Zootopia and Race

Warning: This post will contain spoilers for Zootopia.

I remember watching the Zootopia sloth trailer in front of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and laughing just as hard as everyone else in the theater. However, when the release date came around I was preoccupied with the hype for BatmanvSuperman and the film slipped by my radar. Zootopia returned to my radar after hearing about its box office success, and especially after a friend gave it a glowing review.

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One of the things that my friend liked the most was how the film tackled the issue of race. He said it wasn’t preachy or overly sentimental, but worked in allegories that were easily identifiable. I remember the one he told me about was the use of the word “cute”. In the film, it is okay for bunnies to call one another cute, but it is offensive if another species uses the word. I don’t think I need to elaborate on the similarity to the word “nigga”.

Another light-hearted allegory that got my attention was a scene where Nicholas “Nick” Wilde (Jason Bateman) touches a sheep’s hair, remarking on how fluffy it is. Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) then whispers that he can’t just touch a sheep’s wool. I can remember grade eight at Southbank International School in London, England. I was one of two black kids, out of a student body of at least 100, and my classmates often touched my hair. I am sure a lot of other black people, and women especially, can relate to someone treating them like an animal in a petting zoo and touching their hair without permission. I remember that a Buzzfeed article on Zootopia was filled with people arguing that this happens to anyone with curly hair. Black people, on average, are more likely to have curly or “kinky” hair so I think it is fair to say that the sheep wool can be interpreted as kinky hair.

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Aside from these smaller vignettes, Zootopia is loaded with messages of discrimination. What I like most about the film is that most of these messages or lessons don’t come from the depiction of highly vocal bigots. I have no sympathy for ignorant people but most of the discrimination in the film is presented as ingrained biases from otherwise decent people who do not seem to know any better. I have no problem with the depiction of more staunch bigotry (such as Imperium or American History X) but in this age of supposed “colour-blindness” it is important to see how people who claim to be tolerant can adopt stereotypes of other races.

Within the city of Zootopia, mammals (predator and prey) now live in harmony. The film revolves around the disappearance of fourteen mammals in Zootopia.  Their disappearance is revealed to be a move by Mayor Leodore Lionheart (J.K Simmons) to hide the fact that predators are going “savage”- reverting to their desire to attack and consume prey. Co-screenwriter Jared Bush has explained that predators in Zootopia only eat plant-based proteins and insects. Going “savage” causes the animals to lose the capacity for speech and return to the predator-prey mindset. Hopps, aided by Wilde, must uncover why the animals are going savage.

Wilde’s identify as a fox gives us one of our first insights into discrimination in this fictional world. In the film foxes have a reputation for being sly and deceitful. Hopps’s parents are wary of her living among them when she leaves their farm and goes to Zootopia. They make sure to give her fox-repellent, similar to pepper spray. Although Judy criticizes their bigotry she still brings the fox-repellent with her on her first day of work. Like real-life, someone who is outwardly accepting can still be affected by stereotypes that they have picked up from the media, friends, parents etc. I have had well-meaning friends tell me I speak well for a black guy, and Hopps also applauds Nick for how articulate he is. Nick has heard the compliment before, and thanks Hopps for not being patronizing (although his tone implies that he is not truly happy to hear the compliment again).

Wilde has long been the victim of prejudice, with the most pivotal moment being an incident of childhood bullying. Wilde had hopes of being the first fox scout, but was pranked and muzzled during his supposed induction ceremony. Zootopia is founded on the idea that anyone who arrives can be anything they want to be, similar to the American Dream. However, Wilde believes that all you can really be is what’s on the outside.  He knows other people only see a fox when they look at him, so he stopped trying to be different and became a con-artist. Obviously, I am not trying to say every criminal is simply misunderstood, and I don’t think the film is either. Wilde is simply an example of someone who is disillusioned with the world’s supposed equality, which he has yet to experience.

Meanwhile, Hopps is the first bunny cop, who is enlisted as part of a Mammalian inclusion initiative. Although she is accepted, Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) has little faith in her ability and assigns her to parking duty.

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Hopps and Wilde are able to form a bond over their treatment, but the bond is tested after they find the missing mammals. Hopps’s takes the stage for her first press conference, with Wilde watching close by, and is quick to reveal that all of the savage animals were predators. When probed, Hopps remarks that the predators might be returning to their old instincts. Wilde doesn’t approve of the comments, and Hopps initially dismisses him. She argues that Wilde should know she wasn’t talking about him, just “them”.

“I remember a mom of a friend of mine in the suburbs made some comment about a black person and – I had to be 12, about 60 pounds – and I said something and she said: ‘Oh no, not you. You are not black. You are great.’- Jesse Williams

That quote leapt into my mind during this scene. We end up being a “credit to our kind”, differentiated from “them”, the masses that deserve hate or mistrust.

It is later revealed that a serum, derived from a poisonous plant, is responsible for the mammals going savage. Mayor Dawn Bellwether (promoted after Lionheart is imprisoned) reveals herself as the mastermind behind the plot, aiming to use the public’s fear to eliminate the predator minority from Zootopia. Using a hitman of sorts, she was able to target predators all over the city and create an atmosphere of fear and distrust. This scheme isn’t just fiction; Donald Trump probably read an early draft of the screenplay and used it as a manual on running a Presidential campaign. As Bellwether says “Fear always works!”

I remember thinking about Zootopia unapologetically explored issues that many people are too afraid to nowadays. In many ways, this Disney film had more guts than most of the Disney produced Marvel films. There is a childhood scene where Hopps is attacked by a child fox, and when he moves to scratch her I was sure that she would be saved at the last minute somehow. Instead, we see Hopps sporting a scar on her left cheek. Life isn’t a fairy tale, and this movie isn’t afraid to let us know that. No pretty princesses, no flowery songs.  Zootopia has a great motto of equality but Hopps acknowledges it is only a motto and that the dream is a work in progress.

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The Unwhitewashing of Geek Culture

“The title of this post is in reference to this blog post I came across a few days ago. The post examines recent and upcoming instances of white comic book characters, such as Iris West on The Flash, being cast with people of colour (poc).

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The blog post has a very optimistic mindset, arguing that those who focus on instances of whitewashing are ignoring the progress being made. I disagree with the writer, but unlike some of my other posts, I don’t aim to vilify her. The idea for this blog post actually came out of our pleasant exchanges in the comment section.

Some successes do not overweigh failures in Hollywood’s casting decisions. Of course, I am happy for these successes but I believe that we can’t rely on the mindset that “things are so much better” to avoid pushing for things to be right. Of course, some progress is being made in terms of diversity in Hollywood and I am happy to see it. The author is right to say that we have come a long way but I don’t think complaints of whitewashing overshadow the positives, I think the positives overshadow the continuing legacy of whitewashing. The 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report showed that 17% of lead roles in Hollywood films go to a minority. This is despite the fact that minorities nearly make up 40% of the US population. Some may be quick to argue that there must be a shortage of actors from people of other races, but I don’t think I even have to dignify that argument with precise statistics. If there was a severe shortage of aspiring poc actors, we wouldn’t be able to make productions like The Get Down, Luke Cage and Straight Outta Compton. Not to mention a slew of diverse or minority dominated indie films like Dope. These indie films have numerous poc who wish to be on the big screen someday.

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Some may also argue that poc just aren’t as talented, but doesn’t their talent become a moot point if they are denied a role because their race isn’t viewed as marketable enough? Let’s use Ridley Scott’s Mohammad so-and-so comment to illustrate. Ridley Scott originally argued that Exodus featured a white cast since Ancient Egypt was a “confluence of cultures”. He later admitted he just couldn’t cast Mohammad so-and-so to get a film financed.  Very few people will deny that Hollywood favours white people for roles. They just find ways to defend it: “best actor for the part, race doesn’t matter” “It’s not about race, it’s about being relatable and marketable”. Yet if a character that is supposed to white is played by a poc then it is “reverse racism” “political correctness” or a “liberal agenda”. I have already discussed this blatant double standard in depth in two articles.

With those two arguments out of the way, I wanted to discuss the part of my conversation with the blogger that interested me most. I do enjoy my ongoing discussion with the blogger so yet again, this isn’t meant to vilify her. However, our discussion brought up a very important misconception about America that fuels Hollywood’s casting decisions, and is also created by them. The blogger used the oft-cited argument that whitewashing is about “relatability”- creating characters people can identify with. Firstly, this argument assumes that someone must be of the same race for you to relate to them. It is possible to relate to someone’s motivations, upbringing, struggles etc. if you are not of the same race. Why does Hollywood and members of its audience think that people can care about robots and talking animals, but not care about poc? Next, you don’t have to be able to relate to a character to care about them. Also, poc are meant to care about characters that are a different race and would likely be considered racist if they skipped out on a movie because it had too many white people. Main point: Hollywood creates the idea that whiteness is universal. Everyone will go to see white people, but only blacks will see blacks, Asians will see Asians etc.

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If someone needs to look like you to be “relatable” or marketable why was this movie so successful?

