I recently re-watched The Lion King with my 3 year old for the first time since I was a kid – and I came to the conclusion that Mufasa was racist. Now Disney racism is not even close to new, but what I hadn’t realized was the clever way the movie feeds the audience the all too familiar narrative that there are good people and bad people, and there are certain things that only bad people do. Of course this isn’t anything new to media, and it wasn’t in 1994 when the movie came out, but what’s interesting is how skillfully the movie frames these narratives in a way that can be easily absorbed and internalized by the viewer. And keep in mind most of those viewers are going to be children.
See, I tried explaining to my daughter why the hyenas were bad guys. They lived in the Elephant Graveyard, which was covered with shadows and bones and had no food. They tried to kill Simba. They work for Scar who is both evil (and notably the only dark furred lion we see). Besides, Mufasa, the (literally) golden lion king, said they were dangerous and he’s clearly the protagonist. So yeah, bad guys.
But let’s deconstruct this.
Yes the hyenas live in the Elephant Graveyard – but why are they (initially) the targets of hostility? I realized it’s never actually stated why they live there. What we do know is that it’s dark and shitty, outside the jurisdiction of the much nicer Pride Lands.
This implies one of two things: Either the hyenas were forced there for some reason or they live there by choice. In either case, the message is that the hyenas must deserve their living conditions. We know there’s a shit ton of hyenas, so did every single one of them commit a crime that warranted banishment or are all of them being punished for what some did? Were they forced there because they ate other animals, or perhaps because they may eat lion cubs too?
Now there are few problems with those scenarios, but the most important one is that we’re talking about an entire species being punished for either perceived crimes or the actual “crime” of biology. Let me put it this way: If the hyenas were forced to live in the Elephant Graveyard because Mufasa thinks they are inherently more criminal than other animals, that’s fucked up. If the hyenas were forced to live in the Graveyard because they eat other animals and lion cubs happen to be on that list as well, which is what they are biologically programmed to do – as are lions and any other predators the Pride Lands – that’s fucked up too. Remember, as a lion, Mufasa is just as likely to eat a hyena’s cub. I guess only certain cubs are important.
Okay, now let’s say they live there by choice. Then we have to ask why do we still look down on them for where they choose to live? Remember, they may have chosen to live there at some point, but they clearly can’t leave either.
A particularly telling scene occurs in the very beginning of the movie when Mufasa is alerted to the fact that hyenas were spotted on the Pride Lands. Mufasa’s response is immediate and he chases them off, indicating that hyenas are never allowed to set foot outside the Graveyard. Sure it’s a crappy place, but if no other animals live there (or want to) but the hyenas, and they typically don’t leave, then why is it treated like such a blight? I know it’s dangerous, but so are the Pride Lands. Again, Mufasa is a god damned lion who literally eats his subjects and there are other predators. To say that the Elephant Graveyard is any more dangerous than literally anywhere else in that particular area of Africa is ridiculous.
So let’s be honest: What we’re being told is because of the hyena’s association with the Elephant Graveyard, which may not even be through any fault of their own, they are dangerous and should be met with hostility. And it’s Mufasa who most directly feeds into this narrative with his open disdain for them. Hell, even his circle of life ideology clearly is not meant to include hyenas.
The circle of life seems to say it’s okay for certain predators (lions) to eat all other animals, but implies it’s not okay for anyone to eat lions, and it’s justified because…that’s the natural order of things, right? Recall Mufasa explaining to Simba that they eat certain animals because that’s just the way it is. So why isn’t whatever threat the hyenas pose written off as a part of the natural order too?
Even the weather affirms Mufasa. Look at the single ray of light that shines on Simba at his birth, and the terrible weather that follows the hyenas for some reason, which clears of course with Simba’s return. You might infer that the lions have a divine right to lead. It’s an ideology that justifies the predatory nature of lions and discrimination against hyenas, all while placating the rest of the animals. It allows them to maintain power and safety. Given the context, is it any wonder the hyenas supported Scar? He promised them food and equality, rights Mufasa denied them. They have families who are starving, young who will be sentenced to the same fate as they for no reason other than being born hyenas. They did what was necessary to survive.
But you know what? Most of us didn’t even question that they were bad animals, and it’s worth thinking about why that is and where else this is problematic. After all, it’s a pretty convenient worldview that anyone who lives in a shitty place must deserve it and also be a shitty person. In fact, I wonder where else this applies. Hint:Any poor Black or brown neighborhood in America or any Black or brown country bombed or pillaged into dystopia by America (read:Mufasa).
Inequity and inequality are easy to teach and easier to justify when we don’t look at the systemic nature of poverty and instead blame individuals who disrupt the status quo – or the “circle of life.”