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Exploring Privilege and Oppression in the Land of Zootopia

The purpose of this tip is to help begin social justice conversations with kids (ages 10+) in the context of the film “Zootopia”. Often when looking for teaching tools to discuss social justice and violence, we go to educationally produced media. While these are often more intentional with their message, there is also a lot to be gained from utilizing pop-culture media. Although the film Zootopia remains true to the standard storytelling of Disney with the purpose of a feel good entertaining movie for kids and families, the writers have placed several social justice themes throughout the storyline of the movie as a regular part of the characters’ everyday life. The commentary of social inequity is not the central plot (it is, at its core, a “whodunit”) but it does provide adults an opportunity to begin the critical conversations with kids about equality, equity and discrimination. 

Getting Started

An important part of being able to facilitate this social justice conversation is to focus on both individual scenes and the overall themes in the film. When looking at a specific scene:

  • Determine which characters have access to power and how they are using it.
  • Broaden your conversation to include discrimination based on gender, ability (size), professionalism, and age (a theme that will resonate with youth) as well as racism.
  • For example, in the film the prey, at times, represent white people and predators, at times, represent People of Color. However, throughout the film the roles reverse and become more complex with each character’s different life experiences. The prey characters are not exclusively the oppressed population and the predator characters are not always the oppressors. Refer to examples in the Scenes and Their Connections to the Real World section.

Considerations

It is essential to ask kids how this movie relates to their personal experiences and let the conversation flow from there. Conversations may include the topics above and any additions: scapegoating, police brutality, religious intolerance, etc. 

Themes and Definition of Terms

  • Internalized Oppression is when a member of an oppressed group experiences “self-hatred” based on their membership in the oppressed group. In addition, the person may believe and/or act out the stereotypes created about their group (Jones, 2010).
  • Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among individuals that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time and can be in person or online. Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose (stopbullying.gov). This is behavioral violence.
  • Stereotyping/Bias is a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.
  • False Positive Stereotyping is also widely held ideas of a particular type of person based a perceived positive cultural trait, i.e.. women are nurturing. On the surface it seems like it would be a positive belief, but it sets unrealistic standard and expectation in practice that not all members of the group can or want to live up to. Additionally, the person who does not embody the stereotype can feel excluded from an important part of their identity and the corresponding cultural group, such as not fitting in with their peers.
  • Micro-Aggressions are subtle but offensive comments or actions directed at a minority or other non-dominant group that is often unintentional or unconsciously reinforces a stereotype.
  • Systemic Violence refers to systemic ways in which social structures harm or otherwise disadvantage individuals. It is often subtle or invisible, and often has no one specific person who can be held responsible (this is in contrast to behavioral violence) (Burtle, 2010).
  • Resiliency is the capacity of people to successfully adapt and recover, even in the face of highly stressful and traumatic experiences (National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2014).

Scenes Showing Individual to Individual Behavioral Violence

  • The scene with Gideon taking the festival tickets away from the other children and then pushing and cutting Judy is an example of bullying. It is important to highlight in the scene, there are two bullies bullying four children. Additionally, Judy successfully fights back, gets the tickets back, and the other children praise her for being an active bystander. Later in life Gideon apologizes for his behavior. In this film, Judy’s parents are shown to be supportive, caring parents and Judy herself appears to have a deep sense of community. Having these experiences contribute to resiliency.
  • In contrast, Nick has a different experience with bullying. He was hazed by five children and he was alone. He did not choose to become involved (as Judy did) but was instead the target of the bullying.
  • The names Judy is called during her training for the police academy, “carrot face” and “farm girl”. Later she is also called names by the Chief and Nick repeatedly calls her a “dumb bunny.” These are examples of bullying.
  • The Mayor pushing Bellwether out of the way during the Judy’s graduation ceremony is an example of a bullying. Also the Mayor calling Bellwether “Smellwether” is a micro-aggression. It’s under the guise of being a joke and playful between the two of them, but it clearly hurts Bellwether. In both of these cases, the Mayor is able to bully and be aggressive because he is in a position of power and authority. Bellwether is in a position of support and has additional points of oppression: being female, her role in her job, and being a small animal.

Discrimination in Practice in a Systemic Way

  • Relocating Crawlhauser to records so that he would not be the first person people see when they walk into the Zootopia Police Department is stereotyping. The police department reinforced the false belief that predators are violent by assuming how Crawlhauser was going to be perceived based solely on his membership with a predator group.
  • Judy’s initial response to Nick is to get her fox spray out is an example of a micro-aggression.
  • Nick Wilde says, “That if the world's only going to see a fox as shifty and untrustworthy, there's no point in being anything else.” This is an example of internalized racism.
  • Yax assumes Nangi will be able to remember in great detail because there is a common belief that elephants have strong memory. In the film, Nangi is not able to remember the information Nick and Judy need to look for Mr. Otterton but Yax can. This is an example false-positive stereotyping because it is a valued trait to be able to remember well, but it is still is making assumptions about a kind of person because of their membership to a group rather than viewing each person as an individual.

Scenes and Their Connections to the Real World

There are several moments in the film that are connected to the way oppression has been visible in our own culture, both historically and contemporarily.

  • “Something in their biology” is connected to eugenics and phrenology. This is a pseudoscientific justification for the oppression of non-Caucasian peoples based on perceived or actual biological differences from Caucasians.
  • “Only other bunnies can call each other ‘cute’” reclaiming slurs or degrading terms as a form of empowerment for the marginalized group. They take a term that has been used negatively against them and change the meaning within their own group so it is not only a term used negatively. As result, the term now has a positive meaning of solidarity within the group in addition to being negatively used from outside persons. For example, the meaning of the term “slut” is being altered by people while they participate in slut walk as a point of pride rather than only slut shaming.
  • The elephant’s refusal to sell ice cream to a predator (Nick.) This is a parallel to racial discrimination (and other forms of discrimination) within the United States when businesses have refused serve to marginalized persons. Contemporary examples include:
  • An important aspect of the film is the complications of each character. Characters were a mix of both “good” and “bad;” therefore, it was hard to tell who was “good” and who was mean. This is a deviation from more traditional children’s stories and better reflects the reality of the world.
  • In the film, we also see examples of intersectionality and complexities of oppression and privilege. Several characters in the film show the complexities of oppression and privilege.
    • For example, Judy is female-presenting and a rabbit. Her presentation, a girl who is small and also a bunny are points where she experiences oppression. However, she also experiences privilege as a majority prey species (so this would be like if a person is white) and as a police officer. At these points, she has access to power that others do not have, i.e.. blackmailing Nick into helping her.

Key Scenes

Here are several of the clips referenced above:

 


 

Reviewed: September 30th, 2016