So often when movies address racism, they
just miss the target. And I’m not adding the
qualifier “movies made for children” or “animated
movies.” Plenty of movies made for an older
audience fail with race and racism as their
central theme completely to address this theme
But Zootopia did a lot a right. The problem,
or rather, there are two problems, one thematic
and one structural, that stop this movie from
being top tier. I’m going to examine why,
and I hope you watched the movie, because
there will be spoilers.
Before I get into that, though, I want to
share a couple stories. One is a story a professor
told our class one day. We were talking about
racism, and my professor is Latina. She told
us that she grew up in a city and was so happy
when they had a penpal program at her school.
She had a penpal from the South in a rural
area. So my professor would write about the
city, and her penpal would tell her about
the woods. One day, her penpal thought they
should exchange photos. So they did. And after
that, the penpal stopped writing letters completely.
My professor is Afro-Latina. My professor
explained that that was the first time in
her life she began to really understand the
effect of race on her life. She was nine.
I have classmate
He told the class a story of how, when he
was fifteen, a police man stopped him. He
asked the police man what he had done, several
times, and for that, the police man hit him
hard. And he gave my classmate a court date.
I’m Latina too, but I’m a white Latina. Growing
up, my teachers always thought I was European
descended. Whenever I met a new teacher, or
even another student, they would ask: Are
you Irish? Are you Italian? Are you Jewish?
Are you Russian?
No one ever asked, are you Colombian? They
never even asked me if I was from any country
located in Latin America. They would always
ask me if I was from a European country.
I’m proud of being Colombian, and I would
always tell people that I was Colombian. People
were surprised, but growing up, almost no
one made any negative assumptions about me
because of that.
Almost. I remember I was fifteen and I was
going on vacation to Colombia. I told a classmate
about that. He was Irish. He was surprised
when I told him I was Colombian, and when
I mentioned the vacation, he asked me to bring
him back cocaine.
In law school, I remember being very surprised
when I realized I was in a class room with
so few other Latinos! I remember that realization
hit hard, that I was in classroom of 80 or
90 people, and of those, the only Latinos
were me, the Dominican guy, and the Panamanian
girl. Later on, when I had a team assignment
with an older student, we were talking about
our last names and I mentioned that I was
Colombian. She immediately said, Oh, I know
Colombia! Pablo Escobar!
But those kinds of ignorant comments, while
annoying, aren’t on the level of what Afro-Latinos
or indigenous Latinos go through. Because
I am a white Latina in the United States,
a country where white status has been used
to guarantee the ability to eat where you
want to eat, to stay at the hotel you want
to stay at, to get the best loans for the
best interest rates, to accumulate wealth
in a way that blacks and other racial groups
are not allowed to, because I am a white Latina
in this environment, my experience of discrimination
is very different from that of my classmates
and my professor.
Why do I mention all of this?
Because I think Zootopia made animal species
a metaphor for race so explicitly. It wasn’t
afraid to show characters being discriminated
against or being casually discriminatory.
It wasn’t afraid to have Judy or Nick both
experience, at a young age, situations made
to make them feel inferior and to make them
quote-unquote “know their place.” The movie
wasn’t afraid to show a mother grabbing her
child close when sitting next to another passenger
on the train, because she assumes this other
passenger could harm her child just on the
basis of his species. And the movie, through
the eyes of Judy, clearly portrays this as
a discrimination against the passenger, instead
of saying, oh, she has a right to be scared.
No, that scene is about Judy feeling guilty
that she created a fear along species, that
is race, lines and increasing the incidence
of species-based discrimination that was already
simmering in Zootopia.
The movie even brought in biology. In our
world, racism exists because the same white
European enslaving black people justified
that enslavement by claiming black people
were biologically inferior. By their biology,
less intelligent and more violent. By their
biology, physically stronger and fit only
for manual labor. Today, such arguments are
still used to supposedly explain differences
in educational achievement, ignoring the impact
of wealth, how certain white families became
wealthy not just through slavery but also
through racist government policies that favored
whites at the expense of blacks, with the
result that some white communities have more
resources to dedicate to public and private
education and black communities have historically
been starved of needed funds.
The movie made direct reference to that, and
overturned the biology argument when it showed
that both prey and predators are subject to
being intoxicated by the night howlers, that
there is nothing biological about violence,
nothing in biology to justify racism the way
people in the United States argued for decades
even centuries was the case.
Here is the problem with the metaphor. The
movie, with all of these references to the
real world, is trying to create a parallel
world where animal species stands in for race.
But racism exists because one group, in our
world whites, tried to take and preserve for
itself certain benefits. Domestically, it
was the profits of slavery. It was keeping
poorer whites from uniting with poor blacks,
with whom they had economic shared interests,
by giving poor whites the ability to feel
proud of being white because it meant being
better than blacks, and thus, preventing a
real united rebellion against unfair economic
Internationally, this has meant the attempt
to conquer other lands, to establish empires,
to drain resources from countries of color
and to guard those resources for the use of
wealthy and white nations, and their white
Racism exists because there is a dominant
group, a group that made distinct and consistent
efforts to make itself dominant by subjugating
other groups and preserve economic, social,
and political benefits from being dominant.
