Watched Zootopia for the first time recently, assuming I was about to see a mildly amusing Disney cotton candy story about a plucky rabbit.
Instead I find myself watching a Furry Noir narrative about a naive young cop from a farming town, who comes to the big city and stumbles onto a grim missing persons case which leads her to the heart of a segregated society riven by intersecting boundaries of race and class, and built on a legacy of brutality and violence.
Starring a plucky rabbit.
Spoilers follow. If you don’t want to have the plot twists of a Furry Noir movie ruined for you…go see the movie, and then come back. It won’t take long.
I would agree with critics who say that this film is pretty damned problematic. The core premise of this film–that racially motivated fear is wholly justified by “biological narratives”–is a serious problem, especially where children are concerned. Speaking from the anthropologist’s perspective, I found those scenes in the “Natural History Museum” and the campaign to dehumanize and blame a minority group using “science” to be fairly on point. This is how it is done, and how it has always been done. And we see why.
I would also agree with those who say that the metaphors of the film are mixed to the point of being unintelligible at times. The primary divide in the Zootopia world is supposed to be Predator-Prey, but the protagonist’s problem is not the fact that she eats carrots–it’s the fact that she’s physically small. The cops that surround her are not all Predators, but they are all large, formidable animals–her chief of police is a Water Buffalo played by Idris Elba.
Technically an elephant or a rhino is a non-predator, but they don’t spend a lot of time hiding in holes or running up trees. I think the issue with the animals on the police force is that they are all coded with the traits of MASCULINITY, not race. And to be honest, a lot of the first half of the film is basically a White Feminist’s narrative about sexism…Officer Hops struggling to prove her competence and her worthiness for equal opportunity for the first half of the film is a feminist narrative. The assistant mayor and Officer Hops are the classic two faces of white feminism: Deliberately Evil Vs. Dangerously Blinded By Privilege.
That being said…Zootopia is most definitely about racism to some degree. It’s also most definitely about class–the foxes are framed as whites from disadvantaged backgrounds repeatedly. All the Fox material in the movie is a “White Trash” narrative about class.
The real issue from my perspective is that the film actually upholds a racist worldview, by framing racism as founded in real biological differences–whereas in reality, racism is an arbitrary political system which has very little to do with DNA. I also agree with the criticism that depicting racism as a personal vice that people choose to indulge or not, while all parties play on a relatively level playing field…is a very bad idea. Everything that fails to address racism as a systemic problem, and frames it as a personal vice, tends to perpetuate racism. That is a given.
There are a few powerful visual metaphors sprinkled throughout the film that I suspect will nag at the back of the mind for children and adults alike, however.
1. The idea that stereotypical negative behavior from people who are marked by marginalizing racial or class stereotypes is coerced, was fairly powerful.
2. So was the idea that stereotypical behaviors can be the result of abusive scripts in childhood. Children do perpetuate these stereotypes in peer-to-peer settings, and “stop doing this” is a good message for them to hear.
I also found it telling that two equally good people could take very different paths based on moments of violence in childhood.
3. The film also puts forward the idea that the message “you can be anything” is a lie, for at least some of the population. And that being framed and stereotyped as a “thug”, “criminal” etc. can be far more potentially damaging than being framed as a victim.
4. The movie tends to suggest the system fails certain people habitually and that it is often built from the ground up for someone other than “the little people”. This message was reinforced often through the use of size as a visual metaphor. The rabbit trying to use equipment and toilets in the police station. The complete absence of a police force in the rodent part of town, and the complete inability of conventional law enforcement to move through that space without destroying the people and the community–even when an outside criminal element has entered that space and poses a serious threat.
Yes. Easy to see why white liberals love the movie. There is a lot going on here, much more than in most films for children.
Unfortunately…the goal here seems to have been to strike a blow for equality and social justice. And every white person who saw this film seems to have been crowing about this movie as if it was a mighty knock-out of a haymaker…
…When all we have here is a harmless rabbit punch.