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Thursday, December 27, 2007


Disney's politics

Well, it's Christmas, Kit has a writing deadline which she's been struggling frantically to - well, to approximate. This has led to me watching Bambi in an exhausted moment of down-time.

And you know what? It's got me thinking about politics.

It's a curious thing. Walt Disney himself was an anti-union old crust who turned in various employees to McCarthy during the Communist scare, which hardly makes him a guiding light of progressive thought. Yet I was watching Bambi , as I said, while collapsed on the sofa, and something struck me. It had to do with The Lion King.

In concept and general story, The Lion King is more or less a re-hash of Bambi: young prince in wild setting grows up, loses a parent (in both cases during a scene that involves an animated stampede of herbivorous beasties), finds love, and finishes with a family of his own, a king in his own right. Yet despite Bambi being a favourite of Walt's, and Walt being ferociously anti-Commie, when you compare it to The Lion King, it's positively pink.

To say that The Lion King is authoritarian to the point of being proto-fascist is, to some extent, stating the obvious, and I'm certainly not the first person to say it. The reasons are fairly simple: the lions are the undisputed lords of creation, to the point of being worshipped by creatures that they bloody well eat. The rightful king is stabbed in the back by an effete, liberal-preachin' scumbag, and, without the rightful heir in his place, the land itself sickens, and can only be revived by the return of the True Leader. Women are more or less useless - they certainly make no attempt to evict their bad king, despite outnumbering him vastly and knowing he's a disaster; and, I say it again, zebras and antelopes are delighted at the idea of a new king who's going to bloody well eat them, and the fact that lion corpses fertilise the earth (the 'circle of life' explanation that Ole King Mufasa gives to explain why they don't mind) makes no sense at all: elephant corpses fertilise even more ground, and they have the added benefit of being vegetarian. Most importantly, the 'circle of life' philosophy is treated as mystical and sacred: rulers rule, subjects submit, destiny is pre-set, land and king are one, and anyone who disagrees is Evil. A grand leader heals the decadent nation by restoring it to its true heritage. All hail.

It's notable that the film explicitly portrays the villain as a Nazi, but when you listen to his ideas, his primary ideological fault is his desire to collaborate with lesser races. There's an element of projection here. I've recently been shown a long and interesting essay called Rush, Newspeak and proto-Fascism: an exegesis, by David Neiwert, which I'd recommend; in it, Neiwert remarks:

...one of the lessons I've gleaned from carefully observing the behavior of the American right over the years is that the best indicator of its agenda can be found in the very things of which it accuses the left.

This is known as "projection." One of the first to observe this propensity on the right was Richard Hofstadter, whose 1964 work The Paranoid Style in American Politics remains an important contribution to the field of analyzing right-wing politics:

It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him. The enemy may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry. Secret organizations set up to combat secret organizations give the same flattery. The Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and an equally elaborate hierarchy. The John Birch Society emulates Communist cells and quasi-secret operation through "front" groups, and preaches a ruthless prosecution of the ideological war along lines very similar to those it finds in the Communist enemy. Spokesmen of the various fundamentalist anti-Communist "crusades" openly express their admiration for the dedication and discipline the Communist cause calls forth...

Kiddie movie though it might be, The Lion King is a stark and clear example of this - and the fact that it was planned as a small movie and became a surprise smash suggests that it struck a chord in society. I worry. I'm not particularly arguing, as some have, that The Lion King is racist because of the villain's black mane or the non-Caucasian hyena voice actors. The hero's father is voiced by James Earl Jones, who's no whiter than Whoopi Goldberg, and the dark mane seems more like simplistic colour-coding than a racial overtone, more equivalent to a black hat or a black horse than to a dark-toned face. The movie does have the quality common to a lot of US children's movies, to wit, presenting the wild world as if it were an American suburb - the kid is raised in his nice neighbourhood, runs into criminals when he goes to the bad part of town, leaves when he shouldn't and has to stop bumming around and come back to run his dad's business when he grows up - which tends to be a white narrative, but its main prejudices are more to do with conventionalism than race. The bad guys are not so much black or brown as unwilling to defer to their social betters.

(If anyone thinks it's reaching to see ideology in a work of children's fiction, I point them towards C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman, and G.P. Taylor, and, oh, Aesop, and the phrase 'the moral of the story is'... There are stories with didactic ideological morals, and there are stories with ideological worldviews that come out unconsciously; I'd put The Lion King in the second category, but the fact that it's for a young audience does not mean it has no socio-political standpoint.)

Bambi, on the other hand, is surprisingly similar-but-different. Bambi himself wanders through the forest encountering new things much in the way Simba wanders over the veldt, but there are some big changes.

