The Racial Politics of Zootopia

Zootopia is a recent Disney feature released to almost universal critical acclaim and box office success. I am not especially interested in criticizing its aesthetic merits — I found the computer animation adequate though not inventive, its plot bland, and Jason Bateman’s performance tiresome — but in unpacking it ideologically. This is pertinent, because Zootopia is an explicit anti-racist allegory, and so its ideological work is, in a very real sense, its stated raison d’etre.

Animated features rarely strive for the gravitas of myth and fairy tale as they once did, and instead rely on the comedic trope of sending up other genres, thus making the fantastical (a city of sentient animals) instantly readable as a standard realist narrative. Zootopia begins as a bildungsroman of urban self-discovery. Protagonist Judy Hopps (a rabbit) wants to leave her rural environs behind to pursue an exciting career in law enforcement in the big city. This is a globally familiar narrative, influential beyond the US, which is important for large expensive films dependent on markets worldwide. It has also served as a compelling replacement for the old“American Dream” of working hard to establish oneself in a class above one’s humble origins. This is increasingly impossible in the 21st Century, and youth has accordingly adjusted its expectations, which are now rooted in pursuing a quasi-bohemian authenticity in expensive and alienating cities. If you can adapt to the anomie, near-poverty, and danger without quitting and going back home, you’re a success.

The film switches generic gears around half way through, hitting its stride by resurrecting that old chesnut from the 1980s, the mismatched buddy comedy. Judy Hopps, the plucky true believer in the law, must pair with Nick Wilde, a small-time hustler, uniting their different talents and dispositions to overcome greater threats. In its original formulation, the buddy cop genre was a racial allegory, where initial antagonism born of difference is sublated by a shared mission. Zootopia seems most directly inspired by 48 Hours (1982) where white cop Nick Nolte pairs with wisecracking black parolee Eddie Murphy, but the buddy cop genre was a popular and flexible one with many permutations. Lethal Weapon inverted the formula somewhat, with Mel Gibson as the loose cannon; more ridiculous ones saw Tom Hanks paired with a dog, Sylvester Stallone paired with his overbearing mother, and Whoopie Goldberg paired with a Tyrannosaurus.

Zooptopia explicitly embraces its status as a racial allegory in a variety of ways. Judy sheepishly accepts her worried parents’ gift of anti-fox pepper spray (in pink) before she goes to the police academy in the city. Later, Judy intervenes when the fox Nick is racially discriminated against at an ice cream parlor designed for large mammals (it turns out that Nick is actually running a scam of sorts). Judy also admonishes her desk sergeant for calling her “cute”: “a bunny can call another bunny ‘cute,’ but when other animals do it…” Animal species and other categories (notably predators vs. prey) stand in for races, which the script both acknowledges and mines for both comedy and moral lessons.

The fulcrum of the plot turns on this. Some animals start turning “savage,” losing their sentient characteristics and begin attacking other animals. These animals are designated predators — tigers, panthers, bears, and somewhat oddly, otters — and so all predatory animals become subject to a campaign of racial profiling that soon even claims the mayor of Zootopia (a lion, of course). Judy herself provokes this by delivering a press conference loaded with the language of scientific racism, that there is “clearly a biological component” turning predatory species feral, and that they are “reverting to their primitive savage ways.” Nick later criticizes Judy for this line of argumentation, which implicates him as a predator, to which she responds, “You’re not that kind of predator,” echoing racist “one-of-the-good-ones” logic.

Scientific racism is wrong, not because it is impolite or even discriminatory and oppressive. It is wrong because it is scientifically invalid. There is no biological basis for human racial classifications, in spite of continued efforts on behalf of scientists to find it (seriously, dozens of studies are published every year). Racial categories are instead, to use a popular term, social constructs, meaning that they are products of human history, specifically, a history of violent oppression that erected a caste system of racialized populations that continues to be reproduced institutionally and ideologically to this day. Race is real, but not at the level of biological essence, therefore racism can be abolished along with specious racial categories through human endeavor. The social constructionist answer to why racism is wrong is not simply that it is immoral, although it obviously is. It’s that racial categories are ultimately arbitrary, created and recreated by exploitative systems, without any basis in genetics or any other biological ontology. The old nostrum that, deep down, we’re all the same, is, in this sense, absolutely true, and a powerful weapon against racist ideology.

