Scar: The Lion Martin Luther King
by Benjamin Studebaker
Disney has made a lot of beloved animated films. All over the developed world, kids grow up with them. There is something that has long bothered me about them, however–they have long presented children with morally uncomplicated, black and white, hero versus villain narratives. In this way, these movies contribute to our moral socialization as children, normalizing deontological moral beliefs–the notion that actions are right or wrong in themselves, regardless of the outcomes they produce. There is also an anti-intellectual thread running through many of these films–the villain is typically a clever schemer, while the hero is typically an every-man who happens to have unusual physical abilities. Today I’d like to highlight this issue in our culture by taking the plot of the beloved film The Lion King and morally reconstructing it so as to make Scar sympathetic.
So, in the ordinary version of The Lion King, we are told the story from the perspective of Simba, the heir to the throne of the lion kingdom. Simba visits an elephant graveyard, in which hostile hyenas attempt to assassinate him. These hyenas form an alliance with Simba’s uncle, Scar, who is portrayed as a malicious schemer. Scar assassinates Simba’s father, Mufasa, and manipulates Simba into going into exile. Scar attempts to have Simba killed on his way out of the lion kingdom, but is unsuccessful. Simba is taken in by two eccentrics, Timon and Pumba, who raise him to adulthood. Simba is eventually located by an old friend, Nala, who persuades him to return in an attempt to dethrone Scar, who has permitted the hyenas to move into lion territory. Simba successfully defeats Scar, learning of Scar’s nefarious role in his father’s death on the way. When cornered, Scar attempts to betray the hyenas to save his own skin. In the end, Simba allows the hyenas to tear Scar to shreds.
This version of the story is very limited. It’s good entertainment, but intellectually, it’s not much fun. At no point in this version of the story is the status quo presented at the beginning of the film ever questioned–Mufasa’s rule is portrayed as good in all respects, Scar’s as bad in all respects, and Simba’s as the restoration of Mufasa’s. The vision of life under Mufasa is too good to be true. All of Mufasa’s enemies are incoherently malevolent, everything Mufasa does is wise and just. The original version of the story presents a false narrative of how things work in politics. In politics, bad things happen not because some people are evil and some people are good, but because people have different conceptions of what is good in the first place. No man is evil in his own mind. No lion is either. What’s a more realistic narrative?
The Lion King is a propaganda film for Simba’s regime. Simba is indoctrinated with speciesist beliefs that hyenas are of lesser intrinsic moral value than lions by his father, Mufasa, who is the head of a fascist state that systematically oppresses hyenas. The name itself is the first clue–this is the lion kingdom, not the animal kingdom. Mufasa’s dynasty gives lions precedence over other animals, refusing to show equal concern for the interests of all of its members. Mufasa means well, but he is under the delusion that hyenas are lesser creatures, a view he holds unreasonably and without adequate epistemic justifications. Keep in mind, under Mufasa, the hyenas are made to live in an elephant graveyard, an inhospitable environment. They are denied adequate nutrition and are kept in a state of perpetual poverty. This is not unlike the condition of the Jewish ghettos in Nazi Europe or the inferior living standards of blacks in South Africa under apartheid.
Scar is a dissenter against Mufasa’s speciesist policies. He hates how the hyenas are kept apart through segregation and treated as inferior to the lions. He is also a victim of primogeniture, the practice in hereditary states of awarding titles to the first born purely on the basis of birth order. Because Scar was born second, Scar was denied the opportunity to govern the lion kingdom, and consequently Scar was denied the opportunity to extend to the hyenas equal status as citizens of the lion kingdom. After Mufasa has Simba, Mufasa’s lineage is secured. Mufasa takes Simba on walks in which Simba is indoctrinated with the beliefs held by his father. These beliefs include justifying the lions’ eating of their subjects on the grounds that when the lions themselves die, their bodies become the grass, an idea that the audience only accepts because the characters are lions. This would be akin to Hannibal Lecter arguing that it’s okay for him to eat people, because when he dies you can use his corpse for fertilizer.
At this point, it becomes clear that Simba is going to grow up to be just like his father. In order to liberate the hyenas from their secondary status, it becomes necessary for Scar to eliminate Mufasa and his line from power, preferably sooner rather than later, lest Mufasa produce additional offspring. Scar devises a plan that is spectacularly light on bloodshed–only Mufasa is killed. He can’t bring himself to kill Simba, a small child, personally, so he sends him on his way, encouraged in his departure with the implication that he himself was involved in Mufasa’s demise. He immediately recognizes this folly and attempts to rectify it by sending the hyenas after Simba, but by then it is too late, and Simba escapes. It is a rare thing in human history for one individual to forcibly seize a crown from another with so little violence as happens here. This indicates Scar’s concern for the lives of his subjects, and his desire to bring everyone, even reactionary lions unlikely to support his policies, into the new era.
Timon and Pumba are not merely kindly eccentrics, they are anarchists–they reject the notion that they have any duties to a state of any kind and attempt to live outside the purview of the lion kingdom. Their slogan, “Hakuna Matata”, which means “no worries” is really one of cold indifference to the other animals they live among. They are backwoods individualists who look out, first and foremost, for themselves. They also consume lots of strange insects, which may be hallucinogenic. They take Simba in first and foremost because they believe he might be useful as a guardian.
In the meantime, Scar attempts to create a new society in which animals are judged not by the color of their fur but by the content of their character. In order to do this, he allows formerly marginalized species access to the lion kingdom. During the course of this process, a drought ensues, as evidenced by the decay in the vegetation (hyenas, as carnivores, would not have produced widespread plant death) and by the fire that rages late in the film. The resultant low food and water supplies are blamed by xenophobes on the hyena immigrants when in reality they were naturally caused. Nala is one such xenophobe. When she encounters Simba, she sees an opportunity to expel the migrants she views both as inferior and as the cause of the reduced food supply and persuades him to return to the lion kingdom by seduction.
Scar rightly recognizes that Simba is a figure around which his political opponents, all of whom are speciesist, xenophobic crypto-fascists, can rally. He initially attempts to discredit Simba, and is very nearly successful, when hubris gets the best of him, and he foolishly tells Simba that he himself brought about Mufasa’s demise. This is a common theme in Disney movies–the intellectual villain’s own arrogance is his downfall. However, individuals who often act very justly in some areas of life are often unpleasant in others. Scar is a good ruler, albeit a somewhat conceited and unpleasant individual. This leads to an open brawl, in which Simba’s lions get the better of Scar’s hyenas.
When cornered, Scar appears to sell out the hyenas, but it is shortly thereafter revealed that this is a stall tactic so that Scar can fling hot coals at Simba and gain an advantage in the subsequent physical encounter. Of course, as is the tendency with Disney movies, in a direct physical fight, the hero has the advantage, and Scar is unceremoniously kicked off a cliff. He manages to recover, only to be greeted by the hyenas. The hyenas are unable to recognize his words as a stall tactic. They are too used to lions mistreating them and are too ready to believe that Scar is like all the others. They tear to shreds the very lion who championed their interests, and so Simba restores the fascist regime of his father to power.
If the ending were changed so that Scar prevailed, it would not be hard to tell a story like this in a way suitable for children, in which no character is outwardly malevolent, in which, instead of a black and white affair, mutual misunderstanding is the culprit . The most famous film of that variety is How to Train Your Dragon. I would like to see more films of that kind. The Lion King is a technically spectacular, heart-warming film, but it could have been better if was not merely emotionally engrossing, but intellectually stimulating. Many other films and shows for children are open to the same criticism. I hope one day that is no longer so.