‘Zootopia’: Disney’s Feeble Attempt At Discussing Racism Without Discussing Racism

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Disney’s new film Zootopia has been universally praised by critics and watchers alike. Some have even called it an “instant classic.” The film features a slew of characters dealing with structural oppression and the politics of fear, but the title should clue you into the fact that they are all animals. And while that is a major problem for me, I was more concerned about the film’s handling of race, sexism and misogyny, police brutality, and a host of other very serious issues facing communities of color. It took the same preachy, white-washed, tone-deaf tenor that just isn’t going to dismantle any oppressive institution in the United States.

Just to give a gentle, spoiler-free summary of the film, the main character is a bunny named Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin). She grows up in a rural, country town where all the very fertile bunnies just hang out at carnivals and plant carrots and other fruits and vegetables, never attempting to achieve more than the farm life (no shade to farmers though). She has hundreds of siblings and her parents urge her to take over the family farming business. Instead, she wants to move to the big city (aptly named Zootopia) and change the world by becoming a police officer. The rest of the story follows her life as the first female-bunny officer who is underestimated because of her size and furriness. She meets and befriends a fox named Nick Wilde (voiced by Jason Bateman) who is assumed to be deviant because, well, he’s a fox and because he’s a con artist. The plot line unfolds to show how assumptions about individual animals’ characters because of their status as “prey” or “predator” is unfair and wrong.

Now, if that were the entire point of the film, if Disney just stopped right there, I’d be cool with it. But, they didn’t. Let me explain why and what was so wrong about it all.

There is this thing with Disney where they are always trying to be subversive, but they can never quite figure out how to get the right people (read: Black people) in the room to help them address important social issues through film. They attempt to be so colorblind (only when it pertains to Black people though) that they would rather erase us from their films altogether than include us front-and-center.

Perhaps my favorite review of the film came from Jason Johnson at The Root. He says:

“And yet Zootopia is nothing like any Disney animated movie you’ve ever seen. This movie is what happens when the people who made Bambi and Dumbo team up with some conspiracy-minded Hoteps. Who knew the folks at Disney had it in them to make the most searing, complicated and subversive film about race, drugs and policy since Traffic … but with furry animals?”

This sentiment is not to be understated. Disney will insert furry and slimy (sorry, I mean mucus-y) animals whenever they have to feature Black people prominently in their stories. When Disney wanted to make a story about Africa, they made The Lion King. When they wanted to make a story about the first Black princess set in the iconic New Orleans, they made her a frog. And now, when they want to make a story about the “urban jungle” (no joke, they used that line to promote the film), they made Zootopia.

But, when Disney wanted to make the problematic movie about the rape, kidnapping, and murder of young indigenous people, they just made Pocahontas with an actual (phenotypically incorrect) human character. When they wanted to rewrite the actual historical account of the legendary warrior Hua Mulan, they just used a super-racist and stereotypical human character in Mulan. And, when Disney conjured up a story about South Asia, they relied on hyper-sexualization of Princess Jasmine to tell the story of Aladdin. Even though each of these stories relied on stereotypes, racist and sexist tropes, and perpetuation of negative imagery of racial minorities, they were at least human. When it comes to stories depicting Black people, we just don’t get the same respect.

However, there is a much larger issue with Zootopia: the revisionist-ahistorical perspective from which the story is told rewrites White Supremacy and institutional racism in the United States as an “all of us” problem, as affecting us equally. Clearly, this just isn’t the case.

The film focuses on two groups: “prey” and “predators.” Both groups come from a history where predators hunted and killed prey. However, they make sure to explain that all that violence is behind them (just like many Whites have decided we are “postracial”). The prey animals greatly outnumber predators (like Whites outnumber Blacks) but still hold many feelings of animus toward them due to a culture of fear.

David Leonard explains at New Black Man in Exile why this framework is important.

“Still, the film’s examination of American white supremacy through its own narrative offers an important intervention. Its usage of the tropes of “prey” and “predator” (“civilization” and “savagery”) speaks to a broader historic intervention given America’s history of colonization and the conquest. Similarly, it works in concert with the racial histories of ‘predators” and “super predators” within the war on drugs and the era of mass incarceration.”

While these interventions are admirable, they do so little in the way of truly elucidating the power and social structures embedded in White Supremacy and systematic racism. The film situated “predators” in the position of Black Americans (surprise surprise). In the film, they were framed for violence because of a drug epidemic (which primarily affected them, go figure). This narrative continues in the tradition that social deviance and violence is reserved for the “predators,” aka Black people.

