Disney, global conglomerate and land of magic, sells a lucrative promise––Disney is “Where Dreams Come True.” Indeed, Disney captures the imaginations of children all over the world, animating stories and establishing them as cultural touchstones, materialized in an array of consumer products at an unimaginable scale and constructed in a dozen global theme parks. From Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs (1937) success, the Walt Disney Company perfected an archetypal story, captivating the public through appropriations of classics which offered visual stimulation and emotional comfort. Ideology is promulgated in brush strokes, unchallenged through the innocent guise of animation. The Lion King(1994) imagines an animal-only world, and even so, anthropomorphism thinly veils metaphors for human hierarchy. Disney’s “magic” maintains the illusion that animated realism presents only the most uncomplicated of human ideas. Upon closer look, stereotypes abound, revealing hegemonic ideals of belonging, class and righteousness. What are the consequences of Disney’s run as “America’s moral educator?”
The Lion King has long been my favorite Disney animation––to which I attribute my fondness for animals. Disney excels in capitalizing on this instinct for comfort; that is, a common affinity for the “friendly” creature. Disney features that take place in the human realm still provide non-human creatures as sidekicks: Mulan’s Mushu, Ariel’s Flounder, Pocahontas’ Meeko or Rapunzel’s Pascal. Drawn to be small and juvenile, with big round eyes or toothless grin, they exhibit a comforting childlike cuteness: they must be harmless.
The same logic Disney uses to convey the harmlessness of their comic animal sidekicks appears in the visually recognizable distinctions between the good and the evil. While it may seem that these cues have no social meaning, Disney’s beloved characters have even more “representational latitude than non-animated film: image, size, movement, color, lighting, and continuity are easily altered with the stroke of a pen or key (Artz).” Animation engenders a misconception similar to that of documentary, which is seen as representative of the “real,” revealing to us a sort of fundamental truth. What this fails to recognize is that while the images may be of reality, they are still artifice: providing a mediated, controlled vision of the world. Animation “seems to be innocent, youthful entertainment and ‘socially-harmless’,” but like all film, it “constantly deceives.”
Louis Althusser’s theory of Ideological State Apparatuses (or ISAs), offers a critical framework to explain how Disney functions as a purveyor of culturally familiar stereotypes, and maintains an adherence to a particular world view. Ideological State Apparatuses are institutions, ones that are purportedly apolitical or separate from the state: schools, churches, media outlets, etc. They disseminate ideology––transforming the human individual into subject, who can be imbued with a set of ideas and can be made to understand these ideas as more natural than others. The diffused ideologies operate on an emotional level, and thus maintain the control of a dominant class. Disney, with self-interest in maintaining such a global capitalist hegemony, reproduces stories with seductive emotional appeal, presenting worlds in which class hierarchy is only natural and absolute power should be unquestioned.
The Lion King presents two classes: the socially elite who are distinct with the diction of British nobility and paramount kindness, and the poor who are lesser, inseminated with evil and represented in voice and action by stereotypes of Black and Latinx youth. The iconic “circle of life” scene, which opens the films, represents and validates the dominant social order: the sun rises, painting the skies a brilliant array of orange and reds. Animals of all species travel towards Pride Rock, the voice of Carmen Twillie joyously singing as they do. Rafiki lifts Simba into the air, a ray of divine light shining on the new lion cub. The crowd of animals erupt in congratulatory excitement, bowing down to the future monarch.
Visual style connotes the distinction between classes: “good characters…exhibit juvenile traits such as big eyes and round cheeks and are drawn in curves, smooth, round, soft, bright, and with European features; villains…are drawn with sharp angles, oversized, and often darkly (Artz).” The association of these particular cues and “evilness” is made even more apparent in The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride (1998), in which the Outsiders, Scar’s exiled following, are all “dark, angular, thin and disfigured (Artz).” Speech also distinguishes the two:
“Mufasa speaks in the King’s English, usually from on high. Scar, the villain, lurks in shape and movement, languid, lazy, and foppish, narratively manipulating other characters through deceit. The hyenas have secondary roles with fewer lines, delivered comically, with slapstick interactions that are nonetheless understood as threatening to the smaller, younger, and naive lion cubs (Artz).”
Disney affirms existing power dynamics, naturalizing a binary of good and evil that can be easily delineated through a host of other biformities: round and angular, light and dark, noble and lesser; the relationship between each goes unquestioned. Disney communicates its obsession with elite hierarchy through virtually all its stories, in which happiness directly coincides with belonging or (destined) acceptance into the socially elite, who are richer, stronger, smarter, and always victorious. The Lion King provides a particularly acute example, in which the lesser are explicitly racialized: “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(Hassler-Forest).” If we “[map] our own social hierarchies onto the pristine and ‘neutral’ animal kingdom,” the status-quo of the ruling elite is understood and accepted as natural and “even desirable (Hassler-Forest).”
While it might appear to be harmless for children to consume such logic, there is evidence that they “casually equate narrative outcomes with behavior (Artz).” As an Ideological State Apparatus, Disney uses animation’s emotional power to put in effect a moral binary in which the already privileged reign supreme. It is then “also likely that Disney’s morals and hierarchies will be acted on as valid and preferred (Artz).” In The Lion King, the distinctiveness between classes should be disputed; the rhetoric of Scar’s villainy is all too familiar to “conservative caricatures of liberal politicians,” in which “compassion is supposedly a masked form of opportunism.” Effeminate and queered, like many other Disney villains, Scar’s Nazi iconography distracts us from the “good” characters’ villainy (Hassler-Forest). Is Simba’s social order actually righteous if it depends on the exclusion of an entire body of minorities? Does the evil lie in Scar’s (and the Outsiders) attempt to challenge the “natural” supremacy of Simba or in the unmistakably fascist rhetoric of divine superiority? Is a world in which “[only] the strong and the beautiful triumph, and the powerless survive only by serving the strong” really liberating?
Artz, Lee. “Animating Hierarchy: Disney and the Globalization of Capitalism.” Global Media Journal, 2003, https://www.globalmediajournal.com/open-access/animating-hierarchy-disney-and-the-globalization-of-capitalism.php?aid=35055. Accessed 7 November 2020.
Hassler-Forest, Dan. “‘The Lion King’ is a fascistic story. No remake can change that.” The Washington Post, 10 July 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/07/10/lion-king-is-fascistic-story-no-remake-can-change-that/. Accessed 7 November 2020.