Disney’s Lion King was initially, and continues to be in its latest iteration, a rewriting of Hamlet, one that rewrites Shakespeare’s dark tragedy into a myth of rebirth and renewal. Despite similarities between The Lion King and Hamlet, which include basic plot points such as the king’s brother killing the king, marrying the king’s wife, and supplanting him only to be finally defeated by the king’s son, the differences found in the ending are far more significant. In Hamlet the King’s son, his mother, his girlfriend and her father, and two of his close associates – not Timon and Pumbaa, but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – all wind up dead. Justice was served as the murderer is dead, but by the end of the play the audience wonders if these other deaths were worth this eventual justice.
Hamlet’s sense of the futility of vengeance reveals differences between Shakespeare’s time and our own. Of course The Lion King is bound to be Hamlet with a happy ending because of its younger audience. On one level it’s further proof that unqualified tragedy has been banished from American mass market cinema, though some of the Harry Potter films and Endgame are notable exceptions that allowed their younger audiences to experience loss. But there are other differences too. The son’s return is purely motivated by a desire to take his rightful place as King for the sake of restoring the dying Prideland, not revenge for his dead father. Furthermore, Simba lives after successfully defeating his uncle in battle, unlike Hamlet, and instead of seeing his girlfriend commit suicide, the two end up happily married. The film ends where it began, with the public presentation of the new royal children heralding the restoration of the kingdom and of the “circle of life.”
Disney could credibly rewrite Hamlet in this way because of one important cultural difference between our time and Shakespeare’s: as far as we’re concerned, the consequences of moral failure, violence, and vengeance are never permanent. The ultimate consequences of even murder are limited to the brief period that the murderer is left in charge. The purging fires at the end of The Lion King, the fires of vengeance, leave no scars: only the villain carries any lasting scars, and those scars are the residue of his last unsuccessful attempt to directly usurp his brother and take his place as king. We’re only permanently scarred when we step out of place. In the world of Disney’s Lion King, violence and vengeance are a means to an end that cause only the guilty to suffer, ultimately ushering in renewal and restoration without any ugly residue of lasting consequence.
The Lion King reflects the naïve belief that killing the evil uncle and driving out his dark-skinned, hyena lackeys are all that we need to restore the kingdom, a belief also held by many superhero films, though perhaps with a bit more subtlety in MCU films. But this belief alone isn’t what is driving either Lion King film. What I’ve come to think now, after viewing Disney’s 2019 live-action remake of The Lion King, is that this naïve view of violence validated by the films is embedded in a larger political context that requires this view for its maintenance.
Simba lived in three different kingdoms over the course of his life, each one representing a different kind of economy, and the film has no qualms about which kingdom represents the best political and social order under which to live. Two out of three of them validate violence in some way.
First, Simba grew up under Mufasa’s restrained predatory economy. The hyenas are constantly kept at bay, and the lions don’t overhunt the herds, so the natural order thrives. While it needs constant oversight, all species flourish under this system. Non-human ecosystems do in fact work this way, as illustrated by the short film “How Wolves Change Rivers,” so this idea in the film has some validity for its non-human species as they exist in real life.
After Scar murdered Mufasa and became king, however, Scar allowed the hyenas into the Prideland to support his rule, and the governing economy then switched to an unrestrained predatory economy. The hyenas ate without restraint, as hyenas naturally do, so the herds moved on and the land began to wither.
In order to ensure his rule, Scar ordered his follower-hyenas to murder Simba, who escaped his would-be killers to arrive at a distant paradise representing the film’s third economic system: a restrained non-predatory economy. Simba had to learn how to live alongside animals he would naturally view as prey, so he changed his eating habits. Rather than eating his fellow mammals, he learned to eat bugs. He gave up his role as predator and lived in a peaceful, flourishing, non-predatory economy as its protector until Nala found him and compelled him to return to the Prideland.
