So, last week I took my two year-old and six year-old to see Zootropolis – or Zootopia if you’re in the US.
We had watched the movie trailer and the film looked good. (Ok, so if you’re on the ball you’ll have spotted that the film is no longer in cinemas so I’m a little behind the times – I started this post in April and then didn’t finish it, because, you know, I write books and, as I already mentioned I have two kids, I’m busy, hope you’ll stick with me, better late than never).
In the city of ‘Zootropolis’, all animals live together peacefully – predator and prey. In this world where humans never existed, the first rabbit police officer must prove her worth.
New to the city and to the job, Judy Hopps is as bouncy and enthusiastic as you’d expect. But her colleagues don’t take her seriously, and she’s assigned to parking duty. When Nick, a fast-talking fox, is framed for a crime he didn’t commit, he and Judy go on the run to uncover a conspiracy.
The film has grossed $697 million as of March 27, 2015, placing it as the third highest-grossing film by Walt Disney Animation Studios. Wow! And I’d read a lot of articles cheering it on for its portrayal of diversity and the issues with modern western society in a format which makes it accessible to talk about with young children. Made by the same people who did Big Hero 6 and Wreck it Ralph. I’ll be honest, I was expecting great things.
SPOILER ALERT: In order to discuss whether, or not, Zootropolis is a feminist movie I have had to give away certain aspects of the plot. Please only read on unless you don’t mind knowing in advance about what happens. Cheers.
At first it seems straightforward. The main character, rabbit Judy Hopps, wants to be a police officer. Various other characters, including her mum and dad (also rabbits, is that stating the obvious? Perhaps not, in the context of this weird anthropomorphic mash-up) try to dissuade her but she’s determined, so she beats the odds, graduates from the rigorous training academy and gets her post in the Zootropolis Police Department (ZPD). So far so cliché.
But when you delve into why Judy can’t be a police officer things get complicated.
The only answer given explicitly is because she’s a rabbit (or dumb bunny, a phrase which appears throughout the film) and they have never been police officers before. Apparently it is her species, her size and strength, which is the issue. Her gender is not mentioned. And yet, she’s a female rabbit, surely that’s no accident?
Apparently Judy wasn’t the original star of the show.
The initial pitch revolved around Nick Wilde, the fox character, but the writers needed someone who wasn’t disillusioned with “Zootopia” so they could show up the problems with the system, so Judy’s character was born and people loved her. BuzzFeed bill her as “the hero your daughter has been waiting for“. And this happy addition was welcomed as a way to break old tropes:
“Audience expectations point towards female characters needing a love interest, and that is not the case,” the movie’s co-writer Phil Johnston told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview. “The more sophisticated we get as storytellers and stray from that old formula that is so tired, the more exciting films are going to get and the more interesting female characters we’ll see in movies.”
Except that, by the end Judy fully admits to being just a “dumb bunny” who needs male help, and finds her love interest in the original lead, Nick Wilde the fox. Hmmm.
Judy’s story is one we know well. The way to “make it” if you’re female (and it suggests inevitably prey) is to be better – much better – than your male counterparts and then pay your dues to the system until you finally get some reward and recognition. It’s exhausting and only the outliers will make it. Judy Hopps is an outlier. A female prey in a system which favour males. She makes it but the system remains unchanged.
Contrast this with Assistant Mayor Bellwether’s story arc.
The mayor, a lion, is obviously condescending to Bellwether. She’s there to make the stats look good (they want to encourage more prey animals into positions of power, sound familiar?) and he treats her “like a glorified secretary”. She has no power, no agency. It’s a sham. Yet, seemingly mild and timid, Bellwether is revealed in the climax of the film to be the villain. You almost don’t see it coming. Who would suspect, a female, a prey animal – a freaking sheep! In the fashion of best endings it’s both surprising and inevitable that she is the villain behind it all. Here is someone so disillusioned by the system that she is prepared to risk people’s lives to bring it down. Ok, this is not good human (or anthropomorphized sheep) behaviour and yet this is the only action in the film which actually challenges the broken system.
By the end of the film Bellwether is incarcerated and, flanked by male guards, forced to watch Gazelle singing the film’s theme song “Try Everything”. Obviously try everything only refers to accepted actions within the patriarchal set-up, not actually anything which might question the system itself. (Contrast this with the male Lion Mayor who was discredited at first when it turned out he had done some dodgy stuff but is reinstated by the end as he did “the wrong things for the right reasons”. Can’t get much more conclusive and damning than that.)
The saddest thing of all is I think the writers may well have thought they were writing a truly empowering story here. There are many references to prejudice and it does open the door to having conversations about how “the system” operates. This seems to have been the conscious aim of the movie:
‘Zootropolis’ imagines a world where animals took over in our absence. Turns out it’s not so different after all!
And this is exactly the problem. It’s not different.
The female chapters are still treated as less than, than males. The waters are muddied with the whole predator/ prey binary that is set up, but when we dig a bit deeper it’s clear that this film might well be about reflecting the problems apparent in our western society but it certainly isn’t challenging these issues, rather it reinforces the status quo. Judy and Nick are great characters, and there are many clever and thought-provoking ideas about how we make judgements based on preconceptions. But the resolution of the film shows that real change, whether from a gender or racial equality perspective, is still considered impossible. And underlying it all is the uncomfortable theme that in order for society to function our true natures must be in some respect dampened and hidden.
This article makes a good point, that the folks at Disney have bitten off way too much metaphor than they can chew here. But whatever you think is being challenged here (and lots of critics and bloggers alike have praised this movie for challenging prejudices) the fact remains that by the end there is no change. Status quo is preserved. Whether you’re female, or black, you’re still in the same position of non power with no hope of movement. In that way it is one of the most frightening of the Disney movies I’ve watched. At least with the others the sexism, racism and prejudice are right out there for everyone to see. This movie is all undercover. Terrifying.
And I’m sure some people will say it’s “just” a kids movie, don’t get your knickers in a twist, why does it matter anyway?
It matters because the stories we share are important. It’s the way we understand ourselves and the world.
Stories like this one which reinforce the stars quo while seemingly challenging it are the most dangerous in my opinion. They both offer hope and snuff out possibility in an hour or so of very well done animation.
What do you think?
Still not sure and want more? Here’s a round-up of some of the blogs I found on Zooptopia and feminism…
This blog sees it as a critique on white feminists not being intersectional enough “So, yes. This is a movie about white feminism and the need for intersectionality. I mean, yes, it’s also a movie about racism, but it’s a movie about how even the most well-intentioned people who believe they’re overcoming the greatest obstacles of discrimination in their world can completely miss how their privilege gives them a leg up.”
This is what Mode came up with for a Zootropolis feminist search http://www.mode.com/stories/is-zootopia-the-best-feminist-animated-film-ever/12455932
Or if you want the mens rights perspective (you might enjoy this if you didn’t like mine, though essentially we agree that the film isn’t feminist – the MRA like it) https://www.reddit.com/r/MensRights/comments/49ghdg/why_zootopia_might_just_be_the_opposite_of_sjw/
And last, and probably least, a weird MRM (mens rights movement) fan fiction story on Judy forgiving Bellwether when she visits her in prison (warning, this contains a dodgy furry sex scene, I only found out furries was a thing today, sheltered life I know) https://www.fanfiction.net/s/11864721/1/Zootopia-Breaking-Bellwether