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The Sociology of Zootopia

The Disney Corporation represents a major sociological force, shaping perception and discussions of nearly every issue through their films, games, and television shows. To be an American child is impossible without a recognition of the role of Disney and the work of its creators. As such, Disney plays an important role in creating—or, more often, reinforcing—social structures. When children consume media that uphold institutions such as patriarchy, racism, and heteronormativity, that media becomes a reference point from which those children think about other issues moving forward. As a product of Disney—and an admitted former Zootopia enthusiast—it is a personal disappointment that Disney did not facilitate an appropriate analysis of race and policing through their movie Zootopia. Several structures, such as pervasive whiteness, the profit motive, and a concerning allegiance to the state make such analysis impossible in the hands of creators under the control of Disney.

Institutions that uphold social arrangements take on a life of their own, often through other dominant structures, while simultaneously enforcing the status quo. The most obvious of these institutions is policing. Police forces were born out of a desire for social control. Their responsibility is to uphold the law, which is an inherent reflection of its respective historical location and place. Policing works to encourage conformity and uphold the status quo, which places police at an intrinsic distance to groups that do not represent the deified white nuclear family. The ultimate goal of policing is the exclusion and destruction of individuals and communities at odds with the powers of the status quo. 

Zootopia is a 2016 Disney film that follows the life of Judy Hopps, a bunny cop in the titular city of “Zootopia,” where all animals are (supposedly) treated as equals. Judy has aspired to be a police officer since she was young, but was told that it would be impossible since she was just a “cute bunny.” Suffering years of adversity, Judy finally becomes a part of the force and is even assigned to the 1st precinct of the city, something she achieved by graduating 1st in her class. Unfortunately, on her first day, Judy learns that she will not be doing any meaningful work, instead being assigned to parking duties. However, a hot pursuit leaves Judy with a lead on the biggest case in the city: the case of fourteen missing animals, all predators. Judy employs Nick—a criminal fox—as her aide through blackmail, since he knows the ins and outs of the crime business. Together, they discover that these animals are going “savage” and regressing to their pre-evolved ways. Judy arrests the Mayor, who has been harboring these missing animals, and holds a press conference about the case. In this conference, Judy says that while they do not know the cause of these animals regressing, the pattern of all predators suggests it may be related to their DNA, meaning predator animals are inherently predatory. This causes animosity to grow between predators and prey in Zootopia. Judy moves back home because she feels she has hurt the city. Eventually, Judy returns and finds that someone is drugging these animals and making them go feral. She learns that the Assistant Mayor actively created racial tensions to kick out the predator Mayor and maintain control. Judy arrests the Assistant Mayor, the animals that went feral are treated, her friend Nick becomes a cop, and they all live happily ever after. 

The clear message of this film is that while the system sometimes has hiccups, it ultimately works! Judy Hopps gains the audience’s sympathy through the adversity she faces, giving a friendly and relatable face to the violent institution of policing. And, of course, her working class friend becomes a criminal turned cop. Inspiring. Unfortunately, as I suggested above, this message isn’t as inspiring as it is disappointing. 

First, Zootopia misses the mark on race and its relationship to policing. Race has an intrinsic link to policing as minority groups and their communities represent opposition to the dominance of the white working family. Additionally, police are products of a racist society, which means that they hold both conscious and unconscious biases, often resulting in discriminatory police brutality. This is all written out of Zootopia, a film which was intended to introduce race and racism to children. Neither Judy nor her coworkers commit acts of police brutality, and while they sometimes miss the mark (blackmailing a criminal, discriminating against bunny cops, suggesting that there is an inherent difference between predator and prey!), they ultimately act in good faith. The exclusion of police brutality from this film is an active erasure of the grievances minority communities have in criticising policing. To the film’s credit, the targeted drugging of predators is arguably an ode to the War on Drugs, but even this analogy misses the mark. The police played a critical role in the War on Drugs, but in Zootopia, the police are not active participants in drugging these predators. This erasure of violence results from a culture of “Blue Lives Matter,” and the idea that police brutality just comes from “a few bad apples,” and is not a result of systemic issues with policing. Using this logic, it is sensible to exclude police brutality from a film about cops and race because these acts are simply rare mutations or anomalies. This view is informed through the film by an all white panel of directors and writers, and Disney’s profit motive, which is at odds with properly covering contentious issues, even if they are honest reflections of our system. A major source of media “missing the mark” is not just the absence of good analysis, but actively harmful, because it reinforces race neutral understandings of policing that favor an individual analysis over a structural one. All of this results in a generation of people who believe that the solution to police violence is to reform the individual but not make broader structural changes, thus perpetuating the cycle of police brutality.

Zootopia also reinforces violence through the theme of policing by supporting the concept that “you have to break a few rules to get the job done.” A substantial portion of American cops believe that the rules they are asked to follow (the law) are incompatible with doing their job well. This is ironic, because police are supposed to enforce the law and restrain other peoples’ rights and freedoms, yet they consistently exclude themselves from this paradigm. In Zootopia, officer Judy Hopps breaks several laws—or at the very least, selectively looks away from certain crimes. First, Judy tricks Nick into jumping a fence so that she can enter a crime scene without a warrant, arguing that she’ll just profile him in court (calling him a “shifty fox”) if she’s ever held accountable. Next, she works with a crime boss who makes clear reference to his previous murders. Finally, she enters an abandoned hospital without a warrant and, this time, without probable cause. What all of this shows is that even whatever residual reforms marginalized communities get passed to protect their civil rights are often ignored by officers in the line of duty. By making their protagonist break rules, not get in trouble, and achieve her goal, Zootopia teaches its audience that breaking the rules is a necessary evil of the job. This produces an audience who is overly sympathetic to cops, letting them get away with encroachment of personal freedoms while holding the line against civilians who do not follow the law. 

Additionally, Zootopia sidesteps conversations about police injustices by placing their protagonist in a marginalized social location. As a female bunny, Judy gains the audience’s sympathy since she is constantly marginalized. Her coworkers are mostly male, and she is overtly discriminated against because she is a bunny, despite her success in the police academy. As such, an audience cannot reasonably conclude that she is an oppressor because we see the oppression that she herself faces. While Judy does contribute to oppression by suggesting that predators may be inherently savage, she does not intend to create racial animosities in Zootopia, and subsequently relegates herself to her home, in an act of self-punishment. The movie is clear that the problem with the police in Zootopia is their lack of diversity, and thus the primary goal of their community should be a more diverse police force. This is analogous to the criticisms of the race and gender diversity among fortune 500 CEOs, more appropriately entitled “more minority oppressors.” Fortune 500 CEOs make their profits by exploiting the labor of their workers, and lobbying the government to control their employees' lives. As such, the lack of diversity in CEOs may be a direct result of negative social structures but, more importantly, the existence of CEOs themselves is problematic in terms of upholding those harmful structures, regardless of the diversity of this group. It is self evident that this is a message that Disney, a fortune 500 company, would not want to communicate to their audience. Instead, by making a criticism of diversity in the police force of Zootopia, instead of a structural criticism of policing, Disney can make the case for piecemeal reforms over time that are designed to be palatable, while simultaneously doing nothing truly progressive.

Finally, Zootopia perpetuates a myth of policing detached from politics. Police officers are widely considered apolitical actors in the United States, their political uniformity often going under-analyzed. However, cops are inherently political actors since they uphold laws which are a direct result of politics. The oath cops take when they assume their roles is to enforce the law regardless of their individual moral compasses. This means that we blame the system (an intangible concept) when they participate in legal oppression (like arresting people for having gay sex prior to Lawrence v. Texas in 2003), and give police the benefit of the doubt when they ignore the law to perpetuate their own biases, because, after all, they’re only human. This presents itself in Zootopia,as Judy Hopps is not designated an express political alignment. Furthermore, Judy happily works under a Mayor whose disregard for prey and the working class is clear in the way that he treats the Assistant Mayor. These actions of the Mayor likely reflect problematic political priorities and policies. Judy returns to police work under a Mayor who expressly plots to maintain a monopoly on politics by scapegoating predators. While Judy does eventually take this Mayor down, it is not because of her problematic politics, it is because the Mayor has been shooting animals with drugs. These two events—illegal acts and problematic politics—just happen to coincide in this instance. Additionally, she takes orders from a captain serving this Mayor, which is concerning even in isolation. However, none of these themes are properly analyzed, and as a result, we, the audience, assume the existence of a politically neutral cop, which is antithetical to the inherent nature of policing. Disney reproduces uncritically the logics that detract from culpability because Judy is presented not as a class traitor, but as simply “doing her job” when she hands out several hundred more parking tickets than is required, but is a hero when she steps outside her authority to illegally obtain evidence. It's a positive double bind: cops can’t lose (and they shouldn’t, according to Disney).

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