However, in Zootopia this is not the case. As even the children who are ostensibly the film’s target market could tell you, there absolutely is a biological difference in the various animal species, and so the racialized categories the film imposes on them works in a very different way. These racial categories are backed up by biology, even if Zootopia’s liberal society has obviated these racial distinctions (though physical size still seems to matter, there are zero interracial couples, and there is a racialized division of labor — sloths at the DMV). If someone were to say, as people have and continue to do, that there is a “biological component” to criminal activity committed by black people, they would be wrong, because there is no biological component to blackness. However, in Zootopia, relying upon biological explanations has an element of plausibility, because at one point predatory species did kill and consume other animals, as is their nature. As a youth, Judy performs this primal scene in a play.

Therefore, in Zootopia, race is in fact biological, and it is racial harmony that is a social construct (though the achievement of this is poorly explained as “evolution”). In nature, these species would kill each other; it is only through the deliberate construction of a liberal society that can prevent this.

This, in effect, completely turns the actual existing history of race on its head. In the real world, race and racism came about through history. Races were invented and pitted against each other, not by nature, but through deliberate crafting of entire discourses of racialization. It was civilization itself — specifically European modernity — that created racial categories and likened them to orders found in the animal kingdom. In Zootopia, on the contrary, it is civilization itself that prevents the biological basis of racism from rearing its head and tearing society apart.

Even more disturbing is how Zootopia’s racial categories of predator and prey map on to contemporary racial dynamics. Even within the city’s liberal polity, predators are subject to some distrust, and criminal suspicion. Judy’s family holds stereotypes against foxes, and the sheep attempt to foment a race war by playing to these stereotypes and turning predators feral with a serum that re-asserts their violent biological imperatives. In this way, predators are coded as black and brown, the “dangerous types” who are subject to suspicion. Indeed, the members of the police force, made up mostly of herbivorous megafauna, express skepticism that a fox could number among their ranks. Because of their past sins of predation, there remains an element of mistrust for this race of animals. In this way, there is both a biological basis for discrimination against predators and a historical one.

This flies in the face of human history. The populations subject to suspicion and discrimination, coded as black and brown, are not the “predators” of human history. They are, rather, the historic victims of a predatory white supremacy. The fantasies of, say, the inherent violence of black people, derive, not from a history of blacks oppressing and exploiting whites, but from a history of white supremacy that so often projected its brutality on its victims as a method of dehumanizing them. Zootopia gets this backwards: the discriminated races really were violent; their admission to the liberal urban civilization is contingent on the suppression of this nature, which always remains in doubt. Here I was also reminded how Israel justifies its oppression of Palestinians by pointing at every act of violence committed by a Palestinian “predator.”

This means that, while Zootopia professes a racial politics of liberal tolerance, it makes alarming concessions to reactionary racial ideology. For all its continued discrediting in the academic literature, scientific racism and attendant beliefs of inherent inferiority and criminality of blacks and other racialized groups, remains influential and powerful today. In fact, liberal magazine The New Republic bears a lot of responsibility for this, as, under editor Andrew Sullivan, it promoted the scientific racist Charles Murray. It is a powerful illustration that, far from being the antidote for racism, liberalism is remarkably flexible in accommodating it.

Today, dozens of twitter accounts, sometimes associated with the “alt-right” of resurgent anti-liberal racism, are dedicated to validating black intellectual inferiority as shown through specious IQ testing, documenting white people who have been victims of crimes committed by blacks, and otherwise attempting to prove the unfitness of certain races for equal status in a shared society. In the face of this, Zootopia marks a disturbing concession to reactionary racial ideology, which is probably why its final articulated moral is ridden with empty cliches and impoverished ambitions, just as so much liberalism is today:

“I thought this city would be a perfect place where everyone got along and anyone could be anything. Turns out, life’s a little bit more complicated than a slogan on a bumper sticker. 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. And the more we try to understand one another, the more exceptional each of us will be. But we have to try. So no matter what kind of person you are, I implore you: Try. Try to make the world a better place. Look inside yourself and recognize that change starts with you.”

We can expect to hear such anemic pleas to “we’re trying” and “it’s messy” from a prostrate liberalism attempting to shore up what remains of its credibility and its hold on the state by cutting deals with a triumphant and resentful right. In fact, we are already seeing it in one of the most successful animated films of all time, a film that situates itself as teaching important anti-racist lessons.