More Than Talking Animals: Zootopia’s Commentary on Policing, Racial Prejudice, and the War on Drugs

Written by Matt Wisner

Disney has transformed from a machine that continually produced films that employed blatantly racist stereotypes and generalizations to one that has begun to present refreshing commentary on contemporary issues. Within the first few minutes of Zootopia, it is apparent that a discussion of policing, racial prejudice, and the War on Drugs exists.

The protagonist is Judy Hopps, an ambitious rabbit who lives in a rural town with her family and dreams of becoming a police officer in the city of Zootopia. However, there is one problem: a rabbit has never been a member of the police force. Zootopia prides itself in being a city in which all animals can live in harmony regardless of their differences, but there is undoubtedly discrimination.

The main discriminatory assumption that is prevalent among many of the animals is that predators in the city are inherently violent and untrustworthy. Before moving to Zootopia, Judy’s parents warn her about the predators as they hand her fox repellent just to be safe — they know that it’s wrong to make the sweeping generalization that all predators can be bad, but they do it anyway. Growing up in a small and isolated town, Judy never had to worry about predators. Her first encounter with one was with Nick Wilde — a fox — in an ice-cream shop, and she automatically assumed he was up to no good, visibly expressing her prejudice through body language.

The core of the film is about Judy’s investigation of the disappearance of predators across the city. Initially viewed as confounding in the overall investigation, Judy also runs into some cases of predators “going savage” — reverting to their primitive ways and attacking other citizens of Zootopia. Previously trivialized as a member of the Zootopia Police Department (ZPD) for being a rabbit, Judy starts to become legitimized as an officer for her spearhead of the investigation. However, with her important contributions comes screen time and the opportunity to be vocal about her investigation. Responding to a reporter and attempting to explain the concept of “going savage,” Judy says, “it may have something to do with biology — a biological component, you know, something in their DNA.” She continues, saying, “What I mean is: thousands of years ago, um, predators survived through their aggressive hunting instincts. For whatever reason, they seem to be reverting back to their primitive, savage ways.”

This press conference is the first direct parallel to a contemporary conversation — Disney associated Judy’s press conference to many of those that followed high-profile shootings of Black people by the police in recent years. In her press conference, Judy intentionally attempts to maintain a neutral position on the case, also assuring that she doesn’t reveal any crucial insights that she and the ZPD were making, but the media spins her address regardless — the reporters focus on some problematic soundbites, adding video footage of rabid and muzzled predators to add to Judy’s commentary, amplifying her controversial take on the status of predators. An internal conflict for Judy is presented because she knows that it’s morally wrong to assume that all predators are biologically destined to be violent and dangerous, but assuming her role as a police officer, she feels that it’s the easiest narrative for her to present to the public during her press conference, which is another issue that is prevalent today.

Amid the race for the Democratic nomination for the 2016 election cycle, it’s also likely that Disney may have been commenting on Hillary Clinton’s idea of the “super predator” that she took in the 1990s — “they aren’t just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘super-predators.’ No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.” The parallel between Clinton’s idea of the super predator and the Zootopian media panic about the danger of predators is a striking one, even if it wasn’t intentional.

Further into the investigation, Judy discovers that there is a drug that is responsible for reverting the predators to their primitive state as savage creatures. The attacks of predators on prey plays into the narrative that all predators are inherently violent. Side-note: all of the predators who go savage are voiced by Black and Hispanic actors and actresses, which also plays into the parallel to contemporary race relations that is being drawn. As a consequence of this drug epidemic, change is instated within the city; predators start to be denied jobs and demoted from positions, being treated like the scum of society. In the end of the film, Judy discovers that the drugs that are causing all of this mayhem and ostracism were being pumped into the predator community by the assistant mayor of Zootopia because she wanted to manipulate the prey community into confirming their notions based on the preexisting stereotypes of the predators — with that logic, she could rise to power through manipulating the majority of the animal population. This part of the plot could potentially be a commentary of the theory of an introduction of cocaine to minority communities by the CIA in the early 1980s, but it is also definitely indicative of the relevance of the discussion of the War on Drugs that we’ve been hearing so much about in the past decade.

When watching Zootopia, it would be incredibly difficult to ignore all of the commentary of race relations, the War on Drugs, implicit bias, and policing. I think it would be near impossible to watch with a naïve lens and view the film simply as a cute children’s movie. I really liked Zootopia — definitely enough to watch it multiple times and rave about it to my friends when it first came out. In all, I think Disney did a wonderful job, and I’ve really enjoyed their progression as a film production group from making cute films teaching more trivial lessons to children to addressing some heavy contemporary issues like Zootopia does.

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