Policing the Borders of “Zootopia”

Jennifer Fleeger

Popular children’s literature and cinema tend to confront racism by using fanciful zoological metaphors to deliver two important messages: first, that you can be anything you want to be, and, second, that we’re all the same under our skin. We see these lessons in picture books like The Sneetches, Stellaluna, and Strictly No Elephants, and in films such as Ratatouille and Shrek. These well-intentioned narratives address prejudice as an individual problem, instructing kids to resist the appearance of limitations and reject stereotypes. The presumption of a white audience embedded in allegories like these is just as stark as it is in texts that don’t mention race at all. This fantasy of a post-racial future is comforting both to the children hearing these stories and to the adults who tell them, for it allows us to shrug off the weight of history and act as if the racist institutions we’ve spent centuries constructing can be dissolved almost overnight.

This fantasy is both employed and exposed in Disney’s new animated feature Zootopia. Set in an anthropomorphic world where predators and prey live together in harmony (an explicit fantasy of a colorblind utopia), Zootopia features a bold little rabbit who overcomes the obstacles of her gender and size to become a police officer. It’s a job typically held by much larger mammals, but one she has dreamed of having since she was a small bunny. To prove her worth to the police chief, who would rather assign her to parking duty, she must solve Zootopia’s biggest mystery: otherwise “civilized” predators are mysteriously “going savage,” a process by which they are instantly transformed from upstanding members of the community into, well, animals. The cause of the crisis turns out to be the film’s primary affirmative action advocate, a meek-seeming sheep who works in favor of employment opportunities for small mammals, but who has been poisoning her bigger, more vociferous peers with a hallucinogenic substance she distills from plants in a drug lab (the film completes this image with a Breaking Bad reference). With the case solved, Zootopia resumes operations as a post-racial wonderland where animals of all sorts can grow up to be, among other things, cops.

The racial analogy constructed by Zootopia becomes evident in the first 20 minutes, when our hero bunny, voiced by white actress Ginnifer Goodwin, stumbles upon a fox being denied service by a restaurateur who assumes he is up to no good. The rabbit immediately comes to his defense; noting his “articulate” manner of speech, it is easy for her to practice tolerance. It is even easier because the fox is voiced by Jason Bateman. That the fox does turn out to be a criminal is disconcerting, and this is where something odd happens to the film’s seemingly straightforward allegory. The fox experiences discrimination from shop owners and boy scouts, he possesses street smarts, he becomes the bunny’s foil in a partnership ripped from a 1980s buddy cop film; indeed, he is coded black in every way except through his voice. Why? Is this another example of Hollywood casting white actors to play characters of color, or is there something more complicated going on?

Still from <i>Zootopia</i>.

Black voices on film are distinctive, partially because the cinema has taught us to hear them that way. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, when it needed to sell the idea of the talkie to an American public tired of failed synchronous sound experiments, Hollywood called upon African American singers and artists to authenticate sound technologies. As Alice Maurice’s research on race and conversion-era cinema has shown, producers thought the perceived deep resonance of black speech would be more suitable for the new and unstable systems of sound reproduction, making their audio seem less flawed and the films that applied it more exciting. Thus, from the time movies could talk, black voices were used to demonstrate difference, to remind white listeners of another mode of cultural production that could be brought to them by the magic of the cinema, but that would always remain off limits. For example, black jazz was represented on film with a vocal style very different from its white counterpart. Singers such as Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway, and George Dewey Washington acted in stories set in urban environments rife with moral decay that made the black experience appear exotic and frightening. These connotations of the black voice persist, yet the context from which they arose doesn’t work very well in a children’s film meant to celebrate colorblindness. A world where power can be held by anyone and success can be achieved through hard work and perseverance has no room for auditory distinctions like these. To make blackness audible would interrupt Zootopia’s neoliberal logic, and, with it, the core fantasies of children’s fiction.

Despite using white actors to play characters marked as non-white, Zootopia is not completely lacking in voices of color, though they do not necessarily embody animals “of color.” The most notable are Shakira, who plays Gazelle, Zootopia’s most popular singer, and Idris Elba, who is its chief of police. Rather than speaking to a newfound commitment to diversity in casting, however, their presence ensures that the lessons of Zootopia remain firmly rooted in contemporary structures of governance: popular culture can foster peace without demanding material change, and a few good apples on the police force can root out the bad ones.

