Zootopia and Social Commentary— Islamophobia and Other Modern Parallels

March 27 2016

I saw Zootopia today, going in without any idea of what to expect except that it’s got really high ratings. It’s been a while since I saw a movie, so why not, I thought. One minute into the movie and immediately I had an idea of what was going to unfold in the next two hours. Not gonna lie, I was terrified for the movie. Are they seriously going to draw a parallel between different animal species and different races in a society? No way, how the hell are they going to make this work? In a Disney movie? I was already feeling unsettled but reminded myself that this is a Disney movie and everything’s going to be okay, probably. While I did experience some disconcerting moments when I personally made the connection between race and animal species —for example, when Judy’s parents and their insistence on avoiding risk-taking  sounded eerily like my own immigrant Chinese parents —overall the movie creators did a fine job avoiding any uncomfortably “real” racial analogies. In fact, I discovered that Zootopia tastefully addresses prejudices and fallacies that people naturally fall for, it shows the psychological and sociological effects of labeling, and has massive parallel examples we see in modern society. In order to illustrate I will discuss a personal example of me doing stand-up comedy despite the lack of representation of my particular demographic in the field, as well as specific instances in the film that illustrate the macro-scale effects of public perception and labeling, and how this applies to the current worldwide issue of Islamophobia.


To start, let us observe the somewhat obvious and uncomfortable analogy between animal species and race in the movie and how this involves the main character, Judy. Not only is speciesism a problem for the poor bunny, but sexism is a strong force of oppression as well, especially illustrated in the scene when Judy first starts working with cops who all happen to be huge, strong, masculine and predatory animals who laugh at her for pursuing her dream. She has the burden of going against a social structure in which there are no role models of her kind in the career she desires. Statistically the odds are against her, and even her own very loving parents advise against becoming a police officer. A memorable quote from Judy’s father is, “it’s okay to have dreams… Just as long as you don’t believe in them too much.” Carrot farming, now that’s a safe and dependable job. I couldn’t help but to be forcibly reminded of my own parents, who want the all the happiness in the world for me but have always advised against doing anything too risky, i.e. pursuing visual arts, acting, writing, music or anything creative as a full-time career. I 100% understand where they are coming from— a different culture, 1960s China, the social context in which they passed their entire adult lives adjusting to. My parents, like most immigrant or conservative parents, wanted me to become a doctor, lawyer or engineer. Now, I understand the appeal of such careers. I myself am currently pursuing an optometry degree. However stand-up comedy is a big passion of mine and I couldn’t help but to think about my experiences of self-doubt when first starting out in the field without any Asian female role models (who I knew of at the time). It was daunting because I had limitless freedom to create how I wanted to be perceived— I was setting the stage in a way for Asian female comedians in my mind. At times I did feel discouraged because I attributed lack of representation to inherent inabilities. All I can say is I’m glad I didn’t let those irrational fears take over, because I’m still performing a year and a half later and the process of finding my on-stage persona has been full of excitement and self-fulfillment.


Jumping from the personal to the larger-scale themes: it is not news that Asians in North America are perceived as rather passive, albeit hardworking, but passive and not to mention totally underrepresented in the media. Even when we are represented, Asians tend to be depicted as meek, feminine, passive, lacking masculinity, and secondary as opposed to primary characters. This is a perfect example of a cultural misunderstanding. China in the 1950s onwards became communist, which needless to say affected individuals in Chinese societies such that one focuses on just getting by without getting noticed/murdered. The loudest duck gets shot first, is a saying that cannot be better exemplified than growing up in mid 1900s communist China. Today, China is much more in touch with the technologically reborn world, however the concept of keeping your head down is still significantly more deep-seated than in North America. Here in North America, individualism is key— whereas the loudest duck is shot first in China, the loudest duck is elected president in the United States. (Hopefully not, but the stats on Trump support is frightening. Anyway, that’s a different issue to be afraid of and more on him later.) The point is, Chinese people are culturally misunderstood in America. We are perceived to be a passive hardworking race when that is mostly a by-product of socio-political and historical factors in China. The under-representation of Asians in Western mass media can be analogous to any other power dynamic against minority groups based on settings: women in powerful positions, LGBT, other ethnic minorities, religious groups, the disabled, etc. and not only in the media, but also in different positions in society. Zootopia addresses socio-economic limitations of subordinate groups through the example of Judy’s arduous journey in becoming a cop. As I will discuss later, subordination or dominance is not so objective, but it is rather the force of mass prejudice that is ever-present and this exact message is demonstrated in Zootpia.