Racism exists and as a result, for instance,
people of black and brown skin are subject
to police brutality that shows in a blatant
way that they are populations the dominant
population wants controlled and feels no compunction
about making them feel inferior in order to
control them. Racism exists and excludes people
of color from opportunities.
Zootopia has no parallel for that. Every species
seems to be subject to its own kind of discrimination.
Judy was discriminated against for being a
bunny. Carnivorous animals are discriminated
against for being carnivorous animals. Foxes
are discriminated against for being foxes.
Every group is stereotyped. Every group is
equally discriminated against. The closest
thing there is, is the fact that large animals
seem to have a monopoly on being police officers,
but even then, that’s no equivalent for how
racism actually functions in our world.
And that’s the biggest failing. If Zootopia
is a parallel world, the idea is that racism
affects everyone the same. And it just doesn’t.
That’s why I told the story about myself and
my classmate and my professor. Racism against
Latinos has affected all of us, but in different
ways. I am white and I don’t suffer discrimination
like they do because of it.
There is a myth in the United States that
racism effects everyone the same. That whites
are racist, but reverse racism exists! And
people of color are racist against whites
and supposedly reverse racism is as harmful
as white racism towards people of color.
But reality has never been that way. Racism
does not function that way because it is more
than just stereotypical beliefs; structural
racism exists to reallocate benefits to whites
and away from people of color.
For Zootopia to be a true parallel world,
it needed a dominant group and a subjugated
group. It did not have that and it is just
such a huge flaw for a movie that was otherwise
good about addressing racism. There are hints
that there may be a dominant group when the
assistant mayor mentions that the city is
90% prey, but that’s never realized in a movie
that otherwise sets up a universe in a detailed
fashion by showing all the enviroments and
different ways of interacting the animals
have to accomodate all their differences.
For all that detail, it’s never shown if prey
are the dominant group because of their numbers,
or if predators are the dominant group through
their ability to control prey. For example,
the police are filled with large prey and
predator animals, the issue being against
smaller animals. If prey and predator was
the divide between dominant and subjugated,
then you’d imagine we’d see not only Judy
but also other members of the subjugated group
be treated badly even before discrimination
against predators increases in the final act.
The jokes are also inconsistent in letting
us know which is the dominant and which is
the subjugated group. Judy at one point tell
another police officer that only bunnies can
call each other cute, referencing I presume
the n-word; later on, Nick grabs the assistant
mayor’s hair because he says the wool is so
soft, referencing the way white people at
times feel entitled as a result of slavery
to touch black people’s hair. These instances
would imply that prey is the subjugated group.
But then Judy calls Nick “articulate” and
Nick mentions that is patronizing; that is
a patronizing insult disguised as a compliment
that white people say to black people and
other people of color, the prime example being
a person of color who is a lawyer or college
student and gets complimented on how articulate
he or she is despite the fact that if it was
a white person, you’d expect a person in that
position to be articulate. It’s a way of saying
that you don’t expect people of color to be
articulate. Judy saying this points to predators
being the subjugated group. The fact that
police suspicion later rises against predators
and Judy claims their violent tendencies are
just biology also points to how black people
are discriminated by the police. What is striking
to me is that there is evidence pointing to
either group being subjugated, but no clear
evidence of a dominant group that benefits
from all of this.
And all of this is to say nothing of the fact
that having animals divided into prey and
predator in a world that is meant to be parallel
to ours is a big problem in and of itself,
given how often black people in United States
are depicted as predators. Moreover, if predators
are supposed to be the subjugated group, in
the movie we have the assistant mayor using
drugs to force predators to become savage
in order the fan the fear of prey animals.
This has very disturbing parallels to people
of color during the years when crack was seen
as the biggest problem, and combined with
the use of the word predators, which itself
was used to describe people of color, the
result is that the movie actually reinforces
racism by portraying a group of characters
as a legitimate threat to another group of
characters along species, that is to say race,
lines. Again, a huge problem if the movie
is supposed to have an anti-racist message.
So that’s the big thematic flaw with Zootopia.
The structural flaw is that I saw the assistant
mayor being the villain a mile away. This
is a huge cliche, to have put-upon character
who seems harmless end up being the villain
because he or she was treated badly. I personally
dislike this cliche because it diminshes the
real ill treatment the put-upon character
receives, and implies the character should
have put up with the bad treatment. Now, neither
Judy nor Nick put up with being treated badly,
so the movie doesn’t fall into the trap of
implying that. But the ending was cliche,
and it didn’t need to be.
So, to conclude, Zootopia does a lot of things
very well. It just makes one very big mistake
due to a misunderstanding of how racism functions
that is built into the movie, and one smaller
mistake with regard to its narrative structure.
Zootopia’s existence shows both the progress
Disney has made with regard to movies about
racism, but also shows just how far Disney
has to go before it make these movies well.