I decided to take both my 5 and 10 year olds to see Zootopia, a Disney movie about cross cultural acceptance and diversity. On the movie’s surface, it was kind of stellar. It addressed uncomfortable topics, racism, privilege, otherism, etc. For a Disney movie, I was surprised. But in trying to paint the narrative of acceptance, it introduces many equally uncomfortable stereotypes and problematic representations. I only address a few here, because I’m not going back searching for more.
The primary theme of the story is about change and overcoming adversity, you can be more than what people say you are. It’s a story I could endorse, if that were the only premise. It begins with Judy Hopps, whose character, after being attacked by a predator, is told she couldn’t pursue her dream of being a police officer. Bunnies don’t do that.
She’s belittled and bullied, overcomes all odds and succeeds in her lifelong dream of passionately delivering Law and Order. After overcoming rejection, hurdles, and institutions of social norms, she finally makes it in the big world, Zootopia. It’s a utopian metropolis where diversity is abound and creatures big and small, predator and prey, fall into natural tribal cliques, where despite their differences, have adapted over time to accommodate each other.
Its a medley of zoological ghettos.
The movie isn’t even subtle about reinforcing stereotypes and class systems, which almost detracts from Officer Hopps message of personal success we’d buy into if we didn’t subsequently learn that she only got her position through – an affirmative action initiative. In fact, Judy rightfully objects to her tokenization and sets out to, like many of us who gel labeled as such, prove everyone wrong. She puts everything on the line, including her job, and sets out to solve the biggest case of her life: What’s happening to missing animals?
Enter More Stereotypes
The story progresses to the next embracement of stereotypes, when the aforementioned fluffy-tailed, innocent, country, bunny meets a shifty fox, low life predator, who for the most part, spends his life hustling. This character too, is quite problematic as his whole being is defined by what his environment has shaped him to be, and regardless of his own desires, is rejected by society. Fox lives on the margins, but uses his “street wit” to survive. The only things missing from this stereotype was a criminal record. I must admit, however, they did use more restraint for this character than I to anticipated while watching . I kept waiting to see him slinging herb or poppy seed (really not subtle) on the corner.
Both the bunny and the fox are forced into a relationship of necessity, where said kind hearted officer bunny finds it necessary to extort said fox! And fox finds it necessary to comply to stay out of jail! Though sometimes humorous, the nature of a police officer leveraging evidence against her unwilling criminal partner, bugged me. Growing up in big cities, we often see or hear about crooked cops shaking down the guy on the corner for money, his stash, or information. Well played Disney, lets dispel those right away, and by dispel, I mean introduce. With that said, however, it does facilitate a needed moral discussion on who we call heroes. In deed, Officer Hopps used her intelligence to gain advantage, but the duplicitous nature as to how she achieved the upper hand isn’t to be lauded.
Drugs and Predators
Which brings me to the most contentious parts of the movie for me, 1) the shady reference to war on drugs, and, 2) the question of biological determination.
Warning: A little bit of a spoiler, but not too much.
The city is sent into a frenzy when animals go missing and its determined that they’ve fallen inexplicably ill, regressing to violent predatory-like behavior, then, for the sake of the city, those ill fated animals are held at an asylum for observation through their mental and psychological deterioration. The story is exposed to the public and during a press conference, without any conclusive answers, when pressed on causation, Officer Hopps responds with an answer that is often too easily dismissed by the most benign racism denier, maybe it’s just “in their nature.”
That repeated reference would be completely glossed over by my youngest, but my socially conscious ten year old shot me the “look”. Given the modern parallels, its difficult NOT to address it. With the controversy about current American dialog AND behavior, how is it the movie could miscalculate the message? Its almost as if they started with a color blind approach, then sprinkled some social theory here and there, then gave Roger Ailes’ distant “angry-at-the family” cousin a shot at final edit.
How is it that an obvious reference like predator, which is used in vilifying Black men and children, is ok to introduce before ever substantiating the label without the act? Its leading and introduces a bias, that may not be there or will require attention after the fact. If we’re judging people based on character and not labels, don’t tell them the worst to expect, then congratulate them for doing better. That’s upside down. “At least you’re not that kind of Fox. At least you’re not that kind of Predator. You’re not like the other Black people I know… both of them.”
Even with all of that, go see the movie. It gets a lot of other things right, including accessibility. My criticisms don’t invalidate the entire movie nor its intended message. It has great intentions, however, fails in some spots. Its like having to correct your socially conscious friend that only says slightly racist things, but doesn’t know it. Nice try though.