The first is simple: Bambi is no threat to the creatures of the forest. He eats grass, he attacks nobody during the entire course of the film apart from a mating fight which he didn't start and a battle with some dogs - invaders, sent by Man - who are attacking his girlfriend. And, notably, he has a capacity to leave people alone. Everyone else in the forest, he meets and greets; he's occasionally shy but mostly friendly; he's nice enough to address a skunk as Flower; he takes advice from his friends and doesn't mind being teased or criticised. He is, in fact, a nice, gentle boy. Conversely - nobody really comments on this, but it's a fact - Simba is a horrible kid. His primary entertainment is playing pranks on other animals, all of them subjects of his father, which means they really can't do much about it if he bothers them. He's arrogant, self-regarding, and anticipating kingship because it'll mean he'll be 'free to do it all my way ... everywhere you look I'll be standing in the spotlight'. (A sentiment no different from his wicked uncle's plan to 'be king undisputed, respected, saluted and seen for the wonder I am', it's worth noting: the only difference between them is that Simba is supposed to be entitled to kingship and Scar isn't.) The film-makers seem to regard this as charming exuberance, but I doubt they'd see it like that if they had to deal with their own employer's son acting that way. Being the boss's son, Simba doesn't have to take discipline from anyone but his father, and his father spoils him: the result is an unbearable brat who'd benefit from a good clip around the ear but never gets one.

The next is subtler, but perhaps more important. Bambi's father is not a prince because of some mystical natural law. He's referred to as the prince because he's older and wiser than any other deer. This is to say, his princeship, such as it is, is largely a matter of meritocracy. He was smarter than the other deer, has thus lived longer, accumulating wisdom along the way, and hence is respected because his abilities have raised him in status. Bambi himself is seen standing by his father as a fellow-prince only when he's survived a full year: he may be referred to as 'the young prince' in his childhood, but if he wants to be seen standing silhouetted in full glory, he's got to learn how to manage. Royalty, in fact, is seen as a matter of adulthood more than anything else.

And - this is the most important - adulthood involves learning how to survive your environment. The Lion King, as I've said, involves a mystical relationship between king and land. When the right king is there, the land thrives; when the wrong king rules and the true prince is away, the land sickens. A prince in exile, Simba's only real job in the film is to go home; the only lesson he needs to learn is the lesson of his own importance. Wouldn't it be lovely if life were like that?

The whole of Bambi, on the other hand, shows a character who is absolutely and vitally smaller than his environment. The forest is beautiful, but it's also indifferent. There are thunderstorms that get you wet and scare you with their noise, winter that provides little food and leaves you hungry, fires that sweep through and can only just be outrun, hunters that shoot at you - and, terrifyingly, they strike at random. Mufasa's death recognises his importance in the cosmic scheme of things: he's killed because he's important, by a diabolical plot. Bambi's mother, on the other hand, is struck down wantonly and unexpectedly. It could have been anyone who gets shot; it's just Bambi's tragedy that it was her. The universe is indifferent to the little faun's feelings, and the fact that he loves his mother gives her no immunity from bullets. Adulthood and survival depend not on grandly claiming your throne within the world, but on learning how to move through it while avoiding all the dangers that are not about to move out of your way just because you're you.

This shows up in small ways. Bambi is a dramatic film, but it's far less bombastic. The famous Circle of Life opening to The Lion King is spectacular and has lovely African music, and it would be churlish not to acknowledge what great film-making it is, but compared with the 'Wake up! It's happened' greeting of baby Bambi (which YouTube doesn't seem to vouchsafe, sorry), it's pretty ideological. Bambi is similarly greeted by a crowd of animals interested to see the new prince, but rather than hailing him from beneath a cliff, they gather around him at ground level and coo over him, more in the manner of an extended family than of a political rally. There's an emotional upshot to this: Bambi being greeted has far more the air of a child who's being liked for himself. Everyone fusses over him, introduces themselves, makes friends with him - at an eye-to-eye, one-to-one level. If somebody hails you while you stand on your balcony, the odds are it's your position rather than your personality they're saluting; meeting on ground level is altogether more personal. Again, there's more of an element of democracy in this: princeship is characterised by good relationships with those around you, rather than a delight in lording it over them.

Bambi is also something I think would disgust many fans of The Lion King's viewpoint nowadays: to wit, environmentalist. Markedly anti-hunting, for one thing - that's somebody's mother you're shooting at! - it's also just highly aware of the impact human beings have on nature, and not as a positive thing. Simba is cheerfully unaware of human beings; for all we know, the movie might be set before people ever evolved. The primary reason for this is that Simba and his gang are altogether more human than animal; they live in a nuclear family, the harem element of lionhood is rather glossed over, as is the fact that a lion cub would eat a meerkat sooner than befriend him, and so on. Bambi, on the other hand, doesn't live in a nuclear family. He admires his father from a distance, but the guy really isn't around much - because, y'see, he's a deer. Bambi fights for a mate, eats bark in the winter, and is profoundly frightened of human beings; Simba is a human being, and people conveniently stay out of his movie to keep things from getting confusing. The upshot of this is that Simba no more has to consider the influence of people on his environment than a human being does in a climate-controlled mall: the only thing that causes an environmental problem for him is the presence of a bad king. (I know they say it's over-hunting, but for Pete's sake, even the weather is off when Scar is king. They certainly don't acknowledge that hunting leaves orphans behind, because that would involve condemning the lions.) There's a lot of fudging of the ecosystem at the heart of The Lion King. Bambi, on the other hand, is very clear that human beings are a disruptive force within it. The environment is suffering far more from human intervention now, in The Lion King's day, than it was when Bambi was a recent film, but to acknowledge that would be to assume a position other than that of the rightful lords of creation who can only benefit the world by assuming our power as fully and domineeringly as possible.