The film is unrestrained in its preference for the first economy, Mufasa’s restrained predatory economy. An unrestrained predatory economy is clearly undesirable because of the destruction it causes, but the restrained non-predatory economy is rejected too. The film presents it as a form of meaningless hedonism: hakuna matata, nothing matters, sometimes you have to leave the past behind, and it’s preferable to live free of responsibility anyhow. Simba had to forsake his natural identity as a predator and as a king to participate in the third economy, which perceives the first economy only from the point of view of prey. Predation, according to Timon, the spokesperson for this third economy, is a line, not a circle, one in which the strong consume the weak. He has no sense of each species’ dependence upon the other or how each species, ultimately, feeds the others. According to Disney economics, life is meaningless in a restrained non-predatory economy, then, while in a restrained predatory economy everyone has a place and a purpose. Even the king becomes the grass that feeds the antelope.
The Lion King ends where it began, with the birth of the future king. All inhabitants of the Prideland visit Pride Rock to celebrate Simba’s restoration as King of the Prideland and to celebrate the birth of his new son and their future king. With him, the natural order has been restored to balance, and the circle of life is drawn whole once again. But when I watched the ending again this time around I had to ask myself: why are the antelope celebrating the restoration of a lion as their king? Seriously – why? He’s their predator. He is going to eat them. Weren’t they better off leaving the Prideland and going someplace without lions? Someplace like Simba’s third economy, the restrained non-predatory economy? Weren’t all the animals flourishing there? Why didn’t Simba tell all the lions, “I’ve learned a new way to live. Let’s abandon the Prideland, go to this new place, and live without killing other animals,” then take them to his place of exile and teach them all to eat bugs?
I think the film couldn’t end this way because our lives as westerners, especially if we live in the United States, are caught between only two of the same three economic orders, and Disney can’t, or won’t, think past the binary in which we’re all trapped. In fact, I think bugs were chosen as Simba’s alternate diet so that we would be disgusted by this third choice. The original, animated Lion King was released in 1994, during the Clinton years, so perhaps the best way to read this film is as a paean to Clintonian neolilberalism. The neoliberalism of the Clinton years was a restrained predatory economy characterized by general stability and economic growth. These economies regularly lapse into unrestraint, as we saw in the 2008 financial crash, but during the 1990s, things were booming.
Before we can discuss neoliberalism, though, we need to get our thinking clear about just what liberalism is to begin with. Liberalism is the economic and political philosophy arising in England after the English Civil War in the late seventeenth century. It wedded Enlightenment reason with capitalism and representative government and stood opposed to England’s traditional feudal economy run by big landowners – the nobility – and a monarchy working hand in hand with them and supported by the state church.
Neoliberalism is a reinvention of liberalism inaugurated in the United States in the 1970s, under Carter, that took off during the Reagan years. It began with liberalism’s ideals but wedded them to a commitment to financial and business deregulation, tax cuts, increased military spending, supply side economics, and trade deficit expansion. While it seems counterintuitive to want to expand trade deficits, they make the economies of other countries dependent upon US purchasing power, which places the strength and purchasing power of the US economy as within the best interest of other countries.
In the 1990s, Bill Clinton reinvented neoliberalism by taking up this agenda, like his Republican counterparts reducing welfare and social spending, but separating from its commitments to militarism and so-called “family values” and emphasizing multiculturalism and a concern for the economy. But surely we see the economics are the same, whether they are Carter’s, Reagan’s, or Clinton’s? Clinton got hippie baby boomers to buy into neoliberalism in this way. Clintonian neoliberalism is the milieu of the original Lion King film resituated in a natural environment to gratify the left. The Bush years, especially after 9-11, saw the GOP embrace neoconservatism, which while it has its own history, became essentially a rebranded form of neoliberalism, a neoliberalism that retains its old emphases on the military, support of Israel, and “family values.” The contest now fought out by the mainstreams of the Democratic and Republican parties is between Clintonian neoliberalism, which was picked up by President Obama’s administration and would be again by Joe Biden, if elected, and George W. Bush’s neoliberalism, represented by Romney, Jeb Bush, John McCain, and other mainstream Republicans.
