Why You Should Take Your Kids (And Yourself) To See Zootopia

I’m not usually supportive of movies with oppression narratives that don’t feature actual oppressed groups of people (see: The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, etc.) — or at least, not of that aspect of them (I’ve been a diehard Potterhead for around ten years). When an oppression narrative is written in a way that mimics real life but takes out anything that actually makes it look like real life, the reaction is more that of guilt-free, black and white outrage that stays within the walls of the theater, rather than actual prolonged thought.

“These people are so evil! How could they treat all those people like that? But, I mean, they’re all white and white people aren’t actually oppressed, so that means it’s just fantasy and I don’t have to think about it anymore after I leave the theater.”

Zootopia, however, intrigued me because there weren’t any people. And it’s meant for kids! A movie about racism that’s intended for kids, doesn’t have any people, and includes frequent animal puns? Count me in.

The setup is pretty simple: long ago, predators ate prey and everything was violent and savage — but now, though there may still be some prejudice in the rural areas where Judy is from, over in the shining city of Zootopia all animals live together in peace and harmony and anyone can be anything!

Back home, Judy is told she will never achieve her dream of being a cop because she’s a bunny. But, although her size puts her at a disadvantage in training, Judy works hard, graduates top of her class, and become the first bunny cop.

Not so different from other kids’ movies, right? Protagonist is told they can’t do something, protagonist works hard and does it anyway, protagonist lives happily ever after. But here’s where Zootopia differs: Judy’s happily-ever-after is more of a kind-of-happily-but-mostly-really-complicated-ever-after.

Even though she’s achieved her goal against all odds, she’s still stereotyped and treated unfairly. While the other animals are given daring jobs that challenge their abilities, Judy is given parking duty. In the shining city of Zootopia, where anyone can be anything, one of the first people Judy tries to apprehend disregards her and tells her she’ll never be anything but a dumb bunny.

Now, this is way farther than I’ve ever seen any kids’ movie take racism, so I would’ve still been overjoyed if Disney had left it there, but they went ahead and took it a step further.

The animal who is racist towards Judy is racist towards her because he’s been the target of racism so often he’s learned to play by the racists’ rules.

Well, I guess, two steps further, since then Judy is racist to the animal who was racist to her because other people were racist to him. (This is the point where I check the logo on my DVD to make sure Disney really made this.)

This choice to raise the stakes just a little higher is what sets Zootopia apart from its peers. While many kids’ movies leave the message at “don’t bully, treat everyone fairly, the bad guy is bad and you shouldn’t be them, etc.,” Zootopia went ahead and allowed its protagonist to mess up and do things characteristically bad guys would do.

I’ll admit, I got a little confused at that point. I guess you get into a certain mode when you’re watching a movie that you think is predictable, and you start looking for certain things that you’re accustomed to seeing. “But, what’s the metaphor?”* I thought, “Who’s the bad guy?”

And the answer is, of course, that there is no “bad guy.” Well, not when it comes to Judy and Nick, at least — or even Gideon Grey, the fox who bullied Judy as a child and as an adult sincerely apologized to her for it. There are good characters who made bad choices and acted on bad parts of themselves, but later realized their mistakes and apologized for them.

That may not sound like much, but in Zootopia, the apologies aren’t just an “Oops, sorry,” and the movie keeps going. Judy gets a whole scene dedicated to hers. Gideon Grey doesn’t try to brush his mistakes off with “But, you know, I was young.” They both own up to what they did wrong, make their regret for their actions and new understanding of why it was wrong clear, and promise to do better.

I don’t know about you, but I think that’s an extremely important thing to tell kids — especially in today’s callout culture, where the aim too often is just to “blast” the other person, rather than to actually try to see whose points hold water and acknowledge it if you realize yours don’t. Or even just in the realm of movies that tell kids to be the hero who’s always good and just and right; it’s nice to have a film that acknowledges that that’s the goal, but we don’t always live up to it right away and that’s okay.

The other important aspect of both apology scenes is that the characters who came forward and sincerely apologized were forgiven. People mess up. It doesn’t make them “problematic trash” that you should stop liking immediately and burn anything that has to do with them.

Zootopia is a movie that makes racism feel approachable to people who just learned it still exists, and one that will still give experts on the topic things to think about. It’s a movie that has somehow managed to make racism comfortable to discuss without diluting it too much.

And when the cast is entirely made up of animals, it leaves it up to the viewer to ask, “which one is me?” It lets people’s guards down. They don’t want to look like the bad guy, and they don’t have to. They just have to think for a while.

While still remaining upbeat and entertaining for younger kids, Zootopia doesn’t try to oversimplify the tangled and complex mess that is racism.

Also there are sloth jokes. And elephant puns. And moles from The Godfather.

zoootpia-box-office-record

*(Side note: I did come up with a metaphor, though, for that one bit and someone with art skills should totally draw it ’cause I really like it and for some reason most of the “Zootopia characters reimagined as humans” fan art has most of them as white people and that just doesn’t make any sense to me but that’s a different topic so anyway here’s the metaphor: Judy is a petite black woman with big grey fro-pigtails and Nick is a gruff-looking Muslim man and that’s why they both face the specific types of discrimination that they do.)