It may seem like a small thing to be fussing about - I'm exhausted and really not up to watching anything challenging - but there is something important at play here. We begin orienting ourselves in the world because of the stories we hear in our childhood. Now, one of the stories I was told when I was little was that human history is an inexorable march of progress. Science discovered more and more as history progressed, human knowledge increased, and people got freer. It was presented more or less as a matter of fact: politics is a historical one-way street, pointing towards endless improvement.

This is why it's disturbing to see a fairly recent film for children that's wildly more authoritarian than a film produced five decades earlier, produced by a McCarthyist. It feels like a little pebble tumbling down the mountain, reminding me of the fact that the Dark Ages came after a time of enlightenment. Human history isn't an inexorable program of improvement, it's an inexorable process of change - and that can include change for the worse.

It's funny you should bring this up because Chris Chandler (an itinerant spoken word artist and a dear friend of mine) told me about how he'd recently seen Mary Poppins for the first time since childhood and was absolutely gobsmacked at how subversive that film was, particularly for the time it was made. (And possibly even moreso for the time we're in now.)
Mm - if I recall correctly, it mocks city bankers, sympathises with impoverished chimney sweeps who cheek their social higher-ups, supports suffragettes... Anything else?
I still think there's a good case to be made that from enough of a distance, human history is indeed "an inexorable program of improvement". Up close, though, the program has peaks and valleys which depend greatly on time and place.

It helps when people try to watch for those little tumbling pebbles and pick them up when possible. Massed individual effort seems to do much more, in the long run, than revolutions.

"twadwee": the elementary particle of twaddle
I wouldn't say that Mary Poppins supports suffragettes. If anything, it mocks them. The mother sings her little suffragette song, but then promptly hides her sign when she realizes that her husband is on the way home. She's rather brainless - taking dictation as her husband composes the advertisement for the new nanny, not writing it herself, making a point that she couldn't possibly write a simple "help wanted" ad herself.

Concern for suffrage is shown as a pastime for upper-class women - those who have a cook and a maid and a nanny to do the actual "women's" work of their household, keeping her amused until her husband comes home and she can resume her properly subservient role.

And in the end, part of Mary Poppins's job being done is the mother giving up the idea of suffrage and resuming the role of caretaker for her children - her sash even becomes part of a child's toy, no longer an emblem of a serious adult concern.

Domesticity prevails - the father becomes more caring, but also gets his job as a banker back, ensuring he's a proper patriarchal provider, and the mother gives up her attempts at equality, taking over the work in the nursery.
I've always thought that Disney's 1934 short made something of a leftist statement, ending as it does with the Ants' queen telling the Grasshopper, "With ants, just those who work may stay/So take your fiddle ... and play!" The message is that yes, creative art is work -- and creative artists might even merit state support.
I wouldn't say that Mary Poppins supports suffragettes. If anything, it mocks them.I'm going from memory here, so I could be wrong, but I think you can read it both ways. For instance, you say...

Concern for suffrage is shown as a pastime for upper-class women - those who have a cook and a maid and a nanny to do the actual "women's" work of their household...and it's true that the mother goes out to meetings while her employees stay home and work, but on the other hand there's a scene where they're all marching about the living room singing about getting the vote, which suggests that they're on the same side. And in any case, I have the impression that it's not an entirely inaccurate portrait; not all suffragettes were middle class, but it was easier to get to a meeting if you didn't have a job, so presenting it that way, you could argue, is just being realistic.

And in the end, part of Mary Poppins's job being done is the mother giving up the idea of suffrage and resuming the role of caretaker for her children - her sash even becomes part of a child's toy, no longer an emblem of a serious adult concern. Ah, here's where we differ. Possibly it was just the effect of me being a child and finding it impossible to believe anyone could regard the suffragettes with anything but admiration, but I always interpreted the sash-on-kite thing as a form of advertising: the family raise the message above the park for all to see. There are lots of arguments against that interpretation, I know, but it's the way it looked to me at the time.

Also, I'd say that structurally, Mary Poppins is replaced more by the father than the mother. It's their father's attention the children are anxious to get, their father they're eager to spend time with, and it's their father's emotional engagement rather than anything much that from the mother that makes Mary Poppins decide it's time for her to leave. So I'd view it as a story of children who need some extra attention for a while in place of their father; once it's established that he actually does love them and is prepared to play with them when he can, things can settle down.

Of course, this is just my interpretation. It's very possible the Disney studio tried to make a film with the messages you say and did a slightly ambiguous job. But that's why I thought it supported suffragettes, anyway.
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