Two things I’m not about to apologise for: being an enormous nerd, and caring about children’s film and literature.
In case you were wondering, mine is the geeky sensibility that animates a lot of the critiques of sci-fi and fantasy in Lashings, including our existing Lion King sketch (which was, if I say so myself, the breakaway hit of our Edinburgh 2010 run – if you haven’t yet had the chance to see twelve grown adults miming carnivorous vaginas for a paying audience, I recommend you rectify this ASAP).
I’ve spent most of my adult life struggling to balance an extremely sharp and pointy feminist nose with a love of all things animated and super-powered, hobbit-ridden and Hogwarts-bound (I draw the line, however, at psychic talking dragons). I love geeky shit enough to ask some really difficult questions about who it serves and what it does: feminists who want to know why I’m wasting my time with this trivial silliness and geeks who whine that I’m harshing their uncritical squee tend to be given equally short shrift.
I also think that there’s nothing less feminist than acting as though children’s literature isn’t important, or that popular children’s texts (such as Disney films) aren’t literature. These things, which are pushed on kids to a ridiculous extent in Western culture (see here and here for discussions, and here for a really interesting alternative take on The Little Mermaid), play a huge role in shaping their inner lives. I don’t mean ‘Oh, kids will watch Superman and then think that they can fly’ or anything so pointlessly reductive: what I mean is that the ranges of characters and situations shown will, in some very real ways, help to shape kids’ senses of what is possible, both within fantasy* and outside it**.
* Eg., a child (generally!) knows that flying is make believe and ze cannot really fly.
** But if flying = a make-believe symbol that stands in for ‘being strong and adventurous’, and child only ever sees a certain type of character getting to fly... well, you tell me.
I think Ursula le Guin puts it best:
As you read a book word by word and page by page, you participate in its creation, just as a cellist playing a Bach suite participates, note by note, in the creation, the coming-to-be, the existence, of the music. And, as you read and re-read, the book participates in the creation of you, your thoughts and feelings, the size and temper of your soul.
-- Ursula K. Le Guin
Disney Princesses are a rant for another day, or possibly even another lifetime. But this is what I have to say about the five things I really wish that ickle baby Galatea hadn’t learned from The Lion King:
1. Girls kick ass! For exactly as long as they need to until the Real Hero shows up.
This is the thing that got me angry enough to write the Lashings skit in the first place. When It All Goes Horribly Wrong at Pride Rock re: evil Machiavellian uncles, young lioness Nala courageously leaves her family and travels across the desert in order to find somebody who can come and put a stop to Scar. She’s the sole surviving hope of her people (mostly because they believe their prince to be dead, but hey, I’ll take my female heroes where I can find them), and gets sent off with a really touching duet in the stage-musical version*.
* Which interests me particularly because it's performed by two women (link is to a video, lyrics here), backed with a chorus of mostly women -- which is not something you see that often in mainstream pop culture, particularly when the song isn't about love or men. Hooray, Bechdel-test-passing on the West End!
But all of that immediately ceases to be important once Simba decides that hmmm, maybe he’ll wander back home and fulfil his patriarchal dest-- er, I mean, claim that pesky kingdom back after all. And answer me this, cats and kittens: if adult!Nala is demonstrably able to knock adult!Simba over and pin him to the ground just as she did when they were cubs... why is that he is able to fight Scar and she isn’t?
[Video description: Pumbaa the warthog and Timon the meerkat are stalked and chased by Nala. Pumbaa becomes stuck under a tree root, and they seem about to be eaten until Simba appears and attacks Nala. The two lions fight until Nala knocks Simba to the ground and pins him there, in a pose that echoes a moment when they played together as cubs at the beginning of the film. Simba recognises her, and gasps 'Nala?'. End clip.]
What really spins me out is that I’d never even noticed this as a wee’un. Because of course, no matter how strong or brave or clever Nala is, she isn’t The Hero. Of course, she isn’t there to be identified with, or loved in her own right, because she’s The Girl, and no matter how competent she is we’d better not forget that her real job is to look sexy in a disturbingly anthropomorphic fashion during the profoundly G-rated Disneyfied sex-scene.
2. Accents as narrative determinism:
Let’s break it down, shall we?
Standard USAmerican = Hero (Simba, Mufasa, Nala, Sarabi, all the good lionesses)
British RP = highly intelligent, whether for good (Zazu, played by Rowan Atkinson) or for evil (Scar, played by Jeremy Irons).
Working-class Bronx = the Comic Relief (Timon and Pumbaa)
Afro-American/Latino cadences = Comedy Villanous Henchmen (the hyenas, speaking parts voiced by Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin)
Swahili?* = Unfathomably Wise Elder (Rafiki).
It’s particularly worrying that the accents also seem to function as marker of species, and that the more class privilege your accent is associated with, the higher up the food chain you tend to be. Literally.
