Disney has released a child-friendly film addressing the issue of racism and the drug war in America. The film, Zootopia (2016), uses metaphors and symbolism to mirror the realities of racism and prejudice in Western society to young children, and teach them how to overcome it. The utopian city of Zootopia, is symbolic of Western societies where the myth of meritocracy is constantly narrated as truth (Beaudine et al. 2017). Animals, are symbolic of race; prey are the majority (symbolic of white), and predators are the minority group. This is shown through demographic numbers, prey outnumber predator by 10:1, similar to the demographic of African-Americans in the United States, 12.6% according to the 2010 national census (Beaudine et al. 2017). The use of characterisation and character development is essential in the directors goal in depicting the emotional and institutional realities of racism and how deeply it effects the lives of individuals.
The opening scene contextualises Zootopia with school play which illustrates the history of the nation’s predator vs prey dichotomy, mirroring black american history taught in schools today. The play states that although predators and prey have had a violence history, today, the two live harmoniously together in a place where “Anyone can be anything”. Throughout the film we find that predator and prey do not have the same opportunities or rights as each other. The scene also shows that since childhood, the myth of meritocracy is reproduced by celebrating the modern “harmonious” city of Zootopia (Beaudine et al. 2017). This myth is harmful because it ignores the realities of minorities, hence further ignoring and reproducing these racist structures in society. The film brings to light the consequences of this modern discourse: It maintains the invisibility of racial prejudice and institutional discrimination in the western world, allowing racism to be reproduced generationally, thus maintaining white superiority (McIntosh 2004, p. 85).
The protagonist, Judy Hopps, experiences discrimination and bullying for being a young, small enthusiastic woman, working in a male dominated field. Her bunny character is metaphorical of a young woman, who celebrates and believes the meritocratic, capitalistic slogan of Zootopia, “Where anyone can be anything”. But throughout the film she comes to realise to her disappointment and confusion that, Zootopia is not as egalitarian as it sells itself to be. As her character comes to this realisation, her experiences become symbolic of how a white person, who has always had access to privilege, realises the truth about racism in society. ‘White privilege’ is what Peggy McIntosh refers to the invisible knapsack of privileges which as provide special provisions, assurances and tools receive by birth to white people, often without recognising they have any special privileges (McIntosh 2004, p. 76).
Judy’s character experiences prejudice in her own life; being a small female bunny, in a male dominated occupation. She comes to realise that even by working hard, people who are different, will be treated differently and have different opportunities to people with other privileges. When Judy finally gets her dream job, as a cop, she faces demotions and doubt by the police Chief who demerits her recruitment as being a result of the new Mammal Inclusion Program, which is a reference to the Affirmative Action policies in America (Beaudine et al. 2017). She protests, “I’m not just some token bunny”, but continues to be discouraged, belittled and bullied. I suggest that her experiences are of sexism and ageism. Her character is female; her stature is small, which expands on the idea of femininity or fragility; she is derogatively referred to as ‘cute’ and her species is almost always referred to as bunny, rather than a rabbit, which is a ‘feminised’ word for rabbit (Beaudine et al. 2017). Judy is not from the city, she grew up on a farm, and people often assume she is incapable of handling ‘big city life’ due to her rural upbringing. Her age is also a big factor in the prejudice she faces, which is symbolic of the real-world difficulties which young people and women face in the work industry, as seen by high youth unemployment rates (Beaudine et al. 2017). By depicting a young white protagonist as having strugglesin society, young audiences are able to recognise that social structures which place certain people on top of a heirarchy of power or importance, cause problems for everyone.
The movies emotional story-telling effectively allows young audiences from minority or majority backgrounds to connect and understand each characters experiences. The character development of Nick Wilde skilfully display’s the deep impacts racism and stereotypes have had on his life (Farrell 2016). At first, Nick is percieved as a depicted, sneaky and deceptive predator, which suggest his charater to be symbolic of a black or minority race, whom are often stereotyped with these personality traits. Nicks flashback scene is an essential moment in his character development as it shows audiences he is much more complex than the simple stereotypes of his species. The flashback is of him as an excited child joining the Junior Scouts, “I was gonna fit in, even if I was the only predator in the troop.” This line highlights that, even from a young age Nick has felt the marginalisation that people have had against him. During his informal scout initiation, he was attacked by other prey children and muzzled saying that they couldn’t trust a fox without a muzzle. Nick ran outside into the dark and threw the muzzle away, he fell to the floor, as the camera pans down he started crying, stressing how deeply hurt he was by the racially fuelled violence. As the flashback fades away Nick states, “If the world’s only gonna see a fox as shifty and untrustworthy, there’s no point in trying to be anything else.” This scene fantastically highlights the deep-rooted physical and psychological effects that racism has on minority races, and describes how internalised racism works.
