So, I’m not American, so I may be off-track here, but I feel like some recent children’s movies that are meant to tackle racism indirectly (but really quite directly, imho) are doing so with only partial success. The two I wanna talk about are Zootopia (called Zootropolis in some places) and Zombies (Disney movie).
Let me start with Zombies because I just saw it recently. The backstory is that Zombies used to eat brains, but they’ve been neutralized by some technology and been living in separate areas that have poor facilities and wear government issue clothes and are homeschooled… And they know that normal people dislike them, except that the hero (Zed?) believes that people who don’t like zombies just haven’t met him yet… While normal people live in colorful sunny places. And anyone who is “different” in any way has been snubbed (so for example the heroine of the movie has freakish white hair and has to cover it up with a blonde wig so no one knows).
So the movie starts at the beginning of a school year when, for some reason, for the first time, zombies are allowed to attend normal school.
I don’t wanna talk about the entire movie here… But there are lots of elements of race relations in it and about acceptance and tolerance and appreciating the “other” and cultural clashes that get resolved. But my main concerns with the movie is
- We are supposed to see the normal people who treat zombies well as “good”. It ranks of white allies wanting gratitude of some sort for doing this… I don’t know how to describe it, but it reminds me in general of people who consciously want to not be racist… Sort of patting themselves on the back for how open-minded they are
- I strongly dislike the history of zombies in this film. I compare the history of African Americans who came to the US as slaves. They did nothing wrong and did not deserve that treatment… And when they were freed they continued to be treated poorly on so many levels. This is not the case for Zombies here. Zombies used to be brain-eaters and thus a threat to humanity. So… What? Are they representing something like terrorists and their living conditions as Guantanamo Bay? But that’s also really weird. My concern here is that the backstory is that zombies used to be dangerous to so historically normal people are justified in their fear of them and in their attempts to control them. In reality, the only group of people I can think of who are historically dangerous to others are white Western colonizers (for my part of the world) and possibly different kinds of colonizers for other parts (e.g. Within Asia). No one has yet done anything to control them and no one has explicitly expressed fear of their neocolonial descendants… Oh because they’re still in power.
- There is an element of surveillance and such. Zombies have a wristband that controls their amount of zombieness or something. And playing with it is dangerous. This whole part really had me confused. So are we supposed to believe it’s ok that governments exert control over some populations because they’re dangerous but not others? And as long as they’re under control we should treat them with civility?
- A lot of what Zed tries to achieve in the film is normalizing zombies into normal people’s lives and activities. Football team. Once he becomes hero of the football team, he gets more privileges for all zombies like cafeteria and music lessons and such. It’s problematic because it’s about always aspiring to what the powerful dominant majority have rather than resisting it and rather than influencing them with one’s own culture. For example, I think it’s meaningful that some music genres like rap, hip hop and R&B are predominantly African American. This movie didn’t really value zombie culture much…
- In the end, the heroine takes off her wig to reveal her “freakish” white hair. Which isn’t really freakish if you ask me. It’s somewhere between platinum blonde and elderly person white hair. It’s not that scary. Actually not at all scary. But it also is like… The only normal person in the cast who is friendly to zombies from the beginning is herself “different” in some ways from the majority and already feels “othered” inside herself. While I think that being oppressed in one way can really make it easier to empathize with other forms of oppression… I don’t know what kind of message they’re trying to go for here. That only people who are (less visibly) marginal can empathize with those who are more marginal? I have strong beliefs about visible and invisible marginality. Those who have a choice to share or hide their marginality are in a different spot than those who have no control. And when you’re hiding your marginality you are internalizing it and not being treated by others that way so it’s different than if you chose to show it, and different still from if you had no choice but to show it.
So that’s Zombies. I saw Zootropolis/Zootopia about a year ago or so… My concern with that one is… There are three “classes” of animals in the movie. Predators who have been tamed not to hunt prey (so tigers, lions, etc), prey (like rabbits, deer) and for some reason the fox gets singled out as that character who is constantly deceiving you.
The problem here is weird because the dominant animals in some sort of power are the predators who have been artificially neutralized in some way… This neutralization reeks of the kind of discourses of civilizing barbarians that colonizers used. But it’s weird coz these animals in the movie are in power. So it’s confusing.
There’s also the element of the fox. Where stereotypes against him seem to be justified most of the time, even if the bunny character (who, despite her small size, rose in ranks to be a police officer, first bunny ever to do so against all odds and bigger animals) seems to have faith in him. He eventually comes through. But that’s not my point here. The point is that we see repeatedly how he deserves the stereotype, even tho he is occasionally capable of honesty and loyalty. So I honestly don’t know what that’s about. Is it like the concept of the Hacker who then stops doing illegal stuff to help the government or good guys?
There’s also the part of the movie where we discover the evil prey (sheep) trying to convert predators back into predatory behavior in order to, I am guessing, jail them again or something?
Look, I know these are not meant to be exact depictions and analogies of race. They are teaching kids about discrimination. But even as inaccurate as they are at doing SO, I think both films do harm by suggesting that discimination against the “other” is actually usually historically justifiable, but “they have now changed and don’t deserve to be discriminated against”. Because most current-day racism and other forms of discrimination has no such history. Black people never started any aggression against white people. It’s the opposite. Homosexuals, transgender people never harmed anyone. The case of Muslims is more complicated, but a key element of discrimination against Muslims in the West stems from a combination of generalizing fear based on actions of a minority, and also taking that action out of its historical and global view context, while completely ignoring other forms of violence perpetuated the other way around.
In all cases, those movies tend to justify fear of the “other” and stereotyping them as if it has a justified historical basis but that those “others” have evolved. And that is almost never the case in real life.