I’ll admit, when Zootopia first debuted I was one among the droves of people heaping praise upon this children’s movie that so boldly and unabashedly tackled something as serious as modern day race relations, a topic that most movies geared towards adult won’t often do. I was even more astounded at the inclusion of the police element of the film given how tumultuous the relationship between communities of color and the police is in the modern day. I never expected to see such social commentary in any media geared towards children and especially not in a Disney property. I was thoroughly impressed upon exiting the theater.
But then I actually thought about it for more than two minutes.
Upon further reflection I’ve found that Zootopia fucks up terribly on multiple fronts that I didn’t noticed while I was in the theater and that I’m sure slipped past a lot of other people as well. It doesn’t take too much contemplation to realize that the film has a fundamental misunderstanding of race, racism, and systems of privilege and oppression, which becomes all the more understandable when you realize that the production team looks like this:
No shade, just tea.
So, where specifically does the movie fail? Well…
1NE. The Setup is Faulty & Anti-Black
Zootopia sets up its entire world and its central conflict as a simple binary: predators versus prey. If your project is going to make a statement or social commentary about one of the greatest ills of the world, you have to acknowledge the multiplicity of that issue – this is not optional – so from the basic premise alone the movie is already failing because nothing operates as a simple binary. Yes, at its core racism is a system of power that makes the “white people versus people of color” idea seem like an all-encompassing binary, but the system of racism and white supremacy affects people on multiple levels and it doesn’t affect every minority in the same way, but that’s how it’s presented in the movie.
Zootopia has a great number of parallels to the racism specifically faced by black people in modern America, which makes it all the more irritating when you realize that this is something that Disney and other movie studios do whenever they make a story about black people, especially if the story is set somewhere in Africa. They did it with The Lion King, and they did in The Princess and the Frog, where Tiana and Naveen spend almost the entire movie as frogs while we spend much more time with the white, human side characters than most other Disney Princess movies endeavor to.
When people hear the word “predator” used to describe animals a few species generally immediately come to mind: lions, tigers, bears, sharks, foxes, wolves, any bird of prey, crocodiles, etc. What do these animals have in common? They have sharp teeth, they have claws, they’re fast and strong, they’re usually larger than the things they eat, they need to kill in order to survive. Herein lies the second issue with this films setup: it’s incredibly anti-black. This “predators versus prey” dichotomy reaffirms the MYTH that black people are legitimate threats to whites because they are somehow just intrinsically more prone to violence (black-on-black crime?). The film even uses the term “savage” to describe predators reverting back to their pre-civilized selves. Predatory animals are by nature, by biological mandate, violent towards prey, they kill to live, and now that’s being translated into a movie that supposed to allegorize racism, but the minority is the group that is legitimately dangerous.
I know that police brutality is, like, this poppin’, hot button topic among people that don’t have to worry about anti-black violence, and it’s a guaranteed money maker to create movies about black suffering, but this hideous myth that black people are somehow intrinsically more prone to violence than whites is a stereotype that we’ve been fighting since I don’t even know, and it has and continues to get us assaulted, harassed, and killed.
And it flew right over the production teams heads.
2WO. Reverse Racism is Not a Thing!!!
Another grating failure of Zootopia is a constant underlying message that racism/prejudice can work both ways. Newsflash: it doesn’t. When people make the distinction between racism and prejudice it is very deliberate.
Institutional racism (also known as institutionalized racism) is a form of racism expressed in the practice of social and political institutions. Institutional racism is also racism by individuals or informal social groups, governed by behavioral norms that support racist thinking and foment active racism. It is reflected in disparities regarding wealth, income, criminal justice, employment, housing, health care, political power and education, among other things. Whether implicitly or explicitly expressed, institutional racism occurs when a certain group is targeted and discriminated against based upon race. Institutional racism can go unnoticed as it is not always explicit and can be overlooked.
It would be very easy to look at these two definitions and make the statement that prejudice is just the everyday, individual form of racism, but it isn’t.
Prejudice merely momentarily annoys; racism ruins lives.
Think of the recent controversy surrounding Shea Moisture’s most current ad where they featured two white women, a blonde and a red head, talking about “hair hate.”
Yes, red headed lady, people might have called you “ginger” and “fire crotch” in middle school and that prejudice may have hurt your feelings, but it will never hold a candle to the constant policing black women endure with regards to our hair. Nobody is going tell you to change your hair color or else you can’t get a job, but plenty of people will unashamedly tell us to straighten or otherwise change our hair texture or else we can seek employment elsewhere.
Yes, Llewellyn, it may be true that people used to make fun of you for your “weird” name, but no one is going to tell you to shorten your name to a letter and a period on an application, it’s not going to stop you from being able to make a living, and I’m certain that people will at least attempt to pronounce your name correctly – if they even acknowledge it as a “real name” – the same cannot be said for our names.
White people get called “mayonnaise” and are annoyed; black people “fit the description” and get 25 to life.
