When I took my children to see the new Disney movie, “Zootopia” this week, I was expecting another fluffy tale of good versus. evil. Instead, what I saw was a thoughtful, nuanced reflection on race relations and the complexities of government manipulation, delivered in a child-accessible manner.
The story centers around Judy Hopps, a determined bunny who, through hard work and dedication, breaks the glass ceiling of “cuteness” and becomes the first bunny cop. She is assigned to work in Zootopia, an idealistic city where predator and prey coexist in harmony…at least theoretically. As Judy delves further into the system, she begins to uncover a complex web of institutionalized “specie-ism” and back room politics. Her discoveries force her to come face-to-face with her own prejudices, as well as those of people that she respects. Heavy fodder for a children’s movie indeed.
This heaviness was not lost on my children. They spent most of the ride home in silence—not typical for my boisterous gang. My 10- year-old son finally broke the silence with a loud sigh, and said, “That movie was kind of scary.”
“What was scary about it?” I asked.
“It was hard to tell who was nice and who was mean.”
We spent the next few minutes talking about stereotypes and racism and how even good guys (like Judy Hopps) can often make the mistake of judging people based on the color of their skin (or the type of species that they are).
But there was another element to the story, one that I wasn’t sure if my kids had picked up on. The “racism” in this movie was not just about preconceived notions, it was a concentrated effort by the minority of “prey” to make the predators look primitive, violent, and downright dangerous. The parallels to the current political climate, as well as the much darker days of pre-Nazi Germany, were extremely evident to me. But, my daughter drew an even more personal parallel:
“It’s kind of like that time when the “cool kids” told everyone that that it was me and my friends’ fault that the class lost our recess time, even though everyone was talking, and then the whole class got mad at us.”
I explained to them the meaning of the word “scape goat.” Suddenly, they were all chiming in with personal experiences. Each kid, it seemed, has a classmate, or group of friends, who are regularly labeled as “trouble makers,” often with the silent approval of the teachers or coaches. We talked about how, although sometimes these “trouble makers” have actually caused problems, often they are just less socially adept than the other kids.
Fortunately, none of their personal examples were as extreme as the intentional manipulation of the “predator’s” image in “Zootopia.” But, it was clear that they understood how our perception of other people is influenced by opinions. Just as we were turning into the driveway, my daughter made a big statement, “It’s kind of like how on TV they want to kick Muslim people out of America, even though my friends Joseph and Amina are really nice.”
My stomach clenched. I knew that politics of the recent campaign had trickled down into my kids’ worlds, but I hadn’t realized that my daughter had made that personal connection. We talked some more about how each person is different, and you can’t decide if someone is good or bad based on their race, religion, or “species.”
What we didn’t talk about was extremism–or how, unfortunately, many people do commit atrocities in the name of religion. The truth is I am much more comfortable talking about the many dear Muslim friends that we have, and the dangers of stereotyping. I don’t quite know how to approach the gray areas where faith can turn to violence and people who feel oppressed can sometimes become dangerous.
Perhaps one day Disney will make a movie that will help with that discussion as well.