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Why Zootopia is Miraculous
2019.06.25 07:22 parselcheese Why Zootopia is Miraculous
Is Judy Hopps a woman?
Well, duh, no. She is a rabbit. She has a Sylvaligic tail and an expressively Lagomorphic nose and when she’s frustrated she drums one foot against the ground Thumper-style.
No but really: is Judy Hopps a woman? I mean: is she just a metaphor for womanhood or is she actually a woman? Is there the idea of womanhood, even, in the world of Zootopia? It’s a bit fucked-up, having to figure all this out, but it’s all very tangled.
I’m getting ahead of myself.
So basically what I’m going to argue is that Zootopia is a kind of crazy intellectual + artistic triumph of the kind that you wouldn’t really expect to come from Disney. Zootopia is a Great Bit Of Art. Like up there with the Appassionata & Las Meninas – that kind of a GBOA.
Actually there’s one particular thing about Zootopia is which makes me think it’s a GBOA, and that’s that it’s by far and away the most eloquent, moving, rich, warmly imagined, and ferociously intelligent argument for liberalism I’m ever come across.
Well. Since I’ve committed myself to the claim that Zootopia is a GBOA, I’ll have to mention the many other things that Zootopia does perfectly or near-: the animation is gorgeous, the world construction faultless, the score bright and finely delineated, the humour consistently on-point, the characters well-defined and incredibly sympathetic, plus the plot takes some vertiginous lurches that all make sense and the film runs roughshod over genre boundaries with improbable swagger.
But let’s talk about Zootopia and liberalism.
Context: we don’t live in a good time for liberalism. It’s not surprising. Liberalism is lame. In its political guise it constantly looks like it’s underpinned by a basic intellectual cowardice and/or incoherence. We don’t know what’s right but it’s definitely right for to let people discuss what is right + We don’t know what forms of life are good but it’s definitely good to let people pursue which forms of life they think to be good. Liberalism is political philosophy for People Who’d Much Rather Skip The Vote On This One, Sorry. Which is why political liberalism’s commitment to pluralism on the basis of all human beings being free and equal is so easily attacked the moment something real, tangible, urgent – like fear or terrorism or illegal immigration or whatever – pops up. Liberalism runs against the grain of our animal tendency. Also does not help that freedom and equality are, at first blush, wildly contradictory and counterintuitive premises to adopt, but there you go.
And if political liberalism looks like weak pansy-ass nonsense social liberalism looks to the non-liberal dangerously totalitarian, having answered the old chestnut re What We Should Do About the Non-Liberals In Liberal Society? with a solid ah, fuck ’em. And it’s spun out a weirdly alienating discourse using words like “decolonise”, “trigger”, and “space space”, which words are applied so flexibly and indiscriminately that they’re now drained of real argumentative force. Liberalism in its social guise seems to have lost its ability to be happy about anything, even an imagined vision of its ideal future.
So it’s against this backdrop that Zootopia makes its case for one of the (not-so-many) things which political and social liberalism agree on: we should be good to people who are different from us. And it does this, incredibly, by performing an argument for liberalism whose texture is consistent with the outcome it advocates.
Maybe you don’t quite get what that last sentence meant. Never mind.
Let’s talk about Judy Hopps, the rabbit.
Do you notice that she’s a woman? I mean, sure, the film makes a lot out of the fact that Judy’s a rabbit, but what about the fact that she’s also a woman?
Let’s tease this out. There are some facts about Judy that are not directly drawn from aspects of womanhood, and better interpreted as facts about rabbit-hood. The fact that she’s seen as a token bunny in the Z.P.D., or the fact that she resents being called Carrots. The bit where she tells Clawhauser that it’s OK for bunnies to call other bunnies cute, but not for other species to do so. Those things are interesting commentaries on affirmative action, casual slurs, and the delicate mechanics of word reclamation, but are not really parallels to womanhood in specific.
