Is Zootopia RACIST!?
Welcome to this special Wisecrack Edition on Disney’s Zootopia, where we dive head-first into the film’s somewhat mixed messages about race. While Zootopia is clearly a kids movie that celebrates diversity and acceptance, its use of animal metaphors allow for some pretty racist interpretations… Let’s dive in and see!
Written by: Tom Head
Narrated and Directed by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Ryan Hailey (http://www.ryanhaileydotcom.com/)
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Jacob Salamon
Is Zootopia RACIST!?
Hi, fuzzy bunnies. Jared here. Today we’re looking at what seems to be a heartwarming story about overcoming our prejudices, making the world a better place, and never giving up: Disney’s critically-acclaimed blockbuster, Zootopia. When we released our Earthling Cinema episode, some people criticized us for not explicitly mentioning racism. Well there’s good reason for that. Because if you look at the film as an allegory for human race relations…things get weird. This isn’t the first time an author has used talking animals to make a point and take the edge off of a socially conscious critique.
Talking-animal stories date all the way back to Sumerian folklore, and more recent work like George Orwell’s Animal Farm Art Spiegelman’s Maus have used talking animals to talk about the horrors of the past century in a new way. But using animals to represent different racial and ethnic groups is potentially dangerous, and can take you to some dodgy places.
For a forward-thinking bunny like Judy Hopps, the diverse and integrated city of Zootopia looks like an escape from the casual rural racism she grew up around. As she rides the train into the big city, Gazelle’s “Try Everything” cranks up and Judy is surrounded by the cultural, technological, and economic marvel of diverse modern life. Judy discovers over the course of the movie just how racist urban life really is, and we make that discovery with her.
But the city of Zootopia is a really bad allegory for a the racial tensions of a contemporary American city. Yes, it is progressive in some ways. The Mammal Inclusion Initiative is relatively popular and successful. But discrimination in public accommodations is rampant, socially acceptable, and so legal that it’s done right in front of the cops. And that’s okay because, well… herein lies the problem with why this whole racism metaphor is such a mess: the universe of Zootopia is one where discrimination makes a lot more sense than it does in the real world.
From the very first scene, Zootopia tells us that predators once ate prey and could pick up the habit again at any time if they so chose. The idea of muzzling predators recurs throughout the movie. And for good reason. If you’re a predator with violent intentions and you’re not muzzled, somebody’s probably going to end up dead. So when 14 predators go missing, and early evidence points to the theory that they’ve “gone savage,” it isn’t a huge surprise that prey species begin looking at all predators a little differently.
Predators are always armed, and the idea that they evolved to kill and eat other animals isn’t just a fluke racist ideology——it’s their reality. Foxes really did eat rabbits to survive, and have the option of doing so again at any time. The idea of muzzling predators when they’re around prey makes a lot of sense, at least from the prey’s point of view. Racial prejudice in the world of Zootopia came from real biological differences and real history. Of course we’re going to treat people who can easily kill us differently than we’d treat people who can’t. So for prey to discriminate against predators in the world of Zootopia is an act of reasonable self-defense, sort of like discriminating against kryptonians Superman in Batman V superman or vampires on True Blood was understandable. It isn’t necessarily right, but it isn’t an act of cruelty to treat people differently when they’re so powerful that you know you can’t defend yourself from them.
When you apply this logic to the context of real-world race relations, things get really weird.
Human racism isn’t reasonable. So when someone faces racial discrimination, it isn’t because they belong to a race of razor-toothed giants with a history of eating the rest of us. But if we’re to interpret the film as an allegory for our modern social condition, which the film basically BEGS us to do- So to suggest that real world racism operates with that kind of reasonable justification that distinguishes biologically savage predators from “civilized” prey is REALLY fucked up, and actually sounds a lot like the origins of racist thought:
The racial classifications we use today were invented in 1684, when the French physician François Bernier published his treatise A New Division of the Earth, classifying humanity into five biological categories. Over the next several centuries, European thinkers expanded on Bernier’s ideas to justify invasions, land appropriation, slavery, and other monstrous acts. These forms of plunder had already existed for centuries, but a philosophy to explicitly justify them did not. In other words, European empires grew wealthy by behaving in a racist way, and their apologists created a philosophy of race to justify their violent behavior.
