In Defense Of The Hyenas From 'The Lion King'

by KT Hawbaker

To be honest, I was never a big fan of The Lion King. Sure, I had the obligatory, mid-'90s Simba shirt and could sing along to my VHS tape when necessary, but there just wasn't enough glitter or princess vibes for me to truly embrace the film. Yet as an adult, I've had the chance to revisit most of my favorite Disney films and find that I often like the villains a lot more than the main characters themselves, from The Little Mermaid's Ursula to, yes, The Lion King's hyenas. Disney cartoons from the past often villainize transgressive qualities in order to uphold the "goodness" of their main characters, their rigid gender roles, lighter colors, wealth, and patriarchal power structures — it's not called The Lion Collective, after all. And in that light, I think it's high time you reconsidered some of Disney's most famous villains, including the hyenas in The Lion King .

This isn't to say the hyenas deserve nothing but praise; there are two decades worth of conversation regarding The Lion King's problems with these characters, with everyone from film critic Roger Ebert to devoted bloggers giving their two cents on the matter. Many have written than the hyenas are racist depictions of blackness, while others have defended the animals' roles in the film. The hyenas are clearly complicated characters, and there's no clear-cut answer on the subject. I, however, think they don't deserve all the hate they get, and here's why I think you should rethink the hyenas from The Lion King .

1. Their Violence Comes From Starvation

While the hyenas commit some atrocious crimes and aren't exactly the "good guys," it's important to note that Mufasa and his crew completely starved off this group. The hyenas are in full-on survival mode and take to Scar when he promises them food and power, two things denied to the hyenas by the Pride Lands' patriarchy.

2. They're The Ones Who Actually Take Down Scar

Sure, Simba pushes Scar into a pit of doom, but it's the hyenas who call out his hypocrisy and actually take him down. Scar used their labor to recreate the same structure that oppressed them, so the hyenas revolt and destroy their leader.

3. They're All About Revolution

While they're not holding sit-ins and reading Karl Marx, the hyenas are highly organized and ready to dismantle the ruling class by any means necessary. They even sing about it.

4. They're Incredibly Smart

Desperate situations can often trigger creative responses. While The Lion King's narrative tries to villainize the hyenas, it also shows how manipulative and cunning they are capable of being. Perhaps this is why they were exiled.

5. They're Not Gendered

Interestingly, Disney treats the hyenas' gendered ambiguity as a threat to the clear divide of male and female in the Pride Lands.

6. They Bring Up An Important Point About Racism In Film

The Lion King literally uses light vs. dark to create a sense of good vs. evil. It isn't the only kids' film to have done this, but it's worth pointing out how this movie, in particular, codes the protagonists as white and only allows characters voiced by actors of color into the Pride Lands, if they are, like the hyenas, in servitude to the leaders.

7. They're The Only Characters Who Don't Get A Happy Ending

Despite all of the promises Scar made the hyenas, they're ultimately left as an exiled class with nothing more than scraps, and have to go back to the Elephant Graveyard when Simba comes back into power. Meanwhile, every other character in this movie gets a perfectly happy ending.

Think the hyenas are the real bad guys of The Lion King? Be prepared to debate that idea.

Images: Walt Disney Studios; Giphy (7)