In our meeting on Thursday, March 2, the class engaged in a group discussion over the film Zootopia, which we had been studying for the past week. Throughout the class, Soudabeh guided the discussion and provided her perspective and personal testimony on the Academy Award-winning film’s relevance in our world now. Through a group activity, she revealed the group’s perception of the most important themes of the film, demonstrating how the ideas we each suggested were paramount to the message of the film could be sorted into two main categories. One group concerned individual storylines whereas the other dealt with larger societal issues, while several of the ideas suggested by students fit somewhere between these two clusters. Seeing all of our proposals sorted on the board in this way exemplified what is, personally, the most compelling characteristic of Zootopia: it is an earnest story that, like any fairytale, depicts an engrossing journey and the personal development of its fictitious characters, but it is also a timely and powerful fable that handles larger sociopolitical themes that make it much more than a straightforward tale about animals designed to delight children.
Our group conversation largely centered on treating Zootopia as an allegory for a particular modern (presumably American) society. Several times, concerns and discussion arose from the fact that the film is not a perfect reflection of American society as it exists in reality. This likeness without perfect congruency causes some imperfections in trying to compare the world and conditions portrayed in Zootopia as, although many similarities exist, they do not align exactly with the conditions of the world and American society, and not all of the themes and events in the film can be interpreted literally. However, it is important to appreciate the issues that the film raises as art (and literature) is a reflection of the culture from which it emerges, and to analyze the ways we can usefully and appropriately apply the lessons from this story to our own lived experiences.
The highlights of the class occurred when the real-world parallels and applications of the film’s message became the focus of our dialogue. The central plot of the story, Judy’s journey as the very first rabbit police officer in the eponymous society Zootopia, employs its depiction of a recognizable police force as a symbol for possessing power, within a state. As in our real world, the citizens of Zootopia rely on the police to enforce the law and provide protection and help to the populace. Throughout the film, governmental power, law, and even the oft-frustrating process of bureaucracy are subjects of scrutiny. Prior to Judy’s odyssey into the field, her entire species had never been represented at that level. As the only of her kind to possess such governmental authority, she still is not given adequate recognition for her abilities beyond as a political tool for Mayor Lionheart’s public image. Her supervisor is disrespectful and judges her usefulness purely through a lens of stereotype, rather than recognizing Judy’s talent and her potential as an asset to the force. This sustains the film’s motif of alterity, where characters feel and experience otherness from the mainstream, often because they are perceived and treated accordingly through stereotypes that exist within Zootopia’s culture. This breeds prejudice and discrimination that takes many different forms and affects the entire society, diminishing the legitimacy of the adage that in Zootopia, “anyone can be anything”. In this fictional civilization as in ours, children are not inherently racist, but rather are taught by the example of the adults, even inadvertently, to discriminate against others. This creates groups who are marginalized in various aspects, which introduces privilege and oppression into this flawed “utopia” of a land. An essential issue of the story is this depiction of multiculturalism as all the different species grapple with the flaws of their society and strive to coexist.
In the end, the enemy is not any one group’s biological disposition towards evil, but rather the “them vs. us” thinking that divides Zootopia into groups and pits citizens against each other. When individuals are defined in widespread routine by superficial assumptions, like stereotypes about external appearance, it creates false beliefs in the public psyche about marginalized groups when in truth, each member of the society is unique and offers something different that cannot be defined by a mere label. No one group is inherently better or worse than any other. In the right circumstance, as the film demonstrates, it is possible to vilify anyone, just as it is possible for any person to make erroneous choices within their complex cultural landscape. However, this does not reflect any true divide between species that could somehow justify an unequal society where one group is prioritized above any other. In fact, the story shows how even the most seemingly incompatible pair, a fox and a rabbit, can become great collaborators and overcome injustice together. When a minority group is portrayed as dangerous and used as a scapegoat for the society’s problems, even Judy initially falls for this tempting false narrative. When she realizes her error, she apologizes to Nick for being “ignorant” and “small-minded,” showing that friendship is possible between any species and that their differences are not what should divide them, but instead are what make them such a dynamic team. They demonstrate appreciation of each other’s uniqueness, and treat all that they meet with kindness and respect. Although “we all have limitations; we all make mistakes,” says Judy, “the more we try to understand each other, the more exceptional we all can be.”