'Zootopia': How To Make the World a Better Place

By Adam Ericksen 3-23-2016
via Zootopia on Facebook

Zootopia is the story of a large, metropolitan city where everyone lives in peace and harmony. Tolerance and diversity are hallmarks of this great city. Hope abounds in this land of talking animals because it’s a place where, “You can be anything!” Zootopia is peaceful because after thousands of years of evolution, carnivores no longer eat other animals. Everyone lives in peace. The prophet Isaiah’s vision that “The wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the goat” seems to be fulfilled in Disney’s latest movie.

But utopias are never what they seem. Conflicts boil underneath the surface of Zootopia. Despite Zootopia’s optimistic message, Zootopians have to deal with very real problems of stereotypes and scapegoating. Identity in Zootopia is formed in a manner all too familiar to us humans. Largely through stereotyping, the animals in Zootopia create identity in opposition to other animals.

For example, the hero of the movie, Judy Hopps, dreams of being a police officer so that she can “make the world a better places.” But Judy has a problem: She’s a cute little bunny – definitely not the stereotypical police material of Zootopia. That job is reserved for larger male animals like lions, elephants, and buffalo. No bunny has ever joined the police force of Zootopia. Judy is different from her male counterparts in almost every way.

But Judy has an even bigger problem. Immediately as she joins the force, she learns that despite looking for weeks, the police have failed to find 13 animals who were kidnapped. The police became frustrated. Their identity as good police officers was in question. The longer the search dragged on, the longer they risked being viewed as failures at their job. Their frustration needed an outlet, so it was channeled onto Judy. Within her first day on the job, she became their scapegoat. They humiliated her and tore her down emotionally, making her question why she ever thought she could be a police officer.

Why did the police act this way? Not because they were evil, but because in the world of Zootopia, animals act in very human ways. When internal frustration threatens our group identity and cohesion, our frustration finds an outlet in the form of a scapegoat, who is marked by stereotypical differences. Judy didn’t fit the “norm” of the police department, so she was a convenient scapegoat for the larger group. The anthropologist René Girard claims in his book The Scapegoat that, “The further one is from normal social status of whatever kind, the greater the risk of persecution. This is easy to see in relation to those at the bottom of the social ladder.”

Judy’s problems are a microcosm of the bigger issues facing Zootopia. Ninety percent of Zootopians are herbivores, leaving carnivores with just ten percent of the population. Judy is at the bottom of the social ladder in the police department, so she became their scapegoat. In a similar way, when it comes to the total population, carnivores are at the bottom of the social ladder, so they are easy targets for becoming cultural scapegoats.

The villain of Zootopia is a high-ranking politician who manipulates the conflicts already present among herbivore Zootopians by channeling their fears against the innocent carnivores. The villain explicitly describes the essence of scapegoating by stating that her people need to “unite against a common enemy.”

Zootopia exposes the process of scapegoating, but more importantly, it reveals the solution to scapegoating. The solution begins with awareness that it’s not only evil, nasty villains who scapegoat; good people scapegoat, too.

At one point, Judy Hopps, the great hero of Zootopia, unintentionally becomes caught up in the fearful scapegoating fervor that permeates the city. She gives a speech that emboldens those fears by supporting the idea that carnivores have become a threat to Zootopia’s peace, security, and way of life.

Judy shows that good people, even our greatest heroes, can easily participate in scapegoating. Whenever good people try to make the world a better place by blaming, marginalizing, or excluding another group of people, we are caught up in the evil act of scapegoating.

After her speech, Judy looked into the face of one of her potential scapegoats, and in that face she saw the pain that her speech caused to this innocent animal. What makes Judy a true hero is that she became aware that she had become a scapegoater.

That’s when Judy began the spiritual practice of repentance. She discovered that in trying to make the world a better place, she got lured into an act of scapegoating. Judy felt a sense of shame and guilt, but she didn’t get stuck there. True repentance comes from changing the way we relate to others. True repentance moves us away from scapegoating others towards acts of reconciliation and love.

Near the end of Zootopia, Judy implies that love overcame the evil of scapegoating. Love moved Judy beyond stereotypes and scapegoating to accepting others just as they are.

Zootopia has been criticized as a movie that promotes stereotyping, but I don’t think that criticism is fair. Zootopia doesn’t promote stereotyping or scapegoating; rather, shows the ways in which even good people can stereotype and scapegoat others.

And in doing so, it reveals the way that love can make the world a better place.

Adam Ericksen

Adam Ericksen blogs at the Raven Foundation where he uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Like his Facebook page Adam Ericksen – Public Theologian and follow him on Twitter.

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