Some thoughts on Zootopia

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.

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6 thoughts on “Some thoughts on Zootopia

  1. I saw this too, and I think you make an excellent point.

    Don’t forget, each year herbivores like water buffalo and hippopotamus kill far more people than lions.

  2. Thoroughly agree with your conclusion. Great film, look forward to seeing it again, this time without my children to distract me!

  3. No this is just the standard PC Drivel. Its just that the logic pretzel is so twisted to try to make a ridiculous point, it doesn’t work and seems muddled enough to be seen in different ways to different people. The Original point was obviously trying to convince people that “anyone can be anything” and biology is just as fungible as the lying media wants you to believe. The sad admission of biological reality is a guilt play where you’re supposed to feel bad about genetics and “TRY HARDER” to be looney bin lunatics like the PC Useful Idiots. SAD. This is why the Dinosaur Media MUST DIE OUT.

  4. Gotta watch this movie, sounds interesting. Yeah, there is a point about being called a racist so often that you decide to be one. After so many times blacks have called me a racist, I pretty much have become somewhat racist towards blacks. Which interestingly did not happen with other ethnicities. I used to have a Chinese friend and his race was never something that even crossed my mind.

    On the other hand, there are biological differences between males and women and I agree with Joshua Sinistar in that regard. “Oh please, women, believe me that I can be just as feminine and womanly as you can.” is just the wrong angle to approach it. Predators are predators. But in this sense, it is a bit of a bad analogy to male-female tensions, because men are not genetically predators of females. Intra-gender violence seems, to me, to be an abberation and illness rather than the normal state. Sure, men like to conquer women. But men who actually like to rape women against their will are rather rare.

  5. Yeah, there is a point about being called a racist so often that you decide to be one. After so many times blacks have called me a racist, I pretty much have become somewhat racist towards blacks.

    The interesting part about that scene is that it can play the opposite way as well. It can represent how a black person can get so tired of being considered dangerous and violent that they will just become it.

    I do understand the sentiment, and I understand why a person would make the choice to just be the thing people accuse them of being. I do not, however, think it is a good choice, and not only because I do not think people should adopt bad qualities. I think it is a bad choice because it allows other people to define you. If black people think you are racist, let them. If you are not, you know you are not. You do not have to let them define you. The same goes for black men, particularly young black men, facing assumptions about their propensity for violence or men dealing with feminists.

    In regards to the latter, I did pose the question about that dynamic on a feminist subreddit. So far, all the of the feminists have refused to view Nick’s scene as applying to men in any way, despite all of them considering Judy and other prey animals to represent women.

    But in this sense, it is a bit of a bad analogy to male-female tensions, because men are not genetically predators of females.

    This is true, however, the same thing could be said with race relations. I think the scene plays on assumptions about what people would do rather it being a literal depiction of what people do.

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