The claim that racism is instead a response to violence, or is in any sense based on legitimate fear, is one that racists often make——but it just isn’t consistent with history. So when Zootopia uses real biological differences and real history as a way of explaining its universe’s racism and connecting it to our own, it stacks the deck and makes racism look a lot more reasonable than it is. When it connects that kind of imaginary well-grounded racism with the self-serving philosophy colonial powers used to justify mugging entire continents full of people, it gives kids——and anybody else who’s paying attention—— a really harmful sense of what real racism is and what it does. Family friendly film, my ass!
On top of that, the film sends a pretty muddled message about who the predators are actually supposed to represent. This is primarily a movie about how it’s wrong to unfairly profile people just because we’ve been taught to be afraid of them. But since prey have the option of using the criminal justice system to profile people who scare them, that seems to imply that prey represent white people, and predators represent people of color. And, statistically speaking, it is predators who make up the ethnic minority group in Zootopia. When you look at predators as an allegory for people of color, the whole plot gets really offensive, really fast.
You’re implying that they were more violent in the wild, than the people they share a city with. You’re implying they are, for all practical purposes, recovering cannibals who have been domesticated by acting against their own instincts and dietary needs and mimicking the behavior of prey——i.e., white folks. The implication is that white folks set a nonviolent example, and civilized people of color into following it.
In Cannibal Talk, the Sri Lankan-American anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere argues that white European explorers——beginning with Christopher Columbus himself——did this sort of thing all the time, accusing every new ethnic group they met of cannibalism based on little or no evidence. By branding these communities as savage, explorers were then able to justify white imperial conquest——to put an end to the cannibalism by civilizing them. Obeyesekere coined the term “savagism” to refer to this pattern of behavior, and it’s still going on to this day. And anybody who has ever read the comments thread under a typical news story knows that racists still regularly refer to people of color as uncivilized savages who need to be violently brought to heel.
The movie “attempts” to soften whatever it’s saying about predators by showing that their recent savagery is all the fault of night howlers, a drug that can make any species violent. But violent prey aren’t as dangerous as violent predators because, again, sharp teeth. Yet again, the writers have unwittingly shot themselves in the foot. The idea that drugs are more dangerous when some people take them than others also has deep, festering roots. As far back as 1914, an article in the New York Times ranted about the danger posed by black “cocaine fiends.”
And in 1937, federal drug czar Harry Anslinger told Congress that marijuana could make black, Latino, and Filipino communities violent —prompting the U.S. government to functionally ban it later the same year. The movie seems to be trying to say that violence is the fault of the drug trade, but by saying that some groups of drug users are more dangerous than others, it repeats well-worn arguments in favor of racist drug control policies.
That’s not to say that Zootopia only uses predators to represent people of color. If you look at the power structure of the city, the 10% of the population who identify as predators somehow seem to run pretty much everything. Zootopia’s mayor is a lion, small prey need to rely on a Mammal Inclusion Initiative to be able to participate in the police department at all and when prey do get any real power, it’s usually a sign of tokenism. But when we try to look at predators as a metaphor for white people, that doesn’t really make any sense either.
Sure, the memory of a time when predators literally ate their prey is a good metaphor for the legacy of European colonization of the West, slavery, and other historical atrocities. And the reaction of the redneck foxes in Bunnyburrow sure sounds like Old South racism: But then the question becomes: Why are predators profiled in the first place? They have all the power. They have the capacity to kill. And yet they face overwhelming prejudice, and are essentially shut off from political and economic power for most of the film’s third act.
That has never happened to white people on a large scale in the real world. So if the profiling of predators is somehow intended to function as a metaphor for prejudice against white people, it makes for a really inaccurate and pointless metaphor. Most likely, predators are supposed to represent white people and people of color, depending on which part of the story we’re in. But if that’s the case, does the film really have a message at all?
The only way Disney’s Zootopia works as a morality tale about racism is if you absorb its message in a very general and abstract way, and don’t try too hard to apply it to any real-world context of racism. Problem is, the film constantly applies itself to real-world racism. Are we being a little hard on Zootopia——which is, after all, just a kid’s movie? Maybe.
If we’re going to celebrate Zootopia for its uplifting message, we need to take a clear-eyed look at exactly who it uplifts, and why. Basically, if you’re going to make a kids movie that explains extremely complex racial issues to children using furry animals- BE. FREAKING. CAREFUL.