The Circle of Life

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Disney children’s movies epitomize the embedded ideology that drives all forms of entertainment. All Disney movies have a central message that they’re trying to teach young children about being “good” citizens. As we get older and our entertainment becomes more “complex” the ideology presented doesn’t change, but just continues to reinforce the ideas instilled in us since childhood, but with a more complicated façade. The core messages of most movies, television shows, and songs are the same regardless of their intended audience. The audience only determines whether it’s packaged as rap or pop, cartoon or real life, modern or conservative, but the underlying messages never change. Entertainment functions as a Xanax to help stave off the depression that takes root when you begin to realize how powerless you are as an individual. We, as people, are inherently greedy and self interested, but somehow we manage to coexist and function in an ordered, hierarchical society where a lot of our rules aren’t actually written law just unspoken expectations. How do we convince people to go against their instincts and buy into a society where they may or may not be prioritized? The answer lies in our social conditioning that occurs from the moment our parents plop us in front of a television to watch a Disney movie (that we’ll eventually see at least 20 times) to keep us from annoying them. Everyday we are assaulted with ideology taking on countless forms and molding us into people that ultimately are willing to play the role that society deems is crucial for the system to keep functioning. The Lion King, a popular, benign children’s movie, is the perfect example of entertainment shaping how we look at our role in the world from an early age.

The Lion King on the surface functions as an excellent way to keep the kids I’m babysitting occupied, but if we look at it a little bit deeper it functions as a teaching tool for what is right and what is wrong or more specifically what society deems is right and wrong. And if we look even deeper into this children’s movie, the message is clear that every person (or in this case animal) has a specified role that is unavoidable and necessary for the good to win out. The plot is centered on Simba running away from his home because he thinks that his community will ostracize him for his father’s death, but essentially he is running away from his duty to rule as king. Simba ends up reluctantly returning to his home years later after he realizes he can’t shirk his responsibility to the other member’s of his pride. The movie emphasizes his responsibility to everyone else, and how it’s crucial not to be selfish. When he finally comes back, prosperity returns to the land and the movie ends just how it began with the birth of a new lion symbolizing the unavoidable, cyclical nature of life and death. This theme of the hero trying to deny his destiny and then realizing that it’s his duty to fulfill what he was born to do is so commonplace it’s on the verge of boring (i.e. Terminator 3). And to drive home the point the good guys always have to win because that’s how it is in real life. This dominant ideology that your role in life is predestined and no matter how hard you work it won’t change your situation leads people to be more accepting of social mobility barriers and lead life in an unquestioning attitude.

As someone who has recently joined Air force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC), which overtly emphasizes complete standardization and compliance with your chain of command, it has become apparent how similar our military training is with the social conditioning we’ve been receiving all of our lives. One of the Air Force core values is service before self, which I’ve had to stand at attention and repeat at least 50 times in my short six weeks with the program, and although I’m not claiming that watching Disney movies is that intense, their function is essentially the same. The Lion King makes the same assertion about service before self in the scene where Nala and Simba reunite. During this scene Nala and Simba argue about his responsibility to well-being of the other creatures inhabiting the Pride Land. The movie makes it clear that “right” choice for Simba is to return in the interest of putting other people’s needs at the forefront of his responsibilities. Now if we look for this ideology in other areas of our lives, it’s scary how often the same message is repeated to us. At school what we learn both academically and socially is centered on praising the concept of service before self. Good behavior is civic-minded behavior that favors the whole over the individual. This is apparent because even the know-it-alls, who may meet every standard academically, but are looked down upon collectively because they’re viewed as selfish. At Church the idea of being a good citizen is taken to the extreme, as it is considered godly to completely put others above yourself and following the life set out in front of you without challenge. The Church even offers you the prize of paradise in the afterlife for your acceptance of the belief that putting other people first makes you a better person. And while the concept of looking out for your common man and helping other people inherently is a good thing and seems like a necessary ideology to instill in a population of people trying to live and work together, it is just one small part of a larger message being forced on us.

On one side we can look at The Lion King as a way to push us to be better community members, on the other we can look at it as sacrificing our excellence, creativity, and individuality for comfortable mediocrity. I know I sound like a terrible person saying this, but if we truly want to produce an excellent culture should we really put others before ourselves, is it really a necessary part of being a member of a community or is it a way to keep the social hierarchy intact? When does be a good person and help others turn into be the person we want you to be and do what you’re told to do. I have a hard time being okay with finding similarities between military training, which largely centers on making the cadets all the same and being comfortable with following your chain of command, and social shaping. It makes sense that in order to function cohesively in a large unit rapidly and efficiently that not everyone can be entitled to think about their own safety in the face of a threat larger than the individual, but what enemy is society mobilizing us against? What threat is so great that we need to sacrifice our individuality for the greater good? In my opinion, the “threat” we’re guarding, as a society, so preciously against is change. There’s nothing that we fear more than the unknown and ideological reinforcements keep the status quo and the different classes sated about their position in society.

The Lion King emphasizes the necessity for the keeping of the status quo at every turn, but perhaps the most pointed example of this ideology is in the focus on the circle of life. The “Circle of Life” lyrics explicitly state that we’re all on the same conveyer belt from the moment we’re born until the moment we die. One chorus of the song reads:

“Keeps great and small on the endless round

It’s the circle of life

And it moves us all

Through despair and hope

Through faith and love

Till we find our place

On the path unwinding

In the circle

The circle of life”

The ideology behind this song supports the belief that we’re not all equal, and subtly suggests to the viewer that inequality is normal. If we see this idea enough and from an early age, it becomes commonplace and slowly alters our perception of what is “fair”. This constructed version of fairness reduces us to sheep because it blinds us from recognizing the agency we possess over how the system is constructed, and leads us to unknowingly replicate the culture that created this ideology in the first place.   So do we stop watching The Lion King? As it is my favorite movie, I’d vote no. This ideology is so embedded in who we are already, that if we even attempt to arm ourselves against all that we consume we’d be fighting a losing battle. Not only is it everywhere, in everything from art to music to television shows, the ideology is embedded in every individual with very few exceptions for those who truly isolate themselves from society as a whole.

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While my commentary may read as slightly pessimistic and perhaps verging on paranoid, I truly believe that The Lion King epitomizes the manipulation of people’s perception that occurs in our culture. But while some lack of control over our belief systems, may just be a necessary evil in order to coexist with other people, modern culture seems to have gone too far in its attempt to shape the people that we are. Ultimately, we as individuals are insignificantly apart of the play the world is putting on and have no power to change something so embedded in our culture, that I say sit back, grab some popcorn, switch on The Lion King, and “Hakuna Matata”!

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