And all through the house we hear the hyena’s hymns
Lion King opens with a song accompanied by beautiful scenery, showing the animals ranging from ants to elephants living in perfect harmony and joy: But the sun rolling high/through the sapphire sky/keeps great and small on the endless round/It’s the circle of life/and it moves us all/through despair and hope/through faith and love. Soon we meet the main antagonist, Scar, who appears contemptuous and cynical. When comparing hisemlf to king Mufasa, he says: “Well as far as the brains go, I’ve got the lion’s share, but when it comes to brute strength, I’m afraid I’m at the shallow end of the gene’s pool.” This is the first instance in which Scar identifies himself as cunning and crafty and Mufasa’s abilities with brute strength. Niccolo Machiavelli in his Il Principe wrote that a great prince has to have qualities of both lion and a fox. He has to know when to use brute force, and of course possess it, and learn to be cunning as a fox. Throughout the film we can see that Scar has the qualities of a fox and that Mufasa has the “brute strength” of a lion. This can be a key to understanding why both Mufasa and Scar failed as kings. Neither of them possessed both.
Mufasa says to Simba that beyond the North the territory is not theirs, and it is implicated that other animals live there. Scar tricks young Simba into going to the Elephant Valley where the hyenas reside, and Mufasa shows his strength and fends them off. Zazu defines hyenas as “slobbering, mangy stupid poachers”. Hyenas are presented as vile and reckless, yet it must be noted that their condition is that of extreme hunger. When Scar gives them meat they eat it instantly. In one word, hyenas are excluded from the animal polity and are left to starve, most likely because they are considered dangerous (and lions are sweet and symphathetic to the eye). Hyenas are not only excluded from the community of animals, but they also stagger around Elephant Valley as if being in a concentration camp.
They are in a sense, the Other, which in Lacanian psychoanalysis, as Dylan Evans writes, “designates radical alterity, an other-ness which transcends the illusory otherness of the imaginary because it cannot be assimilated through identification.” He also writes about the Others’ “radical alterity and unassimilable uniqueness”. Scar organizes a coup through a scheme in which he kills Mufasa and forces Simba into exile, which follows his attempt to integrate hyenas into the polity. When Scar prepares a coup, hyenas are shown marching which seems to be an allusion to the National Socialist movement. Scar’s abilities of a fox win the day, but only to create a disaster since all the game escapes and hyenas are hungry once again (as well as the rest of the animals) and left unassimilated. Scar’s failure as a king can be explained in terms of Machiavelli’s republicanism; he did not succeed to rally the animals to his cause, make an “alliance” with them and thus failed.
To sum things up, hyenas are shown both as the Other which has no place in polity because of their wild nature which cannot be tamed, and as the prime danger for the community. Hyenas are excluded from the “circle of life”, nature and the community of animals, just like non-white races were excluded from “humanity”. Firstly, during the era of imperialism the “primitive” African people were excluded from “humanity” since, as Hannah Arendt writes, they were not seen as human, yet “resembled” humans. Around the same time, for example in Germany, the idea of Yellow Peril appeared and Kaiser Wilhelm II championed the anti-Asian racist policy. In one word, throughout the history of the West, there were nations, races, which were not considered as part of humanity (i.e. the circle of life). The remnants of that kind of reasoning can easily be seen today and Lion King is a perfect example how that logic operates, hidden in the black and white narrative and cloaked in animal fur. Mufasa’s words to his son: “Everything you see exists here in a perfect balance. As king, you need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures, from the crawling ant to the leaping antilope.” Except the hyenas, which need to be excluded so that the “balance” is not disturbed.
Hakuna matata! What a wonderful phrase/Hakuna matata! Ain’t no passing craze /It means no worries/ For the rest of your days/ It’s our problem-free philosophy/Hakuna Matata!
