“The Lion King”—a live-action remake of the original—reaped $55 million at the box office this past weekend, the best opening for a movie of its kind produced by Disney, surpassing “The Jungle Book,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” and “Dumbo.” Some people, including Dan Hassler-Forest, a Dutch assistant professor in the media studies department of Utrecht University, are unhappy with this development.
In what competes for most ridiculous opinion to appear in The Washington Post in 2019, Hassler-Forest claims that “The Lion King,” including the original animated film from 1994, promotes fascist themes. The Dutch academic is forced into some pretty amusing intellectual contortions to make such a bizarre argument. “The Lion King,” says Hassler-Forest:
introduces us to a society where the weak have learned to worship at the feet of the strong. 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.
It gets better. Hassler-Forest explains:
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.
This Is Bizarre For a Presumed Evolutionist
We should first remember that the movie is about nature and the animal kingdom. One would think such an observation would be obvious to Hassler-Forest, although the academic claims the film is actually representative of human societal organization.
As one learns in high school biology, nature is intrinsically predatory and dangerous. “Survival of the fittest,” a scientific theory proposed by Herbert Spencer and based on the theories of Charles Darwin, is a way of explaining natural selection, or the idea that organisms better adapted to their environment tend to survive and produce more offspring. I presume Hassler-Forest, who appears to be a secular academic unlikely to believe in creationist theories suspicious of Darwinism, believes this theory to be an accurate representation of nature.
According to “survival of the fittest,” the strongest, healthiest animals survive, while the weak are preyed upon and die. This is also closely related to an idea called “the food chain,” in which the largest predator species prey on species further “down the chain,” until one gets to various producer organisms like grass or trees. To even write such explanations seems obnoxiously pedantic and condescending, given that a man as well-credentialed as Hassler-Forest must be familiar with such concepts.
All the same, they must be explained, because “The Lion King,” in an imperfect, romantic manner, communicates these ideas. Lions are strongest and fiercest, and eat weaker animals further down the chain. Other predators operate below lions. Thus, in a sense, lions are the kings of the African Savannah. To quote Hassler-Forest, they possess “biological superiority” over the other animals. There’s nothing fascist about this — unless one wants to claim that nature is fascist.
Perhaps we should give Hassler-Forest more credit. Perhaps he is not so foolish as to criticize “The Lion King” for representing nature, albeit imperfectly, as it more-or-less is. Perhaps he is rather saying that by anthropomorphizing the animals’ kingdom (transposing human characteristics on them), we are implicitly endorsing natural selection as the best means of governing human society.
I’m not really sure anyone watching “The Lion King” actually would believe this—just as only a person with a few screws loose would think after watching “The Jungle Book” that he should follow Mowgli into the jungle and make friends with wolves, panthers, and bears. These are children’s stories built on imaginary, explicitly ridiculous premises (e.g., talking animals possessing will and intellect), not treatises on government. Yet even a brief contemplation of Hassler-Forest’s argument here exposes more silliness.
Fascism isn’t the only form of government in which society is governed by elites who gain access to their status via hereditary rite. No less than practically every human political society that has ever existed—be it monarchy, oligarchy, socialism, communism, etc.—exhibits this quality. As recent stories of cheating scandals remind us, even the American democratic system is susceptible to this.
Indeed, one might argue that the technocratic elite to which Hassler-Forest belongs is precisely this kind of class possessing hereditary power, ensuring their children grow up in the right neighborhoods, attend the right schools, acquire the right degrees, and secure the right kinds of professional opportunities. To a certain degree, this is unavoidable—if you had the power to give your kids a good chance at success, or none, what would you choose? Thus, as others have noted, what Hassler-Forest and other liberals like him are doing is recklessly calling fascist anything that doesn’t conform to their narrow ideology.
Ethnically Coded Symbolism?
This, unfortunately, is the best Hassler-Forest’s article has to offer. He then claims the hyenas of the movie “represent the black, brown and disabled bodies that are forcefully excluded from this hierarchical society,” who use “ethnically coded ‘street,’ accents, symbolizing “racist and anti-Semitic stereotypes of ‘verminous’ groups that form a threat to society.”
Did Hassler-Forest know that film co-director Rob Minkoff is Jewish? Or that one of the hyenas is played by Whoopi Goldberg (a black woman who also identifies as Jewish) and another by Chich Marin, who is Latino? More fundamentally, in any story, be it a children’s animated movie or anything else, there has to be a villain. Thus whatever accents or mannerisms are given to the hyenas could be construed as channeling racist or classist prejudices.
Then Hassler-Forest really starts tripping over himself. The evil lion Scar, the author tells us, leads the evil hyenas as they march like “goose-stepping Nazis.” But I thought according to Hassler-Forest’s analysis that the animal kingdom was fascist and Scar and his henchman the oppressed minorities?
Also, apparently, Scar is portrayed as a condemnable queer because of some of his mannerisms and lack of interest in heterosexual reproduction. As if Elton John, already a prominent gay celebrity and advocate for gay rights when he wrote the score for the 1994 movie, would participate in a film surreptitiously attacking those associated with his sexual identity. Does Hassler-Forest think every character in a movie not portrayed as vibrantly heterosexual is gay? How prejudicial!
Why This Kind of Absurdity Matters at All
None of the above is to say I’m an eager defender of the movie. I have no interest in watching the remake. Rather, such impossibly ludicrous analysis, especially by a prominent academic, is worth highlighting for two reasons.
First, it demonstrates certain hypocrisy among liberals, who, while eager to accuse others of promoting McCarthyism (looking for socialists or other political undesirables behind every door), often feed on their own brand of political paranoia by seeking to label everything, even the most benign cultural brick-a-brack, fascist, racist, homophobic, or all of the above.
Secondly, Hassler-Forest’s opinion demonstrates how intellectually useless much of higher education has become, devolving into a game of looking for oppression and perceived injustices in every cultural trend. Of course, Hassler-Forest and his ilk are never the oppressors.
Perhaps the creators of “The Lion King” simply wanted to create an entertaining movie, one that included protagonists and antagonists, and promotes certain virtues like humility, simplicity, and courage. That’s what I took away from the film when I saw it as a child.
And perhaps Hassler-Forest should consider what exactly makes humanity essentially different from the animal kingdom he derides—or are we simply more evolved animals? Whichever way he answers that question, the implications vitiate Hassler-Forest’s entire argument.