Published on May 4th, 2017 | by Aya de Leon



Disney just announced that there will be a sequel to their Oscar-wining film, Zootopia. Here’s why I won’t be going.

This year, after my daughter turned 7, I ended my lifetime ban on Disney movies, because…Moana. Previously, I have written about the many lengths I’ve gone to in order to avoid/minimize the influence of Disney princess culture, and lauded the work of Peggy Orenstein’s book on the subject, Cinderella Ate My Daughter. But even Disney can evolve. Moana, breaks tradition with the princess legacy in so many ways, and is a win for feminism and people of color. However, as much as I love this single film, it has proven the exception rather than the new Disney rule. In letting down my guard, I let a Trojan Horse sneak into my family. Disney’s other 2016 blockbuster—the one that beat Moana for the Oscar—is a misogynist vision with deep undertones of rape culture masquerading as feminism: Zootopia.

After I first watched Zootopia, I decided it was too scary for my daughter, because there are several chase scenes with ferocious animals. But I liked the feminist themes. On the surface, Zootopia is all girl power. Little Judy Hopps breaks the bunny glass ceiling and becomes the first rabbit police officer, despite the fact that no one believes she can do it. In the police academy training montage, she even manages to knock out a male rhino ten times her size. She achieves her dream and moves to the capital city of Zootopia, “where anyone can be anything.” On the police force there, she faces all the typical discrimination of sexism: she is called “cute” by male colleagues, and given an assignment that demeans her intelligence: “meter maid” duty. It reminds me of the intro to Charlie’s Angels from the 1970s “Once upon a time there were three little girls who went to the police academy.”

We see all three of them excelling, just like Judy. “And they were each assigned very hazardous duties.” Then they are seen in traditionally female roles: meter maid, typist, and crossing guard. In this way, Zootopia’s stand against sexism is dated and stale, reflecting a vision of fighting sexism from 40 years ago. But unlike the “Angels” who end up working for Charlie “I took them away from all that,” Judy sticks it out in the police force.

Judy’s male supervisor—who never wanted a bunny on his team—is consistently trying to fire her. Yet Judy uses her smarts and resourcefulness to crack the case that had the entire force baffled and becomes a hero, gaining the respect of her former detractors. This is the classic trope of a woman—or anyone who is a victim of underestimation and discrimination—who turns the tables and saves the day. BuzzFeed called the film “groundbreaking” and declared “Judy Hopps is the hero your daughter has been waiting for.”

But is she?

The predominantly male creative team behind Zootopia claims that the film isn’t about gender, it’s just about prejudice in general. In an interview with i09, Zootopia’s director calls the film a “movie about bias—something that is everywhere and in all of us, whether we want to admit it or not.” In an analysis of the bias explored by the film, Teresa Jusino from The Mary Sue notes that, “Gender is mentioned nowhere in this interview.” She goes on to say: “It’s strange to me, because making the bunny character female in the first place feels very much on purpose. All the qualities negatively attributed to bunnies – too small, too weak, too emotional to be in law enforcement – seem like the same characteristics that are often negative stereotypes of women.” So Disney’s creative Zootopia team didn’t intend to talk about sexism, but it’s the central struggle of their protagonist, so the film becomes about sexism by default. Which should be great, right? As Jusino concludes, “Judy Hopps as the lead of this film could be a great way to help kids examine gender bias, as well as all the other race/class biases that will likely be explored in this film. Even if it was completely unintentional.” Which was also what I thought at first.

But I’m a mom. And when you have a small kid who enjoys a film, you see that film many times. When I allowed my daughter to see Moana, once wasn’t enough. By now, she’s up to half a dozen times and counting, because we bought the film. But before that, we bought the book—a seven-hour audiobook novelization of the story. Which she also listens to over and over. Then I bought the novelization of Zootopia—I figured it wouldn’t be as scary as the film, and we listened to it over and over, as well—mostly in the car on the half-hour commute to and from school. And then my daughter begged me to show her the film, which I did, (I fast forwarded past the scary scenes, because by now, I knew exactly when they happened). And between watching it again and hearing it repeatedly, the minor flaw I had identified when I first saw the film became a glaring and massive issue.