On the other hand, I do have to give massive props to Niketa Calame and Jason Weaver, who played Young Nala and the singing voice of Young Simba resepctively and were, to the best of my knowledge, the first Black actors to voice a Disney hero and heroine.
* Given that the character is named in Swahili, and speaks a couple of phrases of it, I’m going to assume that that’s what the voice-actor Robert Guillame, who is actually USAmerican, was going for. The racefail in that isn't mine to unpack, particularly as Guillame is African-American, but I do think it's that it's there.
3. Effeminacy Is Evil
Oh Scar, Scar, Scar. Much as you might be the favourite character of every gentleman-fancying person with whom I’ve ever watched this film as an adult, you are still decidedly problematic . Between the dramatic gestures, slinky walk, camp asides about being surrounded by IDIOTS!, and being physically slighter and less muscular than the other lions, it’s fairly easy to read the character as less conventionally-masculine, and I think this is intentional on the film-makers’ behalf. More troublingly, his gender performance seems to be directly linked to his evil nature, as in one scene the character admits that he resorts to conspiracy because he is less physically strong than his brother (‘at the shallow end of the gene pool’). Although in the stage version, part of Scar’s villiany is wanting to ‘marry’ Nala against her will, he shows no interest in her until the idea of a succession is suggested by Zazu – make of that what you will.
For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t really object to Disney fielding a queer villain as a once-off. But it happens with irritating regularity, and it tends to be the only portrayal of non-normative gender performance that gets into mainstream kids’ film. If the only images of gender-unconventionality you see growing up are irrevocably paired with evildom, what does that do to your perception of queers? If you’re a baby queerthing yourself, what does it do to your perception of you?
Well, aside from turn a lot of us into Goths, obviously.
(Full disclaimer: At the time The Lion King came out in cinemas, I was a freakishly tall, skinny pre-teen with an enormous mane of bushy black hair and a withering contempt for anyone not conversant with fractal geometry and the intricacies of the mythos of J.R.R. Tolkien. D’you think I got called ‘Uncle Scar’ every day for a week at break? Answers on a postcard. See also: my ongoing obsession with the bewilderingly high proportion of Disney villians who happen to have green eyes.)
Occasionally I think of the legions of soft-spoken, elegant, evil-intentioned but physically non-violent men who have been the antagonists in every Disney film I grew up with, from Robin Hood ’s Sir Hiss to Aladdin’s Jafar to The Frog Princess’s Dr Facilier. Then I place them alongside the legions of Disney lady-villains who have similarly broken the conventions of gender presentation by being conventionally-unattractive (Ursula the Sea Witch), loud and aggressive (The Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland, Cruella de Ville) or unfemininely ambitious/determined/demanding (Cinderella and Snow White’s stepmothers, Madame Medusa from The Rescuers, the evil Siamese cats from Lady and the Tramp). And then I dance around and around the room, singing at the top of my voice: ‘Thank G*d, thank g*d, thank g*d I’m queer!’.
(Full-on butch ladies, incidentally, don’t exist. Or at least they won’t until Disney makes Mulan, five years later, and that is another post for another day.)
4. Hierarchy Is Natural and Monarchy Is Awesome (particularly when the Royal Family is capable of eating you)
Say what you like about the Royal Wedding Hype that is already tying multiple knots in my organic anti-heteropatriarchy knickers... but not even Princess Anne at the peak of her fox-hunting career was ever known to chase down her subjects with a pack of corgis, rip out their carotid arteries and nom on their juicy still-twitching corpses. ‘Circle of life’, my free-range herbivorous arse.
5. ‘Can You Feel The Love Tonight’
... finally my most deeply-felt and serious objection to this film of all: like anyone else who was a teenager in the 90s, I had to listen to this being played at graduations, school dances, weddings, end-of-year choir numbers, etc until it came out my fucking nose. Eurgh. Sir Elton, I love you like the slightly embarassing Tory-leaning luvvie uncle I never had, but at times you have a lot to answer for.
... and one thing I wish I had:
[TW for discussion of kitty incest]
This has been bothering me for SIXTEEN YEARS now: Seriously, who the hell is Nala’s father?
Either it’s Mufasa, in which case she ends up having kids with her half-brother, or it’s Scar, in which case she ends up being almost pressured into having kids with her Dad (and still ends up having kids with her cousin). I’ve had enough cats in my life to be prepared to give points for animal-behaviour accuracy if turns out that either theory is true, but I think that both of them may cause Disney executives to spontaneously combust. For what it’s worth, a quick Google suggests that I am not the only person to have lost sleep over this. In the extremely unlikely event that I ever come into contact with anyone who worked on the film, I’m going to fix them with my best wide-eyed and innocent expression and ask about it.
Because I am, of course, chock-full of highly-intelligent green-eyed genderqueer evil.