When people mention animated films, they often assume those films are for children. However, in 2016, Disney produced an animated comedy called Zootopia which both adults and children could enjoy, and it ultimately won the 2017 Oscar for the best animated feature film. In the film, directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore created an imaginary world called Zootopia as a metaphor for New York City. In Zootopia, animals from different species lived together peacefully in superficial harmony; however, various social problems continued boiling under the surface. Foxes were discriminated against as having sticky fingers, and female bunnies were stereotyped as too weak to be a cop. For young children, Zootopia is a fairy tale, but for adults, it has some hidden meanings involving social situations, 112which evoke deep thought. Although the slogan of Zootopia is “Anyone can be anything,” it turns out that this imaginary perfect city still has serious social problems such as sexism and racism that contradict the slogan and reflect the real world.
Zootopia begins with the story of Judy Hopps, a bunny that dreamed of becoming a cop. After years of effort, she realized her dream in Zootopia. However, after being stereotyped, she quickly found that the city was not that perfect. To prove herself, she took a mysterious case to find 14 missing predators and mistakenly solved it together with a sophisticated fox called Nick Wilde. By investigating the case, Judy found that the missing animals had become savage. Her finding caused a panic in the city since the residents were afraid that the changes in those animals occurred naturally because of their DNA of predators. Suddenly, the harmony of the city, together with the friendship between Judy and Nick, was broken. After accidentally finding a clue, Judy finally unveiled the truth that the whole scandal was schemed up by Bellwether, a sheep and the vice president of the city who wanted to control it and gain power for the prey animals.
In the film, Zootopia reflects the problem of sexism in society using the contrast between female animals and male animals, especially in the job field. Although female animals get the same job as males, they are always underestimated and fail to be treated fairly. Take the main character, Judy Hopps, as an example. When Judy realized her dream in Zootopia and entered the police station, she seemed like a dwarf who fell into the giants’ world. All the other cops in the station were large and strong, and, most importantly, they were all males. Although Judy had proven her ability by graduating as the top student from the police academy, her appearance still gave her boss a feeling that as a female, she was too small, too weak, and too emotional to be a real cop. Therefore, the chief of the police, Bogo, only let her work as a meter maid. He said “get back on the carrot farm where you belong” to Judy which was similar to “get back in the kitchen,” an extremely sexist phrase that came from Batman Beyond. To achieve the same level of acceptance, Judy had to work harder than male cops which brought audiences to think of the real-life experience of women in the job field. In the real world, researchers from Yale University once made a study about sexism in the job field. By analyzing the data, researchers found that when science faculty members face two identical resumes with a male name and a female name, they were more likely to choose a man as the employee, offer him a higher salary, and more willing to offer him mentoring opportunities (Moss-Racusin). This fact testified that gender biases truly affect how women were evaluated and treated. In the end of the film, the plot showed that as the first female cop, Judy was finally accepted by the society. Her experience pointed out the sexism in the real society as well as an ideal social condition which all females would urge for.
In Zootopia, directors not only talk about sexism, but also magnify stereotypes and discrimination against different species which reflects the racial problems in the real world. In the film, different species represent the different races and ethnicities in our society. By using tokenism, the directors reflect racial problems, but, at the same time, prevent the movie from hinting at any direct correlation for racism in our real world (“Zootopia”). When Nick, a fox, entered an ice-cream shop, he was immediately expelled by the store owner with a sign of “we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone,” because the owner thought all foxes will steal things. However, discrimination toward a specific species was not the worst problem in Zootopia. There was discrimination toward whole groups of animals, and this discrimination started at a very young age. In the film, DNA was mentioned frequently. In Zootopia, animals were either predators or prey depending on their DNA. When Judy was a child, she was bullied by a fox because that fox thought prey cannot become cops due to their DNA. However, Nick, as a fox, had the same experience. When Nick was 8 years old, he wanted to join the Junior Ranger Scouts; but during the initiation, he was bullied and forced to wear a muzzle simply because he was the only predator in the troop and other children did not trust predators. Nick said that this lesson taught him “if the world’s only gonna see a fox as shifty and untrustworthy, there’s no point in trying to be anything else.” Both Judy and Nick were deeply affected and hurt by their childhoods’ experiences. After being bullied, Judy was afraid of foxes, and Nick started to abandon the idea he had of himself, which indicated the serious negative effect that discrimination caused him at a young age, and this effect happens in the real world. A new UC Riverside study found that children were sensitive to and suffered from it at ages as young as 7 years old, which had negative effects on their development. Among black and Latino teens, these impacts manifested in the form of substance abuse, depression, and risky sexual behavior (Warren). Related with the real world, the film not only reflects the racial problems in society, but also shows how discrimination would ruin an innocent life in childhood, which is a serious problem that needs to be solved.
In addition to dealing with racism and sexism, Zootopia inspired thinking about the relationship between minority groups’ rights and power. Michel Foucault once explained the relation of rights and the power of speech. If one does not have rights, then he or she does not have the power of speech. They can only get the knowledge that was defined by those who have the power of speech; however, since they do not have the power to define themselves, they have to live under the definition from others. Thus, rights and power cannot be separated (Kennan). In the film, the assistant mayor, sheep Bellwether, was the best example of Foucault’s words. As a female prey, she was discriminated against and underestimated by the mayor, a lion named Lionheart. She worked like Lionheart’s secretary, and her words had no power. However, after Bellwether took the job of Lionheart to be the mayor by plotting a conspiracy, she successfully gained power for prey although using an extreme method—she made all predators be discriminated against. Bellwether’s example proved that power and rights were closely associated with each other. Since she did not have the same rights in the job field before, she did not have the power to defend her rights. Bellwether’s experience indicated that in real life, the formation process of social problems was a vicious circle. It was important to find the interrelationship between different social problems in order to solve the problems thoroughly.
Like every other Disney films, Zootopia has a “happy ending”. The harmony of the city was restored and the discriminations were reduced. The film ends with the speech from Judy, “Real life is messy. We all have limitations. We all make mistakes. Which means?hey, glass half full!?we all have a lot in common…Try to make the world a better place. Look inside yourself and recognize that change starts with you. It starts with me. It starts with all of us.” … In Zootopia, directors not only use allegory to shadow the problems from the real world, but also point out the solution of these problems. Disney was saying that it is not hard to solve sexism or racism as long as everyone opens their mind; then, the vicious circle will be ended and the world will be better.
Moss-Racusin, C. A., et al. “Science Faculty’s Subtle Gender Biases Favor Male Students.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 109, no. 41, Oct. 2012, pp. 16474–79. Accessed 28 Nov. 2018.
“Zootopia Uses Metaphors in an Imaginary World to Explain Real Problems.” The Tartan, https://thetartan.org/2016/3/21/pillbox/zootopia. Accessed 28 Nov. 2018.
Warren, J.D. “Study: Children as Young as 7 Suffer Effects of Discrimination.” UC Riverside, https://news.ucr.edu/articles/2018/10/22/study-children-young-7-suffer-effects-discrimination. Accessed 27 Nov. 2018.
Keenan, Tom. “I, The ‘Paradox’ of Knowledge and Power: Reading Foucault on a Bias.” Political Theory, vol.15, no.1, Feb 1987, pp 5-37. Accessed 27 Nov. 2018.
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