I realize I’ve just given very different, very foreign definitions of the terms “liberal” and “conservative,” but I think they’re more historically accurate than how these terms are used in mainstream media, which are designed to emphasize meaningful difference where very little exists: we usually think that “liberals” are pro-choice, pro-gun control, pro-regulation, and pro-big government, while “conservatives” are pro-life and pro-family, against gun control, favor deregulation, and favor small government. This thinking plays into a team mentality: if you root for Ohio State football, you hate Michigan. If you’re a Gator, you hate the Seminoles. You’re on Team Democrat or Team Republican. The truth is that these terms have taken on the meaning that they have in order to emphasize differences between political parties that are very much alike in all other respects. Both the Democratic and the Republican parties are the children of classic liberalism and are generally pursuing very similar economic and foreign policy agendas. They also take money from the same large corporations. Obama ran in 2008 on a Green Economy, but greatly expanded oil pipelines and offshore drilling (until the BP oil crisis), and he expanded a drone warfare regimen begun by George W. Bush. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are just as invested in preserving the private healthcare industry as Donald Trump.
The current, live action Lion King has been released in the middle of Trump’s first term in office. It was born into a new political moment. President Trump is a neoliberal in the George W. Bush sense, meaning he’s a neoconservative, being strongly pro-military, pro-Israel, and pro-“family values.” However, he weds this brand of neoliberalism with protectionist trade policies – which George W. Bush attempted early in his administration through steel tariffs, then scaled back within nine months – with nostalgia for a past vision of America and with a strongly defined anti-immigrant white national identity. He rejects the globalism that both parties supported until the 2016 election. Within the context of the Trump administration, the 2019 Lion King can only be read as nostalgia for the Clinton years. Trump is the face of those pursuing Scar’s unrestrained predatory economy as its ideal, rolling back financial and environmental regulations farther than ever before and engaging in seemingly out of control deficit spending (even before the Coronavirus pandemic hit the United States in early 2020) that will, in perhaps far too short a time, do to our planet and economy what the hyenas did to the Prideland.
The 2019 Lion King is also a reminder of what has intervened in our own real US history since the first Lion King film: dark-skinned aggressors who had to be driven out after they attacked us on 9-11-2001, a theme picked up by Trump’s immigration policy. Our new order will restore the Prideland… we’ll Make the Prideland Great Again. Scar said as much himself. While Scar relied on these dark-skinned interlopers directly and as an ally, Trump relies on them negatively, but either way, they’re a source of power for the leader of the unrestrained predatory economy. This reliance on the dark-skinned interloper isn’t just a side-effect of a predatory system, but is needed by both restrained and unrestrained predatory systems to sustain their predation. Rather than teaching the lions to eat bugs, we’re trying to convince the prey that they’re predators too. Just don’t pay too close attention while the real predators running things pick people off around the fringes of your herds, maybe with a semi-automatic, maybe with a denial of coverage, but always indirectly. You won’t see Scar behind the guns, but the gun profits flow from those in his position and back to them. And, it’ll never be you or your kids, right? You’re a good guy with a gun. More importantly, you’re white. There will always be people lower than you on the food chain. I’ll see to it.
I think the connections should be clear by now. The US political establishment resists serious and substantial change to gun ownership laws in order to sustain our illusion that we’re predators, not prey. Again, there are differences. The Democratic Party would ban assault rifles and require background checks, while the Republican Party resists these measures completely. Democratic initiatives would make a difference, don’t get me wrong. I support them. But neither party is seriously talking about repealing the Second Amendment, never has, and never would. Both are dependent upon us maintaining the illusion that we’re all predators. Give the antelope AKs or ARs, or at least really big handguns and rifles, and they won’t complain if a few of them are hunted down as prey through mass shootings or predatory healthcare laws.
Is anyone advocating for the third economy, a restrained, non-predatory economy? Yes, and you know who they are. Who she is, the frightening socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Alongside that socialist Bernie Sanders. You’re already, predictably, resisting this analysis. You already said it: nature needs predators. Perhaps I’m mistaken, but human beings aren’t wolves. We can change who we are. We can choose how we live. But people will never change. The truth is that neoliberalism isn’t the natural order and has only come into being very recently in US history, just within the last 50 years, and we had to change to adopt this neoliberal order to begin with. The fatalism that mistakes the neoliberal order for the natural order is exactly what is being disseminated by The Lion King films. Change begins when we allow ourselves to believe we aren’t only animals governed by a fixed nature relegated to a specific place in an ecosystem, that we can imagine better ways to live, and then perhaps have the courage to support politicians who believe that as well. Change isn’t like eating bugs forever. It’s living in a world that isn’t run by predators. But to live in that world, we have to give up our own fantasies of predation.