WARNING: Zootopia spoilers ahead!
Disney’s latest animated theatrical feature, Zootopia, has only been in theaters for five weeks and yet it has already brought in $700 million worldwide, bringing it close to rivaling the massive financial success seen by Frozen back in 2013. It is no surprise the film has taken audiences by storm considering how gorgeous, hilarious, and well-written the animated feature is. Judy Hopps and Nick Wilde charmed audiences with their charismatic and affecting characterizations, but it isn’t just the fantastic characters that carry the story.
Themes of racism and prejudice are prominent throughout Zootopia, woven in the very fabric of the film’s DNA. Audiences have become able to believe that Zootopia’s world is not unlike our own—seemingly advanced but filled with imperfections that cause conflict between all sorts of people—because of how deftly the creative team managed to create a realistic depiction of animals facing systemic discrimination.
By no means is Zootopia a perfect analogy for racism or prejudice as a whole, but it does bring up familiar stereotypes and microaggressions that many people encounter everyday. The film even depicts eerily recognizable moments of discrimination right out of the pages of past and modern history.
Obviously Zootopia wasn’t made as a commentary for current events as the film had been in development for many years, but due to the growing tensions in the United States right now, it is clear Zootopia came at the perfect time, causing it to resonate with audiences so deeply. As modern social injustices continue to pile onto each other, it is important to look at the various examples of prejudice that are shown in Zootopia and discover how we are meant to learn from them.
“We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service”
Early in Zootopia we are introduced to the film’s deuteragonist, Nick, as he is attempting to buy a jumbo sized ice pop for his “son” at an elephant ice cream shop. The cashier holds a sign up with his trunk and yells at Nick, “Can’t you read, fox? The sign says we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone!”
This is not unlike the discrimination many ethnic groups faced during the early 1900s in the United States where businesses refused to render services to non-White Americans. Even some business that did allow patronage from any ethnic group gave off a sense of hostility that embodied institutionalized discrimination—that is, unequal treatment towards a certain group regardless of direct or indirect intent—in the country.
Even now businesses in certain places will refuse service to potential patrons based on any number of reasons, either because a person is a certain gender, has a certain sexual orientation, believes in a certain religion, or comes from a certain racial group. It’s a sad reality, to be sure, and Zootopia does not make light of these instances. The film uses Judy as an example of how to confront situations like this rather than remaining a passive bystander.
Audiences are meant to understand the importance of speaking up when you witness somebody being treated unfairly based on who they are or what kind of stereotypes exist about a group of people.
“You can’t just touch a sheep’s wool!”
There is a scene in Zootopia where Nick and Judy go to Deputy Major Bellwether in order to get video footage of the savage Mr. Munchas to find out what happened to him. While innocent enough, Nick notices Bellwether’s fluffy wool puff on the top of her head and begins to pet it softly as Judy tells him off for it although she humored about the situation as well.
It makes for an amusing scene, but there are many other moments like this in the film that play on common microaggressions that appear in everybody’s daily lives.
There are probably plenty of us out there who have experienced somebody asking to touch their hair because of some kind of unique property it has or have certain features about themselves brought to attention due to not being common to others. Sometimes certain words are used to describe a person which are okay to use by members of a group but not by people outside of them, for example when Judy tells Clawhauser it isn’t okay to call her “cute”.
It happens constantly but often it is never done to intentionally upset anybody or cause harm to a person.
Some people can find it uncomfortable to handle situations like this, especially since microaggressions can make a person feel like less than a person or undermined because of a certain aspect about them. Bellwether doesn’t say anything about it in the film, likely oblivious to the entire act happening, but in real life moments like this involve a mix of being understanding and stern.
You have the power to let somebody do or say something. If you are okay with it, then that’s great! If you feel uncomfortable, make it known and if they ask why, explain how it makes you uncomfortable and how it is disrespectful to you.
“Clearly there’s a biological component? That these predators may be reverting back to their primitive savage ways?”
The biggest conflict of this film stems from the differences between the predators and prey. Although predators hold many positions of power, they are the minority in Zootopia and are often considered highly aggressive compared to the prey who are the majority group, but are often skipped over for jobs of power.
When Judy talks to the press about how predators are going savage, it creates an atmosphere of fear and conflict between predators and prey.
The fear of Japanese American citizens after the bombing of Pearl Harbor during World War II, the growing Islamophobia because of the 9/11 terror attack and the bombings in Paris and Brussels, and the dominance of the criminal stereotype of African Americans are just a fragment of examples from real life that are mirrored within the film.
In the face of cases like these, fear drives hate, and people let that fear dominate their views about a certain groups of people based on the actions of a small handful of people. The most important message Zootopia is trying to teach its audience is that we must not let fear guide our feelings towards others. We can only judge people by getting to know and understand them. Closing oneself off to entire groups of peoples ignores the fact that every person is a unique individual with their own thoughts and experiences. It is not their skin color or their religion or anything else that dictates what they will do and who they will become.
Even with all of the examples the film provides, Zootopia never tries to be a completely accurate while it is delivering its moral lesson to audiences. The film is instead meant to serve as a reminder of how similar events happen in the world and a lesson to teach people about acceptance and not making hasty judgements. It is about learning to overcome fear and to see people for who they are.
The film says it right: that our world is not perfect, but we all should try our best to make it a better one, one step at a time.
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