Then there those things Judy is told that directly mirror things which are said to women in this world. Judy is told (among other things) that she “throws like a bunny”, and is asked if “all bunnies drive badly.” These are stereotypes in our world about women. If you can’t throw well, you throw like a girl, and if someone takes a long time to park it’s gotta be a woman – which makes it really tempting to believe that rabbit-hood is an analogy for womanhood, and so of course Judy is not actually a woman. She doesn’t need to be, for Zootopia to get its point across. Rabbit-hood covers all the (analogical) terrain of womanhood.
Except nope. Nope nope nope. It’s part of the genius of Zootopia that – almost without you noticing – it construes Judy as Woman in the world of the film. By which I mean – as a woman, in Zootopia, she is discriminated against. She is given a little (pink) spray canister of fox repellent to protect her from foxes. Can this be explained by bunny-protection-logic, as opposed to woman-protection-logic? Sure. But we’re starting to slip away from pure rabbit-ness here. And sometimes Zootopia is quite explicit: her father calls her (once during MuzzleTime, and once after she returns to Bunnyburrow in shame) Jude the Dude, which is a pretty explicit way of saying that Judy has transgressed lines of both rabbit-hood and womanhood by becoming a cop. And it also seems kind of significant that so many animals refer to Judy as meter-maid with such dismissiveness. And that she’s put off by the aggrieved masculinity she encounters from the rest of the (male) Z.P.D. police officers in the bullpen. Rabbit-hood is not an analogy to womanhood, it’s the product of a different kind of discrimination that happens to intersect with womanhood.
Here’s another idea: if rabbit-ness is (even a partial) substitute for womanhood, then why is Judy Hopps female? One possibility: because it is easier for us, as an audience, to accept and therefore believe an oppressed character who is female.
This is Part One of how Zootopia makes the case for liberal pluralism so well: it’s subtle. It takes an idea from academic intersectional theory, recognises what is clean and compelling about it (we are defined by more than one feature about us – we are an intersection of traits, as it were), and twines that so delicately into the analogy it is drawing that the idea remains both discrete and just beneath conscious awareness. Judy is oppressed: both as rabbit, and as female.
And this is all so playful: Zootopia gives you an obvious analogy (rabbit=woman), and then turns around and reminds you that Zootopia is its own world, with a real existence totally independent of analogy, but the proof of that independent existence turns out to be an idea which anchors so much of our social experience. The rabbit-metaphor really says something like this: no oppression is a metaphor for another kind of oppression. Which is true, probably, and complex, and somehow expressed in a film nominally meant for kids. (It’s important that Judy’s constructed as female in the film, by the way, precisely because she’s whip-smart & brave & determined & compassionate, a not-at-all-half-baked S.F.C., and you can’t have her be a role model for girls unless she’s actually female.)
Anyway: you see it all through the film, this commitment to the complexity of oppression. You are first introduced to Judy Hopps as victim (of a fox + the general expectation that she cannot be who she wants to be). Then she encounters Nick Wilde the fox when he’s being refused service in an ice-cream shop, in a scene so replete with segregationist-era subtext that you expect the sign the elephant references to read: WE SERVE WHITES ONLY. So fox=victim, fine. Then it turns out that Judy, because essentially kind and good, has herself become the victim of that fox’s machinations, but not before she calls Nick “an articulate fella”. And then later on it turns out that Judy is also (because naive) the oppressor: her disastrous press conference sparks calls for the mandatory quarantine of predator species and initiates the sort of microaggressions against predators which almost any racial minority will find eerily familiar.
Here’s another bit of complexity: there’s a moment when Chief Bogo (initially introduced as something of a bigot) disdainfully tells Judy, when she insists that a black panther has “gone savage”, that “maybe to you rabbits every predator looks savage”. Which sounds unutterably mean, until you realise that actually that’s quite an accurate description of the views which Judy’s parents hold (there’s a scene near the beginning of the movie which outlines beautifully a racist-parent & embarrassed-kid dynamic going on between them). Which in turns suggests that Bogo’s is racist/speciesist precisely because he stereotypes rabbits as racist/speciesist. The real-world equivalent of this would be assuming that, say, every Southern Republican is racist. Now this is trivially true, but the actual emotional weight of this wrongness is almost impossible to feel – except that Zootopia makes you feel it.
Part Two of Zootopia’s genius is this: it’s racist.
