa's name was mentioned.

For Scar, being king was about having respect he didn't earn. Obviously, Scar was neglected as a child, or he wouldn't have this scary need to be loved and admired. We could probably blame the events of The Lion King on his crap parents.

Mufasa still takes his share of the blame, though. What great thing did Mufasa really do to earn everyone's respect? He kept out the hyenas, sure. But on the basis of pure prejudice, beating them up, starving and degrading them -- which ultimately resulted in them taking Pride Rock in vengeance.

So again: what's the real difference between Scar and Mufasa? Mufasa ruled with brute strength and Scar supplemented his lack of strength with the hyenas. In the end, they both did the same thing. (More or less. I don't think Scar meant for the hyenas to eat everything and chase out the herds.)

I'm not saying the hyenas were justified in taking vengeance on Pride Rock, but it was understandable, and it probably wouldn't have happened had Mufasa and his family not treated them like scum in the first place.

Look at the reason the hyenas left Pride Rock at the end of the first film. It wasn't because of Simba's return -- they could have very easily killed Simba given their sheer numbers, which was the entire point of Scar keeping them around: to protect him. No. It was because Scar let slip that he didn't care about the hyenas, and realizing that Scar was just another racist lion, they killed him and left, conveniently absolving Simba of any wrongdoing in regards to his uncle's demise.

The movie keeps telling us the hyenas were evil and that they'd eat everything dry, but there was no evidence of that during Mufasa's rule. For all we know, they only ravished the Pridelands to get back at the lions and because they'd been starving for so long.

Make no mistake: I'm not defending Scar in any way. Scar is an unrepentant jerk using his privilege to take advantage of the underprivileged.

But his feminine characteristics are literally cast in an evil light. He snarls his charismatic way through a green-tinged scene oozing with Nazi symbolism as the shadows of doofy hyenas march militant on the wall behind him.

Scar is so effeminate, you'd think you were looking at a shampoo commercial. And the entire movie wants you to connect his effeminate traits with his evil, as the song "Be Prepared" is Scar at his most dainty.

As is typical with Disney, gay or effeminate men are presented as evil (and usually British), while the hero is always straight, masculine, and American.

Simba, in this case, was voiced by Jonathan Taylor Thomas as a cub and Matthew Broderick as an adult. While Scar was voiced by Jeremy Irons.

The Circle of Oppression Continues

And so, with the Evil Bisexual rightfully dead, Master Race Lion Simba takes back his rightful place as king and continues oppressing the hyenas and the herds of the Pridelands.

He eventually welcomes back the Scar Loyalists in the second film, but lions being nice to other lions isn't any more remarkable than a rich man giving a poor man of the same race free room and board.

"We Are One" was a good song, though. And I did love how Kiara tried to steer Simba away from becoming a bigot like Mufasa. Just a shame the hyenas -- you know, the actual marginalized group -- weren't welcomed back.

And, of course, the land goes back to being all pink and blue and pretty, because a world where one privileged group controls all the resources is the American dream.

© 2018 Ash


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