Zootopia, Black Lives Matter, and Class Struggle
Matthew William Brake
2016 is an important anniversary date. It marks 500 years since the 1516 release of Thomas More’s Utopia (or as its known by its full title, On the Best State of a Commonwealth and on the New Island of Utopia: A Truly Golden Handbook, No Less Beneficial than Entertaining, by the Most Distinguished and Eloquent Author Thomas More, Citizen and Undersheriff of the Famous City of London…but we’ll stick with Utopia).
More’s book introduced the word “utopia” to the English language for the first time. “Utopia” is a play on words from Greek meaning “no place.” The book centers around a conversation between More, Peter Giles, and the fictional Raphael Hythloday. Hythloday recounts his visit to the fictional island of Utopia and uses his encounters there to critique the corruption of English society.
I don’t know whether it was intentional or not, but 2016 also marked the release of the Walt Disney Movie Zootopia (coincidentally, it also marks a missed opportunity for an And Philosophy volume that practically writes itself). In the movie, animals have evolved so that predator animals no longer seek out prey animals, and they all live in peace. Judy Hopps, a bunny from the rural countryside, dreams of becoming the first bunny cop, so she passes her police academy training against all odds and moves to the gleaming metropolis of Zootopia where all animals are represented equally.
Except they aren’t.
Despite proclaiming itself to be a utopia (or “zootopia”) on earth, Zootopia suffers from an undercurrent of racism in its society. For instance, Judy faces discrimination in her job because rabbits are considered too weak to really be effective officers. Mayor Lionheart (a…well, lion) pushes around his assistant mayor, Dawn Bellwether, who is a sheep (i.e., prey).
The most glaring example of racism in Zootopia comes from Judy’s interaction with Nick Wilde, a fox and a con artist whom Judy eventually befriends. Judy and society as a whole are biased against foxes, with her rural parents telling her to be wary of them.
Zootopia really hits the issues of racism and identity politics right on the nose. At one point in the movie, predators begin to turn on prey animals, and at a press conference, Judy makes the mistake of attributing this behavior to something “genetic,” an obvious callback to certain colonial and eugenic discourses. In a deleted scene, Judy brings Nick back to her apartment to keep him safe, but her family pays her a surprise visit and are shocked that she brought a black man home…I mean a fox (Snetiker). This speaks to the fear of many white parents, that their daughter will bring one of “them” home, a racial other whose sexuality is viewed as being somehow inherently predatory.
See? Right on the nose.
Even in Judy and Nick’s friendship, one can see the message, “Look! A cop and a black person can be friends if we just stop being racist. Black Lives! Blue Lives! It would all be wonderful!”
In fact, the movie’s message seems to be that our social problems will be solved when we just stop being racist.
And I think there’s a problem with that.
In More’s book, he focuses society’s injustices upon the issues of private property and the greed of the upper classes. Only by addressing economic inequality can one truly achieve the justice of Utopian society. This is in stark contrast to Zootopia, whose premise seems to be that if we get rid of racism, we can have our neoliberal global capitalist cake and eat it, too!
Children’s minds are shaped to question racial prejudice at the expense of class struggle. The economic system we have can carry on unquestioned because we are told that identity politics is what really woes society.
In the wake of reactions to Trump’s election, I’ve been disturbed by those who seem like they want to hand wave away the problem of class struggle in the election and reduce the impact of Trump’s election to the problem of racial injustice (and to a lesser extent, misogyny and LGBTQ marginalization). I’ve heard numerous pundits and speakers casually dismiss the problem of the white, poor economic struggles in this country, sometimes going as far to say that “simply not having a job” isn’t on par with the fight for racial equality (reductionism much?).
That being said, race IS an issue in our society and our world, and More has racial blind spots, including his not-so-veiled justification of the colonialist project and an attempt to sanitize the representations of the conditions of colonized peoples (More, 54; see also Brittany Henry).
What I would like to see are more intersectional analyses that take into account race AND class AND gender and so on.
And I’m not just a privileged white guy saying this. Multiple scholars of color have made similar arguments including Michelle Alexander, Cornel West, and Chandra Mohanty (references below).
As we engage the issues of our day in what looks to be an increasingly tumultuous national political climate, let’s make sure that we don’t overlook the blindspots in our cultural analyses.
Like the blindspots in Zootopia.
Like the blindspots in Utopia.
Thomas More. Utopia. Edited by George M. Logan and Robert M. Adams. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2015.
Marc Snetiker, “Zootopia deleted scene: Nick and Judy’s romantic mix-up — exclusive.” Entertainment Weekly. http://www.ew.com/article/2016/06/03/zootopia-deleted-scene. Accessed December 09, 2016.
Brittany Henry, “Critical Dystopia, Coloniality and the Violent Foundations of Modernity: Re-Reading Thomas More’s ‘Utopia,’” presented at Southern Atlantic Modern Language Association Conference 88: Utopia/Dystopia: Whose Paradise Is It? November 5, 2016.
Michelle Alexander. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press. 2012.
Robert Hennelly, “Cornel West: Trump Will Be a Neofascist Catastrophe and Clinton a Neoliberal Disaster.” AlterNet. http://www.alternet.org/election-2016/cornel-west-trump-will-be-neofascist-catastrophe-and-clinton-neoliberal-disaster. (accessed August 17, 2016).
Chandra Talpade Mohanty. Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 2003.
Matthew William Brake is a dual masters student in Interdisciplinary Studies and Philosophy at George Mason University. He also has a Master of Divinity from Regent University and is a teaching pastor at Hill City Church in Arlington, VA. He has published numerous articles in the series Kierkegaard Research: Sources, Reception, Resources. He is a contributor for Noetic (www.noetic-series.com). You can follow him on Twitter @mattybrake.