By which I mean: a racist could watch the film and walk out with all of their views affirmed. I mean, the film does rely on stereotypes about animals for a lot of its humour. Sloths are slow, rabbits breed fast. It’s no defence to point out that many animals don’t fit their stereotypes in the film; it’s precisely because of the stereotype that the relevant jokes are funny: Mr. Big, lord of the criminal underground, is a tiny arctic shrew, and Clawhauser the cheetah is terrifically unfit.
But this is how the real world works. Racists and non- look at roughly the same set of facts and derive radically different conclusions. Remember how I said above that Zootopia is an argument for liberalism whose texture is consistent with the outcome it advocates? Well, here’s one thing: as an argument, it does not compel. The film offers a refutation of intolerant social liberalism by inviting the audience to participate in stereotypes, to revel in them even. You are clever, the film says, but you’re probably not wise.
And it’s the possibility of racist interpretations (because Zootopia relies on stereotypes) that also lets Zootopia offer a refutation of political liberalism – at least, as it’s often understood today. If political liberalism is committed to the factual claim that all people are actually equal then it is horrifically weak. Will it have space for those who are less mentally or physically able, for those who need our aid, for those who decide not to contribute to our social project? Zootopia says: why give a fuck if people are actually unequal? Work from the moral premise, not the factual one. Hence: Clawhauser and Flash, let alone Judy and Nick, are fully realised characters that we like, independent of whether or not they conform to stereotypes about their species. Zootopia offers as a remedy to worries about whether or not stereotypes are true or not a robust empathy: what matters is that these other people are fully alive, not that they are alive in certain ways.
Zootopia underscores this point pretty effectively, I think. So Judy (who’s more or less a perfect analogue of the university-educated, uber-socially-aware twenty-something) is revealed by Nick to be naïve in her refusal to accept any stereotypes at all, as when Nick teasingly asks her when she realizes that all the workers in the D.M.V. are sloths: “Are you saying that because he’s a sloth he can’t be fast?” And then think of the moment when Nick is confronting Judy after her press conference: think of the blind fury and sense of betrayal with which he repeats (snarls, more like) after Judy, “Primitive, savage, instincts? A biological component?” Judy is naïve, Zootopia says, because she both refuses to accept that some stereotypes can be true (sloths are slow), and because she applies some stereotypes where they shouldn’t be (foxes are dangerous). She says to Nick: you’re not that kind of predator, and you’re not like the others. But Nick knows already he has been absorbed into that other, and recognises what’s wrong in saying, you’re my friend, and not like the other [black people].
Another last problem with the Zootopia-as-racist idea is that Zootopia does suggest that stereotypes are self-fulfilling. Nick is sly and untrustworthy because his attempt to be something other than his stereotype was rebuffed, and he recoils into the stereotype (as he admits) for protection and stability. This is the least sexy (because least subversive) of all the responses to the Zootopia-as-racist accusation, but might just be the most important: it is probably the case that our essentialist generalizations are consequences of functions of the way people are brought up, of the cultures we imbibe, of the different pressures of living we are subject to.
It’s crucial to all the stuff above working that Zootopia’s world is gorgeously imagined, that the details are so exquisitely rendered, that the characters are so expressive, and that their forms of life so closely mirror our own, down to the smartphones and iPads and all the absurdly exuberant puns about Bearberry + Zuber + Fur Fighters. It’s a world that is fully alive. The argument being performed is an optimistic one, and therefore a persuasive one: this is what pluralism looks like, Zootopia says, and it looks like a good world. It draws out an intuition that is hard to articulate well about how we value difference in the people close to us: think of how you value your friends because they are not who you are.
Of course it’s possible to see in Zootopia an endorsement of essentialism, since it concedes that in the distant past predator & prey used to fear each other, and it even insists on applying the terms predator and prey to its present. But it’s kind of silly to expect a metaphor not to break down. If a metaphor didn’t break down at any point it wouldn’t be a metaphor, it’d just be this world. The point is that a good metaphor breaks down interestingly. And this metaphor does just that: Bellwether exploits precisely the predator-prey binary to stir up speciesist animus in Zootopia, so that the film eventually offers a critique of its own language. Plus it’s probably true that we’re all racist by default. Any creature not preprogrammed with a basic aversion to living things which look different from it probably didn’t get to travel too far down the evolutionary tree. Liberal pluralism might well be right, but it sure as heck isn’t natural, just as Zootopia, eminently and gloriously, isn’t natural.