I’m not certain if the resistance to exposing children to structural racism is rooted in a stubborn blindness to its existence or a comprehension of its complexity.

The first of these lessons is best illustrated by a nightclub scene at the end of the film. Gazelle performs a song about taking risks (written for the film) titled “Try Everything,” which brings the city’s residents together to dance. This appears to be a collective celebration, a party to commemorate the resumed wholeness of the animal community. The song, however, celebrates individual efforts instead: “I won’t give up, no I won’t give in, ‘til I reach the end then I’ll start again.” As a mantra to encourage children, this message is familiar, and in terms of the film’s narrative, it makes sense. It asks children to identify with the efforts of the bunny who refused to capitulate to those who said she couldn’t be what she wanted to be. Yet as a message meant to resonate with the rest of the characters, it is odd. Nothing has really changed in the structure of Zootopia that would prevent another epidemic of racist activity. What has changed, however slightly, is the community’s perception of the possibilities of individual achievement. All the characters are now aware that a determined (white) bunny can not only survive in a multiracial city, but can also uncover and eliminate whatever racial tensions lie under its surface, even without learning anything at all about the cultural characteristics of its discrete communities. Moreover, the bunny accomplishes these feats not in spite of, but because of the police. The bunny is a good apple. But so is the chief. The police chief may begin this story with a prejudice against small animals, but he is eventually able to appreciate the good detective work of our fearless bunny because his bias is not systemic. Indeed, the film seems all too ready to suggest, how could it be? His character is voiced by Idris Elba.

It is here, by engaging another popular lesson of children’s texts, that Zootopia unravels the fantasy of the universality of children’s culture in the age of the Black Lives Matter movement. Recent videos of police officers physically abusing kids at majority-black public schools, or shooting unarmed youth in the streets, give lie to the notion that policemen are the friends of all children. The presence of police has a different meaning in some communities than it does in others. Stop and frisk laws, pretext traffic stops, and SWAT teams conducting drug raids all occur in black and Latino neighborhoods far more often than in white ones, giving rise to a radically disproportionate prison population. And what about the world that tolerates this difference? The past year has given us stories about lead poisoning in the water supply of Flint, Michigan, a city with twice as many black children as white, about the governors of 31 US states pledging not to accept Syrian refugees within their borders, and about the legislative rejection of an ethnic studies requirement for public schools in Kansas. Why do we present children with the notion that we can eliminate racism from within the very structures that thrive on perpetuating it?

There’s a moment in Zootopia that comes close to representing these kinds of structural racism. After it is revealed that the only animals falling victim to the “savage” poison are predators, an affable police receptionist is forced to relinquish his post because his superiors assume that the first thing visitors see upon entering the station ought not to be a potentially vicious cheetah. The scene is strategically placed to prompt inevitable feelings of outrage in young children. Yet as soon as the threat is over, the cheetah returns to his job. There is no mention of the screening process that would make his initial candidacy for the job less likely or the microaggressions he might continue to experience from his peers upon his reinstatement. But should Zootopia, a children’s film, be forced to tease out nuances that put explicitly racist actions in the context of everyday racist assumptions? Texts for children are often those that most clearly reveal our own investment in ideology. Zootopia posits personal awareness as the answer to social inequality. And that’s a problem.

I’m not certain if the resistance to exposing children to structural racism is rooted in a stubborn blindness to its existence or a comprehension of its complexity. It is much easier to identify individual racist acts than it is to explain the workings of power. It is also much easier to justify power if you benefit from it. As a parent of white children, it would be possible for me to have anti-racist feelings but remain silent on the subject of why inequality persists. My son isn’t at risk of police profiling, my daughter is unlikely to be labeled loud or unruly. Yet to allow my children to believe that the contemporary American landscape is a level playing field would be to enable them to take positions that perpetuate racism. They have to be aware of their own privilege if they ever hope to dismantle it, but awareness isn’t an end in itself precisely because, for other parents, silence isn’t an option. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes to his son in Between the World and Me, “A society that protects some people through a safety net of schools, government-backed home loans, and ancestral wealth but can only protect you with the club of criminal justice has either failed at enforcing its good intentions or has succeeded at something much darker.”

