I know, Zootopia came out ages ago and you've moved on, but this movie has so much to do with the experience of minorities (specifically black people) in the U.S., that I had to talk about it while we're on the subject of the media's portrayal of black people. Within seconds of tuning in to Zootopia, it was obvious that prey and predator was an allegory for race relations in the US. It seems pretty self explanatory, but after seeing the movie multiple times and having time to really think about it, I realized it's much more complicated than it seems.
The Relationships in America
It's no secret that minorities are treated differently in the U.S., especially after the election of Donald Trump. Zootopia builds on these differences to build an allegorical version of the U.S. for the viewer. The main character, Judy, can't wait to live in Zootopia because of the lure of equality, just as people immigrate to the U.S. in search of the "American Dream." Upon her arrival, Judy quickly learns that things aren't as different as she thought it would be. In the world of Zootopia the imbalance between the majority and minorities is realized as a power struggle between predator and prey. Most people assume the predators, who are wrongly accused of evil, are minorities, and the prey, who do the accusing, are the majority. However, I noticed a strong argument for the opposite.
Predators or Prey
I get why people came to the conclusion that predators are the minority. Realistically, prey make up the majority in the animal kingdom. Also, the fear the prey have for the predators matches the way white supremacist speak of black people. In the same year Zootopia was released, Hilary Clinton was put in check for referring to black youth as "super predators" during her husband's enforcement of mass incarceration. This is almost identical to the plot of the movie: predators are called predators and locked up for the good of the prey. On top of that, in the end, the prey are caught framing the predators to look more vicious than they really are. This fits the themes of racial profiling, Islamophobia, etc. But, let's look at three things that actually point to the prey being "minorities" and the predators being the majority.
1) Most of the cops are predators
Judy is laughed at when she says she wants to be a cop because bunnies aren't cops. When she joins the police force, most of the officers shown are predators—even the guy at the desk is a jaguar. This was exactly the issue in Ferguson, MO during the Michael Brown incident. They found that despite the city being 67% black, the police force was 94% white.
We see prey as farmers, celebrities (re: athletes and entertainers), and mobsters (re: organized crime). The assistant mayor (a sheep) is treated poorly by the mayor (a lion), and given a storage closet for an office. This fits the stereotype of black people being entertainers, thugs, and in subservient positions. We do get a glance of an elephant owning an ice cream shop, but that's the point of the movie: you can't assume something about someone based on stereotypes. Just because most of the prey were not CEOs doesn't mean none were. Similarly, just because most black people you meet aren't CEOs doesn't mean there isn't a black CEO somewhere.
3) Comments tying in the movies' theme
There are two lines that make it obvious the movie is dealing with racism, and both are directed at predators in defense of prey. Judy (prey) tells a jaguar (predator) that only bunnies can call other bunnies cute. This is a reference to the idea that only black people can call other black people the n-word. Judy later tells Nick (predator) that he can't just touch a sheep's (prey) wool. This is a reference to black women complaining about strangers touching our natural hair without permission. In both cases the prey is the minority, not the predator.
4) The prey are trying to get power
The main reason I think we don't want to say that minorities are prey is because the villains turn out to be prey. Now whether the directors were trying to make a statement about Black Lives Matter, subtly hinting at a conspiracy led attempt to fan racial tensions (like Charles Manson), or just trying to create a mystery for the plot, I don't know (I don't really see many parallels between Black Lives Matter and the criminal operation, but it does seem a little odd that they would throw this in without meaning). Nonetheless, it reminds us of the main point, the predators had power and the prey did not. The whole reason for their ornate scheme was to take power from the predators. Like minorities, the prey in the movie have never had power, it is the predators who have been running the show the whole time.
Putting it Together
It's beautiful because you can argue valid points from each side because prejudice exists within both the predators and prey (majority and minority). The movie creates a spring board for the discussion of racism. We often see white people cringe and retreat at the mentioning of the word and perhaps thats because people are using different definitions. The dictionary definition of racism is "a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race" but it also says it could simply be "racial prejudice or discrimination." Most people fall under a different definition of racism—"a political or social system founded on racism"—and thus, many conflate hegemony into the definition of racism. In this definition, racism is when a person has power to oppress someone based upon their prejudices. This is where the popular stance that "black people can't be racist" comes from. Minorities don't have the power to oppress white people. We witnessed that in the past election. A man who incited racial violence and condemned members of every minority group won the election.
Many people are put off by the word racism because they don't think they're superior and they don't think they have prejudices, but as Zootopia elegantly displays, we all have prejudices. The issue is when we aren't aware of those prejudices and we allow them into power. This fuels systematic racism and prevents us from truly moving into a post-racial society.
The "Default" Race
Recently, I saw a post on Dorkly that has since been removed, where they featured artists' reimagining of the characters as humans. The comment section was overwhelmed by people upset about the fact that all of the artists reimagined the characters as white. Some commented that it made sense because they mapped the character's color palette, and "you can't have a non-white ginger." (Clearly someone has been living under a rock). The "natural" inclination to draw the characters as white humans comes from the idea that white is the default race. The danger of allowing yourself to cling to this idea is that everyone else is then devalued or lessened in your subconscious.
Zoootpia is supposed to be the epitome of diversity, so we would expect a diverse cast providing the voices for its inhabitants, right? The movie casts three black actors (two being the well known Idris Elba and Octavia Spencer), a Latina actress (Shakira), and an Asian and white actor (Tommy Chong) in supporting roles, however both lead character are played by white actors.
- Katie Sanders. "Ferguson, Mo., has 50 white police officers, three black officers, NBC's Mitchell claims". PunditFact. August 2014
- "Racism". Merriam-Webster. 2017
- "Hegemony". Merriam-Webster. 2017
- Todd VanDerWerff. "Zootopia wants to teach kids about prejudice. Is it accidentally sending the wrong message?". Vox. March 7, 2016
- Anne Gearan and Abby Phillip. "Clinton regrets 1996 remark on ‘super-predators’ after encounter with activist". The Washington Post. February 25, 2016
- Linley Sanders. "Charles Manson is Dead; What Was His 'Helter Skelter' Race War Plan?". Newsweek. November 20, 2017
- This isn’t the original post, but there is a compilation of similar images on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABJe04jc8g4
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