A Political Analysis of the Role, Structure, Legitimacy and Hypothetical Ramifications of the State in “The Lion King”

By Thaddeus Yeung
Published on June 27th, 2020

The Lion King is a renowned children’s film produced by Walt Disney Studios, in which Simba, a lion cub and the son of the former Lion King, reclaims his royal status by overthrowing his uncle in a power struggle. While this is obviously a film aimed at a younger audience, avid history enthusiasts will no doubt wish to explore the political structure and source of legitimacy of the lion kingdom as portrayed in the film, and compare it with different types of political situations. Is it more like a modern, liberal society where all animals live in harmony and where the monarch rules with the consent of the people? Or is it more like an autocracy where the monarch possesses absolute power, which is justified out of the rule of terror and religious brainwashing, like modern-day North Korea or Turkmenistan?

Before we begin our analysis, let us examine theories that suggest what gives a state the power and legitimacy to rule. This will give us an idea of how to classify the lion kingdom.

John Locke, a famous political thinker during the Enlightenment and known by many as “The Father of Liberalism'', believed that the source of political legitimacy, whether for states, politicians or regimes, came from the consent of the governed. This is probably the most important characterization of what gives a modern state its legitimacy, considering the significance of liberalism in the 21st century following the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. Examples of governments deriving their legitimacy from the consent of the masses include liberal democratic societies like the USA and the United Kingdom.

While the modern democratic state derives its legitimacy from the governed and from the “social contract” between the state and the citizen, some historical states derived their legitimacy from a monopoly of violence and the rule of fear: this includes states such as the First French Republic and the USSR, which relied heavily on oppression of the people and the threat of violence to keep the state together. Others derived their legitimacy from religion, such as the Ottoman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire; or from ideology, such as the USSR. In these cases a revered or respected authority was said to sanction the government.

We can observe that different types of states have different means of justifying their right to rule, from the consent of the ruled to a god- or ideology-given right to rule. Knowing this, what is the source of legitimacy of the lion regime as portrayed in the Lion King, and how does the state hold itself together?

First and foremost, we can observe from the film that the rule of terror plays a crucial role in the survival of the lion regime, and plays a big role in keeping the kingdom together. In the films, we can see that there are many, many instances where the ruling elite, the lions, use terror as a means to suppress opposition. For example, in a scene where Scar, the brother of Mufasa, the reigning lion king, criticizes Mufasa’s legitimacy as king early in the film, Mufasa responds with a thinly veiled threat to employ violence against Scar. Another example is the many scenes in the movie where the lions assert their dominance by roaring, as in the scene in which Simba roars atop a cliff after defeating his uncle, Scar. As we all know, a roar is a symbol of might, and in this context symbolises the threat of violence. Lions threaten their foes and their prey by roaring. From this, we can see that the threat of violence plays a role in helping the lions hold on to their dominant position in society, and thus is crucial to the survival of the lion regime.

To extend this argument, we can also see that the use or threat of violence is very important for the survival of the lion regime as there is virtually no consent of the governed in the Lion King. A very famous song from the movie is “The Circle of Life”, which tells us that there is indeed a food chain: the lions have no problem with eating antelopes and exploiting the weak. Early in the movie, in the iconic scene where the animals of the forest kneel before Simba the cub, we can see that the antelopes are among the animals who bow before Simba, telling us that antelopes are supposed to be subjects of the lion king. Therefore, we can infer from this that lions have no problem exploiting their loyal subjects to an extent that involves killing them to satisfy their own appetites. Knowing this, we can tell that there is probably no effective constitution or Magna Carta - which was a grand charter of rights signed between King John of England and the aristocracy in 1215 to protect the rights of nobles, which is considered to be the historical first step towards constitutional monarchy in the UK - of any sort present to protect the subjects of the lion king and limit the king’s authority. Unless the antelopes have been completely brainwashed by a religion or ideology which justifies self-sacrifice to serve the lions, we can see that consent of the governed probably doesn’t exist either. The source of legitimacy for the lion regime, therefore, comes not from the consent of the masses but from a rule of terror.

