‘The Lion King’ : Gender Politics

Disney’s “The Lion King” was always skittering on the edge of political correctness, requiring a certain blindness to some obvious problems with a lion with a pride being the king of all the animals in Africa. After centuries of socio-political changes, you have to ask about the logic of this scenario. Making it into a live-action CGI feature gives us realism without updating the story.

Osamu Tazuka’s manga version of the lion story, “Jungle Emperor Leo” (ジャングル大帝), known in the US through Fuji Television’s color anime (1965-1967) that aired in North America as “Kimba the White Lion,” made more sense for societies built on the nuclear family unit. The parents of Kimba were represented as a monogamous couple. Kimba was still a cub and wasn’t represented as killing prey to eat. Even after the introduction of democracy after World War II, Japan still had a monarch and his heir was based on lineage. So the concept of birthright wasn’t so far fetched.

In “The Lion King,” Simba’s father, Mufasa, is the leader of a pride. He has a “wife,” Sarabi, who is the leader of the pride’s lionesses. Within the pride, is Simba’s best friend Nala who will become his wife. The question that goes unasked is: Who is Nala’s father? There are other questions, too.

Women who are confronted by men enthralled by the alpha male concept will see through this as should anyone raised on nature programs. The pride of lionesses mates with the dominant male. For some men, this rationalizes polygamy with or without the benefit of religion and even marriage. That’s the simplistic version and true for the Tsavo lion pride, but a one male pride is the exception to the rule. Most prides have adult females and more than one male.  Often, as in the case of the Mapogos, the male lion coalition are brothers. While the dominate male mates more often with the females in heat, the females also mate with the other males. The average litter size of a lioness is three but there can be as many cubs as six. The pride as portrayed in “The Lion King” is one that questions Mufasa’s virility as a sire.

We should also ask why we decided that lions are the king of the jungle, if this symbolism isn’t in itself archaic. A lion is no match for a mature rhino, elephant or hippo although a pride will take on a baby or adolescent and a large pride could take on an adult. Herbivores are not portrayed as dangerous, powerful or regal. During the times of bloody reigns, of invading and marauding social units–kings and tribal leaders–a lion as king makes sense. One kills the leaders, their male relatives and their children while enslaving, raping and impregnating their wives, mistresses and daughters as portrayed in Euripides’ “The Trojan Women.”  The Ancient Greeks were already contemplating this as a tragedy not a victory.

In this benevolent kingdom of “The Lion King,” Mufasa tells Simba, “Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. As king, you need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures, from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope.” Mufasa explains that while the lions eat the antelope, when the lions die, they become the grass that are eventually eaten by the antelope. That’s small comfort to the antelope. In the animated feature, “The Jungle Book,” the elephants are not ruled by the apex predator, Shere Khan, the tiger. They are a troop that Shere Khan respects. The wolf pack, too, respects other animals and are not without fear, but they are without some feudal obeisance.

The balance or the Circle of Life in “The Lion King,” is upset by the ugly Scar who was not chosen and bitterly reflects on that. He was the lion what might have been king, but has been replaced by Simba as he opines, “I was on first until that little hair ball was born.”  Instead of brotherly love and unity, this is sibling treachery.  Familial treachery is the stuff of great literature, like “Richard III,” another tale of a usurping relative whose character is signaled by his physical appearance.

Disney’s animators attempt to make this story less misogynistic by having Nala able to pin Simba down. That doesn’t bode well for the survival of the pride. While the lionesses may be the hunters, the male lions are the defender of the territory.  The lionesses are also the caretakers of the cubs and one explanation for the lack of progeny is their lax babysitting skills. Where are the lionesses when Simba is allowed to wander off, first with Nala watched over by Zazu and then when the disrespectful and ultimately treacherous Scar takes Simba to practice roaring.

As portrayed in “The Lion King,” Nala seems better made to be a ruler if might equal right, but this is a tale about male birthright. Simba must, as his father’s voice intones, “Remember who you are.”  Simba’s mother is threatened by Scar into possible submission before Simba returns because the chosen line is male.  Simba returns to defend her and the pride who are likely her sisters. And this is the pride that Simba will head?

In the lion pride as in wolf packs, the young adult males are driven off. Even the young adult females will be run off as well, eventually becoming pack members. This prevents inbreeding, or was humans would see it, incest.

The live-action CGI version of “The Lion King” takes all these problematic sequences from the original animated feature and try and make them bigger but that doesn’t mean better. Suddenly the handful of hyenas become dozens if not hundreds. That’s the danger of computers, making everything bigger because they mistakenly believe that will mean better.

Rafiki tells Simba, “Oh yes, the past can hurt. But from the way I see it, you can either run from it, or learn from it.” In so many ways, the live-action version of “The Lion King” has not learned from the past and remains in it with nonsensical attempts to update an archaic notion of patrilineal aristocratic birthright. Oddly, that puts “The Lion King” behind the UK who obviously has had and currently has a queen, but more in line with the Japanese practices of monarchy.

Let’s really think of the message that “The Lion King” is selling to kids about destiny and birthright, male and female roles and how societies should be formed and governed.







“Remember who you are.” – Mufasa

“Being brave doesn’t mean you go looking for trouble.” – Mufasa



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