Zootopia: “A Call For Balance” – guest post by Alex Reynard.
by Patch O'Furr
Zootopia’s Blu-ray/DVD release is June 7, 2016.
ZOOTOPIA has been out for a while now. In that time, I cannot count how many times I’ve seen it called “propaganda”.
Left-wing propaganda, right-wing propaganda, commie propaganda, gender propaganda, race propaganda.
It’s ridiculous. And it’s unfair to what the movie actually is.
I’m gonna assume that we, being furries, have all seen the film a kazillion times by now. If not, then this is me HONKING THE SPOILER HORN. TOOT TOOT. I want to start this with a synopsis, so I can talk about how the themes of this cute animated children’s film are really really important.
Themes in the movie.
Judy Hopps is a little bunny kid who wants to grow up and make the world a better place. A foxboy named Gideon bullies her, but this only makes her more determined. After many years of hard work, she achieves her goal and becomes a cop in Zootopia: a city where Predators and Prey live side by side. She encounters Nick Wilde, a con artist fox. She tries to treat him as a fellow furson and hold no prejudice towards his species. Eventually, after many adventures, the duo discover that several Predator citizens have gone missing and/or reverted to primitive violent behavior. The Mayor is implicated and jailed, and the Assistant Mayor, a meek sheep named Bellwether, becomes the new Mayor. But Judy eventually discovers that this was all masterminded by that meek little sheep, who in actuality, was drugging the kidnapped Predators specifically to create an atmosphere of distrust among the citizenry that she could use to rise to power. After enduring years of mistreatment by the thoughtless, self-obsessed former mayor, Bellwether felt justified, on behalf of all Prey, to get revenge on the whole world’s systematic discrimination.
For as much as people have been talking about Zootopia’s handling of racism and sexism, what’s damn-near-miraculous is how it has insight enough to call out both prejudice AND overreactions to prejudice. In the film, we see that Bellwether is treated like sheep dip by Mayor Lionhart. She certainly has a right to feel victimized. But the movie makes it clear that she becomes a bad guy too when she uses her sense of outrage as justification to ruin other people’s lives. Her ends do not justify her means.
That’s pretty morally-complex for a cartoon. This movie never falls into the binary of either/or. It condemns bullies on both sides. Being a victim of one is no excuse for becoming one.
Speaking of bullies, we need to contrast Judy with Bellwether to see where the movie’s message really lies. Like I said, in the beginning Judy is intimidated, insulted and beaten up by a fox kid. Later when she grows up, there’s a scene where she goes home and her bully pops up. Here’s the part where, in a less thoughtful movie, we would have had The Big Comeuppance. Judy would have slapped him, then he’d say in a cowed tone, “I deserved that.” Except that doesn’t happen. Gideon sees her and immediately apologizes. And Judy forgives him with just as little hesitation. Then everyone’s happy and they all get pie.
There’s another scene where a chubby cheetah cop called Clawhauser calls her ‘cute’. She winces and says, “Bunnies can call each other that word, but when someone else says it, it’s not okay.” Clever joke, and it lets the audience know what the movie’s really getting at. But the next line’s important too: Clawhauser apologizes, saying how embarrassed he is since he’s been stereotyped himself. And Judy doesn’t start throwing a tantrum and berating him. She doesn’t call him a bigot, or part of a system of oppression, or anything like that. He apologizes, and that’s that. They’re friends from then on.
There’s a dozen more scenes in the film using animals as metaphors to explore moments of racism and sexism, and it’s astonishing how balanced the film is, trying to see things from every side. The good guys have bad traits and the bad guys have good traits. No one’s perfectly wrong or right. No one’s a strawman.
Interpreting from outside of the movie.
Something isn’t “propaganda” just for being against bigotry. Political groups may vigorously latch on to social issues for their own ends, but no one has a monopoly on fighting unfairness. Nowadays, it can be hard to speak out because the waters have been muddied and poisoned. We don’t want to get dragged into sides, as if having an opinion means you must think in lockstep with Political Figures A, B & C (plus now you’re automatically enemies of Figures D, E & F).
I’m talking in generalities precisely because speaking the very names of groups can fill the comments with people defending or attacking those groups.
Zootopia is not about groups. It is about ideas and behaviors that are universal to all of us, because we’re all people.