Finally, we can also see that religion or ideology may play a role in keeping the lions in power. In a scene early in the movie where Simba and his father Mufasa admire the stars in the night sky, Mufasa tells Simba how the stars in the sky are supposed to be dead kings looking down at the earth - not dead antelopes or dead elephants, but exclusively dead lion kings. This scene tells us how the lions actually believe that they and their ancestors possess a unique and divine power that will grant them life after death amongst the stars. From this, we can infer that the lions believe themselves to possess a divine and possibly god-given right to rule. This is possibly another source of legitimacy for the lion regime. The Divine Rights of Kings has been used many times in history to justify the reign of a monarch, both in western Christian societies and in Eastern societies like China, where emperors are said to possess the “Mandate of Heaven”.

To summarise, the source of legitimacy of the lion king, as we have just explored, is a mixture of rule of terror and religious justification. This is much more alike a medieval empire (or certain communist dictatorships like the USSR) than ideal modern states. In more ways than this, the state in the Lion King is more like a medieval empire than a modern state - for example, the role played by the state in the livelihoods of its population.

From the film, we can observe that the role the state plays in the lives of its citizens in the Lion King is fairly minimal. While the animals are given some basic protection from the hyenas by the lions, there is no police force or any institutions, for example a health department, meant to guarantee the welfare of the population. The animals in the film fend for themselves - they have to find their own food or starve, and weaker animals are susceptible to being eaten by stronger animals, or perish to natural selection. The state does nothing to prevent this, but rather encourages this, which we can see from the famous song from the movie, “The Circle of Life”, which extolls the food chain, and thus Social Darwinism and even Nazism - the idea that a certain race is superior to other races from a biological perspective - as something that is natural and inevitable.

From this, we can infer that the state in “The Lion King” is more like a medieval society than a modern state. Yuval Noah Harari, a professor of history at the University of Jerusalem, makes the observation in “Sapiens” that medieval empires, compared to modern states, played a fairly minimal role in the lives of the people. Feuds between citizens were not settled by the police and the judiciary, but by the community - if a man was killed by his neighbor, it was up to the man’s family to extract revenge. While the state provided a generally accepted law code, such as Hammurabi’s Code - a law code formulated by the Mesopotamian King Hammurabi, the earliest written law code in human history that we know of - and offered some protection against raiders and enemy states, the enforcement of the law was up to the people themselves. Similarly, when it came to diseases, famines or other issues, it was the community that played the biggest role in helping the people, not the state. On the contrary, a modern state plays a big and direct role in the lives of its citizens and is directly responsible for their well-being. For example, poor people receive dividends to live on, and the sick receive free healthcare from the government. From this, we can see that the state in the Lion King is more like a medieval empire where the state plays a distant role, rather than a modern state which directly intervenes or plays a big role in social issues.

To sum up, from what we can infer from the film (e.g the means of justifying the right to rule, the role of the state etc.), we can see that the lion kingdom is more like a medieval kingdom which plays a minimal role in the lives of its subjects and is not responsible for their welfare, rather than a modern state which is directly responsible for the well-being of its citizens and has limited constitutional power and responsibilities according to the “social contract”.

The political ramifications of the hypothetical existence of the state in the Lion King in our times would be interesting to consider. In modern times, a political system like that of the Lion King would be unimaginable. While some countries give their people more direct say in political matters than others, almost all countries in today’s world have constitutions, institutions to guarantee the well-being of their citizens, social welfare etc. In the context of the modern political world, a state with a structure like that of the Lion King - a state with no constitution, no institutions, no protection or rights or freedoms extended to its citizens whatsoever - would be an unimaginable atrocity. Even North Korea, the rogue state condemned by many countries around the world and virtually a failed state, was once a state that provided adequate food and supplies and gave protection and welfare for many of its citizens before the collapse of the USSR. It has a constitution and institutions, ineffective as they are. There is truly no modern state comparable to the state in the Lion King. The political ramifications of the existence of a state like that in modern society would be enormous. It would draw condemnation and sanctions from countries and human rights organizations all across the world. The reason why countries like North Korea and apartheid South Africa pursued nuclear programmes was that they felt threatened by the rest of the world; thus, from an international relations perspective, the result of widespread condemnation and sanctions against our hypothetical state may be the emergence of a new nuclear rogue state; one that, thanks to its Social Darwinist ideology and lack of friends, is more dangerous and unpredictable than any other.

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