Zootopia has metaphor problems. The central premise is that predators and prey have evolved and the former no longer need to eat the latter, so they can live in harmony. Their society is post-predatory. And the movie explores the left-over biases that species have. But there’s one problem with the predator/prey metaphor. What’s it a metaphor for? Racism? Sexism? Well, the metaphor doesn’t work for racism. Judy calls Nick a very “articulate fellow,” as if he’s black and she’s white. But then later, Nick the fox touches the puffy hair of a sheep character, and Judy tells him not to, which is a common complaint from black people about casual racism. So is Nick the white person now? And the post-predator metaphor also doesn’t work with racism, because white people stalking and attacking black people individually isn’t a core tenet of white supremacy. The history is one of economic exploitation and discrimination. Certainly there is state-sanctioned violence against black people, from lynching to police killings. But the predator/prey metaphor doesn’t fit well, particularly when racism has historically painted black people as predators to justify racism. And Nick, who is supposed to be maligned by the history, is a predator. But you know what fits the metaphor perfectly? Rape culture. In fact, everything about it fits. The very word “predator” is currently in use for men who commit sexual violence. The idea of men stalking and attacking women is all too real. Women’s fear of being attacked, the reality of women being killed by men, it all fits. And it also fits that there is an overwhelming backlash against feminism, insisting that sexism is over and why can’t we feminists just all shut up about it?

So if the directors aren’t intentionally commenting on gender, then they are unconsciously commenting on gender. And here’s what is notable: ALL of the predator characters are male. Most of the prey characters are female, except Judy’s father, a male bunny who is a laughing stock character, showing meekness, fear and sadness. And for these shows of vulnerable emotion, he is ridiculed by his daughter and his wife.

But perhaps the most misogynist part of the film has to do with the relationship between Judy and Nick, the fox. The underlying trope here is the enemies-to-friends relationship between these two main characters. Nick is a hustler who originally tricks the naïve Judy. When she confronts him, he calls her a “dumb bunny,” a fraud, and humiliates her in public.

When she needs assistance to crack a case and the cops hang her out to dry, she extorts Nick into using his hustler skills and network to help her. He is initially a very reluctant assistant. There is a scene that is supposed to be funny, where Judy is definitely the butt of the joke, and Nick’s intentional attempts to undermine her professionally are treated as comedy.

The central mystery case of the film is about missing mammals. It turns out  [SPOILER ALERT] that all the missing mammals are predators who have “gone savage” and no one knows why. Judy cracks the case and finds the missing mammals. But they haven’t figured out what’s causing them to “go savage,” and inhabitants of Zootopia, 90% of whom are prey animals, are starting to panic. In a press conference, Judy discusses her success, and the anxious reporters predictably twist her words. Her underlying “prejudice” toward predators is revealed, and Nick the fox feels betrayed. He recites a litany of how Judy has always been prejudiced against him as a fox and dumps her as a friend.

This is where the predator/prey metaphor breaks down, or perhaps where it kicks into high gear. The problem, the film suggests, is not the history of violence against prey [women], but rather the unfair prejudice that prey [women] have against predators [men] in unfairly accusing them of violence.

Where is the “NotAllPredators” hashtag on Zootopia twitter? This refers to the sexist trolling of women in social media when there was an outpouring of testimonies of our experiences with gender violence. According to Pete Pachal in Mashable, women “turned to Twitter to share their experiences of harassment, fear and sexual assault under the hashtag #YesAllWomen.” This was in response to the 2014 mass shooting of women in Santa Barbara. Women were calling out male entitlement and how this type of violence affects all women in our society. Some angry male users started the hashtag #NotAllMen, because instead of listening to women’s experience of violence, they needed to jump to defend men. Charlotte Kasl calls this the “patriarchal switch” where the perpetrators of violence create a baseless narrative in which they are the victims. This type of defensiveness prompted the hashtag #MasculinitySoFragile by Anthony Williams.



In Zootopia, being a predator [male] is repeatedly depicted as victimized. In a flashback scene, we see why Nick the fox is supposed to be so jaded. When he was little, he wanted to be a junior cop/ranger. And a group of prey animals ganged up on him and beat him up and crushed his dream. Really? Meek prey animals ganged up on a predator? It doesn’t make sense. But this is right in line with narratives of male victimization.

In the wake of Nick’s upset, Judy feels unworthy of being a cop and moves back home. She meets the fox who bullied her as a young person. He apologizes in the following way: “I’d just like to say I’m sorry for the way I behaved in my youth. I had a lot of self doubt and that manifested itself in the form of unchecked rage and aggression.” In line with this, I believe that male perpetrators have real underlying reasons for their violence, and I do have compassion for them. However, this looks a lot like how white male mass shooters—often serious misogynists like the one in Santa Barbara—are described as “troubled” and “mentally ill.” This isn’t used as a justification to change the way men are socialized, but rather as a way to avoid making them accountable for their violence.

