And I'm pretty sure this is why the whole messages goes to hell.
There's a great old comic that a lot of you read in college called Maus. It's a personal history of the author's father surviving the Holocaust, told through the metaphor of cats chasing mice. The Nazis are cats, the people they're trying to exterminate are mice, in case you were at all confused about how that situation might shake out.
That might seem like a pretty obvious metaphor, but Art Spiegelman actually struggled with it a lot. You see, Nazis had followed in a long tradition of portraying Jews as rats in their propaganda to dehumanize them. Spiegelman was worried that if he bought into that myth -- even as an attempt to subvert it -- he might end up sending the wrong message.
Like this one.
Since this was a book not only about his own father's real experience but also the real experiences of some six million murder victims, it was very important to him that he not further the very stigma that had been used to justify those murders.
Zootopia is a recent movie which also uses animal relationships as a metaphor for prejudice, but its conception was very, very different. The filmmakers started with the idea of a movie like Disney's Robin Hood, whereby they told a story with a bunch of charming talking animals. (Which is probably why main character Nick Wilde looks exactly like Robin Hood). They wanted to create a modern world wherein animals use iPhones to listen to familiar songs and drive cars we also might want to drive. A world where we could see ourselves as the animals. Once they had the idea for this city, they realized that they could also say something about bias, prejudice, and racism. That's why they inserted familiar stereotypes like only bunnies being "allowed" to use the word "cute" (just like the N-Word!), or it being rude to rub a sheep's wool without asking (just like with black people's hair!), or people being traumatized by childhood bullying based on their appearance.
And I'm pretty sure this is why the whole messages goes to hell.
The biggest problem with Zootopia is that the simplest version of its idea -- "different animals living together as a metaphor for modern racism" -- is already pretty gross, for the simple reason that race is not biological. It's a complete myth, a cultural concept that we made up. A white guy has as much in common with a black guy as he does with a white guy with a different hair color. (Biologically, anyway. I have no idea what their favorite Pokemon are.) Every scientist in the world agrees with this, except the racist ones. Everyone from the KKK to the Nazis to the Neo-Nazis to the modern "alt-right" have embraced a philosophy known as "scientific racism," which argues that skin color is indicative of a lot of other differences in strength, intelligence, charisma, and other D&D stats.
And so does Zootopia.
The movie starts with a history of the world, explaining that while predators used to be uncontrollably violent, they have since been civilized and can now live among prey animals, which also means behaving like prey animals (prey animals aren't asked to accommodate their behavior for predators at all). Because in Zootopia there's a right way to live and a wrong way to live, and some animals are -- in the context of this movie -- biologically programmed to live wrong. They have to be corrected in order to fit in with proper, civilized society.
Illustration from Indigenous Races of the Earth (1857)
You know -- the kind of thing assholes think.
This is the exact argument at the center of scientific racism. "Black people are more primitive, less evolved, and don't fit in with white society." It's the assumption behind everything from the racist crack laws to the racist superpredator laws (hey, look, the word "predator" is right there).
You might say that I'm reading too much into this. "Why are you making everything about race?" is the internet's favorite complaint, after all. But in this case, the movie is demanding that I put my own life into the film. All the animals live in human-style apartments, worship human-style pop culture (Shakira is in this movie -- she's a gazelle, and she has her own iPhone app), and even have similar goals. Judy Hopps moves to the big city to pursue her dream of being a cop, the same way I and so many of my friends moved to Los Angeles to pursue our dreams of being writers, or musicians, or mimes, or strippers (I like to keep a diverse friend group). Even the central plot of the story -- that a corrupt and racist government is using a drug to villainize an innocent minority -- reflects the crack epidemic of the 1980s. I'm supposed to see not just myself, but my entire civilization, reflected in this movie.
You might say, "So wait, any movie in which a bunch of animals live together is racist? What are you, some kind of doof?" Of course not, and please watch your language, as this is an article about a children's movie. I don't think Robin Hood is racist, and Rescuers Down Under is the best movie I will ever see in my life. But if you're making a movie about racism, the premise that "a bunch of different animals living together and dealing with their fundamental differences" works better as a pro-racist metaphor than an anti-racist one. Check out this scene:
A tiger sits on a train, and a rabbit clutches her child to her in fear. It's meant to evoke real-world microaggressions, but the movie is also saying that letting black people and white people live together is like letting tigers and rabbits live together. That's ... insane. That rabbit is exercising a totally justified survival instinct. I wouldn't let my kid sit next to a tiger on a train, and I am significantly larger and more powerful than a rabbit. I own a gun and I took Tae Kwon Do in middle school. I don't know if I would actually win, but I'm pretty sure I could give that tiger a run for his money. And still, I would be scared to sit next to one, even if people insisted that it had been "domesticated" or shook their head at me and tried to make me feel ashamed or Disney made a big-budget animated summer comedy about why I should sit next to tigers. I would still stand up for what I believed in, protect my family, and get the fuck off that train. Because it had a tiger on it.