Similarly, there is a point when Hopps explains that calling a prey animal “cute” is okay when other prey animals do it but when a predator does it, it’s not cool.  This was an obvious reference the use of the n-word, but it muddies the concept by making the prey animal (the group with greater numbers and more power) the subject of this claim. Here’s my question: is that bunny going to get lynched because she’s cute? Is she going to be shot without question or concern? Is she considered less of an animal? unable to feel pain? useless? lazy? unlovable? The answer to all these questions is a flat “no.” There is no real threat to being called cute. That Disney managed to minimize the use of racial and gender slurs to the term “cute” being hurled at a really really cute bunny is insulting.

They even featured a hair touching scene where Wilde pats a sheep’s afro puff (but she’s prey) and jokes about how fluffy it is. I can confirm that this isn’t how it feels when Black women are constantly patted, rubbed, touched, and harangued by perfect strangers who think our hair is cool. It certainly isn’t a punchline for us.

Zootopia had so many hits, like the sloths who were literally hilarious and the commentary on how the politics of fear operates to pathologize our racist, bigoted, sexist, and xenophobic ideas about the Other. They even showed that people who call themselves allies make mistakes and reproduce oppression (like when Hopps gives the speech about the “nature” of predators).

The fact is: This is a great film for helping White people who don’t want to talk about race talk about race.

Using this animated moving-picture book, they can gently introduce the concepts of difference and discrimination to their children with little risk of scaring them or leaving them jaded about the conditions of the world today. Meanwhile, there are actual Black people and other folks of color who have to grapple with these issues head-on. They can’t use bunnies and foxes and lions to explain why someone in their neighborhood was shot and killed by police or can’t find work or got sent home from school for wearing an afro. This movie just isn’t suited for all of us.

Not to mention, this whole process of saying something without saying something is just so tired.

That Disney continues to get points for facing these issues head-on, without ever really facing them, is not only disingenuous, it’s disappointing. They are teaching our children how to think about womanhood, gender roles, race, size-ism, being differently-abled, and so many other lessons. Shouldn’t we start at least trying to keep them honest about what they do well and what they do terribly, horribly wrong?

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Jenn M. Jackson

Co-Founder/Editor-in-Chief
Jenn M. Jackson, PhD is a co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Water Cooler Convos. She is a native of Oakland, CA. Jenn is a radical Black feminist scholar who believes none of us are free until all of us are free.

5 Responses

  1. Jack Caldwell says:

    While I agree with the assessment of some of the previous Disney films, I don’t think the film asserts that the problems affecting communities of colour are problems for “all of us”. Zootopia is not the post-racism paradise you’re arguing it to be, quote Fox Nick “Whoopsie, we don’t all get along”. Zootopia does ultimately resolve this one case and proves that indeed we cannot portray predators as savages in blanket terms, but there’s no implication (other than the happy ending but that’s for the kids) that another case couldn’t crop up and restart the cycle since inter-“species” tension was prevalent before the story broke and was never really “cleansed”.
    This is like America, who won’t fix its problems of race relations simply by pointing out the obvious systemic causes of problems that the patriarchy blames on minorities for no reason (with you on those issues, of course). Obviously the prey (Southern whites) aren’t the “victims”, but they are somewhere in the middle of love and hate, ignorance, and they are smart enough to recognise these systemic problems if we show them head on. Zootopia, you’re right, is probably primarily aimed at them. But don’t you want to reach out to them? Tell them that post-racial “Zootopia” doesn’t exist (which again, Nick agrees with you in the film), and that these systemic issues are there and need to be heard by politicians from all 50 states?
    I personally believe that’s what Zootopia wants here, and that has to be a net good for teaching kids about race relations in such a manner. You may disagree however, I’d love to hear your response!

  2. I think you are missing the overall points of the film though where they keep telling the viewer that everyone suffers from our fears of one another. They say it several times in reference to the main character’s own bigotry. They use that line of thought when explaining why the villain was able to get away with it for so long.

    By couching the conversation in biases (rather than actual racial animus rooted in a long history of White Supremacy) they reduced racism to an issue of preferences. This is where I felt the storyline really failed in terms of getting at the root problem.

  3. Jack Caldwell says:

    I don’t think it was saying that the prey are “suffering” as a result of their fear of predators, rather that prey like the main character need to recognise that the xenophobic messages all over mass media don’t explain the reason for any of the attacks that were seen. The narrative of the attacks make us feel for predators like Nick being misrepresented and feared without reason, even before the real explanation (read “systemic racism”) is uncovered.
    Obviously without having to write a whole script for me, I’m curious as to what you felt Judy Hopps should have learned as the story progressed through the predator prey narrative.

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