NB: Internalised racism (Yamato 1990) is the emotional, physical and spiritual battering to the point when an individual of an oppressed group begins to feel they deserve the oppression, to the point of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of their lives (Yamato 1990, p. 86).
As Judy Hopps, works with Nick Wilde, she comes to realise that even her, an open minded young person can be conditioned into racism and fear (Farrell 2016). Judy Hopps and her adventures in the city, with the help of a fox, made her realise that she herself, is repetitively, unintentionally, exhibiting racist behaviour, and she finds that the city is not as post-racial as it is advertised to be. Her unintended, subconscious racism is shown through the motif of fox-repellent. Her fox-phobic parents, urged her to take the fox-repellent to the city, and although she is reluctant to take it at first, she decides to take it and carry throughout the film. Her reluctance to take the repellent signifies her hesitance to accept herself as having any racist attitudes or beliefs against other races, but her compliance proves that these feelings are real and have real-life consequences. These subconscious feelings, suspicions, fears and behaviour is run by what Young (1990, p. 131) calls the discursive consciousness. Discursive consciousness are these unnoticed feelings and actions which are conditioned into all of us through socialisation. This consciousness is run by the ‘basic security system’ which operates our sense of identity and autonomy in social context (Young 1990, p. 131). These feelings further sum into the larger social condition of cultural imperialism which is seen throughout the movie.
Cultural imperialism is the subconscious every-day stereotyping, marginalising and making invisible of oppressed groups labelling them as ‘other’ (Young 1990, p.123). Victims of cultural imperialism experience marginalisation through mundane contexts such as gestures, movements, tones and reactions which is felt within the discursive consciousness of oppressed individuals. We see this in the film through name calling, facial expressions of disgust and aversion from prey at predator, specifically when Nick is around police and they become angry when he talks (Beaudine et al. 2017). Judy exhibits moments of racial stereotyping through discursive consciousness, for example when she first sees Nick Wilde in the streets, she immediately becomes suspicious of his actions and intentions. Or when Nick questions Judy if she is afraid of him and she flinches for her fox-repellent reflexively, proving to him, and herself that subconsciously, she is afraid of predators.
Judy struggles with realising and accepting that she, herself has subconscious biases and fears toward predators. She does not want to accept she has negative attitudes toward predators, because this was never a conscious decision she has made. Peggy McIntosh (2004, p. 76) recognises this struggle as an outcome of white privilege. McIntosh recognises white privilege as similar to internalised racism, as society conditions white individuals into believing they are innately superior and becoming blind to the real struggles of minorities. She states that white privilege makes individuals self-righteous and illogically fearful adding that white-privilege should not be an aim that all people should strive to achieve, rather, it should be eliminated as a burden to social advancement and equality (McIntosh 2004, p. 83). Judy’s realisation and acceptance of her subconscious racist views, is important as it allows young audiences to see that oppressive views are a result of social conditioning and are not always a conscious choice that one should feel guilty over. This is especially important for white audiences as it teaches children to recognise, accept and challenge any racist beliefs or habits they may have been taught to have.
A consequence of subconscious or cultural racism, is shown in the press conference scene where Judy matter-of-factly states that predators have a “biological component” to going savage. The reaction to this statement is immediate mass fear and moral panic against a minority group which shows how quickly, people can completely go against a group which already has per-existing negative connotations with. It also shows the dangers of scientific racism and philosophical reasoning to explain racial differences (Young 1990, p. 127).
