Professor, author and researcher, Manuel M. Martín-Rodríguez, felt it necessary to offer a course on Children’s Film and Literature after watching Disney’s animated film, “The Lion King,” with his son.
CREDIT: DISNEYLAND TODAY / FACEBOOK
As a professor at the University of California, Merced since 2004, Professor Martín-Rodríguez has taught several courses with an emphasis on Chicano Literature and Literary Theory. However, it’s not only books that require literary criticism, but all forms of art such as film, music, photography, etc. Martín-Rodríguez began this particular line of research on media literacy and “The Lion King” in 1995 and throughout these years he has noted: “As I worked on it, on and off over the years, one of the things that I realized was that the topic lends itself very well to a class.”
“When you go to school, you learn a number of skills through elementary and later middle school, and high school. You learn how to read, you learn how to add, how to divide. But it’s very seldom, if ever, that a student gets exposed to what we now call media literacy. So as a result, there is a huge disconnect between the cultural products and material you consume as a youngster in your free time and your ability to engage with those materials at a level that is not simply singing along or eating popcorn as you watch.”
Although Disney movies are often “presented to us as pure innocence,” as Professor Martín-Rodríguez points out, what parents tend to forget is that these movies are not made by children, but by adults.
CREDIT: RYGUY / YOUTUBE
Professor Martín-Rodríguez believes that there is no innocence in the process of creating these children’s movies, like “The Lion King.” Rather, the fact that companies invest millions of dollars in such projects compromises the perceived innocence.
“Innocence, for me, is when a young child offers you a piece of dirt or a flower out of the blue. That’s innocence. Somebody sitting with extremely sophisticated computers, animation materials, producing a film over a period of years, working with producers, with advertisers, with companies, with merchandising – that cannot possibly be innocence. It can’t be.”
And this is what Professor Martín-Rodríguez had to discuss with his students prior to diving into one of the very first scenes in “The Lion King.”
What might seem like an innocent conversation between Mufasa and Simba, can actually be analyzed as an exchange of dialogue that focuses on borders.
Here is how Professor Martín-Rodríguez analyzes this opening scene of with his students:
“The movie has barely started when young Simba wakes up his father because he wants to survey the lands. But when they are engaged in that dialogue, Mufasa, who is the father, says, ‘Everything the light touches is our kingdom.’ And the kid being a kid, asks, ‘Well what about the shadowy place? That corner there?’ And the answer is extremely important because, you know, the answer could’ve been anything […] But what Mufasa says is, ‘That’s beyond our borders.’ And that’s a literal quote from the script of the movie. So the fact that they choose the word ‘border’… that claim is not accidental.”
Although some of his students didn’t want to believe that this classic children’s movie could possibly reflect an anti-immigrant sentiment, Professor Martín-Rodríguez provides evidence connecting Governor Pete Wilson’s campaign to the Disney company.
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“As an 8-year-old, 6-year-old, 4-year-old, you don’t follow political campaigns. But it’s extremely important to understand that when ‘The Lion King’ was being produced, California Governor Pete Wilson was seeking re-election and he was doing so with a political platform, very similar to what our political climate is right now nationwide – with a very strong anti-immigrant message, and one that was focused on economic matters to a large extent. For that rhetoric, immigrants represented a burden that the state of California could not support. So when I started putting the two together, I noticed that immediately the movie took on a very different meaning. There was a lot of information in newspapers and other sources, so I was able to find that as Disney was preparing ‘The Lion King,’ they had made the highest contribution allowed by law to the political campaign of the re-election of Pete Wilson.”
As the movie progresses, this anti-immigrant sentiment only grows stronger, which Professor Martín-Rodríguez highlights in what he claims as the first border crossing scene of “The Lion King.”
Although the bird, Zazu, is informed that there has been a hyena crossing, the movie never shows you the scene of the crossing itself. The entire experience is summed up in a single sentence, along with a military salute. The audience isn’t given the opportunity to see the journey of the hyenas, including the reason for their crossing, how long it took them to cross and how difficult it might’ve been to cross. The hyenas are not given names, nor stories. In other terms, they are not humanized.
Professor Martín-Rodríguez further elaborates on this scene below:
“Zazu, who is the main helper to Mufasa says, ‘Oh young master, one day you will be king. Then you can chase those slobbering, mangy, stupid poachers from dawn until dusk.’ This is the first thing we ever hear about the hyenas, other than the phrase ‘hyenas in the pride lands.’ This is the first description [and it’s] already dehumanizing.”
Professor Martín-Rodríguez makes a note that the hyenas are kept completely off-screen during the first 15-20 minutes of the movie, which takes away from their qualities as characters. Once they do appear on-screen, their portrayal as characters is only negative.
CREDIT: WALT DISNEY PICTURES
Professor Martín-Rodríguez analyzes the parallels between the portrayal of the hyenas and the political climate towards immigrants of the time.
“Physically they are not only darker, but because [of their] neck, they are always looking down and sideways. And then there’s a third hyena who does not speak at all. The hyena is represented as inarticulate, unable to speak, and almost plainly stupid. And if you look at the picture of a lion, the lion gives you strength, dignity etc. The hyena does not. There is nothing positive in the description of the hyenas. Now when I say this, inevitably somebody says, ‘Well that is what hyenas look like.’ And as a teacher who is not a zoologist, I have to answer that question culturally: So what made the animators choose lions and hyenas? And not lions and gazelles? Or lions and elephants? That’s the choice that is not innocent.”
