First off let me start with a disclaimer: I love Lion King. I think it’s a well crafted, solid film. In fact, it’s because so much care and effort went into the creation of The Lion King that I even have anything to write about today.
It’s an open secret that the hyenas are the real losers of the film. Many people are shocked when they first realize that during the classic villain song “Be Prepared”, the hyenas are just thrilled that they’ll get something to eat out of this regicide. They don’t actually care who’s in charge; to them, the lionarchy means they’re starving and poor. Today I want to look at their development as a people during the course of the song, and how they represent an underclass which never really gets any better off during the film series.
The song begins with a slur against hyenas; Scar calls them “crude and unspeakably plain”, caring only for how he can use them to further his own ends. It’s made clear from the get-go that they’re not rallying behind a leader who will deliver on his promises. Furthermore, they’re portrayed as stupid, unable to understand the plot so that Scar can explain it for the benefit of the audience of children:
It’s clear from your vacant expressions
The lights are not all on upstairs
But we’re talking kings and successions
Even you can’t be caught unawares
The thing is, are they really stupid? Well, Ed might be. But Shenzi and Banzai seem reasonably intelligent, at least by the film’s standards. Ultimately, you have to wonder: what do they care which lion is in charge, given that no lion seems at all remotely concerned about their wellbeing? Why shouldn’t they be caught unawares when nothing seems likely to change for them? Scar’s blatant assumption that everyone cares about the monarchy, that he and his family are the central figures in everyone’s lives, smacks of privilege and narcissism — which fits with Scar’s self-centered, entitled characterization.
Several key phrases stand out as marking Scar’s appropriation of the hyena’s struggles. Scar speaks of his ascension to the throne as “injustice deliciously squared”. Scar believes he was meant to be king and that Simba, by existing, has “stolen” his birthright; therefore, the fact that he’s been bumped from the succession order is “injustice” that he intends to “square”. To the hyenas, however, their very lives are full of injustice — they can’t get enough food, and the lions take the better land, better game, and better living quarters. Seeing as how food is at the center of their concerns, “delicious” is nicely ironic here. Finally, Scar praises himself for having “tenacity spanning decades of denial”, another ironic turn of phrase that belongs more honestly to the hyenas, who are starving, than to Scar, who is (by animal standards) rich and famous. These turns of phrase prove that to Scar, his problem of “not being king” is just as bad, if not worse than, the hyena’s piddling “not having enough food” problem.
According to Wikipedia, several critics have proclaimed that the hyenas are a clever allegory for Black and Latino communities. I think we’ve seen plenty of examples in recent years of politicians using the problems that these communities face to get themselves elected, only to turn around and ignore them once they’ve outlived their usefulness politically. Remember: the hyenas didn’t have any more food once Scar was in charge. In a way, though, he did bring equality: under his mismanagement, the Pride Lands faced a real food shortage that affected even the affluent lions, giving them a taste of what the hyenas went through. This is achieved in the film through magical “bad king means drought” means, but the analogy is clearly one of a poor politician who mishandles the finances and drives his region into bankruptcy, forcing the people to suffer the burden.
Mufasa forces the hyenas to live in the shadows, outside the bountiful Pride Lands. It’s Nala, however, who gets the haunting, poignant song “Shadowland” in the musical:
The leaves have fallen
This shadowed land
This was our home
The river’s dry
The ground has broken
So I must go
Now I must go
I would have liked to see that particular issue addressed in the sequel, rather than inventing another group of lions to teach a lesson about oppressing people based on their skin color and welcoming outsiders into the fold. I think it would have been much more touching and honest. It feels like the sequel suddenly has to make Simba sound “meaner” so he can learn a lesson about tolerance when all along they could have had him address racial prejudices and confront the idea that his father, whom he idolizes, may not have been perfect.