Simba, Timon and Pumbaa
This line serves a purpose to illustrate not only Simba’s position as a character in a Disney animated movie, but also some contemporary discussions in Western society. Simba is suffering from a guilt complex since he believes he is responsible for his father’s death and escapes into the carefree land of illusion together with his friends Timon and Pumbaa. As Nala rightfully tells him, he is fleeing from his responsibility to reclaim his former status and fight for that which is rightfully his, to protect his family and subjects. When Simba and Nala fall in love, Timon regrets it since it will bring him “doom”. Romantic commitment and responsibilities are thus equated with unnecessary trouble.
Popular psychologist Jordan Peterson believes that young men (he is primarily adressing young men) need to take responsibilities and are not encouraged enough. The same point was already made in Lion King since Simba desperately craves for his father’s encouragement and when he gets it in the figure of his father in the sky, he accepts his responsibilities and fights against Scar. He wins the fight and reclaims his position as a king. If he had remained in the “carefree Paradise”, he would never have reclaimed his true identity. He would have remained deeply confused underneath and incapable of greatness. It seems that Lion King’s message, putting aside the earlier discussed discourse on exclusion, is to refuse to take hakuna matata as one’s motto and strive to fulfill oneself.
Dylan Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, Routledge, London, 2006
6 responses to “Discriminatory “Circle of Life” in Disney’s “Lion King””
A thought-provoking article, and an astute analysis of the place of hyenas in The Lion King. I enjoyed reading it, especially the bit on the setting aside of the motto hakuna matata so as to follow one’s true destiny.
I also thought that to say that Mufasa failed as a king is to put it too strongly. He did not see through Scar and what he is capable of, and probably saw only good in people (well, animals), but then Scar was his “brother”. Circumstances played a role, and if someone is too cunning, I don’t think he would have been that loved by the animal subjects. It is the trust that he imparts which also makes him such a respected ruler; he has faith in his subjects; and he is wise. So, I don’t think that Scar’s betrayal should necessarily be equated with Mufasa failing as a king.
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Thank you, I appreciate it. I agree with you that being too cunning can undermine one in the eyes of his subjects, yet the reason why Mufasa failed (in my view) was because he did not see through Scar’s ploys (was not cunning at all), was too trusting and got killed in the end. His “failure” was, well, failing to survive. A good king can’t protect his subjects from the grave. I agree that the emphasis might be too strong, yet, if one reads Machiavelli he realiizes that the main object of the prince is to maintain the rule, to secure its existence (in this case it is a good one so it is morally justified), “mantenere lo stato”. The king is often surrounded by enemies and if he lacks cunning completely, he will soon fall prey to plotters and the republic (or monarchy) will soon degrade into tyranny. In this case, a just kingdom is at stake and Mufasa’s lack of insight resulted in his brother’s tyranny. This is a thing that a good ruler simply cannot accept. Yet, no one can anticipate everything. . . I may be too harsh on Mufasa and in that respect, I respect your critique. Thanks for the comment an interesting remark!
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This used to be one of my favorite movies as a child, but nowadays it is beyond tainted for me and I have so much contempt for it.
For starters, I’m glad you brought up Mufasa’s protagonist centered morality with how the hyenas were punished and how the Elephant Graveyard contradicts his circle of life speech. That’s not even getting into the racially coded way the hyenas talk like how they have stereotypical African-American and Latino accents for Shenzi and Banzai respectively. No, just because James Earl Jones plays Mufasa, doesn’t give them a pass for racist undertones. I hate how it’s never portrayed as a bad thing in the movie even though Mufasa was low-key committing genocide. That may sound harsh, but when you look at the Shark Island Concentration Camp in the Namibian Genocide where the Africans were punished by the German invaders being away from their communities in a food desert with a valley of bones, it gets REALLY harsh in hindsight and one could make the same case about the Native Americans and the aspects of the Congolese Genocide where over 15 million died under Leopold’s tyranny.
Besides that point that you brought up, I had other forms of severe umbrage against this movie and I’ll break it down.
1: Kimba the White Lion. There is no way Disney didn’t know about that anime series when storylines, scenes, and every character who isn’t Timon or Pumbaa is a ripoff of someone from Tezuka’s 60s anime series. Not only that, but Disney tried blocking the Jungle Emperor Leo 1997 movie from North American distribution when it was played at the Fantasia Film Festival in Canada.
