The Lion Guard Barely Covers Up Its Naturally Oppressive World on Purpose


The setting in The Lion Guard – a gorgeous, detailed, lush savannah of forests, grasslands, plains, and mountains – is at once both wondrous and dangerous. In fact, it’s downright oppressive. The Lion Guard takes from its source – The Lion King – its central ethos, The Circle of Life, and culls a deeply uncomfortable caste system and social regulatory system of control and power. The Lion King already had problems with its weird-to-examine politics. Hyenas were always just an evil, and once they were in power food and water magically disappeared (I don’t know how to parse the Hitler imagery either, but that’s a topic for another day). The Lion Guard doubles down on that. The Circle of Life suggests that all animals should have access to the food they need, but in particular carnivores can only eat what (or in this case, who) they need. The implication is that the various villains in the show are (meat)eating more than their fare share, which is why they need to be stopped, but also, they have to do so in their clearly demarcated regions. And anyway, after the first few episodes, the show just portrayed the carnivorous animals as a net bad.

This leads to a lot of problems in terms of what clear lessons that The Lion Guard tries to espouse. But I wonder if The Lion Guard is even trying to espouse any lessons at all – or more accurately, I wonder if the show is trying to espouse the kinds of lessons we’re used to seeing in our pre-school, toddler-aimed, animated programs. The show will play lip service to lesson-learning for sure. ¬†There’s episodes about acceptance and tolerance, not judging books by their cover, trusting one another, lies that go too far, recognizing and acknowledging that you’re overworked and need help, thinking things through, etc. Nothing you’ve never seen before in preschool-demo animation. But there’s a clear paradox at play. How can an episode of The Lion Guard espouse a lesson of love, tolerance, and acceptance, when the very existence and adherence to The Circle of Life mandates a pretty uncomfortable segregationist policy? Those core lessons and overall worldview can’t really co-exist. I’m somewhat reminded of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, how its ponies are branded for life with a singular lot, and how that show has to jump through hoops to justify its natural world forcing its characters into specific roles for life. (The show mostly skates by this by suggesting ponies cutie marks are their best, most natural talent, and in sharing it with others, it fulfills them one hundred percent. No pony seems to regret or detest their mark/life’s position. It doesn’t really work for the most part – the show is better off avoiding the issue – but the scant few episodes that do question this tend to be the most interesting. Sorry for the aside.)

Unlike My Little Pony¬†though, The Lion Guard has the savagery of the natural world to content with. It doesn’t really play coy with the nature of the animals in this show, other than avoiding any and all visuals of the carnivorous animals eating one another. It’ll spout facts about various unique creatures indigenous to Africa, which is pretty cool and greatly informative. But it’s hard to tell if the writers are aware of how incompatible it is to teach basic lessons while butting up against its Circle of Life natural philosophy and nature’s blunt cruelty. The Circle of Life is the show’s strained way of injecting a sense of a “civilized order” to its nature-based characters, the way through which it can channel its lessons in some sort of narrative form, but the contradictions and paradoxes and outright failures of the combination of the two are too hard to ignore (and a few critics I know have noticed this). And honestly? I think the writers are distinctly aware of it too.

Think about it like this. The Disney execs saw an episode in which the Guard, a bunch of young kids essentially, constantly beat up a family of jackals who just needed to eat. They violently prevented them from eating in the still-lush regions of the Pridelands, forcing them back into the food-starved Outlands as a looming dry season approaches, and that includes the jackal family’s kids, too – kids who aren’t portrayed as evil, soulless creeps, but innocent, endearing, passionate easily swayed moppets. The Disney execs saw all this, wiped their hands, and gave it their stamp of approval. If this was American Dad, it would’ve been a dark, but exaggeratedly hilarious, bit. If it was Rick and Morty, it would have been an extremely bleak, highly disturbing bit that resulted in laughs solely to wall off against the cruelty. In The Lion Guard, it’s just all so matter-of-fact, so normal, just part of the world and the rules in which everyone follows. No one seems even hint at the moral grayness of this situation.

The Lion Guard doesn’t let its characters, and by proxy, its young audience, change or even question the ecosystem, the environment in which their placed. It instead portrays them as characters who can simply manage, or survive, or enforce, that system. The Lion Guard isn’t going to ask Kion, Ono, Fuji, Beshte, or especially Bunga, to question their worldview, and all the problems in it. Why should they? They’re fucking kids. Looking at a problematic world and finding solutions should be the parents’ job. But the adults in the world are locked in their ways, refusing to even bat an eye at the idea of, let’s say, a family of seemingly-poor (however you’d define this in animal terms) jackals searching for ways to feed their kids. If that sounds disturbing to you, which includes scenes of very young jackals conniving to feed themselves, only to actually get their asses kicked, well, don’t expect the show to comment it. This is your world, out world, and the savannah only reflect that.

Instead, The Lion Guard basically refuses to showoff concrete lessons about sharing or tolerance (they’re there, but there’s always an asterisk on those stories). In the wilds of the Pridelands, the show prefers emphasizing the rules of civilized survival and managed control, and, in its most surprising truth, is one hundred percent okay with the utilization of violence for that goal. It pretty much has to be. Nature is savage, and try as they might, no amount of glossing over it will hide its objective harshness. That the show tries to “justify” it with The Circle of Life is questionable at best and laughable at worst, and as these episodes pass by, it’s a bit clearer that the writers are questioning and laughing along side of us. If you had to combine the savagery of nature, the hierarchy of the food chain, and the nonsensical animal stereotypes that The Lion King traffics into something digestible and manageable, The Circle of Life is the grossest but easiest thing you could come up with.

And in the macro sense, there’s something deeply serious worth discussing here – if The Circle of Life is the defacto rule of this world, then the Guard are a special police squad out to enforce a level of control at the state level (handed down by so-called (super)natural, spiritual forces, as per Rafiki’s magic paintings, and authorized by Simba, the king), which is deeply troubling, but admittedly an extreme reading of things. The more likely reading is that The Pridelands and The Circle of Life are clearly problematic in combination, and the show is presenting it all in its full, uncomfortable glory. If you’re troubled by the the contradictions at play, at how the episodic lessons seem to not-at-all reflect the world’s rules-by-decree, it’s simply just a reflection our our world and our society, a society that espouses lessons of love, tolerance, acceptance, and all those things claimed by a “civilized, orderly” world, only to contradict itself with violence, segregation, war, and discrimination. If you’re looking for the young kids of the Guard to question this… why? That should be Simba’s job, or Nala’s, or Zazu’s. Not one adult who should know better is self-reflective enough to call The Circle of Life to task, so looking to mere children to do so is even more asinine. The Lion Guard’s “positive lessons” are contradictions are hard to parse, until you think about it in terms of our so-called civilized society as a whole, and the show is really a reflection of that —

— and the abject violence that The Lion Guard is all to willing to engage in.

And I think we should talk about violence, and violence in cartoons, and The Lion Guard (and Disney as a whole, natch) is a good jumping off spot. This is going to take an extremely long time to parse and will be continued in another essay. For now, it’s good enough to simply reflect on The Lion Guard and its contradictions, and how the discomfort it causes is probably more satirical and allegorical of how human society works, more than we’d like to admit. It’s a show with a society of birds that engage in elaborate bureaucracy only to rarely get anything done. It’s maybe more knowing than you think. It’s just weird that Disney Junior cartoon.


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