Friday, February 17, 2017

Best of 2016, #1: Zootopia

What I Liked About It: 2016 will always be remembered as the year the Klan conquered America, but it’s also the year that saw one of the best (and most entertaining) movies about racism ever made. My daughter loves watching it, then we get to have in depth conversations about the dozen levels of racism subtly portrayed, from benign to malicious, and what’s problematic about each.

So many Rulebook Casefiles! Next week, we’ll spend the whole week on how the movie sets up the climactic scene, so for now let’s focus on one object runner that’s not part of that scene: Nick’s badge.
  • When Officer Hopps falls for the scam being run by Nick Wilde and his partner Finnick, Hopps naively puts a sticker-badge on Finnick, who is pretending to be a toddler.
  • When Hopps extorts Nicks into working with her on his case, Finnick laughs at him and puts the sticker on him: “She hustled you good! You’re a cop now Nick, you’re gonna need one of these! Have fun working with the fuzz!”
  • Later, when Hopps realizes that Nick has sabotaged the investigation, Nick sarcastically points to the sticker and says, “Madam, I have a fake badge. I would never impede your pretend investigation.”
  • Later, Hopps has convinced Nick to apply to be a cop, but then offends him, causing him to throw away his application and rip the sticker off.
  • Finally, after Nick graduates the academy, Hopps puts a real badge on him.
So the fake badge changes in meaning with each exchange: naïve maternalism, to badge of shame, to icon of sarcasm, to representation of dashed hopes, to earnest achievement.  Next week, we’ll focus on the exchange of three objects that are necessary for the plot, but this object is solely a source of meaning, and that meaning grows with each exchange.  


James Kennedy said...

The racial politics of ZOOTOPIA are superficially enlightened but in fact weirdly retrograde. I'm sure the filmmakers had their hearts in the right place, but in the world of this movie, the prey have a perfectly reasonable rationale for fearing predators! Everyone agrees that predators used to devour the prey! It's not part of a racist fantasy or fake history justifying prejudice, it's consensus. Try overlaying that on our own racial politics situation, as this movie invites us to do, and the conversation gets icky really fast. I saw this with my daughters and, pace you, I don't think this is a very good movie to use as a springboard for prejudice, because it takes as a premise that those who are discriminated against actually are guilty of something. And, uh, remember when the vogue racist term for young black men was "super-predator"? Entertaining, well-constructed movie, but its racial politics are, as they say, "problematic."

James Kennedy said...

Edit: That is, "springboard for DISCUSSING prejudice."

Anonymous said...

Asuming Zootopia is about black people as you say (I haven’t seen the movie), it still doesn’t look as racist as you say: “someone superficially like them did something to someone superficially like me in the past” is not a good reason for, but the essence of racism.

James Kennedy said...

Anonymous, I disagree. A predator isn't "superficially" a predator; it's essential, it's right there in the name!

Unless you just take "predator" and "prey" to mean nothing at all, just free-floating labels like murglemurgle or blempglorf. If that's the case, then why use the words "predator" and "prey" at all?

Anyway, it's hard to have this discussion if you haven't seen the movie.

Anonymous said...

You yourself said “predators USED TO devour the prey”. Meaning they don’n now ie they actually are predators superficially.

Or take a real world example: Many chinese people passionately hate japanese people. Their excuse is that japanese people tortured chinese civilians during ww2. Which they actually did.

Now, according to your first post here, is it
a) okay to take revenge on people who happen to be born japanese but themselves didn’t do anything like that?
b) racist/“weirdly retrograde” to mention that japanese people actually did torture chinese civilians?

I guess I better don’t comment on “it’s right there in the name”.

James Kennedy said...

Anonymous, we're talking right past each other.

The dilemma you laid out is bogus, because you're mixing up essential and accidental properties.

An essential property of an object is a property that it *must* have. An accidental property of an object is one that it *happens to have* but that it could lack.

A Japanese person is not essentially someone who has tortured Chinese civilians during World War II. That is a historical contingency.

On the other hand, a predator is *essentially* something who preys on others. Like I said, it's right there in the name.

Matt Bird said...

James, I think you're proving my original point that this movie is a good jumping-off point for discussing racism.

James Kennedy said...

More like a meta-discussion about whether the movie is cogent about race. I maintain the categories in the movie itself are confused and icky. CRASH was a jumping off point for discussing racism too, I guess, and that movie's take on race is embarrassing.

James Kennedy said...

To be brutally clear, because I don't think this is getting across: in ZOOTOPIA, the "predator" animals are the discriminated-against, unjustly-suspected group, right? But if you're trying to draw, as the movie invites, an analogue between ZOOTOPIA and racial politics in the U.S. today -- well, blacks, Muslims, Latinos, immigrants etc. are the discriminated-against, unjustly-suspected group. So, in ZOOTOPIA terms, they are "predators." Which makes whites the "prey" group.

Sit with that for a while. Not uncomfortable yet? It gets worse.

In the world of ZOOTOPIA, there is an actual historical grievance that the "prey" can point to against the "predators." But there is no corresponding grievance that white people can claim against minorities. Indeed, minorities are more sinned against than sinning. To put it fucking lightly.

That is why ZOOTOPIA is a really shitty point of entry for discussing racial politics with your child. The categories of historical guilt are completely reversed in this movie. In the world of ZOOTOPIA, the discriminated-against group (the predators, which translates into non-white minorities) actually has a historical crime in their past. But in the real world, it's the discriminating group (white folks, which translates in ZOOTOPIA to "prey") that has the historical crime in their past.

A fun mystery. Impeccably structured. Very entertaining. Funny. But don't try to make a case that it's woke. I had to overlook some serious toxicity to enjoy this movie.