Hannah is a 17-year-old homeschooled senior from Maryland. She has too many interests and could not pick just one in time to go to college this fall, so she is spending this year trying to figure out the best way to pursue all of them at once. Hannah is currently studying classical voice, writing, film, and a little bit of art.

A Closer Look at “Colorblind”

I Am NOT Black, You are NOT White.” by Prince Ea is the current viral video making the rounds on my social media, clothed in clickbait articles that tell me it will make me “QUESTION EVERYTHING!!”  But the only thing it’s left me questioning is how many people are going along with it.  I would advise watching it before reading this, but just know that its main sentiment is that we should reject labels to instead see who we truly are: humans.

There were some beautiful moments in the video — for instance: “See, when I drive my car, no one would ever confuse the car for me.  Well, when I drive my body, why do you confuse me for my body? It’s my body.  Get it? Not me.”  I loved this line.  Appearances are never something we should judge people by.

But when it later asks, “Who would you be if the world never gave you a label? Never gave you a box to check? Would you be white, black, Mexican, Asian, Native American, Middle Eastern, Indian?” my answer differs from its resounding “No.”

If I no longer had the label biracial, Eritrean, or white, I would still be all three.  Just because there was no longer a word for it, that would not change the fact that my dad grew up in a country across the world from the white town I grew up in, and that those two drastically different cultures have played a role in shaping who I am.  Whether you “label” my dad as Eritrean or not, he still grew up in Eritrea.  Whether you “label” me as biracial or not, I still grew up with both Eritrean and white parents and cultures.  If “the world never gave me a label,” I would just have to take the long way around and say I grew up with two different kinds of human culture.

This, however, seems to be the more appealing route to Prince Ea, who says that calling human beings black people and white people is an error, and that these labels will “forever blind us from seeing a person for who they are, but instead seeing them through the judgmental, prejudicial, artificial filters of who we think they are.”

While we should definitely strive to be less judgmental and prejudicial, I fail to see how acknowledging our ethnicities is judgmental or prejudicial to begin with.  If you feel that having your culture acknowledged is somehow prejudicial, maybe what we should really be looking at is the stigma attached to these labels, rather than the labels themselves.

If you were to say, “Your dog is not a chihuahua, and my dog is not a doberman.  They are all dogs,” you’d get some pretty funny looks.  Of course they’re all dogs, but they’re also chihuahuas and dobermans.  And we love all the differences in them.

Why is it that we’re more willing to appreciate our pets’ diversity than our own?

The video suggests that without labels, we would be “One.  We would be together.”  But I ask: why can’t we do that with labels?  Why can’t we, as Mexicans, Asians, Native Americans, Middle Easterners, and Indians, all be together and appreciate our differences rather than ignore them?

Another thing the video proclaims is that “the answer to war, racism, sexism, and every other -ism is so simple that every politician has missed it: it’s the labels.  We must rip them off.”

…Hmm.

There is nothing wrong with being Middle Eastern.  The problem comes when we judge people because they’re Middle Eastern.  But do we really need to ignore something to not judge someone by it?

This line of thinking in particular has me worried about the impact this could have on people who already proclaim themselves “colorblind.”

The thing is, everyone in the world isn’t colorblind.  For us to say we’re colorblind before racism is actually fixed is something like saying we don’t see people suffering from illnesses any differently than healthy people, without actually trying to do anything to help the sick people or even acknowledging that their lives are any different than healthy people’s.  I loved my days of thinking colorblind was the answer.  It was so simple.  It felt good.  But in reality, it wasn’t doing anything.  Being colorblind before the rest of the world is is merely a way to feel like we’re putting ourselves on “the right side of history” without actually acting on any side at all, which then gives the other side space to move forward unobstructed.

If you are someone in a position of power where being colorblind will actually help — let’s say, maybe, a casting director — I fully support this viewpoint (as long as you’re not also blind to racial inequality when it’s there).  However, if you’re the person watching the movies instead of making them, not seeing race is going to do much more harm than good.  What happens when a movie casts only white leads, but you’re too colorblind to see? You’re probably not going to look up the casting call, and you’re then probably not going to see that the leads were all white because they only called for white actors, and since you don’t know that, you’re probably not going to do anything about it, which means you’ve left Hollywood free to continue their racist traditions without any backlash.

These issues aren’t going to be fixed by erasing the words for them.  Instead, you’ll just end up getting to ignore what’s happening while also getting to feel like you’re doing something about it.

Right now, race is something that still needs to be talked about; however, race itself is not inherently prejudicial.  I agree with Prince Ea’s main idea that “I am not a label.”  That’s true.  None of us are just black or just Mexican; we are first and foremost people.  But we have to acknowledge that our experiences as people may be different, and they may be different because of our races and cultures.  And that’s okay.  These are things we should be talking about, not making ourselves blind to.

The human race is incredibly diverse.  It’s time to start preaching color appreciation, not colorblindness.

 


 

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash