‘ZOOTOPIA’ - Stereotypes in Film
Written by Amanda Tan - 04. Mar. 19.
Stereotypes are vastly held, oversimplified assumptions or ideas of specific classes of people or societies. The sociocultural climate that we are buried in and the experiences that human beings inevitably go through make room for the ideal circumstance for our minds to form stereotypes, even with minimal mental stimulation on our part (Palomba 19). As we grow accustomed to classifying and assigning generalized qualities to these categories we create, we become prone to accepting what we think is true, instead of questioning what has been involuntarily rooted in our minds. This very statement is reason for how crucial it is to ensure the careful representation of various groups of society in the respective mediums of media, and to be in constant awareness of the underlying messages being conveyed through the endless dissemination of content (Hall 4). Films have the potential to reach out to millions of people on a global scale, thus heightening the responsibility of studios and filmmakers to educate instead of perpetuate stereotypes through their narratives. Those who are especially susceptible to subconsciously absorbing information and formulating perceptions of the world are young children, who are easily amused by vibrant, animated characters and beautifully constructed, colorful worlds, yet unaware of the representations of characters and the intrinsic themes of what they are absorbing that could be ingrained into their minds at an early age, which contributes to the creation of stereotypes (Bordalo et al. 1). Consequently, animated films targeted at children arguably require more thought into the messages the filmmakers want to ultimately convey. With reference to the animated film Zootopia (2016), this essay aims to dissect the use of stereotypes in the film, evaluate the potential effects perpetuating stereotypes has on society and individuals, the importance of reinforcing and reminding ourselves of these consequences, and lastly how the film successfully serves as an educational piece for children and at the same time, a profound portrait of society as it subtly and cleverly mirrors the problematic issues of reality today.
Zootopia uses metaphors and anthropomorphic animals to explore gender and racial stereotypes as well as the consequences of these perpetuations. The most prominent plot line in the film follows protagonist Judy Hopps, an ambitious and capable rabbit who strives to be the first of her species to become a police officer. She is faced by her conservative parents who discourage her from chasing her dreams and convinces her to pursue a career more suitable for a mammal of her stature. This mirrors the age old gender stereotype that women are not meant for physically and intellectually demanding jobs, and should instead pursue something more ‘feminine’ because of their more petite build and their more nurturing, unthreatening nature as compared to men. Hopps was admitted to the police academy through the mayor’s Mammal Inclusion Initiative in her town, a reflection of the Affirmative Action policies in the United States or Black Economic Empowerment policies in South Africa, implemented with the intention of correcting the effects of discrimination (Beaudine et al. 229). As the only rabbit in the police academy, her superiors are superbly harsh on her as those around her belittle her for being small. Relentlessly defying boundaries, Hopps struggled through not only the arduous training process, but also the snark faces of those dismissive of her, and eventually graduated top of her class, yet even then, after working tirelessly her entire life, is relegated to being assigned meagre tasks from Chief Bogo, her bitter boss who unabashedly discriminates against her because he deems that she will never be enough to be an officer. Institutional racism can be observed in police practices, inadequate housing, education programmes, and unequal job opportunities all over America (Ritlyová 55). Hopps’s experience illustrates the equivalent of marginalized African- American school children being looked down upon by society as well as individuals who have grown up with the privilege of status and circumstance to have risen to where they are, which leads to an unspoken truth and the ever persistent problem within nations - the myth of meritocracy within schools. There is a penetrating belief that education equalizes the playing field, prevents the progress of particular classes of people based on status or privilege, and that it purely recognizes ability and hard work (Gray). Zootopia makes use of the perpetuation of stereotypes to reveal that the myth is indeed just a myth, as Hopps had every skill and qualification required and yet, being a rabbit and a woman prevented her the equal chance of becoming an officer. Through the portrayal of the gender and racial stereotypes, the film exposes the dire consequences of the aftermath that consequently unfold - on a larger scale, how it interferes with the system of a fair meritocracy, and on an individual level, how it could potentially crush someone's dream, ruin somebody's career. The notion that individuals who are not of a certain social standing must work doubly hard and have to be exceptional in order to be given the same opportunities as someone who have an added advantage of status is incredibly problematic. Only by consciously pulling away from the tropes of stereotypical perceptions can there be a truly equal playing field for healthy competition, the reduction of unwarranted pressure on marginalized students and a more practical portrait of excelling in academic institutions (Anderson).
The discrimination of African-Americans has always been an integral hurdle of American society, with its roots tracing back to the period of slavery when millions of people were brought over from Africa to work on large-scale plantations of tobacco, cotton and sugar (Ritlyová 54). The characteristics of racism has since evolved tremendously, yet the upending struggle for equality pervades America to this day. The town of Zootopia is being occupied by ‘civilized’ prey and predators, who have been said to be acclimatized into living together in harmony. In spite of the rhetoric of peace, the film is plastered with moments that reveal the inveterate fear that still exists between (perceived) prey and predator. In the film, there is a distinct parallel between the anarchy as the predators turn ‘savage’ (losing their senses and attacking other animals) and the race-related issues in the United States (Beaudine et al. 228). The predators constitute approximately 10% of the population in Zootopia while the prey makes up a whopping 90% (as mentioned in the film) - this uncoincidentally corresponds to the demographic statistics of the 12.6% African Americans who make up America (National Census 2010). The also film illustrates the irrational fear that is instigated by the majority population who occupies Zootopia, caused by the sudden epidemic that takes place as a handful of predators turn ‘savage’. The assumption that turning ‘savage’ is a biological malfunction of predators causes those around them to become wary of their presence. This stereotype is stemmed from the underlying fear between prey and predators, the lack of interaction between them due to the already ingrained perception based solely on their physical attributes predators were born with, the lack of adequate knowledge and information about the matter, and the perceived assumption that predators were capable of attacking at anytime. This notion of an unchallenged portrait of a young African-American as a ‘violent and menacing bandit’ problematically permeates the United States (Welch 277). For comparison, a 21 year old white man who brutally killed nine people in a Charleston black church was taken into custody alive (Ellis et al.), and a 32 year old black man lost his life after being stopped for a cracked taillight with the police using ‘self defense’ as an excuse (McLaughlin). Power habitually passes itself off as embodied in the normal as opposed to the superior (Dyer 45). The prey of Zootopia are representative of those who discriminate against African-Americans without a logical cause, and the result of the deeply rooted stereotypes that have taken over their minds, thus steering themselves away from actually getting to know someone before passing judgement. The film allows us to empathize through a character who experiences this discrimination since he was a child - Nick Wilde, a fox who has received unfair treatment all his life because of what others perceive of his ‘conniving’ species. Because of others imposing their perception of all foxes being sly onto Nick, and him being spoken to like everything he said or did carried an ulterior motive, he eventually started to believe those vile words and allegations, and began to internalize that the stereotypes about his species were true. Nick’s behavior and choice to become a con artist was built on his upbringing of perpetual discrimination and bombarding of what he was supposed to be. The film here makes use of a relatable character in order to shed light on the deep-seated and malignant effects imposing stereotypes onto someone could bring about (Ford 267) - a lifetime of self doubt and the inability to psychologically escape the boundaries that someone else has unjustifiably laid out.
A positive stereotype, a belief that attributes an approving characteristic to a group, (Women have more patience, Asians are good at math, African-Americans are good at sports etc) can seem superficially harmless, but is also capable of inaccurately validating someone based on their gender, race or ethnicity, instead of as individuals, creating a misconstrued impression (Lombrozo). In the film, we later find out that the predators are turning ‘savage’ because of a deceptively harmless pair of sheep masterminds (prey) and their plan to drug and exterminate the predators of Zootopia. The film makes use of the stereotypical way sheep are viewed - tame, gentle and non-aggressive, to deceive us as well as the characters in the film so we would not stop to suspect that the seemingly good hearted sheep would devise such an unscrupulous plan to abolish an entire species. This substantiates the fact that stereotypes, be it laden with positive or negative connotations can be damaging as they are false assumptions that could potentially also lead to unwanted consequences. The revelation of the real reason the predators turned ‘savage’ - being unknowingly fed drugs that contained a neurotoxin that causes psychotropic effects on the predators causing them to go berserk, and the realization that the two most superficially innocent creatures were the ones responsible for the incredibly destabilizing effect on the Zootopian society, was intended to be a shock for both the characters in the film as well as the viewers watching. To stereotype is to lose sight of the individual (Lester 2). The filmmakers meant for us to realize that some stereotypes have been so deeply entrenched into us that we are blinded by our own unreliable prejudiced, perceptions - that unless and until we are presented with the absolute truth and logic of the matter to dispel what we claim to know, we fail to question our own assumed knowledge and preconceived notions, which could dangerously lead to catastrophic outcomes (Lester 2). Perceptions about a group of people are likely to be picked up as part of a cognitive package that includes political, religious and cultural issues, which results in stereotypes being easier for human beings to learn and more difficult to disavow, just because they have many connections to a larger web in our minds (Schneider 364). Thus, there is a need for human beings to constantly question ourselves about our biases, especially when it comes to dealing with people or issues we are unfamiliar with, but assume to know something about.
Zootopia is a one of a kind film that posits itself as an engaging, lighthearted animated film for children, yet when carefully scrutinized, reveals the inexorable nature of human beings and the darkness of the society we live in. By effectively intertwining gender and racial stereotypes into characters, emulating relatable, familiar instances of implicit discrimination that we notice all the time in the news or in our lives, making use of animal traits and our preconceived notion of them to tell us about ourselves, as well as reinforcing to us the detrimental effect that perpetuating stereotypes could have on society and on ourselves, Zootopia ultimately conveys to us that it is only through getting to know someone can we attempt to break the chains of stereotypes. By the end of the film, Hopps and Wilde changed their initial impression of one another as they become close friends and working partners. Hopps changes her perspective of foxes and Wilde eventually recognizes that he should not be bound by the expectations and judgements of others. The most vital, and significant message of the film is that change is possible and that even deep-seated beliefs can dissipate - progress is possible but only if we as a society allow it.
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