On the recommendation of my kids and some of my online friends, I finally watched the kids’ movie Zootopia from earlier this year. It’s a really remarkably well-made animated film, where the “acting” of the animated characters is a lot more expressive than a lot of real-life actors’, and the comic pacing and visual style are both excellent.
My friends’ discussion was about whether the film represents a standard denouncing of racism and the salience to behavior of human biological differences (as the overt message of the film would imply), or a tacit acknowledgement of the importance of those differences. On the one hand, the film nods along with 2016 racial mores in ways both subtle and clear- the bunny protagonist’s parents warn her of the dangers of foxes, she explains to an acquaintance “that’s it’s okay for a bunny to call another bunny ‘cute’, but not for another animal to do it” she calls a fox “articulate” in an example of country-bunnikin cluelessness, and she must overcome her police officer coworkers’ prejudice that a bunny can’t be a real cop. More importantly, her chief moral crisis comes after she suggests in a press conference that “clearly there’s a biological component” at work in a string of predators turning savage, after which the predators in the animal city are subject to increasing discrimination and sanction.
At the end of the film, the predators are exonerated- turning savage wasn’t in their DNA after all. The Peaceable Kingdom, wherein the lion lays down with the lamb, is restored, in more urban and cosmopolitan form.
In the first “Madagascar” movie, it was at least suggested that you needed to keep giving the lion steak or sushi if he wasn’t going to eat his friend the zebra. In Zootopia it’s not clear exactly what the carnivores are eating at all: you only see the fox eating blueberry and cake and Popsicles. Maybe there are tanks of farmed meat protein somewhere in the outskirts of Zootopia, or maybe the lions have had CRISPR applied to the epithelial cells of their gut. Who knows- everybody is happy, as long as you believe in everyone’s ability to be anything or try everything, as the Shakira song over the credits says.
So which is it- is the movie’s overt meaning (“don’t believe in biological differences, that’s racist!”) or a covert one (“come on, biological differences are real!”) the one that prevails? On the one hand, the characters really are animals, and “biological differences” aren’t exactly actually in question between lions and gazelles, which throws the rest of the movie in a kind of ironic light: clearly there is a biological component at work, at least in the Savannah if not in Zootopia. But in another way, we now have people arguing in the Paper of Record that biological divisions between the sexes are pseudoscientific fabrications:
Scientists mostly agree that sexual identity is multifarious, not binary; fungible, not fixed. Sex-linked chromosomes; hormones; the internalization of cultural expectations — all develop differently in each individual, yielding a gamut of sexualities. Perhaps it’s time to retire the notion of two sexes.
Maybe lions are also only taught to eat zebras through the “internalization of cultural expectations,” and maybe a fox and a bunny can be friends with each other as well as with anyone else. The occasional Suburban Wild Kingdom chase across my backyard between real-life foxes and rabbits would suggest not. There’s a reason bunnies have eyes on the side of their heads.
Come on, isn’t this just a kids’ movie, where biological reality never matters? Well, sure, but it’s the movie that puts these questions in our heads explicitly, and makes the analogies to humans unavoidable. Also, it’s worth looking at how children’s fictions of an earlier era treated more or less the identical question; here’s Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908):
What lies over THERE’ asked the Mole, waving a paw towards a background of woodland that darkly framed the water-meadows on one side of the river.
‘That? O, that’s just the Wild Wood,’ said the Rat shortly. ‘We don’t go there very much, we river-bankers.’
‘Aren’t they—aren’t they very NICE people in there?’ said the Mole, a trifle nervously.
‘W-e-ll,’ replied the Rat, ‘let me see. The squirrels are all right. AND the rabbits—some of ‘em, but rabbits are a mixed lot. And then there’s Badger, of course. He lives right in the heart of it; wouldn’t live anywhere else, either, if you paid him to do it. Dear old Badger! Nobody interferes with HIM. They’d better not,’ he added significantly.
‘Why, who SHOULD interfere with him?’ asked the Mole.
‘Well, of course—there—are others,’ explained the Rat in a hesitating sort of way.
‘Weasels—and stoats—and foxes—and so on. They’re all right in a way—I’m very good friends with them—pass the time of day when we meet, and all that—but they break out sometimes, there’s no denying it, and then—well, you can’t really trust them, and that’s the fact.’
The Mole knew well that it is quite against animal-etiquette to dwell on possible trouble ahead, or even to allude to it; so he dropped the subject.
Needless to say, Rat does not later renounce his prejudices against Weasels and Stoats- the way of the world is the way of the world, and Weasels and Stoats cannot be trusted.
My sense is that films like Zootopia exist, and are artistically successful, because they delineate but do not fully trespass boundaries of what is and is not permitted to be said or thought. As those boundaries become more strongly enforced, the temptation to cross them becomes stronger, but so do the penalties for doing so, so we get works that walk up to the line in the sand and then ostentatiously retreat, like a rabbit smelling a fox.