Zootropolis: The Difficulty of Using Animals as an Analogy for Race

If you’ve heard anything about Zootropolis (Zootopia in the U.S.), you’ve probably heard how ‘timely’ it is. In the wake of #BlackLivesMatter, Disney has released a kid-friendly film addressing racial profiling, pseudo-scientific racism and other issues of racial – or ‘species-ist’ – bias. Although I’m not sure what these critics would call an ‘untimely’ time to discuss racism, police brutality in America is certainly receiving more media attention than it once did, and so it’s particularly topical that Zootropolis centres around a police force – even if, as a children’s film, no one dies because of racial profiling.
And that, before I go any further, is something which I think deserves praise: this is ultimately a children’s film, regardless of its popularity with adults. It’s hard to find any children’s films, or ‘light-hearted’ adult films for that matter, which are willing to address such a complex and dark topic. In recent history, cinema’s go-to method for addressing racial inequality has been to include a token minority. Zootropolis aims so much higher than this; where it falls flat is when we try to fit its animal metaphor too neatly into the real world.
Judy Hopps, the film’s protagonist bunny, lives in an anthropomorphic world of ‘predators’ and ‘prey’, taking place long after animals have evolved out of their instinct to, well, eat each other. If certain ethnic groups equated to certain animals, this would clearly be problematic: we are not different species, and we do not have the same instincts and biological differences that animals do. The film, cleverly but dangerously, equates scientific difference in species to pseudo-scientific racial difference in humans: Judy hurts her fox friend Nick by claiming that predators are biologically-inclined to violence. As a metaphor in a fantasy world, it’s a powerful scene which impressively addresses that even ‘good’ people who condemn racism can say racist things – but taken into the real world it’s harmful because it’s true: foxes hunt rabbits. As critic Matt Zoller Seitz writes for Roger Ebert, this biological difference in species could be used to justify a racist worldview as much as rebut it.
So to prevent this from being too direct an analogy, Disney somewhat-confusingly lifts real-world instances of racism experienced by People of Colour, and transplants them onto the lives of both predator and prey, making both oppressed groups. Judy fulfils her dream of being the first bunny police officer in a career dominated by large predator animals only to find that once she has the job, the Chief believes she’s only there out of affirmative action rather than hard work, and will only give her the menial task of handing out parking tickets. However prey are the majority, making up 90% of Zootropolis’s population. This gives prey the collective power to remove the predator minority from control when predators are later framed as inherently savage by a drug (see Jason Johnson’s piece in The Root for this plot point’s parallels to the CIA’s involvement in spreading crack cocaine in American minority communities in the 1970s and 1980s). It’s also this majority which allows Nick Wilde, the fox, to be racially profiled as sneaky by Judy, and refused service by an elephant – although, after Judy feels ashamed, her assumption proves correct: Nick is indeed a sneaky, thieving fox. Zootropolis subverts this again, however, with a traumatic memory from Nick’s childhood revealing that he only plays to stereotypes because it’s all that society will allow him to do.
Zootropolis is full of poignant and thought-provoking moments squeezed between humour and a quite frankly overused reference to The Godfather, but this mixing up of discrimination makes it difficult for the film to show the wider effects of institutional racism because, as many of the film’s more critical reviewers have pointed out, both predator and prey seem to be competing for the role of ‘oppressed minority’, resulting in a message that suggests everyone is equally effected by racism.
Happening simultaneously is a layer of gender politics: the majority of the police force and the city’s mayor are men; Judy and the mayor’s downtrodden assistant are both women. The LA Times confirmed that the filmmakers spoke with women police officers, which would imply that this layer is intentional. Why, then, is it only openly suggested that Judy is discriminated against for being a bunny, rather than being a woman? Is it because gender cannot be easily hidden behind an animal metaphor like race can? While using animals has allowed Zootropolis to be far more political than they likely could have gotten away with using humans, it certainly offers a safety net for criticism. With a metaphor open to interpretation, there’s always the option of answering criticism with a ‘That’s not what we meant.’ Additionally, in a film about a character struggling in her career because of her ‘species’, it’s disappointing that both of the starring voice actors are white and, as David J. Leonard also highlights (NewBlackMan (in Exile)), only one of Zootropolis’s writers and directors is a person of colour.
Ultimately, Zootropolis is clever, genuinely entertaining and heart-warming, but in places it is misguided. I recommend watching it, especially if done with a critical eye; as a film teaching children (and adults) that racism is bad and harmful to individuals, it does a fantastic job and even manages to not be overly-sentimental. But if you’re looking for a film which perfectly mirrors real-world racism, Zootropolis is slightly too eager to suggest that we’re all equally affected.