That’s why the film isn’t propaganda; because it takes such pains to not choose sides. Choosing sides and being ‘US vs THEM’ is part of the problem. Everyone from Group A will view Group B as irredeemably evil and refuse to associate with them. Vice versa for B towards A. Both dehumanize the other because they’re so certain they’re in the moral right. And all this ever accomplishes is bitter gridlock. No progress can occur when both sides know they’re Right with a capital R, and the other side is Wrong.
Zootopia shows that it doesn’t take hate to cause this mindset. Many other stories about bigotry paint blunt, black and white metaphors. One side is clearly angry, evil and wrong, while the other is a blameless victim. In real life, we only wish things were so simple and morally-unambiguous. Real life, as Judy explains, is messy. We’re often cruel without realizing it. Not because of hate, but because of thoughtlessness and fear. People focus on their own pain to the point where it becomes someone else’s.
Bellwether exemplifies this. It’s not enough to get revenge on her bully; she wants revenge on everybody who looks like him. She blames his species instead of him as an individual. She thinks only of how much she’d been downtrodden, and that’s justification for doing the same to Preds. She creates a culture of fearmongering to get other Prey to believe they’re unsafe, and that’s when the city begins to fracture.
There’s a scene where Judy is on the subway and sees a handsome tiger sit down across from her. In the same seat, a rabbit mom looks horrified and pulls her child away. Judy reacts with revulsion. I wonder how many of us have been in Judy’s position, or the mother’s, or the tiger’s. I know I’ve been him sometimes.
Judy’s parents are consumed with fear for her. Some of it is justified, as being a police officer is a dangerous job. But some of it is fear of Preds as a whole, which turns out to be unfounded. When they realize it, and begin to trust Gideon, the result is a mutually profitable and friendly new business.
That has been my own experience. Most of the time when I have taken a risk to trust others, my trust has been rewarded in ways I never expected.
Fear is easy. Trust is hard. Zootopia shows what our choice ought to be, but shows the consequences of each.
The movie’s meaning for real life.
The movie makes clear metaphors for white and black, or male and female, but it is not on any one group’s side over the others. If it takes any side, it is pro-forgiveness and anti-fear.
That’s the real dividing line for a conflict. People on the opposite side can still be worthy of respect. It’s the distinction between opponent and enemy. An opponent is someone whose hand you can shake, thanking them for a good game.
Most of us just want our particular group to be treated better. That’s fine… until someone within your group becomes less interested in seeing your team win than seeing everyone else lose. That’s how things escalate and everyone forgets about peace. Treating others as enemies just gains more enemies.
On the other hand… We don’t want enemies, but we don’t have to be doormats either. You don’t have to forgive anyone who has done nothing to earn it. At the end of the film, Judy doesn’t just forgive Bellwether and they all hug and have a happy ending. She sends Bellwether to the freakin’ slammer. She showed no repentance, and Judy likely just walks away and forgets her, and that’s healthy. Unlike Bellwether, Gideon apologizes and earns his happy ending.
Zootopia avoids binary thinking. Many of the characters display gray morality. Judy and Nick’s relationships with others don’t always slot into a tidy box of ‘friend’ or ‘foe’. Manchas attacks them, but they know it’s not him in control of his actions. Bogo obstructs them, but in time they gain a degree of respect for each other. Judy’s neighbors are obnoxious, but she shrugs and lives with it. And when Nick and Judy lose trust in one another, it’s easy to see in the scene beneath the bridge that they’re eager to apologize and rejoin. Because they know the other is worth it.
Zootopia’s moral is that we can never truly know one another at a glance. Some animals act like their species’ stereotypes, others are the opposite, and others are a mix of both. The only way to get to know someone is to get to know them. Wherever it is you stand, don’t look at the other side and see only monsters. Give others the benefit of the doubt that they have the same heart and mind you do. Let them show you who they are. Not just for their sake, but for your own. Be willing to compromise, agree, and forgive. Let hope balance outrage, and only fight battles that need to be fought.
All this from a cute Disney film. Who knew?
And if you think I’m over-analyzing, remember the movie’s very first word of spoken dialogue. The filmmakers were foxy enough to reveal the true villain in the opening line: