Zootopia: Racism Through the Eye of the White Beholder

Zootopia is all the rage right now and with good reason: It’s adorable. It has sloths. It’s “the best Disney movie in ages” according to critics. The audience, especially the White audience, loves the message it sends. And the message it sends? In a nutshell, how race and prejudice manifests in our society, delivered cleverly by fluffy animals that are as good at dropping cute quips as they are at throwing playful shade at other Disney films.  It exhibits much of the self-awareness of a Pixar film, and the take home points are noble. They are points that I agree are good to at least attempt to communicate to kids and unsuspecting adults that otherwise tend to avoid these conversations when they’re not masked behind an anonymous social media account.

There’s a consensus amongst the less impressed critics that the metaphors Zootopia conveys aren’t perfect. I agree wholeheartedly. Despite this though, it seems like the movie as a whole is well-intentioned enough to still take the sum of its parts as an admirable achievement. I also agree, but I don’t think the imperfect metaphors are necessarily the worst sin of the film. It’s something that happens a lot in trigger happy rage culture–we get so wrapped up celebrating or razzing stories that are in line or in conflict with our worldviews that forget to check to see who is telling us the story. The truth is, Zootopia, celebrated to an excessive degree about the race commentary it provides, is still told significantly from a White perspective (predominately White male) with messages primarily targeted to White or privileged audience members. This makes it far from a “revolutionary Disney film” about race (although its’s undoubtedly a vast improvement from the Dumbo crows).

Whitewash Behind the Camera

Remember when Effie Brown was shut down by Matt Damon for explaining that People of Color are just as (if not more) underrepresented behind the camera as they are in front of it? Let’s not forget about her, please, especially in this example. According to IMDB, of Zootopia’s 8 writers, only one (Josie Trinidad, Filipino-American) is of color. Only two are women. The other six are White men, three of whom also served as the directors of the film. Technically, only 2 of these White men are actually credited with writing the “screenplay,” while the other 6 writers are just labeled as somehow being involved with coming up with the story. I don’t believe this necessarily means that such a group of people can’t write a successful movie about race relations, but it’s still odd to me why a movie so heavily characterized by themes of race (and with even heavier allusions to the crack cocaine epidemic–holy crap, Disney) is still written largely from a White perspective. My main thought coming out of the film was what Zootopia would’ve looked like if the writers and directors weren’t all mostly White. An even better question—for a film that arguably draws most strongly from specific White/Black race dynamics—what the film would’ve looked like if Black men and women were actually a part of the creative team. The best question of all though, is probably why only one Person of Color got to weigh in on how this story was told in the first place. Seriously.  What?

One scene in particular that I felt suffered from the predominately White POV in the writing and/or directing is the “cute bunny” “slur” in Zootopia, which I know a lot of people on social media also have issues with. Spoiler: “Oversimplified” “Awkward” “Relatively Painless Description of an Actually Painful Experience” are all words I will use to describe that scene in a game of Taboo, “Zootopia Edition.” I still can’t tell if the writers were trying to demonstrate why certain terms are considered derogatory or disempowering when out-group members (particularly majority out-group members) use them or if they were trying to explain microaggressions. Regardless, exchanges and plot devices like the “cute bunny” slur so often made me feel like certain messages were being explained from the “good White intention” lens. AKA–messages told by some White people when they are so eager to convey something they learned about the emotional consequences of certain race exchanges that they forget it’s something they don’t really experience. As a result, the message is communicated in a way that is more light, simplified, matter-of-fact, or “hey, didn’t you know?” than it actually is validating of the emotional experiences of other cultural groups. The motivation to share the information is pure or “well-intentioned,” but the effect doesn’t fully achieve the aim and can even be dismissive. I feel like this can also boil down to an example of White privilege without explicitly calling it as such–White people, like the White audience members and filmmakers of Zootopia, are blessed with the privilege to learn about racism rather than living it. I recognized this POV in the delivery of so many mini-messages on race relations (like “cute bunny”). I might be completely off in this interpretation, but it’s just the reaction I had throughout the film in my first viewing. As a White person, I can ever only know what it is like to be White, which is why I find it odd when my White brothers and sisters tell me what it’s like to be a Person of Color. 

Also, what is the White equivalent for “cute” bunny? Jw.

Would Zootopia be significantly different if the creative basis for the film was more diverse? How so? Would White press, film critics, and audience members be responding in the same way if it were? I’m going to vote “yes” to the first question, “not sure” to the second, and “I really hope so” to the third. It’s not even a controversial point—worldviews and personal experiences matter, especially when stories are being told on a massive platform. Even as a White person, I expect a movie that focuses largely on themes of racial inequality and oppression would be different if it used the voices of groups who are subjected to said inequality and oppression at least as much or more than it used the voices of the oppressors who, at the end of the day, can only guess what a being victim of inequality is like. Unfortunately, Zootopia is not that movie.

Whitewash Behind the Mic

Another way that I felt the “whitewashed” directing most played out was how the voice actors were cast. I know a lot of people would probably argue that this is irrelevant–the race/ethnicity of the actors were physically invisible in the film, after all. However, this is a point I would challenge given the high profile of the actors they cast. Most audience members can likely identify most of the races/ethnicities of the headliners without prompting, which begs some interesting conversation as to how and why the actors were then cast as they were. To elaborate:

IMDB notes that much of the cast in general is White, particularly the “prey” who are generally seen as representing the majority (AKA “White”) group. However, the biggest exception to the rule–the “sly” Fox who always wanted to break the stereotype of his cultural group (AKA “minority groups”)–was voiced by Jason Bateman, a White man. Don’t get me wrong, I love Jason Bateman and thought he did some of the best work in the film. However, I can’t help but wonder how much more powerful that moment where Hopps reveals her prejudiced worldview against the Fox would have been like if an actor who was actually a member of a racial minority group was hired to play across Ginnifer Goodwin (thus honoring both the message and metaphors the film is claiming to embody). This just being one example. Idris Elba would’ve been great, in my opinion, but he was tied up playing a supporting “prey” character who was written as angry, incompetent, hostile, cheating, and untrusting (hmm where have I heard those character traits used to describe a particular cultural group before?). It brings up that unkillable question that characterized all of the haters of the #OscarsSoWhite movement: Are there just no actors of color who could possibly play a character representative of people of color in a scene where said character shares what it is like to be stereotyped and oppressed? (Try saying that 10 times fast). Of course not, we know that’s not true. It’s reflective of the diversity problem AMPAS is preaching that they hope to change. This in mind, it makes me frustrated that, for so much of the film, several famous White actors still provided the majority of the voices for all thematic cultural groups represented in the film.

Again, I can see other people disagreeing with me on this point. “They’re just voice actors playing animals representative of different races, not actual actors playing out actual race relations”  may be a valid argument. Personally, it doesn’t feel different to me, especially when the audience consensus is that this movie has “great commentary on race.” Like I mentioned in my previous posts, there are so many movies about White people, for White people, made by White people, and starring White people. Zootopia is a movie that references race incessantly, but still uses so many White people to talk about it–Even White people to talk as though they are members of groups that, at the end of the day, they oppress.

Who Would Play Them in a Film?

Per typical Disney tradition of the questionable use of color for characters in their animated films (looking at you, Aladdin), it’s unsurprising but still a little disappointing to see so many of the “savage” animals characterized by dark brown or black fur, while the two protagonists were light grey/white and red-haired. I see a handful of people on Twitter stating that we shouldn’t read into it this too much, while others making a huge case that this indicates the White supremacy that reigns at Disney, while still others arguing that this was somewhat purposeful to really drive home the message the film was trying to send (esp about the crack epidemic and mass incarceration). I’m reluctant to touch any of these arguments, especially that last one since literal interpretations of “people of color as the predators” seems to undermine the virtues of the film the more you think about it. (Again, I can’t help but wonder if this level of confusion that comes from “thinking about it too hard” would happen if the creators of the film were more culturally diverse). Mostly, though, I would get a kick out of resolving this point if we cast human actors that somewhat resembled the humanized animals in a live-action version of Zootopia. Doing that in the hospital/prison scene makes the race/mass incarceration allegory about as subtle as the proverbial cartoon anvil dropping on Micky’s head. Of course, casting a lead actress that matches the lighter grey/white Hopps might make a small case for the White perspective from which the story was written as well.

Press Perspective

As a rule, people tend to undervalue the power of press, main stream media (MSM), and social media platforms to promote information, which so heavily sway towards: (1) What headlines get clicks and (2) What’s the easy consensus. This is certainly true with Zootopia. I complained earlier about how many White people were used to make the film and how they were used to tell the story, but the consequences of this plays out into the headlines we see too (i.e., what gets clicks and reflects the consensus). The current press surrounding Jason Bateman and Ginnifer Goodwin are great examples—they are being celebrated almost as heroes for their involvement in the film by many outlets. Goodwin was just cited as saying that she would be “tickled pink” (coincidentally, an idiom rooted in White culture) if Zootopia influenced the impending doom that is the presidential election. Jason Bateman also revealed the personal passions that led him to the project, thus tying the “timely” message that the film promotes to part of who he is as a person (which, if nothing else, deserves major props to his publicist). Jokes aside though, as a White person, I am proud of these two actors for being invested in this story. I think they both did excellent jobs and I’m happy they’re being celebrated. However, I do find it interesting that this spotlight created by the MSM has sort of shifted the conversation about a film with “excellent racial commentary” back to…the White people who made it.

This is a theme I feel comes up a lot whenever a movie with race commentary created by White people is made–Somehow, despite best intentions and research and important topics and broad worldviews, the films best ends up serving White people. Using Zootopia as a specific example, most of the people who stand to benefit from this film financially are White. The film does carry great commentary on race issues, but it still disproportionately benefits the dominant group while giving the appearance as though it is equally benefiting all cultural groups with its message. The overwhelmingly positive consensus in the press (including blogs with way bigger platforms than mine) and social media certainly fails to reinforce any accountability for the predominately White members of the creative team to hire more People of Color to voice their characters in the future. That last point is particularly crucial when we are collectively begging the industry to make more room for People of Color in film. It’s a huge part of the #OscarsSoWhite movement, and it certainly generalizes to what’s looking to be one of the top grossing movies of the year.

This is not just MSM’s fault–film critics play a huge role in this too. The critical acclaim for Zootopia is outrageous and not undeserved, but it’s worth noting that the praise for the film’s “progressiveness” comes from a field where most film reviewers are, in fact, White. This is especially true in highbrow press. Per the bias that I see so many critics claim to “check,” I wish there was more room for personal reflection in reviews when topics like race are predominant themes. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be a norm that news sources really allow for, but it would still be so great to see.

New Dog, Old Tricks

Scott Mendelson at Forbes calls Zootopia “A New Disney Classic” , but it’s not really. The message is certainly braver, certainly new, but the way it was delivered is just like every other Disney film has been–through a predominately White lens. The story is cute and charming enough to take at face value, and I think most people are doing as such (and I also think they should).  It’s not surprising to me that White people (in particular) unanimously seem to L.O.V.E. this movie and even see it as a revolutionary contribution to traditional Disney lore. What’s not for us to love? Many of the messages in the movie were for us White people to hear, and were delivered by people that mostly look and sound like us. This is something White people are used to movies doing–playing to us, pitching to us, and rewarding us for our time the most. Zootopia is far from an exception to this rule, even when considering the content it presents.

Does the end justify the means in which Zootopia was made? Most people are arguing yes, and I agree. At the end of the day, it’s awesome to have a kids film with so many great themes about race and society communicated successfully. However, we can and need to do better. What the film “stands for” may legitimately fall under “progress,” but the method in which it was made and who the film stands to tangibly benefit most does not. Despite its virtues, Zootopia largely fails to practice what it preaches.

Overall, Zootopia is certainly something worth enjoying and celebrating, but my key point is its message on race deserves an asterisk at the end (*this is racial inequality told from a disproportionately White POV). Life is, indeed, messy.

One last point that got to me at the end of the film: I’m guessing Zootopia is a play-off of Utopia, which is so often misused to describe a “paradise.” The literal Greek translation of “Utopia” actually means “no place,” as in one that cannot or does not exist. For that reason, it’s strange for me to see Disney label their film with a play on the term, given that the crux is characterized by a resolution of racial inequality and reparations. At the very least, it’s interesting to chew on, considering the “place” we are at.


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