There’s another potential problem with Zootopia, and that’s the idea that in its eagerness to point out the complexity of the idea of oppression it buys into the cheap trope peddled by Avenue Q – that oppression is function not of systems and architectures but of individuals: Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist. But racism, the argument goes, is prejudice plus power. A film can’t discuss The Other if everyone in the film is The Other. The central message of Shakira’s Try Everything, the public callsign of the film’s marketing campaign, is really a placatory lie: you cannot succeed if you just try, because the world might be arrayed against you.
So is Zootopia some neoliberal shitshow – all individual, no system?
Well, no. For a start, Zootopia is pretty aware of problematic social structures: there’s a reason that it’s the lemmings that work in the banks. And there are structures of oppressive power that the film introduces and does not resolve. Take the office of the Zootopia Mayor. Is it entirely a coincidence that it’s occupied by a lion? Or that Lionheart treats the Assistant Mayor, Bellweather, like crap, having put her in her position purely to get the sheep vote? Isn’t it disturbing that at the end of the film the pandering asshole Lionheart looks like he’s well on the way back to power, despite having placed predators in need of medical treatment under custody to further his political ends, and that Bellweather, who has suffered so much under Lionheart, remains imprisoned? Well, OK, maybe. I find it hard not to detect in Zootopia the suggestion that certain types of animals have an advantage when it comes to political office. It’s definitely true that Zootopia is well aware of the dangers of identity politics, however, and that’s why even if it does not go out of its way to talk about structural racism I’m not particularly bothered; Zootopia’s discussion of structural racism happens on the analogical level. The point is that in this world, many structures of oppression are buttressed by appeals (from politicians like Lionheart & Bellweather) to our prejudices, our animal tendency. This is kind of obvious, but there could not be a more important time for Zootopia to be released. Liberal pluralism is a good thing, Zootopia says, look at it. It’s seriously moral without being condescending, and there’s little criticism that you can throw at it that it doesn’t immediately and joyfully subvert. It’s a GBOA, all right. And – bless it – it’s out to save us all.
 I should clarify: everything I’m writing here is based purely on my memory of what I saw in the cinema, since it’s obviously impossible to buy Zootopia as of the time of writing. I’ve probably misremembered some things, but there shouldn’t be anything major.
 Indie-ish filmmakers have produced animated masterpieces (Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox), as have Japanese animators (Mamoru Hosoda’s Wolf Children), but I don’t think a true capital-G Great animated film has emerged from the main current of Western animation until Zootopia. Plus a lot of Disney’s stuff is pretty dismal: both Frozen and Inside Out are either mediocre or terrible, depending on my mood.
 Well, a specific bit of it.
 GBOAs aren’t just good at one thing or another, after all.
 If you think about it, it’s kind of obvious that film is just the greatest art form out there, at least in the (vaguely defined) sense that the Best Possible Film must be greater than the Best Possible (e.g.) Novel/Symphony/Photograph/Painting. I mean, the BPF has got to contain everything good about the best possible Novel/Symphony/Photograph/Painting. The BPF has got certain words in a certain order – so that’s the Novel covered; it’s got a score – that’s the Symphony; it’s got a camera placed at a certain angles capturing certain objects designed in a certain way [what colour? shape? texture?] and positioned in a certain way – and that covers [lots of stuff]. And then there’s lots of things specific to the filmic medium, like camera movement and kinetic mise-en-scène and obviously the coordination of all the previously mentioned things into a single experience. Which is why a film isn’t really a kind of over-there art but more a re-experienced world. I mention all of this not to say that most films are great, because they aren’t: more opportunities for artistic exploration also equals more opportunities for artistic failure, and for a film to succeed on all the dozen+ levels it inevitably operates on is more or less a miracle. I mention this to highlight that the animated film really ought to be the pinnacle of the medium because of the sheer control it offers. You can engage in wholesale world-creation without getting bogged down by lousy real-world constraints like physics or having a certain set of actors you can choose from or needing to render useless whole chunks of Manhattan to film a car chase or whatever. You can decide, quite literally, how many hairs you want to have on a character’s head. The only real limitations the animated medium have now are purely technical, and mostly stem from the fact (1) rendering (texturing and lighting, mostly) is really computationally intensive, and (2) the human brain is stupidly good at face-recognition, and so any tiny anomaly in a non-stylised CGI face is picked up and blown into monstrous proportions by our temporal lobe – which means that, for now, we still need real actors and can’t do everything on a computer. It’ll be an awesome day when all actors are replaced by CGI models, though: no more bad acting.
