Disney’s live-action The Lion King (2019) has enjoyed tremendous success, having brought in $78.5 million on opening day in the U.S., the 10th-highest total in the industry’s history. Beyond the film’s own merit, it has also achieved an all-time high in terms of publicity: even Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan attended its London premiere. Their appearance is not without irony, since few other blockbusters have portrayed so innocently and convincingly the idea that the existence of a monarchy and a rigid social hierarchy is a natural and necessary good.
The original The Lion King was released in 1994, and many of my students named it as their favorite film as children. They described it as a furry Hamlet with a happy ending, a coming-of-age story about loss, redemption, self-discovery, and learning to take responsibility. But upon close examination, both Lion Kings tell a disturbingly anti-democratic story, regardless of the change in style (animation versus live-action with CGI) or the race and ethnicity of the cast members.
The first scene sets the tone. High up on the Pride rock, Simba, the Lion King’s newborn son, is greeted by cheers from groups of herbivores and potential prey who bow their heads and bend their knees in willing submission. But why would, say, antelopes, be so excited about the birth of yet another predator who views devouring them as a birthright? Mufasa later explains to his toddler son the “the circle of life” rule: the lions eat the antelopes, antelopes eat the grass, and the lions’ dead bodies feed the grass. According to this pecking order, which is often touted as an ecologically friendly lesson for young children, lions are destined to eat and antelopes are destined to be eaten. Anyone who doubts that films for children can also be ideological should consider that, in real life, antelopes don’t bow to lions. They run.
In media and cultural analysis, a crucial concept is Antonio Gramsci’s hegemony, which refers to the process by which those in power secure the consent of their subordinates by persuading them that they all share the same interests, and the current hierarchical system is a natural one that can’t—and shouldn’t—be changed. If we apply hegemony to The Lion King’s narrative, the bowing antelopes seem persuaded by the lions’ “circle of life” as mutually beneficial: by eating grass, aren’t the antelopes indirectly eating the lions’ dead bodies? But really, whose interest does this authoritarian doctrine serve?
Stories make us who we are because they help to construct our understanding of the world. For those of us who are not born into privilege, we particularly need critical and analytical thinking skills that enable us to see through manipulation and to challenge an unjust social order. Currently, the most powerful storytellers are the electronic media, with which Americans spend vast amounts of time interacting every day. Based on surveys done in 2018 and 2019, average consumption is nearly 5 hours for tweens,¹ 7.5 hours for teens,² and 11 hours for adults.³ During the pandemic, media consumption has increased significantly.⁴ It is not an exaggeration to say that media literacy serves as a survival skill for 21st-century citizens.
Chyng F. Sun, Ph.D. Clinical Professor of Media Studies, Division of Applied Undergraduate Studies, NYU School of Professional Studies. She is the creator of the documentary film Mickey Mouse Monopoly: Disney, Childhood, and Corporate Power.
*Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are those of the author; they do not necessarily reflect the views of the Division of Applied Undergraduate Studies, the School of Professional Studies, or New York University.