The bully fox’s violence was significant. Judy intervened when he was threatening some smaller prey animals and robbing them. In response, he struck her in the face, knocked her down, and his claws slashed her cheek to bleeding. He concludes his apology by saying “I was a major jerk.” Judy might have responded yes you were, but I’m glad you’ve changed. But she doesn’t focus on his apology at all. Instead Judy dwells on her own behavior, equating the bully’s violence with her misstep with Nick. Judy responds: “I know a thing or two about being a jerk.”



So predator [male] violence is easily excused, but expressing fear of predators [men] is unforgivable.

At the conclusion of Zootopia, Judy gives Nick a truly painful, groveling apology:

“I know you’ll never forgive me. And I don’t blame you. I wouldn’t forgive me either. I was ignorant and irresponsible and small-minded. And predators shouldn’t suffer because of my mistakes. I have to fix this. But I can’t do it without you. And after we’re done, you can hate me. And that’ll be fine. [She begins to cry]. Because I was a horrible friend. And I hurt you. And you can walk away knowing that you were right all along. I really am just a dumb bunny.”

What is Nick’s response? Does he graciously accept her apology? No. He records her apology and plays it back to her tauntingly, twice:


I really am just a dumb bunny.

I really am just a dumb…


Then hugs her as she cries. “Oh, you bunnies,” he says, “You’re so emotional.” It’s really quite abusive. She grovels. He humiliates her. Then he comforts her. Judy is the only one with any vulnerability in the relationship. Judy is also the one doing all the emotional work of the relationship, all the emotional caretaking of Nick’s feelings, and there is absolutely no reciprocity. I pointed this out to my seven year old, I said “I think that’s sexism in Zootopia, because she says sorry and he never does.” She responded that “Nick is sorry in his mind, but Judy doesn’t make him say it because he would be embarrassed.” And there you have it. Zootopia has perfectly communicated emotional labor to my daughter, along with the understanding that it’s women’s job to do it.

Another significant problem of the film is that it ends with Nick also becoming a cop, and he is paired with Judy as patrol partners. He continues to playfully insult her, and she has learned to play along. So the police are seen as a force of unarmed good guys—which is a very problematic theme in itself, if the film is supposed to be about bias in general. What about the deadly, documented racist violence of police? And gender violence which is also entrenched in the police?

Ultimately, Judy’s triumph becomes the cooptation of feminism that Andi Zeisler talks about: “Feminism has been thoroughly mainstreamed as an individualist pursuit of success under capitalism rather than a collective liberation of women.” Judy breaks the glass ceiling in order to validate and glorify the boy’s club, rather than to challenge it. And all of the mistreatment she has received is just a validation of the underlying misogyny of the boy’s club.

At the end [BIG SPOILER ALERT] it turns out that the dangerous villain is really the meek female sheep assistant mayor who’s been mistreated by the powerful predators. She and Judy are like two sides of the same misogynist fantasy: good feminist/evil feminist. Judy sacrifices herself for their love and takes all their abuse. The female villain manipulates the supposedly unfounded fear of predators [men] to serve her power-hungry agenda.

Judy, on the other hand, is delighted to become “one of the guys.” For the record, in the whole film, Nick never offers an apology for all the ways he insulted, humiliated, and undermined her when they first met. Neither Nick nor anyone on the police force ever apologizes to Judy. But there you have it. Zootopia is a film that glorifies and defends male privilege. And male privilege is never having to say you’re sorry.

by Ellen & Tony / Creative Commons License

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About the Author

Aya de León teaches creative writing at U.C. Berkeley. Kensington Books publishes her adult novels, her award-winning “Justice Hustlers” feminist heist series (which includes SIDE CHICK NATION, the first novel published about Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico), A SPY IN THE STRUGGLE, about a young Black woman FBI agent who infiltrates an African American political organization fighting for climate justice and Black Lives (out now), and QUEEN OF URBAN PROPHECY about women in hip hop, police violence and the climate crisis (out now). In October 2021, Aya published a young adult thriller about a pair of undocumented Dominican teen girls who uncover a kidnapping plot to stop the Green New Deal called THE MYSTERY WOMAN IN ROOM THREE. Given the climate emergency, this novel was too politically urgent for traditional publishing, so it was serialized in in six installments on Orion Magazine, and is available free of charge. In October 2022, her next young adult novel comes out from Candlewick Books, UNDERCOVER LATINA—about a 14-year-old spy who passes for white to stop a white nationalist terrorist—the first in a Black/Latina spy girl series. In spring 2022, Aya is producing a free online conference called Black Literature vs. The Climate Emergency at UC Berkeley African American Studies. Aya is also working on a memoir of her body that explores the intersection of food, body image, race, and the environment. Finally, her Justice Hustlers series has been optioned for television, and she is currently working on the pilot. Find her at ayadeleon.com


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