The problem, which I've abandoned for an in-depth exploration of my phobia of tigers, is that the movie is set up to be racist before the story even gets going. Because ...
To clear something up, there's a lot to really like about Zootopia. The jokes are funny and the story is tightly told and the casting is wonderful. I don't think the filmmakers set out to make a racist story and trick us into being racist. I think they just couldn't control their own metaphor because they came to the story from exactly the wrong direction.
The differences in the respective creative processes behind Maus and Zootopia that I mentioned at the beginning of this article is the heart of the problem. When Spiegelman was writing Maus, he wanted to tell a story about the Holocaust, and used these animals' relationship to say things he couldn't say with words, and to criticize the use of animals as a metaphor for human beings in the first place. That's why the book's core metaphor eventually begins to fall apart and Spiegelman can't decide whether to portray certain characters as mice or cats. Nothing -- not even the relationship between Nazis and the people they murdered -- is so simple. (I mean, you can't really blame a cat for wanting to eat a mouse. They do that to survive, and we reward them for it.)
When George Orwell was writing Animal Farm, he did the same thing. He set out to tell a story about the Russian Revolution, and used an animal parable to make a specific point. Don Bluth's An American Tale is about Jews (mice in this story) fleeing the pogroms in Russia (the "Catsacks" chase them -- like Cossacks but, um, cats).
But with Zootopia, they started from the place of telling a fun, charming story about animals. They researched the ways animals lived and their behavior. One character says that the population of Zootopia is 10 percent predator, which reflects a healthy biome. It was relatively late in the process (according to the filmmaker's own documentary) that they decided to make it about racism.
And I think that's why it's so unfocused, and every possible interpretation of the movie's metaphor comes out weird. Are predators supposed to be oppressed minorities? If so, what is with this "they used to be savage and now aren't" backstory? So maybe small animals are minorities -- if that's the case, then the villain of the story is a member of an oppressed minority who got sick of being pushed around and fought back. Hey, what? Finally, if the movie is just about the concept of bias in general, why bring so much of the real world into it -- "Don't touch a sheep's hair" and "Only bunnies can call each other 'cute'" and "HEY LOOK THIS PLOTLINE IS JUST LIKE THE CRACK EPIDEMIC." It ends up sending the "Everyone is a little bit racist, and bias affects everyone equally!" message that I'm just fundamentally disgusted by, I guess.
And I do feel comfortable being this hard on Disney, holding them to these high standards, because they should have known. The history of equating race with animals is mostly racist propaganda. Just here in America, we've depicted black people as monkeys, Japanese people as insects, Germans as snakes, and Koreans as octopi. In a moment that screams a stunning lack of awareness, one of the directors even said "by looking at animals, we learned a lot about human beings" -- apparently unaware that Nazis said the same thing. I'm breaking Godwin's law there, I guess, but holy shit guys, they were using a traditionally racist metaphor, and you gotta be careful when you do that.
But they weren't, because ...
Here's a deleted scene from Zootopia that, if left in, would've made it one of the darkest kids' movies in years:
In it, a polar bear puts a collar on his son, which signifies that he is now a grown man. What the boy doesn't realize (but soon learns) is that the collar shocks him whenever he gets too excited. In this version of the movie, all predators were forced to wear a shock collar to keep them in line. There was also a scene in which Nick goes through an embarrassing moment at the doctor when they need to remove the collar for a second and everyone is afraid he'll immediately attack.
The idea that 10 percent of the population has to wear collars that will painfully shock them if they feel too much emotion (the kid gets zapped for dancing among balloons) would make the movie a lot grimmer. Which is exactly why the filmmakers decided to cut it. When they showed this scene to Disney High Command, their feedback was: "I admire what you're trying to do, but ... I want to love this world. And because of the collars, from the very beginning, I hate this world. You should rethink things. Make us love the world." They decided to replace the collars with stereotypes about predator behavior, and here we are.
"Hey, do you think your movie about racism could make me think about racism less?"
So Zootopia is a movie about a racist world that we still have to love. It wants to talk about a deeply uncomfortable topic -- the systemic denial of rights to a huge part of the world's population -- without making us too uncomfortable. So of course it could never really say anything. Of course it was going to be wishy-washy, inconsistent mumbo-jumbo. Maus is a unique and deeply personal work of art, while Zootopia is a product of compromise.
Which is fine if all it is a silly, forgettable kids' movie with a "nice enough" message. But if you're going to build your story about one of the most important and far-reaching issues facing the world today, and you have the reach and cultural influence of the Disney corporation, then you should do a better job than that.
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