For an animated Disney film, Zootopia sure has been generating a lot of sociopolitical commentary. In case you haven’t seen the movie or read our review, here’s a synopsis: all the animals live together in a big city, but when predators start going savage, it’s up to a bunny cop and a fox hustler to solve the case. Along the way, they inadvertently stir up latent interspecies tensions, which they also must resolve. Many critics have interpreted the film as a not-so-veiled attempt to address racism, and over at Consequence of Sound, writer Nico Lang argues that Zootopia fails to do so adequately. “In Zootopia, no one really benefits from racism, and everyone is thus harmed by it equally—which is actually a pretty dangerous idea,” he writes.
Full disclosure: I am a sucker for Disney movies. I saw Zootopia on opening weekend—I was probably the only person in the theater between the ages of 10 and 40—and thought it was the studio’s best non-Pixar work since Tangled. At first, I thought the film was indeed about racism, but after some reflection focused by Lang’s criticism, I have come to disagree. Zootopia can’t adequately address racism, and racism can’t harm its characters equally, because the film’s main focus is not racism. It’s about prejudice, which can and does harm everyone equally, and how prejudice leads to racism. In this light, Zootopia is a stunning success.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Zootopia is the nuance with which it handles the concept of prejudice. Lang states that the film doesn’t depict any privileged group, and he’s right—this is a world in which even the predators, who would be “privileged” by their natural gifts, are docile. (Friedrich Nietzsche would be furious at the “slave morality” that has conquered them.) But I disagree with Lang’s assertion that “it doesn’t really work to have a film about the ‘Other’ in which everyone is the ‘Other.’” Instead, with no privileged group, what happens is that the “other” is relative to context, and this shows that in any given situation, any arbitrary person or group can be marginalized.
As I reflected on the character of Judy Hopps, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to a human character from a different film: Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods. Both Judy and Woods are highly enthusiastic, surprisingly intelligent females with major chips on their shoulders, trying to make it in a profession to which society has told them they do not belong. Their only major difference is that Elle Woods also happens to be the whitest of white sorority betches, an incredibly privileged individual in America with whom we might not tend to sympathize. (The fact that we do is a testament to Reese Witherspoon’s acting.) But regardless of Woods’ overall societal status, it’s impossible to deny that she is othered at Harvard Law, where she enters a world that is prejudiced against her from the start based on her looks, accent and background. Zootopia takes Woods’ situation and, in conferring it upon the comparatively unprivileged Hopps, strips away the lens of societal privilege to reveal the reality of the situation: pure, unmitigated prejudice.
Judy could fit easily into Zootopian society if all she wanted was to fit in—maybe she’d be seen as the equivalent of a dumb blond sorority girl, because that’s the analogue of “dumb, cute bunny,” but she’d make her way with little issue regardless, especially in the dictatorship of the prey that the sheep Assistant Mayor Bellwether tries to establish. But Judy is held back by the prejudices of the other police officers against the ability of a tiny, dumb, cute rabbit to be a serious member of their ranks. We must consider her an “other” in this context, no matter what her standing in the overall societal structure of Zootopia may be. (Another, somewhat related thought: if Zootopia’s creators really wanted to address racism, they would have made an allegory wherein the cops take down a colony of unarmed foxes and justify it as self-defense.)
Speaking of foxes, Nick Wilde also faces prejudice, and his response to it—a self-fulfilling prophecy—is a great depiction of the psychological construct that perpetuates the cycle of poverty and discrimination in American ghettos. In the mostly classless society of Zootopia, there is one species that, at least in the city itself, looks to be a legitimate underclass: the foxes, who are seen as sly tricksters. Nick has been othered his entire life, most notably in a very disturbing scene that shows a young Nick being muzzled by a group of bigoted cub scouts he thought were his friends (probably the most visceral thing I’ve ever seen in a Disney film), and that feeling of being “other” has come to define him. The lesson for us to take away from this is that prejudice can have the effect of creating an unbridgeable gap between groups.