Still from <i>Zootopia</i>.

To be fair, I think Disney has good intentions. Compared to the racist caricatures that populated its early cartoon releases, Zootopia is certainly an improvement. Yet there is a horrific assumption at the core of this fable. For, before Zootopia’s animals evolved such that they might live in cities together, predators were in fact guilty of killing and devouring prey. Children are well aware that in the real animal kingdom, this is still true. They know this thanks in part to the Disney studio itself, whose Disneynature division releases a new live-action animal documentary each year. Zootopia’s message of tolerance is undermined by the association of oppressed minorities with the film’s predators. The comparison suggests that while violence and aggression might no longer be a part of a predator’s nature, the prey’s fear of them was, at one point in history, justified. The danger of this analogy should escape no one.

Assumptions like this mark Disney products not as “children’s films,” but as films made for the education of white children. The presumed whiteness, found not only in Disney films, but existing as a condition of children’s culture more generally, has not gone unnoticed by children themselves. Marley Dias, an 11-year-old from New Jersey, made headlines recently when she launched a drive to collect 1,000 books about black girls after being given too many books about “white boys and their dogs” to read in school. Dias noted her teacher’s good intentions, but, for her, they weren’t enough: “I understood that my teacher could connect with those characters, so he asked us to read those books. But I didn’t relate to them, so I didn’t learn lessons from those stories.”

It is important, then, not to dismiss Zootopia as a lighthearted story, but to ask what lessons we expect children to learn from the films and the books and movies that share its values. Perhaps the most disturbing thing about many of these children’s texts is that they mimic the structures of our experience. Indeed, Zootopia extends the conditions of late capitalism into the animal kingdom: there are merchants and hustlers, crime and punishment, wealth and precarity, and, most importantly, failed government intervention. The city itself is segregated, but that division is seen as “natural.” City planners have partitioned the space into sections appropriate for varied animal habitats; on the outskirts of a shared downtown, Zootopia consists of a Rainforest District, Little Rodentia, Sahara Square, Savannah Central, and Tundratown. Not coincidentally, this segmentation reproduces the organization of Disneyland, which contains separate territories dedicated to the wonder of American exploration: Frontierland, Adventureland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland surround the pristine Main Street, USA. Film scholar Nicholas Sammond explains that Disney’s approach to constructing fantasy spaces was rooted in 1950s American childrearing practices, which “reimagined the child as a higher-order animal that needed to be encouraged to grow in harmony with its aptitudes, an untamed creature whose proper domestication would not only act as a prophylactic against totalitarianism but would demonstrate … the evolutionary necessity of American domestic capitalism.” This vision of a child’s upbringing was based on an image of the white middle-class suburban home, into which Disney’s own programs and products could be introduced. Raising children to meet their potential in spaces designed for directed exploration, whether the fenced-in backyard or a carefully demarcated land of adventure in an expensive theme park, “tames” the child, much like Zootopia “civilizes” the animal, such that each might grow to be willing participants in systems that already exist, rather than question or change them.

It might seem a stretch to compare Disney’s imaginative worlds to real segregated communities until we remember that another thing Zootopia and Disneyland share is a carefully trained security team. Why would an invented animal utopia and the “happiest place on earth” both require an extensive police force? What does the image of the police monitoring the residents of and visitors to these ideal communities tell us about parenting today? Instead of breaking down barriers, we enforce them, accepting oppression and inequality as inevitable in other places as long as they aren’t here, as long as we imagine they keep our children safe. We continue to read books like The Sneetches and Stellaluna without seeing the borders of the worlds within them and the ways they resemble those we’ve built in reality. As Angela Davis said about the continuation of repressive governance, “It has become so much a part of our lives that it requires a great feat of the imagination to envision life beyond the prison.” If even an animated utopia, populated by fashionably dressed talking animals, is incapable of giving rise to such a world, do the rest of us have any hope? If we remain unable to acknowledge, and subsequently abolish, the structures of white supremacy that sustain this progressive fantasy of inclusion and opportunity, a fantasy it will remain.