2: Disney trademarked the phrase “Hakuna Matata”. That’s a callous form of cultural appropriation as it was a super common phrase in the Swahili-speaking community (90 million people) since forever. One could make a case that Mickey Mouse stole the culture from 5 different countries where Swahili has official language status: Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, and the DRC.
3: How is it that Disney has yet to make an animated feature in Africa with no black characters? This also goes for Tarzan. Was there a genocide against Africans before each movie began?
4: They also stole the song “Mbube” by Solomon Linda. That was plagiarized into “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. Sure, it was stolen decades before The Lion King came out, but Disney got $15 million in royalties and never paid the Linda family or credited him.
Whew! Sorry for the rant. I’m glad you were critical about different aspects of this movie especially with the issues of the Mufasa character, but I feel like people aren’t aware of the negative things involved with this franchise.
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I was glad to read this, it really opened some new territories for me. I knew about the Leopold’s genocide, and that imperialist powers often used concentration camps (Arendt), but did not know about the Namibian genocide. These historical facts are not well-known, and they should be. They are “sweeped under the rug”.
I loved the way you identified the elements of cultural appropriation in the film, it is shameful. A political philosopher Brian Barry said “Wen Zulus write ‘War and Peace’ we will read it”. Or something like that. This is an ignorant statement and neglects the wonders of African culture. People often say similar things like: “There could be a Mozart in Africa, if people had the opportunity like the Austrians.” These post-colonialist and ignorant discourses anger me since an average Western man knows nothing about African culture and speaks of it in a really rude and ignorant manner. But the Westerners are happy to, as you showed, appropriate wonders of other cultures and make their own cultural products at their expense.
How do you feel about Marvel’s Black Panther – a movie set in Africa with no Africans in it, but only African Americans. Disney produced this as well, as far as I know,
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Thank you very much. Truth be told, I didn’t know about Leopold until just a few years ago and it certainly wasn’t in school. The Namibian genocide was something I didn’t know about until last year when I read articles and watched a documentary called Namibian Genocide & The Second Reich which I also reviewed. Namibia is trying to sue Germany even to this day and learning about those horrors was quite saddening.
Thanks and I really appreciate you understanding where I was coming from. I can’t stand how Africa is misrepresented in the media. I do agree that a lot of people in the West (especially here in America) don’t know anything about African cultures. Those quotes are certainly insulting since you had several civilizations and inventions that happened there, but you rarely see them in history books. The thing is I’m actually of half African descent and one of the biggest ethnic samples I got in a DNA test was Congolese which really put things into perspective learning about what I learned about Leopold and finding out about the “Hakuna Matata” trademark when Swahili is one of 5 official languages in the DRC (Lingala is more common, but you still have millions of people who know Swahili mainly on the East side). Cultural appropriation is a subtle form of racism and prejudice which I can’t stand. Disney didn’t do anything like this with Polynesian cultures (Moana and Lilo & Stitch) for example. Could you imagine if Disney or any major company trademarked a common non-English phrase such as “Que sara sara”, “C’est la vie”, or “Drago mi je”? I found out you’re from Croatia, so I thought I would relate the aforementioned trademark issue with you.
Good question. I know they had some African actors like Danai Gurira (Zimbabwe) from what I do know as far as the nationalities of the cast members. Unlike The Lion King and Tarzan, you obviously see black people in the continent and it’s frustrating it took Disney that long even if it’s an MCU work and not part of the Disney animated canon. While it was nice actually seeing black characters who are competent, I still had my own issues and it’s not because I met people who thought Wakanda was a real country. I had issues with how despite Killmonger being a villain, he had very legitimate points calling out colonization (the museum scene was a big one) or how he mentioned how the Wakandan empire could’ve prevented the slave trade, but did nothing about it. I get the efforts, but the execution could’ve been so much better in that film.
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**Yet to make an animated feature in Africa with black characters?
Sorry, I was way off in that sentence, but I hope my point was still clear despite the grammatical error.
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