This week, I was insanely excited about the release of The Lion King. Isabella and I were dancing to the songs of the original, and I reminisced on my days as a 6-year-old watching the movie on repeat with my brother. It was the first movie to fully capture me- it was the first where I saw my dad cry and the first I ever saw that fully portrayed African wildlife at a time where my fascination for animals was blooming.
So, in full Circle of Life manner, I contemplated whether or not I would be sharing this experience with Isabella. Nostalgia-marketing works for me (and most millennials). I’m happily throwing my wallet to Disney and the number of other companies that are either remaking or continuing films that were present in my childhood. From Disney’s Toy Story 4 and Aladdin to the latest incarnation of Power Rangers, I am longing more and more to share these experiences with my daughter.
But are we also bringing antiquated messages by bringing back tales from the past that should permanently stay in previous generations? I decided it would not be responsible for me to take my daughter to watch The Lion King, particularly because of various themes that we haven’t really addressed with her yet. Death, Violence and Revenge are all explicitly embedded, and in her almost three years of age, we didn’t want her first exposure to be done through a film. After watching, the child in me was content, but as I watched all the scenes I realized this movie was so much darker than I ever remembered.
My wife and I discussed after how The Lion King could easily cause trauma, a potential unfair sentiment/fear towards certain animals, and continue to derive the messages of patriarchal societies. It is an anthropomorphic re-telling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet after all, but we have to be very cautious of bringing back old shows that bring with them the many themes and subtle messages we have slowly moved away from and made so much progress.
This is even more apparent in a remake where animals are as realistic as ever. We know how lion prides are essentially dominated by the females and Sarabi should have been much more influential when Scar attempted to take-over than the passive role she was given. We know how hyenas are Africa’s most successful predators, yet continuously portrayed as mangy scavengers. And although I appreciate the inclusion of lesser-known African forest-creatures, it does not do justice to live animal portrayal as it showcases what we thought about animals in the early 1990s.
But what’s really dangerous are the social issues. While race issues and marginalization of the darker “minority” characters that surrounded the original hyenas were fixed, we still see a dark representation towards a species of animal known for its strong female-hierarchy. Not so uncommon, as Disney has had a tendency to have their strongest villains be either female or show feminine qualities. We position this movie as a celebration of African culture, yet Disney never compensated the original Zulu singer’s estate for the usage of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” until a large controversy took place prompting them to settle for only a small fraction of what would have been deserved in royalties. While we can celebrate the new film having an 80% black cast (compared to 35% in the original), we have to be aware that the story itself is not an African narrative. Further, against a backdrop of animals who seemingly all have equal intellectual capabilities, animals are given “rights” based on an inherent hierarchy based on the predator-prey relationship. The lesser in the food chain, the less power they could ever have– a message that, translated to the human world, would equate to the message that being born in the equivalent of the bottom means you can’t have power. With so many marginalized groups and issues, we have to show kids more of the opposite.
So why does this matter? Why the long rant? Because we as parents want to make sure our children live in a world that’s better than the one we’re in. One that is more open, more equal, and where they should have the ability to make their own judgments based on their own experiences. As an example, Belle from Beauty and the Beast could have been celebrated as a feminist character for her personality in the parameters of the world in 1991. But by the time the remake hit in 2017, it was a disturbing tale of Stockholm Syndrome come-to-life. We know so much more now than we did when these stories came out, and the media landscape has evolved. That’s why we shouldn’t push our own media influences to them. We continue the progress by celebrating new stories that spread positive messages with our children and leave the nostalgia where it belongs- in the collective memories of our own generation.