I finally saw Disney’s Zootopia. It was the studio’s latest animated film. As the portmanteau suggests, the film is about an animal (only mammals) utopia. Judy Hopps (played by Ginnifer Goodwin) works her entire life to become the first rabbit police officer despite her small stature. She makes to the police force and is assigned to the main branch in Zootopia. However, once she arrives she discovers that the city where anyone can be anything they want to be is not the paradise she expected.
The film seems to be a take on racial politics, however, quite a few feminists took the message to be about gender politics, and I can see why.
Judy is a rabbit. All of her traits — small, weak, cute, emotional — are usually associated with women and femininity. During her training to become a police officer Judy receives plenty of condescending, bigoted remarks that sound similar to what someone might say to a woman (ironically, all of these are delivered by a female polar bear). When Judy gets to Zootopia’s main branch, instead of receiving one of the missing predator cases, Judy is made a traffic cop. Her stellar performance at the academy means nothing. The chief simply wants the token rabbit out of the way.
Much of that can also fits into discussions about race and bias in general, however, I think sticking with the gender angle provides an interesting insight into what the filmmakers actually made.
One of the key elements to the film is Judy’s optimism. She wants to be a police officer even though her size makes it difficult, if not impossible. Everyone seems against her dream, even her parents (the scene of them telling her to let go of her dreams is actually quite funny). The factor at play is Judy’s “race”. Rabbits and other herbivores are “prey”. The carnivores and omnivores are “predators”. These two form the racial groups in the film. To an extent, they also form the gender groups, with prey being females and predators being male. To that point, the vast majority of the predators, and I believe all of the violent ones, are male.
Judy explains in the opening of the film how predators have overcome their violent nature and prey have overcome their fear. They can be anything they want to be, especially if they go to the greatest city in the world, Zootopia.
However, things are not as utopian as they seem. Some predators are still dangerous. Judy learns this as a child when she tries to defend some fellow students from a bullying fox only to be pinned down and slashed across the face. Her optimism keeps her from judging the boy named Gideon. She sees him as a bully who happens to be a fox rather than a fox doing what foxes do.
Or that is what we are meant to think. When Judy leaves for Zootopia, her parents give her a plethora of anti-fox deterrents. She takes the fox mace only to silence her parents. Yet before Judy goes to work on her first day, she initially leaves the mace and then pops back into her apartment to grab it. This is our first hint that Judy may seem optimistic, but even she has a bias.
We see this on full display when she meets Nick Wilde (played by Jason Bateman). She spots the fox walking around in a rather sly manner and she follows him. Her instincts tell her he is no good, yet she finds he is only trying to buy a popsicle for his son.
This is our first taste of the real Zootopia and open bigotry. The elephant refuses to sell Nick the popsicle because Nick is a predator.
Of course, in this instance Judy was right to be suspicious. Nick thoroughly cons her and the bigoted elephant. When Judy discovers the con and confronts Nick, he shatters her preconceived notions about the goodness and equality of Zootopia.
If we keep with the feminist idea that the film is about gender, this entire scenario presents a major problem because Nick and other predators would represent “men”. They are supposed to be the ones with “privilege”, yet they are the ones facing open discrimination at the hands of prey.
This is best shown in what I consider the strongest scene in the film. When we first meet Nick, he is sly, cunning, and manipulative. Judy has to trick Nick into helping her, and Nick goes out of his way to foil her investigation of the missing predators. His antics lead to Judy potentially losing her dream job. The moment he realizes this, he decides to help her. And then he explains why he is the way he is:
As I watched the scene, the first thing that came to mind were all the men who take gender studies courses. I thought about what it must feel like to want to do something meaningful only to be told you are a threat to women and need to check your privilege and that you can never truly be trusted. I thought about the scores of male feminists who try their hardest to meet these impossible standards while never knowing what it is they did wrong. And I thought about the scores of men who simply said, “Fuck it.”
Or as Nick says:
If the world’s only gonna see a fox as shifty and untrustworthy, there’s no point trying to be anything else.
That seems to be the message many men take from feminism. On a broader level, it seems to be the message many white people take from race discussions. This also happens with many poor people and minorities. It seems to be that when people judge another group this harshly, it creates a self-perpetuating bias. Nick is a sly fox because he was treated like one.
It is one hell of a scene, and it is one that completely undermines the feminist angle because it is not played as a good message. It is treated as bigoted.
We see this later in the film when Judy finally gains Nick’s trust after they solve the case. No one can explain why some predators reverted to their original predatory ways, which Judy admits in a press conference. She states that maybe there is a biological cause, that it is in predators’ nature to be violent. Obviously this deeply hurts Nick, particularly when he sees some of the predators muzzled as he was as a child.
Since it is a Disney movie, it cannot be left with that rift. Yet what happens is not Nick apologizing to Judy. It is Judy admitting that she was not as unbiased as she claimed. There is a bit of emotional manipulation in the scene, but in general it is something unusual. How often do we see a female character apologizing to a male character, let alone actually being the one in the wrong?
If this is a feminist film, then what happened is that the feminist admitted she was being sexist and apologized.
I do not think this is a feminist or a social justice film. I think it is a film that looks at bias from an objective perspective, showing that anyone — even those who consider themselves disenfranchised — can hold biases. They will not magically disappear because we admit they exist. The world is not a perfect place, and likely will never be a utopia. However, if we acknowledge and confront our biases, perhaps we can make this fairly terrible world a little better.
That is a pretty good message for a very fine Disney film.