You can easily classify the three hyenas in The Lion King as villains because of their roles as henchmen to Scar, the story’s main antagonist.
The hyenas stick with Scar with the motivation that it will land them a good, hearty meal.
The hyenas regard the young Simba and Nala as meals, which makes it difficult to sympathize with them. The question, however, is whether they are to blame for such motivation.
We can presume that all carnivores in the Pride Land survive on animals voiced by stars from Hollywood. A scene from the film shows King Mufasa telling young Simba that the Circle of Life dictates that it’s in the nature of lions to eat antelopes.
This scene brings us to the conclusion that there was nothing wrong with hyenas wanting to eat meat. Their fault lies in wanting to eat someone above their turf. Disney created bad guys from the poor, starving, and outcast animals of the Pride Land who wanted to make the rich their meal.
After Mufasa reassured Simba that it was alright to prey on the weaker classes, he gave his cub a lesson on pouncing. For the lesson, they used the helpless Zazu as the object.
Zazu expressed humiliation about being the target, but Mufasa seemed to enjoy the fact that his cub was about to pounce on his staff.
It’s not easy to hold back the tears during the part when Mufasa is killed, but one cannot help but consider things from the hyenas’ standpoint. What made them applaud Scar’s plans and deny their need for a king?
The politics in cartoons should not be taken critically.
However, it’s alarming that regressive class structuring is present in children’s films. A study conducted in 2016 revealed that nearly 33% of all main characters in G-rated blockbusters belong to the upper class, while 25% belong to the upper-middle class. 20% belonged to the working class, who are considered poor.
Representations in children films have improved a bit over the years. Female leads no longer get their values affirmed by snagging a handsome prince, and white characters no longer dominate movies. But in other aspects, no change is noteworthy. There are still no openly gay characters in films, while the lower class are still underrepresented.
When the film features poor leads, the plot is usually rags-to-riches. According to sociologist Jessi Streib, the lead author of the 2016 study, poor characters are typically portrayed as nice and warm people, so they get rewarded. Meanwhile, the bad ones get punished. However, Streib says this is not how the world works.
Children’s movies are evidently not reflective of how the world works. Nevertheless, the media is known to shape people’s imagination, and according to a study, kids are not oblivious to race, gender, and social class structures.
We can trace back the class imbalance in Disney films like Cinderella and the Lion King to source materials that are centuries old, and rearranging the class structures in these Disney films will make the stories lose their magic. The Jungle Book and The 101 Dalmatians are a few examples of children’s movies that do not focus on class structures, but they belong to the tier below Alladin and Cinderella.
Streib suggests that a good children’s film without class restructuring focuses on the working-class character’s hardships. It will end with the character not going up the ladder but just meeting his/her goals and having a good time. One good example is Coco, a Pixar film about a boy from a working-class family which ends in a celebration of family reconciliation.
We all loved Disney films as kids, but it’s time to make stories that have a more progressive representation of classes. And though it’s impossible to make Simba turn his back on the throne in favor of a more democratic rule, Disney could at least not make the hyenas the bad guys just because they want to eat.