The Current

Professor defends against claims he's 'culturally illiterate' for calling The Lion King fascist

The new remake of The Lion King opened in theatres Friday, and Dutch cultural theorist Dan Hassler-Forest says the narrative path of the Disney classic unpacks an ideological agenda by way of who rules the animal kingdom.

Dan Hassler-Forest wrote a controversial op-ed for The Washington Post

Cultural theorist Dan Hassler-Forest argues The Lion King's narrative path is a fascist parable that uses animals to maintain the 'circuits of power.' (Disney/The Associated Press)
Listen9:13

Read Story Transcript

A Dutch cultural theorist is defending himself against claims that he is "culturally illiterate" after he came under fire for a recent op-ed piece suggesting The Lion King's storyline portrays an ideological agenda. 

"What sounds a little bit illiterate to me is to say about a story that it is absolutely one thing, and therefore, absolutely not another thing," said Dan Hassler-Forest, a professor of media studies and English literature at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

In the controversial Washington Post article — published ahead of Friday's release of the live-action remake — he claims The Lion King "isn't really about lions or any other animal species." Rather the storyline "offers us fascist ideology writ large," he said. 

Critics were quick to rebuke Hassler-Forest's assertion. Speaking to a Fox News panel, entertainment commentator Michael Knowles said it was "the stupidest article I've ever read in The Washington Post" and called him "culturally illiterate." 

"It is not about fascism. But because the left right now has become so culturally illiterate, the only thing they can ever refer to in their cultural criticism is Hitler. Everything they don't like is Hitlarian or fascist or Nazi," Knowles said. 

The Current's guest host David Common spoke to Hassler-Forest about his op-ed. He maintained The Lion King is a fascist parable that uses lions, hyenas, monkeys, warthogs and meerkats to maintain the "circuits of power."

Here is part of their conversation.

So explain this to me. How is The Lion King a fascist story?

Firstly, it's not about lions. It's a fable in which animals perform roles that we associate with human social structures. So it paints a picture of a society in which power is defined biologically, and in which the weak have learned to worship at the feet of the powerful. And the only way for the herbivores to survive in this world is to become the servants and friends of the powerful.

We learn to empathize with the lions who are the fascist leaders, and our point-of-view is determined by them. And this makes it different from a lot of other kinds of fables that have a different political view. For instance, Animal Farm or even Disney's own Robin Hood, which tended to side with the less powerful groups in these societies.

The opening scene of The Lion King is misleading, according to Hassler-Forest, because 'animals don't congregate to worship before a newborn prince when a new lion is born.' (Disney/The Associated Press)

OK, let me go back to what you started by saying, is that this is not a story about lions. Who's to say that? 

I think it's something that's obvious to any viewer who watched the opening scene. Animals don't congregate to worship before a newborn prince when a new lion is born.

Animals, I think, would be indifferent.

Lions aren't actually kings of the savanna. They're part of a complicated ecosystem, and lions don't have birds that offer their services to them. They don't make friends with herbivores who happen to live out in the jungle.

So because everything that the movie tells us about what animals do is either incorrect or misleading, I think it tells us a lot more about what we imagine a perfect human society to be.- Dan Hassler-Forest

These are all very human forms of behaviour, and we recognize that in these films. But they become enjoyable to us as parables, as allegories, as fables, you know, that we've known through all kinds of fairytale stories.

So our way of understanding it, I think, ... is to first ask, "What are we invested in here? What are we learning?" We learn nothing about lions. We learn nothing about hyenas. Everything that we learn about them is incorrect. 

Lions are matriarchal. They're not run by a king, and their system wouldn't collapse when the king abandoned his position. The lionesses are in fact in charge.

So because everything that the movie tells us about what animals do is either incorrect or misleading, I think it tells us a lot more about what we imagine a perfect human society to be.

Scar and the hyenas are portrayed as the outsiders in the animal kingdom, says Hassler-Forest. (Disney/The Associated Press)

When Simba runs away in fear because he thinks that he's responsible for his father's death, we see the whole lion ecosystem crumbling apart because the hyenas have taken over. 

The hyenas are portrayed as the outsiders in this society. ... The hyenas, I think, represent the way that minorities are often represented in film. They're the groups that aren't included in circuits of power.  

There are many, many films that include scenes where young white kids get lost in the wrong part of town, and the scene where Simba and Nala go into the elephant graveyard and then encounter three dangerous dark-skinned predators.

That's why I write in the piece that the way in which the society is structured is the powerful try to keep minorities out of power in order to maintain balance. This is a very hyper-conservative political view that I think you could justifiably deem fascist.

OK, let's pick up on that because you're talking about a hyper-conservative view. It seems like a great segue to talk about Fox News. Conservative commentator on there, Michael Knowles, didn't quite agree with what you said. 

Here's what he had to say: "The Lion King is a wonderful story. ... It is not about fascism. But because the left right now has become so culturally illiterate, the only thing that they can ever refer to in their cultural criticism is Hitler. Everything they don't like is Hitlarian or Fascist or Nazi."

Dan, are you culturally illiterate?

I don't know. I wouldn't call myself that. I've spent many years cultivating my knowledge of media theory and media themselves, and I'm a cultural theorist. It's my job to know about culture and to teach about it.

What sounds a little bit illiterate to me is to say about a story that it is absolutely one thing, and therefore, absolutely not another thing. 

You can respond to The Lion King in a lot of different ways. 

Many people, I think, just respond to it intuitively. We respond to it as a classical story about a father and son, and about family conflict ... but what we get when we watch a story like that is not just a story about individual characters. We are also taught a worldview. It's ideology.

OK, so bring it down to the cinema level here. Are you saying kids shouldn't see it?

No, I'm not saying that at all. 

I'm saying that it's a really good example to look to when we think about what kind of political meanings we're actually consuming.


Written by Amara McLaughlin. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.