Saturday, May 18, 2024

How Zootopia Calls Out Modern Day Society and “Allies”

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**Spoiler alert!** I’m basically tearing this movie apart (in a good way) so come back after you’ve watched!

I fought to myself about a title for this article. “Zootopia is Really a Movie for Our Generation”, “Zootopia Gives Us a Fresh Perspective On a Worn Topic”, “Zootopia Gives Discrimination the Cutest Faces Ever”, so on and so forth. I finally saw it last week, and it’s the first time in a while I’ve really wanted to see an animated movie.

And about ten minutes in, I knew why this movie beat Frozen‘s opening weekend.

It was a movie about me.

It was a movie about beings with dreams and ambitions that were once, and more than once, told “no” and shunned due to unjust reasons.

It was entertaining and frank discussion on modern day discrimination, and the forms that it can evolve into. Zootopia handled this subject with such grace that I was thoroughly impressed. Not only was it fun, but here we have an animated movie that calls out discrimination in a proclaimed “utopia” that has claimed to have overcome fear and prejudice long ago.

Disney did something special here however, as the conflict between Zootopia‘s main characters Judy and Nick is not one-sided. Their consistent discussions tackle societal oppression on multiple levels, with the bonus of cute animals and great family jokes. Even though I identify as a black woman, I could see myself in both roles of predator and prey, both part of the minority and seen as a danger. Additionally, Disney managed to capture how we can all slip up in our attempts at allyship, even with great intentions at heart. Everyone is wonderfully gray, and I can definitely like them regardless of problematic behavior. However, I would like to highlight some of the most poignant themes.

Judy’s character is the personification (bunnifcation?) of “working twice as hard to get half as much”. If you haven’t seen this amazing scene in Scandal, then this phrase may seem alien, but it’s a common phrase in a lot of POC homes. I know I heard it enough in my childhood. Judy’s progression in the Police Academy shows her failing as she rises to the top of her class and become the first rabbit officer (I definitely thought Mulan during that montage, anyone else?), only to be reduced to a meter maid on her first assignment. She essentially had to perform insubordination in order to receive a real mission.

While I believe Judy’s struggle is allegorical to sexism especially, the structure of society made her fight to be accepted into Zootopia PD about size and species. She endured a huge amount of obstacles during her time in training, and nobody can take her seriously because bunnies tend to be small and often easy prey to many predators. She is still a giant in comparison to smaller rodents, as demonstrated while chasing a weasel, so it’s safe to say that she does still hold some privilege in that regard, but not much. While Judy proclaims early on that in Zootopia you can be anyone you want to be, her parents, coworkers, and even childhood bullies try to push her back into the impending carrot-farming fate a rabbit often faces. She is constantly proving them wrong, a common practice for disadvantaged people in ANY profession.  They are the emotional vampires that can suck the motivation out of someone, but Judy continuously finds a way to overcome these mentalities, however not completely.

We are also served quite a few examples of internal and external racism, which is where Judy often failed. From the 1960s-esque “refusal to serve” scene in the elephant ice cream parlor, to Judy packing a fox taser and repellent (at her parents’ request), the subjects of internal and external prejudice are latent in this film, and especially how they are displayed. Judy is one of the main victims and perpetrators of this as she handles Nick with a watchful eye, guided by both her childhood interaction with Gideon the fox and her parents’ prejudiced paradigm. Her fidgety behavior around Nick (reaching for the “gun” after Nick pretends to lunge at her) further proves the point that her fear, though irrational, is still present. She does not truly soften to him until we are given Nick’s backstory and why he despises both authority and prey. The muzzling scene was deeply saddening, and I’ll admit that I teared up. But it does solidify the real fears and jaded attitudes of some predators in Zootopia, and even more POC in our world.

Many of the predators that went rabid were fully assimilated into a majority prey society. Once the news of this “infection” occurs, the internal prejudice becomes more apparent and Judy realizes what she has started. The fear creeps back into Zootopia, and we see discord even within Zootopia PD. While this was already a plan in motion in order to control the already incremental predators, Judy certainly did not make it any better for them and the mindset of the ever-growing prey populace. And oddly enough, it is her parents that give her the final puzzle piece and help her return to the life of police work that they desperately feared for their daughter.

 Zootopia even went so far to fit in the nuances of modern day discriminatory actions, such as microaggressions and coded language. Amongst the first few police academy scenes, Judy has a quick but poignant conversation with her coworker about being called words such as “cute”, and how it can be offensive if anyone besides family or fellow bunnies reference her that way. Additionally, while being chased by criminals, Judy has insults like “cottontail” being thrown at her through the movie. The fact that this occurs both in and out of the workplace is a consistent reminder of her “place” in the world, as someone who cannot be taken seriously.

Nick faces his share of these taunts as well, especially considering he is a predator. “Clever”, “sly”, “sneaky”- these words actually adhere to his character as a hustler. The complicated part about microaggressions in both Zootopia and our society is when common words can become dangerous. After Judy’s discovery on her mission, she faces press. She’s nervous, and Nick’s “clever” mind helps her through it. However, she immediately gets overwhelmed and reverts back to her internalized thoughts of what predators are supposed to be: “savage”, “deadly”, “dangerous”. This is their instinct, she says. And, true to form, that is definitely present in what we as a country face today by anyone seen as a threat to authority or the majority, with Judy belonging to both groups. She still holds that privilege of being believed because she is a police-bunny, and she belongs to the community that could be at risk.

Props to Disney for also including a tiny segment on a highly popular microaggression: touching someone’s hair without permission, black women’s hair in particular. This was demonstrated on Assistant Mayor Bellwether, with Nick patting her head seemingly unbeknownst to her. I honestly laughed the hardest at this scene, especially Judy’s defense of Bellwether’s puff, both out of amusement that Disney went that far to include something so specific and the fact that I’ve been through that, many times. Unlike Bellwether though, black women (literally) feel that curiosity creep its way in and tug unnecessarily. At least Nick was gentle.

Do NOT try this. Anywhere.
Do NOT try this. Anywhere.

It’s easy to tell what the obvious take-away in Zootopia will be for the general populace: Do not discriminate towards any group, however “dangerous” they may seem to you. But it goes way beyond that message, in every way. There are shout-outs to many communities and their struggles, even some that I missed. And the film isn’t perfect; we got a stereotypical interpretation of the mob boss, and of course he’s Italian. But it was also nice to see the dualism of the community at large, that almost nobody is given their fair shake once fear comes into play, no matter how much of a utopia they claim it can be. There are also stark differences: despite Judy’s optimism of “anyone can be anything”, the real world does not operate in this way, at least not yet. The very prejudices that held Judy back are obviously present in this world, in the form of outright and subtle sexism and racism.

One of the best lessons from this movie is that, while the world these animals live in is not quite perfect, it is possible and preferable to learn from one another. Judy’s parents and even her childhood bully Gideon all grow with Judy as she faces her greatest assignment. This film is a direct lesson of the power of listening- even if you are afraid of the person doing the talking. I hope that this film skyrockets in the same way a princess film would. It can become a great teaching tool-not only for children, but our current generation, especially those that like to pretend that these prejudices do not exist. Disney made it easy for us, we just have to be able to decipher it effectively.


All images courtesy of Disney

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