Africa in Pop Culture Disney's Tarzan and The Lion King by John R. Murnane

Comparing Disney with history, cultural geography, or other social studies texts and scholarly works should alert us to the dangers of oversimplification and stereotypes in the study of the social sciences. Disney depictions of Africa are a case in point.

In the 1999 movie Tarzan, Disney made an understandable decision to deviate from Edgar Rice Burroughs' original depiction of Africans in his 1912 novel, Tarzan of the Apes.

The original reflects the racism of Burroughs' generation (particularly ideas associated with Social Darwinism). In one instance, when the young Tarzan had to flee in the face of a dominate male ape, Burroughs wrote:

"Had Tarzan been a full-grown bull ape of the species of his tribe he would have been more than a match for the gorilla, but being only a little English boy, though enormously muscular for such, he stood no chance against his cruel antagonist. In his veins, though, flowed the blood of the best of a race of mighty fighters."
Describing Tarzan's first encounter with Africans, Burroughs painted a crude picture, riddled with words and phrases like "kinky wool of their heads," "protruding lips," and "bestial brutishness."

Disney's solution? Show no Africans at all.

Click on the Google search below. Not a single African comes up.

By showing NO Africans, however, the film plays into a major misconception regarding Africa: the idea that nothing really happened in Africa prior to the arrival of Europeans.

A glance at most any history, geography or anthropology text would dispel this notion. The civilization at Axum (present day Ethiopia), the grandeur of Timbuktu or Great Zimbabwe or early evidence of iron smelting among the ancient Bantu are just a few examples.

Axum

Axum was the first to use coins with the Christian cross depicted on them. Churches are carved into stone mountains. Axum is famous for building tall towers called stelae.

Great Zimbabwe

Disney's The Lion King perpetuates misunderstanding about the nature of African societies.

Here, Disney helps further three sets of stereotypes and misinformation:

that the West is the font of all notions of equality and democracy,

African societies are tyrannical and hierarchical, and

African cultures are warlike.

Comparing The Lion King with John Reader's book, Africa: A Biography of the Continent could prove insightful in terms of all three of these misguided notions.

Reader explains the Age Grade system in West Africa

"Chiefs had status, but little authority or power over the community in general. . . . Indeed, as though to counter friction likely to arise if authority and power were vested in certain chiefs and lineages and thus flowed vertically, from the few at the top to the majority at the bottom, a system emerged [in West Africa] whereby authority and power were spread horizontally throughout the group as a political structure uniquely suited to the social and economic conditions of sub-Saharan Africa."

This is certainly a contrast with The Lion King, where the animals are happy in a hierarchical order—ruled by the "king of the jungle."

Moreover, unlike the scorched earth scene after the epic battle between the "bad" lion (Scar) and the new, "good" king (Simba) in Disney's Lion King, people in the Niger valley lived in peace and cooperation in order to survive in a harsh environment. To quote Reader again:

The people who inhabited the inland Niger delta left no monumental public architecture, extravagant burials, or incised tablets praising kings and recording feats or conquest, but the archaeological record speaks no less eloquently (and certainly more impartially). The history of Jenne-jeno appears to have been extraordinarily peaceful. While evidence of dwellings razed to the ground is commonplace at urban sites elsewhere, with level after level of burning, not a whiff of such disaster is evident at Jenne-jeno throughout it 1,600 years of occupation.

A glance at the headlines reveals the staggering array of today’s problems. Understanding other cultures is essential for solving many of them. We need to cooperate with people from other nations to address issues like global warming, the spread of disease, conflict and violence. How can we work with others without understanding the rest of the world or our own biases? Shedding misconceptions is a great place to start, in a sense reversing the "Disneyfication" process, the method by which so many young people get their first taste of people from other cultures.

This presentation is based on my article, John Murnane, "Reversing the Disneyfication Process: Using Disney Films to Debunk Stereotypes and Oversimplification In Middle and High School Social Science Courses," World History Connected October 2007 <http://worldhistoryconnected.press.illinois.edu/5.1/murnane.html> (15 Mar. 2016).

Created with images by A.Davey - "Church of Bet Medhane Alem (House of the Redeemer of the World), Lalibela, Ethiopia" • ctsnow - "tallest stellae at Axum, Ethiopia"

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