Disney's latest film Zootopia has been extensively advertised as a film about race. Mammals of every size, whether predator or prey, live together in mostly adequate harmony. One rabbit defies the expectations to become a cop, but still has to prove herself to her chauvinistic boss. What follows is an impressively crafted commentary on xenophobia, stereotypes, segregation, and gender. That's right, Disney made a feminist film that's not Frozen. Yet no one seems to have noticed.
Here are three facts about Zootopia. This is Disney's first film with a female lead without romance, Judy Hopps is the only woman in the police department, and women are integral to the plot.
I'll address the first two points without spoilers, and put a warning before the third. That there's no romance is somewhat a spoiler, but the developers have mentioned it offhandedly. In an interview with Buzzfeed, the film's co-writer Phil Johnston said:
“Audience expectations point towards female characters needing a love interest, and that is not the case. The more sophisticated we get as storytellers and stray from that old formula that is so tired, the more exciting films are going to get and the more interesting female characters we’ll see in movies.”
The dynamic between Judy Hopps and Nick Wilde evolves over the course of the film from antagonistic to playfully platonic. Some may construe their banter as flirting, but the film never pushes their relationship as anything more than supportive, sarcastic friends. Despite Frozen's attempt to say women don't need romance, it still ended with romance. Zootopia is far more oblique, as it never comments on Judy's singleness. Romance is irrelevant to her character.
What is relevant is her position in the police department. If you watch the trailers, you'll see all the larger, more domineering animals as her fellow cops. Beyond that, however, is the fact that they are all men. This isn't just "black man in a white man's world," this is a woman of a different race in a hostile environment. Again, the film doesn't comment on her being a woman, yet the subtext is there. She's dismissed as too cute, too weak, and too emotional. That sort of prejudice isn't levied at race, it's hurled at women.
As the protagonist, Judy is naturally expected to move the plot and instigate inciting action. She is important and so is the villain. Assistant Mayor Bellwether is similarly discriminated against as prey, so she retaliates against her egotistical male boss with her plot. Disney has often had female protagonists and antagonists squaring off, but Bellwether's gender further accentuates the film's commentary on women being subdued by oppressive societal paradigms. Judy pushes for equality, while Bellwether wants to subvert the system and put herself on top. These two represent the competing ideologies of matriarchy and female equality.
Judy is smart, independent, persistent, and kind. She's exactly the
kind of character all people could look up to, but especially girls. The
closest analogue for her character is The Princess and the Frog's Tiana.
Both Disney protagonists have big dreams they pursue through hard work
and grueling sacrifices, and both are women of color. Well, Judy's a
rabbit, but you get the point. Disney finally made a film that deftly comments on race and gender.