Because of his past experiences with discrimination, Nick’s prejudice can have him call Judy “carrots” and crack jokes about how emotional and frail and weak she is as a bunny, and it will most definitely irritate her, but that is in no way equal to the stigma Nick has to carry around being a fox which is equated with being untrustworthy, sneaky, a liar, and a thief, a stigma that follows black men around for most of their lives.
The only reason Judy and Nick become acquainted at the beginning of the movie is because Judy profiled him and followed him into the ice cream shop. And just listen to the way people talk to and about Nick.
Listen, I don’t know what you’re doin’ skulkin’ around durin’ daylight hours, but I don’t want any trouble in here, so hit the road!
-Elephant at the ice cream parlor
Judy even tells Nick that he’s articulate!!! Uuuugh!!!
“You think I’m going to believe a fox?”
All that to say that derogatory names and stereotypes wielded against a majority by a minority will never be as detrimental in reverse because words conjured up by a minority are defense mechanisms whereas majority derogatory language has the power affect how the minority live their lives.
It’s all about who has power and who doesn’t.
3HREE. The movie doesn’t understand PRIVILEGE & POWER!!!
Zootopia’s biggest flaw by far is it’s fundamental misunderstanding and mishandling of systems of privilege and power. The way characters interact in this world insinuates that everyone is more or less on a level playing field but several elements within the story directly contradict this.
Nick and Judy are both supposedly representative of the “other” even though they exist on polar opposite ends of the predator/prey divide.
Assistant Mayor Bellwether consistently refers to prey as “the little guys”, but she also states that predators are just 10 percent of the population. That would then eliminate Judy from the “other” group that is represented by the predator minority. You can’t be “other” and also be the majority.
The Mayor of Zootopia is a lion, the king of all predators, and most of the police officers we see are predators if they aren’t larger herbivorous animals, but again predators are supposed to be the minority, so how are so many of them in positions of authority in a city that is so clearly divided?
The system never seems to agree with itself.
Mayor Lionheart’s existence coupled with Judy’s expositional play in the movie’s opening also display what is perhaps the most egregious oversight of the entire film, which is that allegories for racism where the current victims had power over or were a threat to the current aggressors at any point don’t work as allegories for racism!!!
The concept of race was created by white Americans to maintain their institutional power. Black people and other peoples of color have never held the social or political means to disenfranchise whites and keep them in a perpetual state of fear and poverty the way that whites have wielded their power over us through colonialism, genocide, and state-sanctioned violence of modern institutions – hello 5-0. Whites have never been labeled as non-human objects to buy and sell and serve. The racism that exists today isn’t some retaliation for past wrongs against whites – which is a thing that white people legitimately fear from us for whatever reason. Racism isn’t some tipping of the scales in favor of the real victims, but that is pretty much what the movie is stating and damn near the exact motive behind Bellwether’s whole scheme.
It seems that every animal in the film experiences micro-aggressions in the day to day and that everyone is equally culpable for the prejudice that exists within the city. In Zootopia, everyone is harmed by “””racism””” but no one benefits from it, which again:
4OUR. The “Solution”?
Speaking of Assistant Mayor Bellwether, she’s the entire reason that I decided to make this post. She was the one thing in the movie that left a bad taste in my mouth the first time I left the theater. It isn’t that her plan didn’t make sense – it was honestly the best allegory in the film for how a majority can engineer situations to turn the public against a minority – and it’s not so much about her personally, it’s the suggestion that her being arrested will pretty much return everything back to normal. Everything previous that I’ve talked about connects back to this idea that is exemplified by Bellwether, and it’s the idea that racism is an individual behavior that people can just choose to stop.
According to the filmmakers, racism isn’t a system that permeates society both consciously and unconsciously, it isn’t ideas that we’re taught through subliminal messaging and recurring imagery and tropes in media, it isn’t erasure and historic revisionism taught in schools, it’s an individual behavior that can be picked up and put down by choice like a hobby.
So, essentially discrimination can go away when bad individuals are ousted from power and people just decide to stop being racist.
It’s more than a little ridiculous to expect a kids movie to thoroughly and adequately explain concepts of privilege and racism without ruffling a few feathers, but Zootopia‘s message is at best muddled and at worst contradictory.
Instead of trying to take such a flimsy premise and make a film that’s supposed to be all encompassing with regards to racial discrimination, the movie would have worked much better as a story about overcoming sexism (though it still would have its flaws).
Think about it, Judy is one of two female officers that we see in the film, she interacts mostly with male characters who usually upon first meeting her condescend to her because of her small stature and supposed fragility, and the other major female character is routinely pushed around and yelled at by her boss, never fully appreciated for what she does. I’m sure that premise would still raise some concerns, but the messaging would be nowhere near as dismal as the final product’s was.
As film critic Matt Zoller Seitz noted:
“I can imagine an anti-racist and a racist coming out of this film, each thinking it validated their sense of how the world works.”
And that sort of muddied stance on racism is the very last thing we need in this day and age.
Here’s another fantastic article about Zootopia’s race fail.
WaterCoolerConvos | ‘Zootopia’: Disney’s Feeble Attempt At Discussing Racism Without Discussing Racism by Jenn M. Jackson