Professor Martín-Rodríguez argues that in contrast to Mufasa’s small lion family of three, these large herds of hyenas with unidentifiable families are seen as a serious threat, which has also been the case for immigrant families.
CREDIT: WALT DISNEY PICTURES
Professor Martín-Rodríguez points out how wholesome the lion family is represented with a small nuclear family. In contrast, the different hyena families in the group are indistinguishable and seemingly endless.
“What you get there is that when a hyena comes, here comes uncle Pancho, uncle Flaco, uncle so on and so on, the extended family that sociologists have been talking about in the case of Mexicans for decades of biased scholarship – that these families are not nuclear families. It also suggests visually another fear that for decades, anti-immigrant leaders have been using, which is the so called Latina fertility time bomb, which is that Latinas have many more children than Anglo mothers. Visually what you see is a lot of hyenas and very few lions. This is the kind of scary population growth element that has also made a big impact in political discussions in California and elsewhere…and all of this within the context of the so-called welfare state – where you have to work harder in order to support others.”
Once the herd of hyenas migrate to the pride lands, it is then that the main fear of immigrant population is revealed, as Professor Martín-Rodríguez analyzes through one of the final scenes between Sarabi and Scar:
CREDIT: WALT DISNEY PICTURES
“We get to the fourth important scene that I analyze with my students in the movie, which is what I call the visual equivalent of the welfare state. The pride lands now look like the elephant graveyard. There is no greenery, the plants have died, there is no food. In fact there is a major scene within this part of the movie in which Scar summons Sarabi, and asks her, ‘We’re hungry, where’s the food?’ She replies, ‘There is no food,’ and Scar then slaps her, or hits her, and says, ‘No. You are not looking hard enough.’ That’s exactly what Pete Wilson was saying in his campaign; we in the state of California have to work harder to support these people who won’t work. If you look at the hyenas, all they’re doing is lying around, doing nothing. All of them. There’s not one single hyena engaging in any productive activity.”
As the movie starts to come to an end, Professor Martín-Rodríguez points out the dramatic change in scenery that occurs:
CREDIT: WALT DISNEY PICTURES
As soon as Scar is dethroned and the hyenas are vanished at the end of the movie, the pride lands immediately go back to being rich and colorful. Here is how Professor Martín-Rodríguez further elaborates on this sudden contrast:
“As if by magic, once the hyenas are gone, the pride lands become fertile again, prosperous, and then Simba and Nala close the movie by presenting their own newborn cub. And so the succession of one blonde mane lion to another [goes on].”
Ultimately, after four to five months of analyzing multiple scenes like these and unraveling the immense parallel between the movie and issues with immigration in the U.S., many of Professor Martín-Rodríguez’s students were left in shock.
CREDIT: The Maury Show / GIPHY
“One of the things that I discovered is that college students hold on dearly to their childhood memories and they have a tough time when anybody suggests revisiting that time with a critical lens. There was a lot of resistance, initial resistance for some people, some people who took the class…and they would say ‘Well, I’m worried that I will never watch these movies like I did before.’ I said, ‘You can’t. Because you’re no longer 8, 9, 6 years old.’”
Even though these scenes from “The Lion King” were produced over a decade ago, Professor Martín-Rodríguez emphasizes that this fear of immigrant population growth is still relevant today.
CREDIT: FOX News
“Despite numerous studies to the contrary, I think many people in the U.S. still think that immigrants are a financial burden. It is easy for some politicians to convince people that the reason why they have to pay higher taxes, work harder, is somehow connected with the presence of immigrants. This was the case in the early 1990s, when the movie was released, and it is still the case now.”
This exactly why Professor Martín-Rodríguez stresses the importance of media literacy, especially while living in this growing generation of technology.
CREDIT: MARIBEL ESCALANTE-PEREZ
“As the child advances from one grade to the next, s/he will engage in in-class discussions of readings done for one subject or another, thereby learning not only about the contents of the readings but also about the ways in which they were put together and, occasionally, about alternative ways of thinking. Unfortunately, most schools never do the same with media. There are no school curricula to teach those very same children to reflect upon things they watch or listen to.
Like literacy in general, media literacy should not have a negative impact on innocence; rather, it would prepare children to better understand films (as schools prepare them to better understand books). Considering that films/tv/video games tend to occupy much more of a child’s time than books, one could argue that media literacy may be even more necessary nowadays than reading literacy.”
Professor Martín-Rodríguez doesn’t stop with Disney, his class also covers movies from Warner Bros. and DreamWorks.
CREDIT: University of California, Merced
He also encourages his students to have meaningful discussions about the movies they watch.
“When you go to the movies or when you rent a film, it’s very very very difficult at the end of the movie for children to respond to the movie unless somebody asks for their opinion,” Professor Martín-Rodríguez says. “In fact, this is one of the exercises that I encourage my students to do when they’re taking the class. If they want, I invite them to watch a movie with children and then have a conversation about the movie with them, gently teaching them to reflect on what they watch.”