The Lion King shows a hierarchy among the animal characters, which may at first glance seem natural, but upon closer examination is apparent to be race and gender hierarchy. The ruler is always a male king, even when the ‘rightful’ ruler, Simba, is gone and his mother is present.
Colorism is rampant in The Lion King, with evil characters like the hyenas and Scar shown as having darker, more ‘foreign’ seeming features.
This is a common theme throughout Disney movies from the era, when good characters had more European features and an American accent as opposed to evil ones, who had foreign features and accents. This phenomenon is clearest in Aladdin, Pocahontas and Mulan.
Hyenaphobia refers to the hatred and fear of outsiders or ‘hyenas’ who will disrupt the existing order of the society. We can draw a parallel to groups which are considered out-groups in our own society, and denied entrance to protect the status quo.
Another important aspect of the hyenas is race. The hyenas are voiced by black voice actors, and portrayed as significantly less intelligent, civilized and ‘good’ compared to the other animals. In fact, the hyenas’ lack of civility is shown as the reason the hyenas are not allowed into society, as their stupidity and laziness would ruin the society for all the other animals. Sound familiar?
When certain minority groups are denied civil rights, opportunities or access, the justification is that they are somehow less human. This representation of minorities, which shows them to be inferior, reinforces beliefs about groups that further decrease their personhood in the eyes of the public.
Visual representations of some scenes involving Scar recalled Hitler and a Nazi propaganda film. It is essential for us to consider how repeated visual imagery from Disney movies which show dark, foreign, accented characters as evil can affect children who are absorbing their first ideas about race and ethnicity.