An example of how racism is reproduced and used to benefit dominant society, is depicted through the antagonist’s plot. Assistant Mayor Dawn Bellwether, is a sheep who works under the shadow of the Mayor who is a lion. She is found responsible for mass drugging of predators, making them go savage. Her plan was to make all prey fear predators so she can stay in power as the hero who saved Zootopia from savage predators. By playing into pre-existing stereotypes, the majority of animals were easily manipulated because, “fear always wins” (Johnson 2016). This plot narrative alludes to the conspiracy that CIA members in the 1960-70’s, wittingly or unwittingly, helped introduce crack cocaine into minority communities (Johnson 2016). This supposedly made it easier for political leaders to dismiss the needs of ‘ghetto’ African-American communities as areas populated by “crack babies” and welfare queens” (Johnson 2016). This further created more discrimination against African-American communities which caused further social, political and economic problems within African-American communities.
Although racism is a societal problem, the film has a moral message of teaching children that individual action against racism is the first, most important step against racism by educating and understanding one another on difference and acceptance. The theme of education, reoccurs by the end of the film, when Judy returns to her home town and discovers her previously anti-fox parents, have now partnered up with a fox whom previously is depicted as her childhood bully. This shows young audiences, that individual actions and beliefs can set an example for others and open people’s minds about racism (Beaudine 2017). Yamato (1990, p. 88), stated that we must challenge racism and oppression on a personal, societal and emotional and institutional level to overcome it. This bully, Gideon Grey, is now shown as kind and hard working. He apologises to Judy, “I had a lot of self-doubt and it manifested itself in the form of unchecked rage and aggression.” This pleasantly surprised Judy as it showed her two things, that her personal battle against racism has helped her parents become less racist. And it proves that the effects of racism (internalised racism, reproduction of stereotypes) in predators can be reversed, which gives hope, motivation and guidance for children to actively practice racial inclusiveness and acceptance within themselves.
Farrell (2016) states, “The way to conquer racism is not to confront the conscious awareness of people’s minds, but to rewrite the unconscious prejudices as well.” Young (1990, p. 148-159), describes unlearning racism more strictly, as a moral responsibility which should be subject to moral judgement and punishment. Young states this cultural revolution can be achieved through ‘conscious raising activities’ which challenge individuals at the level of the ‘basic security system’. This aims at destroying forms of cultural imperialism and the cycle of exclusion and oppression that it creates (Young 1990, p. 153). We can argue, by simply making a movie tackling ideas about racism, that Disney has attempted to do this.
Although this is the first Disney film is the first to tackle the issue of racism, and arguably has done very well, there are still some criticisms to discuss. Firstly, the protagonist is a white character, hence placing whiteness in the centre of yet another Disney film. This can be seen as problematic because the film is about racism, yet most victims of racism are not-white, again forcing people-of-colour to learn about racism through a white-gaze. Alternatively, the use of a white protagonist can be argued as positive in the film, as it aims in educating people on recognising racism and being less racist, and often, people with most potential of perpetrating forms of racism in Western society are people who have access to white privilege (McIntosh 2004). Another issue is the use of a ‘black side-kick’, represented through Nick Wilde’s character, he is seen as an essential character in the film but is not the one that runs the narrative. And, it is only until the white protagonist overcomes her conflicts, that they are seen as equals: her police partner. And he is not clearly shown overcoming his own experiences of racism in the film.
Overall, Disney has made a huge leap in Disney culture, by tackling the issue of racism and placingreal world issues into the minds of young people. The film effectively mirrors the realities of racism and prejudice in the real world through child-friendly language and metaphors. And it teaches children how their words, actions and beliefs can either help build or break down the unjust barriers that everyday-day discrimination creates.
Images from google.
Beaudine, G, Osibodu, O & Beavers, A 2017, ‘Disney’s Metaphorical Exploration of Racism and Stereotypes: A Review of Zootopia’, Comparative Education Review, vol. 61, no. 1, pp. 227-234.
Farrell, A 2016, ‘How Zootopia Can Inspire Acceptance and Change’, Lexia: Underground Journal in Writing, Rhetoric & Technical communication, vol. 5, no. 10, pp. 1-8.
Available at: http://commons.lib.jmu.edu/lexia/vol5/iss1/10
Johnson, J 2016, ‘Zootopia: Yes, Disney Made a Movie about White Supremacy and the War on Drugs’, The Root, 3 November, viewed 9 November 2017, http://www.theroot.com/zootopia-yes-disney-made-a-movie-about-white-supremac-1790854559.
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Young, IM 1990, ‘The Scaling of Bodies and the Politics of Identity.’ In HL (ed.) The Politics of Difference. Princeton University Press, Princeton, US.