Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Unfortunate implications

My daughter has been watching Disney's Lion King recently, and that made me think of the old insight that no matter how hard a writer tries, they cannot avoid sending a message, and usually they cannot even avoid sending a political message, no matter how much they protest that they haven't.

Which is why it is probably best to be aware of where you stand and how what you write will likely be taken. As the economist Paul Krugman once wrote, everybody has values and everybody has beliefs about how the world works, and that means everybody has an ideology. Or in my own words, everybody who thinks they are non-ideological is kidding themselves. (To belabor the point further, this is one of those things which Ophelia Benson would call "irregular verbs": You have an ideology, I have convictions...)

So let's see what messages Lion King is sending. What they intended to send was presumably either that those born to greatness have to take responsibility (it is Simba's moral duty to go back home and put the pride lands in order because he is the only one who can) or something about dealing with ghosts from the past (Simba has to get over his guilt about his father's death). Unfortunately, both these messages, if they are indeed what was intended, are undermined by the movie itself.

The one about responsibility suffers from the fact that going into exile and fooling around with Timon and Pumbaa was exactly the right thing to do; if Simba had stayed at home, he would clearly not have survived to adulthood. It could also be remarked that Timon and Pumbaa are portrayed in much too positive a light to consider their Hakuna Matata message to be refuted.

The one about facing ghosts from the past is blown out of the water by the fact that Simba never had any fault in the first place. All that needed to happen for him to get over his guilt was for somebody to say, "no, you got that wrong, it was really Scar who killed your father", and that is what ultimately happens. The story would be much more interesting (although perhaps less family friendly) if it were different, but there is no actual facing of ghosts from the past involved because ultimately there are no ghosts.

Which leaves us with messages that may not have been intended, or at least that one hopes weren't intended. Unfortunate implications, as they say.

First, did you notice that the pride's country goes downhill after and because Scar let the hyenas in, and that everything gets back to the normal state of harmony once they are driven out of the country again? Letting more people, especially of another species, into your country is a bad idea. That is already, in and of itself, an interesting observation. What I did not realize when I first saw this movie in German is that the voice actors for the hyenas are Latinos and African-Americans. That makes it even more interesting.

(Admittedly, basically any work of traditional fantasy literature is much worse in this regard, starting with Tolkien himself, because good and evil behavior are portrayed as fixed characteristics of humanoid races, and the solution to the fantasy world's problems is often enough to commit genocide against the orcs or whatever. I really appreciate authors who are better than that.)

And then there is the problem that you get with all "family friendly" stories including princes and princesses, kings and queens. It is very hard not to come away from Disney movies like Lion King with the feeling that one of the core messages is "absolute monarchy is awesome" or, at the very least, "absolute monarchy is the natural state of things". This particular movie shows that all went downhill when the proper monarchic order of succession was broken by Scar usurping the crown. Simba should have become king.

Of course, in reality the proper successor is often enough an incompetent or madman, as history will readily demonstrate, because a hereditary monarch is kind of by definition not chosen based on merit. And indeed the problems in Lion King could have easily been avoided if the rest of the pride had not accepted Scar's rule simply because he was the last remaining male relative of the previous king. If, in other words, there had been no absolute monarchy. But if that is the message intended by Disney then they did not communicate it very clearly.

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