Having firmly established that this film concerns prejudice, we should distinguish between prejudice and racism. Prejudice is a negative attitude about someone held on the basis of cognitive constructs we call stereotypes; racism is these attitudes manifested as oppressive behavior, and therefore requires a power gradient. (“Reverse racism” doesn’t exist—it’s discrimination, and it’s not good, but it’s not racism.) Lang rightly argues that because Zootopia is (mostly) a classless society until Judy’s invocation of literal social Darwinism at a press conference citing predators’ “biological urges,” racism can’t really exist there.
But the lack of classes in Zootopia belies a very important truth about the film: it’s not a reflection of our own world, or even attempting to be a reflection of our world. It’s no coincidence that the titular city is named after utopia—it’s a depiction of what our society would look like if we somehow beat back systemic, institutional racism without addressing its underlying cause. Throughout the film, we see countless examples of how Zootopia the city is outfitted to meet the needs of every species, and for the most part, every animal from the tiniest of gerbils to the largest of elephants is treated with equal respect (at least on the surface) by every other animal. The very concept of predators living in harmony with prey is utter fantasy.
Most importantly, though, as the film proceeds, we see that the façade of peace and mutual respect coats deep-seated prejudices that haven’t been quashed, and when Judy very publicly ties the predators’ savagery to biology, things immediately start to look dystopian. This is where Zootopia more accurately resembles our society—when people feel threatened, the prejudices that they’ve buried bubble right back up to the surface. The mentality of in-groups and out-groups is well-understood by social psychologists; it goes back to the earliest days of the human species, when the ability to distinguish between friend and foe was vital to the ability to survive and reproduce. That’s why fear is so effective at separating society along lines of prejudice, and that’s exactly what Assistant Mayor Bellwether (a lowly sheep) uses to accumulate more power at the expense of predators. From the moment that Judy Hopps mentions that the predators might be a threat because of their DNA, what we witness is the process of prejudice activated by fear and becoming racism.
Lang asserts that “Zootopia’s moral seems to be that society can reach a racial harmony when bad individuals are ousted from power…in Zootopia, the system is not the problem; it’s the individuals who are the problem.” I agree, but the conclusion that Lang draws—that the movie’s message comes across as muddled—is unfair to the movie’s true value. What it’s really showing is that prejudice, when activated against an arbitrary group by some sort of crisis, turns into racism real fast. That’s how Adolf Hitler and the Nazis turned the seemingly benign German people against the Jews: the country was mired in an economic crisis, and Hitler played upon the latent anti-Semitism of his people to strongman his way into dictatorship (students of history might remember that he used a shady fire at the Reichstag to incite fear and justify ousting his opponents) and then justify the use of state power against the Jews. Hell, Donald Trump has become a viable presidential candidate by playing on Americans’ fears of Mexican immigrants and Muslims, who will surely face more overt racism and discrimination if he is elected.
The most important message to take away from Zootopia is therefore that prejudice is the underlying cause of racism, and that in order for us to defeat institutional racism in America and the world, we and our children must learn to overcome prejudice—which is only possible through not the mere integration of different groups and the false ideology of “not seeing color,” but the acceptance and appreciation of others’ differences. Mashing together disparate peoples in one place is a start, but as Zootopia shows us, that isn’t enough, because any group can become the target of racism if the context is right and underlying prejudices are allowed to persist. The only real solution is to foster empathy (beautifully portrayed in Judy and Nick’s dynamic relationship) and cherish the beautiful tapestry of humanity without using our species’ myriad variations to put people into boxes that can be used to crush them if a reason to do so arises. If we can raise our kids to think in the way that Zootopia wants them to think, we might eventually have unprejudiced leaders who rule a society of unprejudiced people. At that point, institutional racism will be seen for what it is—arbitrary, stupid, and fucked-up—and discarded forever.
Is this naive? Of course. But Zootopia is a kids’ movie, and if you never give kids hope for a better world, they’ll never try to work toward it.
Zach Blumenfeld is maybe going to see Zootopia again this weekend because why not. Follow him on Twitter.