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September 1996, Week 3


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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
"Richard J. Leskosky" <[log in to unmask]>
Fri, 13 Sep 1996 17:30:29 -0500
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
text/plain (160 lines)
As much as I don't really want to get involved in the tired old
Disney/racism/sexism/classism/etc. argument, I feel compelled to offer a
few observations on this LION KING thread.  And in the same spirit that
gave us the Spoiler Alert, I'm here issuing a Curmudgeon Alert.
Jason Mittrell says in response to David Desser's remarks:
>Two things about this argument.  First thing, the racism in the Lion King
>is not solely based on the race of the actor's voicing characters - in fact
>I think that the race of the actors often serves to undercut and "defend"
>Disney against this type of reading.  The racist representations are in the
>plot (good society is thrown into chaos by a leader who decides to
>integrate with another society which consists of a lazy clownish species
>(hyenas) who mooch of the hard work of others and cannot fend for
>themselves; integration is shown to be the problem which must be undone for
>narrative closure),
Calling what Scar intends or effects "integration" is imprecise at best.
It's not a social program but rather an exercise of power to preserve
power.  The hyenas are his thugs--as in a western where the cowboys who
ride roughshod over the townspeople are in the employ of the local cattle
>the drawings (hyenas are dark,
Hyenas are dark.
>Scar is darker than
>other lions,
This is an animated cartoon, but the animals are realistic enough that they
do not wear clothing or carry other identifying characteristics.  It's
necessary for animators to do something to distinguish animals of the same
species significantly enough so that viewers do not get confused, and,
let's face it, one lion looks pretty much like another.  The only way to
stage the fight scenes (between Scar and Mufasa and between Scar and Simba)
and make it clear who's who is to give them different colorations.
>Bonzai looks like Whoopi,
I would wager that Whoopi Goldberg was thrilled by the visual similarity.
For about two decades now, Disney animators (among others) have been making
at least some of their characters resemble the performers doing their
voices.  This usually depends on the performer's personality (that is,
whether the animators like him or her) and whether something about the
voice artist's looks strikes the animator's fancy  (and Whoopi has a very
expressive face).  And are you saying that Whoopi Goldberg and James Earl
Jones are incapable of realizing that a production they're in might be
racist or that they would do anything for a dollar even if it were racist?
> Muphasa looks pretty darn caucasian
Maybe you're thinking of Kimba the White Lion, star of an animated 1960's
Japanese TV series by Tezuka Osamu, to which THE LION KING bears more than
a passing resemblance.
>even though James Earl Jones is the voice, etc.), the characteristics of
>the characters (the hyenas are typical minstrel-like buffoons,
"Typical minstrel-like buffoons"? Not like any minstrel show I've seen
--though admittedly I've only seen them in films.  More like the Three
Stooges with Chenzi as a female Moe.
>Rafiki the
>baboon is clownish and does Jim Crow-esque dances,
"Clownish" -- maybe, but in a tradition that includes Yoda from the Star
Wars films and various Zen masters. "Jim Crow-esque" is another interesting
term that needs definition and supporting evidence here.  Are you referring
again to the minstrel tradition from which the term "Jim Crow" ultimately
derives or to the Jim Crow laws of segregation?  If Rafiki's movements are
in the old minstrel tradition, that would be very interesting.  You would,
however, need to demonstrate that the animators who drew this character had
actually looked at minstrel footage in researching the character's
movements.  That would probably be pretty easy to check.
>the lions are noble and
>stately, etc.),
That's fairly traditional symbolism in any culture (including African)
having any contact with lions.
>and so on.  The racism gets articulated into axes of class
>(the hyenas are clearly lower class, on "welfare" in a way, etc.), gender
>(the leader of the hyenas is an ineffectual female
What is  "ineffectual" about Chenzi?  That she's never able to kill Simba?
That she lets Scar, a much larger, more powerful animal, give her orders?
She maintains her dominance over her two male companions and she's still
alive and in charge of the hyenas at the end of the film; Scar isn't
>while the leaders of the
>lions are male but the females do all the work),
That's pretty much the way real lions operate.
> sexuality (Scar is coded
>as the evil gay uncle,
He's a cynic with a British accent and an air of bored malevolence.  Does
that automatically make a character gay?   Does that mean that George
Sanders' Sher Khan in THE JUNGLE BOOK is a gay figure?
>Timon & Pumba are the nice gay uncles, Simba's
>growning up process involves rejecting the lifestyle of the gay uncles to
>embrace heterosexuality and dominant white patriarchy atop that insidious
>Cirlce of Life (for those of you who will surely say "I don't see the gay
>angle at all," check an article in Christopher Street #219, Nov 94, p. 4,
>by John Harris)), etc.
Rather, he accepts his responsibilties.  Neither Scar (even though he
usurps power) nor Timon & Pumbaa are responsible adults.  And are you
saying that  eating insects and massive flatulence are parts of the gay
>Secondly, I think it's pretty limited to say "if the primary audience
>doesn't get the racism, then a reading for racism is not important" - go
>through any issue of Cinema Journal or the like and tell me how many of the
>arguments enclosed within are easily received by the primary audiences of
>the films discussed.  If academic film and television criticism relied on
>only presenting the messages received by primary audiences, we'd all be out
>of jobs real quick.
Maybe, but neither is our job manufacturing meaning.
>While I agree that most kids don't walk out of Lion
>King saying "white patriarchal heterosexual society is great and anything
>else must be destroyed," most kids would tell you that the hyenas were lazy
>and funny looking, that Scar was 'weird' (Simba says so himself),
Well, killing your brother, trying to kill your little nephew, and talking
with a British accent are pretty weird behavior outside of a Shakespearean
history play.
>and that
>Muphasa was who they want to be like when they grow up.  Obviously we need
>to consider how the film is received, but we can't simply say that since
>kids don't get the racism overtly that we can't discuss the covert
>connotations that litter the film.
That's true.  And I'm free to wonder about the connotations of an argument
about a text's deeper meanings which mispells the names of the characters
in the text.
--Richard J. Leskosky
Richard J. Leskosky                        office phone: (217) 244-2704
Assistant Director                             FAX: (217) 244-2223
Unit for Cinema Studies                   University of Illinois
2117 Foreign Languages Building   707 S. Mathews Avenue
                                                         Urbana, Illinois
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