 If your heart didn’t quicken at least a little during that bit in the end of the first act where Judy takes the Zootopia Express and the virtual camera does these long arcing swoops over the different precincts then you’re not human. Actually this seems to be one of the things which animated films are quite good at: sequences which elicit pure joy. HTTYD was dense with those flight scenes, Wall.E had the bit with the fire extinguisher, The Lion King has that opening, and so on.
 It’s a proper score: Nick and Judy have their own themes, as do some of the more emotionally resonant sort-of-recurring motifs. None of this Zimmerian rubbish where a score is written before the film’s done and all you get is aural mush (if you see the word minimalist, run) and abused church organs. Some bits of Zootopia’s score are also quite interesting: Nick’s theme is a surprisingly Latinate, woody thing in the G Aeolian, and another theme (heard only glancingly until the credits) features lots of passing Neapolitan harmony and borrowed IV chords from the parallel minor – which is quite typical for big action blockbusters, actually, but not animated films. (There’s a twist in that the borrowed IV chord resolves upward, into the major IV, which works better than you’d think, and is nicely in keeping with the film’s upbeat tone.)
 There’s an extended parody of Marlon Brando that’s coruscatingly brilliant, and a bunch of sleeker-than-usual pop-cultural references (it’s the execution that prevents Zootopia from descending into the vapid cocked-eyebrow faddishness of The Lego Movie, which is enjoyable but not great), but a lot of the humour is also quite subtle. E.g.: at one point Nick tells Judy that the way to deal with questions at press conferences is to respond by asking your own question and then answering it; after that you start to notice that some of the more high-profile denizens of Zootopia consistently answer questions this way. (As in when the Mayor goes: “Did I imprison those animals? Yes, yes I did.”) And riiight at the very end of the movie, Judy says to Nick (platonically!): “Do I love you? Yes. Yes I do.”
 In part due to some bold-ish decisions by Howard/Moore/Bush. The scene where a young Nick is muzzled when an initiation to the Junior Ranger Scouts takes a very bad turn is one of pure Murnauesque horror, all darkness and Expressivist shadow. There’s a moment when the [beaver?] play-interrogating Nick suddenly asks Nick, right after he’s repeated the oath (about promising to be good, and kind, and brave etc.): “Even though you’re a fox?” You’d expect, given that Nick likes his friends in the Junior Rangers, to laugh, maybe nervously, and say of course, maybe add on, what’s going on, guys? But the face staring into the flashlight is stunned, shocked, speechless: and then the muzzle comes on. And this is how you realize that Nick, as a child, does not yet understand what it means to be despised – how does not know how to react to the fact of discrimination because at that moment it’s something totally alien to him.
 Wikipedia, with the stoic unselfawareness that makes it so endearing, describes the film as a “computer-animated action buddy comedy-drama neo-noir adventure film”.
 And this is a judgment completely separate from the issue of whether or not liberalism is correct.
 Rawls explicitly premises most of ToJ on ethical philistinism, which he disguises by insisting that there’s a difference between the right and the good and that he only wants to talk about the former.
 I’m adopting the Rawlsian axiomatization here, since it’s the most influential.
 Because, as a matter of fact, people are obviously not equal in most respects, and they are obviously unfree in many respects.
