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September 1996, Week 2


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Jason Mittell <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Fri, 13 Sep 1996 08:58:58 -0500
text/plain (67 lines)
>I don't like these kinds of threads about one-to-one connections between
>what's on screen and what it means to generalized audiences, and it's even
>more complex with something as tricky and as potentially damaging to
>reputations as claims of "racism."  But let me put it from the point of
>view of a father of a child (obviously a super-intelligent one, but still a
>youngster).  Is it racism if no one notices?  Do you, Simone, or others,
>really believe that kids, THE PRIMARY AUDIENCE FOR _THE LION KING_ have ANY
>idea who does the voices for animated characters?  That kids from 3 to say,
>10 or 1, or older still, really have a clue who is black or white behind
>the screen or care if they do know ? And if they don't know, much less
>care, then how could a film show signs of racism solely based on WHO does
>the voice of allegedly "bad" characters. Are Mexican-Americans ALL coded as
>"bad" if Cheech Marin does the voice of a hyena?  And are all
>African-Americans coded as bad if Whoopi Goldgerg is also a hyena?
>Alternately, are all Brits bad because Jeremy Irons does the really bad
>guy?  And if people know it's Whoopi, what about all the GOOD characters
>she's played for YEARS!
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), the drawings (hyenas are dark, Scar is darker than
other lions, Bonzai looks like Whoopi, Muphasa looks pretty darn caucasian
even though James Earl Jones is the voice, etc.), the characteristics of
the characters (the hyenas are typical minstrel-like buffoons, Rafiki the
baboon is clownish and does Jim Crow-esque dances, the lions are noble and
stately, etc.), 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 while the leaders of the
lions are male but the females do all the work), sexuality (Scar is coded
as the evil gay uncle, 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.
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.  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), 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.
Sorry for ranting at length, but this film is really enfuriating -
especially the songs by Elton John, which aren't racist but are just really
-Jason Mittell
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