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Monday, March 21, 2016

Zootopia, an Adorable Disney Cartoon about Systemic Racism

A scene from Zootopia. Rabbits and a tiger riding the subway together. Image source.
First of all, if you're a feminist, you must go see Zootopia.

And from this point on, there will be spoilers. You have been warned.

[spoiler warning. spoilers. all the Zootopia spoilers here.]

The first time I watched Zootopia, I was totally fascinated by all the stereotypes and microaggressions that different species had to deal with throughout the movie. But I thought, there are a few big differences between the culture of Zootopia and modern US culture.

For one thing, in the movie, there were stereotypes flying in all directions. It seemed that all types of animals had a more or less equal amount of societal expectations to deal with. I couldn't identify any species which faced more discrimination than others. Some examples:
  • everybody who said a bunny can't be a cop
  • "she's an elephant, so she remembers everything"
  • Judy (rabbit) tells Nick (fox), "you're very articulate"
  • touching a sheep's wool without asking permission
  • "the mayor just chose me as his running mate so he would get the sheep vote"
  • "a bunny can call another bunny cute, but when other animals do it, it's not really okay"
  • Nick says to Judy, "you're probably from some podunk town of carrot farmers"
  • "did you really think we would trust a fox without a muzzle?"
  • "you think just because they're sloths, they can't be fast?"
And second, in real life, racism isn't caused by just one evil person, who can then be caught and then all is well.

But then, I went and saw it a second time. (And it's totally worth watching a second time!) And, wow, it turns out I was wrong on both counts. It turns out that there is a theme running through the entire movie of prey animals fearing predators. This fear existed long before Bellwether's evil plan began. (In the city of Zootopia, predator animals don't eat meat, and all kinds of mammals live together as equals- or rather, that's the idea, but we see that they are not actually equal. Bellwether, a sheep, is the assistant mayor of Zootopia, who masterminds a plan to shoot predators with a drug that makes them attack others, so that prey animals [90% of Zootopia's populaton] will fear predators, and she will use that fear to gain political power for herself. At which point my fiance leaned over and said to me, "Is she Donald Trump?")

I didn't see this fear at first because I didn't know what to look for. You know, you go watch a movie with talking animals, usually they all basically get along and don't talk about the stereotypes and expectations that society puts on them. So I couldn't identify if there was a particular group that had privilege over another.

And, after watching it once, I came away with the impression that all the fear of predators only started when the public found out about the predators that "went savage." But nope- there are little signs here and there that the stereotype of predators being natually more violent was there all along. In fact, without that idea already in animals' minds, the news of some animals "going savage" would not have caused such society-wide fear and prejudice towards predators.

Why did Judy's parents give her anti-fox spray, a fox taser, and other self-defense tools specifically for fighting off foxes? They believed foxes are more dangerous than other animals. And Nick told her that yes, the first time they met he noticed the anti-fox spray she carried on her belt. He noticed. He's used to people being a little scared of him just because he's a fox.

And then when Judy told Police Chief Bogo about the jaguar who had "gone savage" and tried to kill her, he said, "Animals don't 'go savage'- maybe to you rabbits, all large predators look 'savage.'" He knows that stereotype already exists, and that predators get unfairly profiled as more likely to be violent.

Also, we learn from Nick's backstory that other animals often expected him to be dangerous (because he's a predator) and dishonest (because he's a fox). Intersectionality!

And why is it that the public accepted the explanation that predators can go savage because of their DNA, because they're reverting back to the way they lived thousands of years ago? Did anyone notice that the behavior of the animals who went savage is not at all like the behavior of wild animals? (Err, "wild animals" in our world, "primitive animals" in the movie world.) In the movie, the animals who went savage would just suddenly attack anyone they saw. Wild animals don't do that- they don't just go start fights. They're more sneaky. They only choose prey which is less able to fight back- otherwise the predator could be hurt. Have you been to a zoo with tigers? Did they constantly jump at you through the glass? No, they don't do that because they know it won't work. And why would an otter attack a larger animal?

They weren't going back to a primitive state. They don't become hunters looking for meat, they become senselessly violent. (We also learn that a rabbit once "went savage" and bit another rabbit- which confirms the fact that it's not about ancestry at all.) But the animals in Zootopia already believe that predators' ancestry means they are more likely to be violent, so they totally accept the whole "they are going back to the way they lived thousands of years ago, because of their biology" explanation- even though it's not consistent with the facts. (And whenever one of the characters in the movie said the word "biology", it was a sure sign they were about to say something really racist.)

This movie is much deeper than "everything is great in Zootopia, until a group of sheep villains starts drugging predators to make them violent, and this makes prey animals afraid and divides the city, but then the bad guys get caught and everything is good again and they all go to a Shakira concert." Before the events of the movie, prey animals were already afraid of predators. After the end of the movie, that fear will still be there. That's something that runs deep in their culture, and it will take time to change it.

So really, the city of Zootopia hasn't changed, from the beginning of the movie to the end. Nick and Judy definitely went through some changes, as they had their assumptions challenged and learned a lot about the nature of society and interacting with others who are different. But the society as a whole? Nope, didn't change.

Also, I love how this movie showed what systemic bigotry is. In the real world, racism isn't a feeling. Racism isn't one person being mean to another because of their race. No, racism is a whole system, which perpetuates itself when well-meaning white people don't realize their own racism. (Same thing with other types of prejudice.)

So we see that, as Judy works hard to become a police officer, at every level she has people telling her she can't do it, or not taking her seriously. That's what "systemic" means- it's not "this one animal wasn't nice to me because I'm a rabbit", it's "throughout my entire life, I've had to deal with others not taking me seriously becasue I'm a rabbit, and every time I get rejected for a job that I think I deserve to have, I have to wonder if it's because I'm a rabbit." In contrast, we see that Mayor Lionheart doesn't respect Bellwether, and who knows, maybe it's because Lionheart has some prejudice toward sheep? But overall, we don't see that Zootopia culture has any larger patterns of prejudice toward sheep or prey animals. So Mayor Lionheart is just one jerk. His bigotry towards sheep is very much NOT THE SAME THING as Bellwether's bigotry towards predators, because Bellwether has the fears and prejudices of the entire city backing her up.

And there's so much more I could say about Zootopia. The world-building in this movie was excellent. And did anyone notice that, even though the city appears at first to be fully integrated, we don't see any cross-species families or cross-species romantic relationships? (To anyone who says "but that wouldn't work, biologically": please go read everything ever written about marriage equality.) And wait a minute, different kinds of animals have vastly different lifespans- how would things like education and career work? Elephants could be like "I have 10 years' experience in this job" but mice only live like, 2 years- so you're never going to have equal opportunites for them. Although Nick says "I've been doing this since I was 12" so maybe in Zootopia, all species have human-like lifespans?

Anyway, I loved this movie. Go watch it and learn what systemic injustice is.

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I also recommend reading The Mary Sue's review of Zootopia. (And also this one.)

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