 Covering, inter alia, essentialism, affirmative action, childhood bullying, racial segregation, racial profiling, word reclamation, microaggression, sexism, workplace harassment, police brutality, and the politics (+ media) of identity (+ fear).
 It’s OK for a black person to call another black person nigger, but not for a white person to do so.
 Although many of these quips, especially those towards the end of the film, are spoken by Nick with genuine affection and irony. This is quite typical for a film that strenuously resists easy characterization of anything, even a word as simple as “Carrots”.
 The parallels with pepper spray and sexual predators are obvious, and chilling. But in this case it’s not so much a parallel, really, as much as an intermixture.
 This joke came from the mother of one of the (white) writers for Zootopia, who often applied the word to nonwhite people she admired.
 Actually the way the film deals with press-induced panics is quite elegant. After a heartwrenching scene where Nick confronts Judy over what she said (itself an amazing study in animated facial expression and the struggle between Nick’s tribal (fox) identity and the fact that Judy had only acted in goodwill), the press crowds around. “Were you just threatened by that fox?” they ask? “No,” Judy says, frantic. “He was[is?] my friend!” “Can we not trust our friends now?” the media scrum cries. “Are we safe?” The scene is fucking William Golding-levels of depressing and accurate, that’s what it is.
 Think of how crazily offensive a joke whose punchline was “a smart black man” would be. Now how about “fast sloth”? You get the point.
 Of course there’s a lot of divergence in the specifics, what with the political siloization of different media outlets, but it’s also true that a lot of disagreement re (e.g.) illegal immigrants don’t really stem from a different understanding of the facts: they stem from a different understanding of where our obligations to non-citizens come from.
 In this way the film succeeds where Animal Farm fails, in that Orwell, while presumably writing about the dangers about brainwashing, himself ends up creating work which is aimed at precisely that: creating a world so devoid of moral complexity that it subverts your ability to think for yourself by burying actual thought under a outraged moral smugness: think of how unbelievably stupid Orwell must make the farm animals for the allegory to work, or how much time you spend inchoately thinking gosh, Napoleon’s such a bastard.
 Think of Trump on Mexican rapists and Hillary on “superpredators”.
 Not living on an isolated island without large predators, I should clarify.
 And note that this aversion just needs to almost immeasurably slight when it comes to atomized interactions for it to have extremely large society-wide effects.
 Lemming Brothers. You’re welcome.
 Also probably true that if Zootopia got more explicit than it already is it would significantly undermine its persuasive power vis-à-vis those people who most need to be persuaded of the benefits of liberal pluralism.
 Not entirely a coincidence; the plot of Zootopia was drastically revised in the last 17 months of production. Originally, Nick Wilde was the protagonist, and Zootopia was some kind of dystopian hell where all predators were fitted with collars to shock them into submission should any of their predatory instincts emerge. It’s stunning to think how something as amazing as Zootopia nearly succumbed to the banality that infects every dystopian film being made nowadays.
 The idea that the film is an extended fuck-you to Trump & Co. is lent a lot of weight by the fact that, in the film’s credits, Gazelle cheers her adoring crowd on in Spanish. Plus Bellwether’s rant really might as well serve as the executive summary of the Trump playbook.
Afterword: two slightly odd issues which Zootopia (inevitably, but probably unintentionally) raises.
First: remember how I said earlier that to premise liberal pluralism on the factual equality of all people is dangerous, and we should not care that some stereotypes might be true? You might find that outrageous. In which case: what about animals? They are not the equals of humans, in many ways. In many ways they are weak and stupid. In many ways they don’t contribute to your society. Still kind of seems to me that they deserve our moral caring (at least, if they know they exist, and if they can suffer.) In which case one question we must confront is this: how do we deal, morally, with real predator-prey relationships? Hah.
Second: Furries. I mean, somehow, weirdly, despite all our concern re not despising people for who they are, it’s kind of OK to mock them, isn’t it? The number of misconceptions people still hold about them is pretty incredible. If you read the comments underneath the trailers for Zootopia you’ll see some quite disparaging stuff being said about furries. I just thought this should be mentioned, as the irony of people watching Zootopia, a film about accepting difference, complaining about or mocking furries is rather painful.
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