As we watch the herbivores congregate to bow down before their newborn ruler, “The Lion King” presents a seductive worldview in which absolute power goes unquestioned and the weak and the vulnerable are fundamentally inferior. In other words: “The Lion King” offers us fascist ideology writ large, and there is no obvious way out for the remake.
As a fable, “The Lion King” isn’t really about lions — or any other animal species. Instead, a variety of cute and cuddly creatures stand in for a deeply human way of organizing society. But mapping our own social hierarchies onto the pristine and “neutral” animal kingdom makes these power dynamics seem natural, common-sense and even desirable. And by using predator-prey relationships to allegorize human power structures, the film almost inevitably incorporates a worldview in which the rulers’ power derives from their biological superiority.
Obviously, fables can serve politically diverse ends: George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” employed a similar allegory to make class distinctions more visible and to criticize authoritarian systems of power. Disney’s own anthropomorphic “Robin Hood” adaptation similarly associated power systems with animal food chains, using its allegory to poke fun at the obvious greed and corruption that defined the predatory ruling class.
The sympathies of “The Lion King,” though, lie elsewhere — at least in the original film.
Doubling down on Disney’s historical obsession with patriarchal monarchies, it places the audience’s point of view squarely with the autocratic lions, whose Pride Rock literally looks down upon all of society’s weaker groups — a kind of Trump Tower of the African savanna. When grand patriarch Mufasa explains patiently to his son how this division of power works, he emphasizes that the king must maintain balance in their kingdom. This seems acceptable when we think about the environment, where we associate “balance” with sustainability. But when we consider that he’s really explaining to his heir why the natural order makes it normal for kings to devour the peasants, the lions’ perspective feels a lot more unsettling.
Bad as it is that the powerful are presented as inherently better than all other species, things get substantially worse once the hyenas are introduced. With the lions standing in for the ruling class, and the “good” herbivores embodying society’s decent, law-abiding citizens, the hyenas transparently represent the black, brown and disabled bodies that are forcefully excluded from this hierarchical society. Noticeably marked by their ethnically coded “street” accents, the hyenas blatantly symbolize racist and anti-Semitic stereotypes of “verminous” groups that form a threat to society.
Just as fascist leaders constantly pinpoint specific groups to vilify and cast out from their view of a “balanced” society, the film’s heroes are preoccupied with keeping their kingdom free of contamination by undesirable characters, who are consigned to the shadowy ghettolike areas “beyond our borders” — on the wrong side of the tracks. With these elements in place, the film’s plot centers on what happens when the “natural” supremacy of patriarchal rule is interrupted. This betrayal of tradition is predictably orchestrated by Scar, the misfit lion whose desire to advance the status of minorities is presented in a way that resembles conservative caricatures of liberal politicians — wherein compassion is supposedly a masked form of opportunism. Simultaneously, his effeminate gestures and apparent lack of interest in heterosexual reproduction mark him as queer, like Jafar, Ursula and many other villains in Disney’s rigidly heterosexual world. Adding insult to injury, the social outcasts’ rebellion against Mufasa’s autocratic regime is explicitly associated with the imagery of goose-stepping Nazis.
But as so often in Hollywood films, the explicit Nazi iconography serves primarily to distract us from the heroes’ own fascism. Simba’s final ascent to the throne, his masculine roar returning Scar’s dystopia to its Edenic natural state, represents nothing less than the Führer Principle at work: the idea that those we entrust with positions of leadership are blessed with a natural, even divine superiority. Adherents of this principle present those who question or rebel against it as genetically inferior, malicious beings who must learn to acknowledge their proper place in the social order. As critic Matt Roth has written, the movie thereby idolizes bullies by mythologizing the most brutal social principles: “Only the strong and the beautiful triumph, and the powerless survive only by serving the strong.”
The new version of “The Lion King” is only Disney’s most recent attempt to update its beloved properties, often making adjustments to the films’ ideological messages: “Maleficent” and its forthcoming sequel changed “Sleeping Beauty,” a sexist fairy tale, into a feminist parable about sexual abuse; “Aladdin” made at least some attempt to mitigate the original film’s Islamophobia; “Beauty and the Beast” included one (very minor) openly gay character; the new Ariel will be a mermaid of color; “Mulan” has been overhauled to be less offensive to Chinese audiences.
By the same token, the promotional campaign for “The Lion King” has emphasized its majority-black cast, which swaps out the original’s white voice actors Matthew Broderick and Moira Kelly for Donald Glover and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter — a “woke” casting coup if ever there was one. In obvious efforts to resonate with the company’s thematically similar “Black Panther,” Disney publicists are emphatically pitching this remake as diverse and inclusive.
It’s tempting therefore to jump on the Disney bandwagon and celebrate the admirable work the company has been doing on this front. And yes, even the most brazenly opportunistic and superficial attempts to improve the way women, people of color, LGBT people and the disabled are made visible in our popular culture make a difference. Representation still matters, and female Jedi knights, black mermaids and Chinese action heroines are undeniable marks of progress.
But it’s not enough. In our increasingly nostalgic culture, we need to recognize that the problem with “The Lion King” isn’t only the ethnicity of its voice actors, just as the misogyny of “The Little Mermaid” can’t be erased by casting a black actress in a role that’s notorious for sexualizing and objectifying a teenage girl’s body . At a deeper level, these films champion authoritarian and anti-democratic values by reproducing a worldview in which power, strength and privilege are genetically determined, and where the weak and vulnerable exist only to serve, support and flatter their masters.
At a moment when the far right is on the rise, when we debate whether to call the horrific shelters on our border concentration camps, and when anti-Semitic and Islamophobic hate crimes continue to increase, we should ask ourselves what it means to obsessively revisit narratives that celebrate the strong, the beautiful and the powerful, while looking down upon the rebels, the outcasts and the powerless. “The Lion King” is exactly that kind of story, and it will take more than Beyoncé’s regal vocal cords to redeem it for the next generation.
This article has been updated.