The Revolution Will Not Be Animated: Not Quite Zootopia
By David J. Leonard |
@DrDavidJLeonard | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)
Sunday, March 20, 2016.
Despite its immense
possibilities and strengths, Zootopia’s reliance on “we are all
prejudiced,” its historic revisionism, and its tepid critique of policing, offers more of the same Hollywood.
While animation films (like science fiction films) often facilitate
conversations suppressed and silenced in other cultural spaces,Zootopia does
something different in terms of popular culture discourses surrounding race. It
is not the clichéd film on difference or not judging a “book by its cover;” it
doesn’t leave us with ubiquitous message of prescriptive colorblindness and
change simply as about rewiring our brains.
Although giving the classic “interracial buddy
film” (America’s ‘Huck Finn fixation”
extends into the anamorphic realm), it pushes a conversation beyond individual
prejudice to look at scientific racism, racial profiling, affirmative action,
suburbanization, and segregation; it encourages audiences to reflect on the
politics of racial fear, and to look at the ways that ideology has been used
for white supremacist hegemony.
Zootopia pushes audiences to look at the
myth of meritocracy, demanding that we move beyond the binary of “good versus
bad.” In making Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) the hero, one
implicated by her own assumptions of the Other and one who routinely
speaks on widely held stereotypes, Zootopia offers a narrative that
focuses on institutional and systemic inequality. While a story of
individual bias and individual complicity, Zootopia is also a film
that offers some discussion centering power, inequity, and the state.
Given its engagement with ubiquitous discussions of
race, the film is clearly timely. It demonstrates how fear of a constructed
Other is used to maintain power in the hands (or paws … hooves) of the dominant
group. Zootopia demonstrates the power of racial fear, one
based in criminalization and cultural racism that has been used to secure
hegemony. We see Donald Trump in sheep’s clothing.
Yet, the film is even contradictory here as the
Assistant Mayor Bellwether’s (voiced by Jenny Slate), a sheep, is used to
highlight how everyday prejudice and micro aggressions operate in Zootopia and
our own world. We see Nick Wilde (voiced by Jason Bateman) touching
Bellwether’s hair as a clear nod to hair politics and also references to fact
that she has had to work twice as hard to get ahead.
This is true for Hopps as well. “It’s a saying
heard in black households around the world: You have to work two, three, four
or five times as hard as your white counterparts to accomplish the same goals,
writes Samantha Antrum..
“Officer Hopps experiences this first-hand, first in the police academy and
again as she receives her first assignment from a prejudiced Chief Bogo (voiced
by Idris Elba). Hopps must constantly prove herself in order to accomplish the
simplest of tasks.”
Yet, neither Hopps nor Bellwether are “minoritized”
and “disempowered” by the power structure. They have power and privilege; they
are normalized. In placing every animal as facing prejudice, as defined
by stereotypes, the film, at best, offers a muddied history that ultimately
rewrites the history of white violence and white supremacy.
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
Yes, Hillary Clinton the film indirectly puts your
racist comments and the ways that white America has used racist policies and
practices to maintain political power in full view. “'As the race for the
Democratic nomination for this year’s election have intensified, many have
taken firm stances against Hillary Clinton for positions she took in the 90s in
regards to the now disproven idea of the ‘super predator,’ writes Charles Pulliam-Moore.
“The parallels between the super predator myth and Zootopia‘s literal media
panic about predators might not have been intentional, but they’re striking and
difficult to ignore.”
Jason Johnson sees similar power here with the
film’s indictment of the continued war on drugs:
“As a result of this new drug epidemic, predators are denied jobs, demoted from
positions of influence and treated like menaces to society. When Judy and Nick
finally crack the case, what do they discover? The drugs were being pumped into
the predator community by the assistant mayor, Dawn Bellwether, a white fuzzy sheep,"
as Johnson notes "It’s straight out of the realization that members of the
CIA either wittingly or unwittingly helped introduce crack
cocaine into minority communities in the 1970s and ’80s,
even though the press and some political leaders denied it for years.”
While clearly a powerful allegory for the war on
drugs, the film’s narrative, which represents the drug epidemic as only
impacting “predators,” belies history and its allegorical utility. While
Blacks and Latinos have consistently imagined as threats to the moral fabric,
as “drug users,” White America has been getting high with impunity.
Despite its efforts to enter into the conversation,
the film’s marketing and its own history points to its place within a Hollywood
structure that remains defined by its whiteness.
I cannot help but to wonder why the studio has
marketed the film with little regard for its politics. The decision to use the
scene at DMV with sloths as “selling” point might be a strategic effort to
conceal the politics in the film or an effort to undercut the critical work
that is offered on screen. Wanting to enter into these conversations without
experiencing the economic consequences of “white fragility “Zoopedia represents
a missed opportunity.
It is also striking how few actors of color are
part of the film. Only Idris Elba would be considered a “main character.”
Of the writers and directors, there is only one person of a color (Josie
Trinidad). It is yet another reminder that we need discussions of the politics
of production, reflecting on how the lack of diversity in Hollywood cuts across
Zootopia pushes a lot of important
conversations but let’s not get twisted: Zootpia isn’t the cinematic
soundtrack for #BlackLivesMatters. As Alexandro José Gradilla noted in a
Facebook discussion, the film ultimately falls short in terms of its critiques
of policing. It calls for a policing reform and a shift in culture (more
diversity equals more humanity in policing) rather than the radical
reimagination of policing in this country.
The revolution will not be animated.
And it most certainly won’t come from Disney.
J. Leonard is Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and
Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. Leonard's latest books
include After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness (SUNY
Press), African Americans on Television: Race-ing for Ratings (Praeger
Press) co-edited with Lisa Guerrero and Beyond Hate: White Power and Popular Culture with
C. Richard King. He is currently working on a book Presumed Innocence:
White Mass Shooters in the Era of Trayvon about gun violence in America.
You can follow him on Twitter at @drdavidjleonard.