Other than Judy there are other examples of the profound effects of labeling on the individual as well as on society at large. First let us examine Nick’s story. Nick is a fox who makes money illegally (though innocently enough for a G-rated movie) by tricking people into buying him elephant-sized popsicles and later exploiting the crap out of said popsicles.  As a child Nick was pure and untainted by the pervasive dominant prejudices held by society, until he got force-muzzled and bullied by a group of friends for being a fox when all he wanted was to become a boy scout.  Ever since, Nick makes a living tricking people and cunningly making economical decisions to maximize his profits per popsicle. Had he not been born a fox, and perhaps a sheep instead, it is unlikely Nick would have faced the same fate. He internalized the label of being cunning and untrustworthy, despite early childhood desires to become a respected and accepted boy scout. Just like how Nick is influenced by how others perceived him in early childhood, so too are each and every one of us in real life, in varying degrees depending on the degree and nature of feelings of “other-ness”. Going back to my personal example, since until recently I had not heard of any female Asians who do stand-up comedy, I often felt discouraged when I started out because I did not have any role models in the field like myself. It sounds a bit trivial, things like race and gender, in a society that has made much progress. However, I was fortunate in my experiences to never have encountered any overt discrimination like Judy at her job or Nick from the bullies. Even then, I found myself placing mental limits on myself because I did not feel totally confident with who I was in the setting I found myself. There is a distinct lack of representation of Asians in the media, along with other visible minorities, especially in primary acting roles. The effect of this is minorities like myself feel much more discouraged to enter the field, and this is another example of individuals being negatively affected by structural forces. The movie does a good job of highlighting its effects on the individual.

Zootopia goes on further to illustrate how influential the mass media is, and how easily it affects society’s mentality and causes destruction and chaos. The prime example is when Judy released the information on the missing animals and how the ones who went “savage” were all predators, and this is perhaps due to their genes. Although she doesn’t fully understand the situation, this shows how careful one has to be when wording social research findings. By suggesting the fact that being a predator is correlated with going savage due to biological underpinnings, this was immediately blown out of proportion by the media. Reporters suggested quarantining predators so they don’t harm the rest of the public, predators such as the harmless Clawhauser lost their jobs, and the public at large treated predators with caution as if they may become savage at any second. This plot twist that puts the predators of society on the unfavorable end of prejudice was a tasteful choice by the movie directors, and here’s why: form the beginning of the movie we are primed to believe that poor Judy the small bunny was facing an uphill, one-sided battle against sexism, speciesism and stereotypes. By flipping the tables and putting predators in the discrimination victim category, the message being portrayed is that prejudice can harm any group, and anybody (even traditional victims) is capable of having prejudices no matter how well intentioned. A powerful moment is when Nick appears genuinely disappointed at Judy after her speech about the biological basis of predators being savages, because she admittedly feared Nick despite their trust-building experiences together and friendship. Just like how Judy could feel helpless against the structural forces against her becoming a cop, Nick can understandably feel helpless against the insurmountable structural barrier, the label that forever paint him as a deceitful, untrustworthy predator.

In many ways the construction of predators as savages is analogous to contemporary Western society’s construction of Muslims as terrorists. Just as how assistant mayor Bellwether (the sheep with mascara) uses fear as a tool to incite mass hysteria and feelings of distrust towards predators, we have figures today like Trump who scapegoat all Muslims for all the terror in the world. Of course this anti-Islamic view has been around for longer than Trump has been running for president, but he sure focuses a lot on the “problem” of Muslims and suggests to the public that we all ought to be cautious of the entire religious group. There are many forms of subtle anti-Islamic sentiments in the West today. Even seemingly insignificant nuances like referring to terrorists as the “Islamic State” or “Islam” makes dangerous assumptions that equate one small group with billions of people who happen to share a religion. The media at large plays up this untrue stereotype, even recently stretching the anti-Islamicism to new heights by portraying refugees in Europe as rapists. The unsettling part of this pervasive anti-Muslim sentiment is that most people in Western societies have been conditioned in such environments to internalize these sentiments to the point where such prejudices are normalized and go unquestioned. We see a girl wearing a Hijab and assume she is being oppressed, not even considering that it could be a form of empowerment and affirmation of her culture. Just as how all predators in Zootopia faced mass discrimination following one trivial incident that has nothing to do with their genetic tendencies, (although this comparison is questionable, since we know in reality that different species DO have significant genetic differences that are not comparable with the much smaller genetic differences between human “races”) we see in modern society that Muslims are bearing the burden of having to be portrayed as inherently dangerous, all because of one small group that happens to share the same religion. Countless crimes of terror (see: the last 500 years of colonialism and slavery) have been committed in the name of Christianity and other religions, yet Christianity is the religion of the dominant groups in society so the media would never think of pinning it down as the root of acts of evil such as terrorism or war. Just as how in Zootopia predators are condemned categorically due to their predetermined species, in real life we are currently seeing Muslims being categorically discriminated against because of their religion, which is painted as fundamentally questionable in the Western narrative. Muslims aren’t the only ones facing discrimination due to pervasive themes taught by the media, but this is a strong example of a current issue that is only growing in severity. For other examples, recall my personal example of the Western portrayal of Asian people. The point is, discrimination is everywhere even from the best-intentioned of people. Zootopia does a good job of teaching this lesson to people of all ages watching the movie by showing that anyone can be affected by unfair prejudices. Although the analogy of species to race is a bit uncomfortable, it’s a kid-friendly rough approximation that is good enough to explain more complex societal concepts such as appealing to fear, the power of the media, labeling and the effects of labeling on the development of an individual from childhood onwards. This movie was adorable and had incredibly funny moments, but I was pleasantly surprised at the lessons it can teach children (and some adults) about the ubiquitous presence of prejudice and how one can actively become aware of these prejudices to lessen their destructive consequences.