Once I responded with these facts, the blogger then brought up the misconception. When I referred to movies with mostly poc casts, she assumed I meant foreign ones; arguing that their lack of popularity is more related to the influence of their respective industries, which will likely pale in comparison to Hollywood. I was talking about American productions, like the ones I mentioned above. Hollywood has, for the most part, presented a very white America. Obviously there are prominent poc actors, but compare their numbers to the prominent white ones. Although people always deny the societal impact of films, films are shown to have a significant impact on how people view a certain city, region, country etc.

https://web.stanford.edu/class/e297c/poverty_prejudice/mediarace/portrayal.htm

“Considerable public concern has arisen over the issue of media diversity, as it is generally accepted that mass media has strong social and psychological effects on viewers. Film and television, for example, provide many children with their first exposure to people of other races, ethnicities, religions and cultures. What they see onscreen, therefore, can impact their attitudes about the treatment of others. One study found, for instance, that two years of viewing Sesame Street by European-American preschoolers was associated with more positive attitudes toward African and Latino Americans. Another study found that white children exposed to a negative television portrayal of African-Americans had a negative change in attitude toward blacks. (Diversity in film and television: MediaScope)”

People may be quick to argue that they are much less impressionable than children but ask yourself honestly: Has the depiction of a certain area on tv or in a movie, ever affected your perception of the area, whether it be the demographics or crime of that region? I have heard plenty of friends complain of a region being depicted as too diverse, too crime-ridden and so on. People do notice these things and I don’t believe it is a stretch to say that someone who is unfamiliar with an area can form an impression of it from films. This blogger is likely American and also is not white, so she likely knows what America looks like. Yet years of Hollywood films disproportionately dominated by white people still creates the assumption that a mostly poc cast is the work of foreigners. Such a thing does not exist in America. The blogger has not responded to my most recent post where I pointed this assumption out, so we will see what other insights come from this. Either way, I thought it was a great example of how the impact of films.

 

Update: My last comment to the poster appears to have been deleted. I am assuming that the blogger is the only one who is allowed to do this, so it appears she didn’t take kindly to me calling her out on her assumption.

Heteronormativity and The Last of Us

In my previous post, I reflected on how Hollywood has conditioned us to view certain things as normal, and others as unnatural. The normal things include whiteness, masculinity and heterosexuality. When I wrote the previous post I indicated that one article is not enough to discuss all the issues tied to Hollywood and minority representation. I wrote my master’s paper on colour-blind racism and Hollywood but I could easily write a dissertation on this larger topic. For that reason I am thinking of including a weekly segment that looks at a specific example of a minority (racial, religious, sexual) being viewed as unwelcome or alien.

Tonight’s example is one I came across a while ago, but that still sticks with me. The Last of Us is a video game that focuses on a pair of survivors (Joel and Ellie) in a post-apocalyptic American landscape swarmed with bandits and zombies (humans infected with the cordyceps fungus). An expansion pack for the game, The Last of Us: Left Behind, focuses on Ellie and reveals more of her past.

This past included a friend named Riley, who died from the fungus. Prior to Ellie’s death, she kisses Riley. This kiss is captured on a YouTube upload of the expansion pack. After watching the second part of the video I scrolled through the comments, only to be greeted by numerous comments saying that Ellie isn’t necessarily lesbian. It was just a kiss, she could still be straight.

I had to ask, “Wait, so for the people saying “a kiss doesn’t make her lesbian”, if she kissed a guy would you say “a kiss doesn’t make her straight”?”

This is something that any reader must seriously consider. If Ellie kissed a guy, and people vehemently argued that she could “still be lesbian”, those people would be seen as idiots. Where is there proof? What are they basing this on? Why are they so eager for the character to be lesbian? We have been conditioned to think of homosexuality as a “lifestyle”, a “choice” or a “phase”. I can’t blame Hollywood completely for this but I think that Hollywood can definitely help to cement these views when homosexual characters are not developed well. The worst offender for me was The Kids Are All Right, where Julianne Moore’s character cheats on her wife with a man- we all know she was just biding time with the woman and waiting for a man to come along.

Straight Outta Compton and Minorities in Lead Roles

If you have been watching my Twitter or Facebook feed you know I can’t stop talking about how awesome Straight Outta Compton was. The film wasn’t perfect by any means, it dragged slightly at points and was also brought down by O’Shea Jackson Jr, who may resemble his father well but was one of the stiffest actors in the film. With that said, Jason Mitchell (Eazy-E) and Corey Hawkings (Dr. Dre) and Paul Giamatti (Jerry Heller) anchor the film.

I was considering doing a review and I may do one on YouTube but this piece won’t be a review. I simply want to comment on how well the film is doing, especially in a time where studios and audiences continue to justify whitewashing and disproportionate casting of whites in Hollywood films. Paul Giamatti may be a great actor, but I do not believe he is considered a highly marketable actor. This biopic became the highest August opening for an R-Rated film due to the popularity of the figures it portrayed and a great marketing campaign. Despite the popularity of the real-life figures it would not surprise me if there were people who believed the film would flop financially due to its mostly black cast: Even though the film has relatively small budget of less than $30 million. Straight Outta Compton also had the fortune of being funded partially by figures such as Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, which probably helped to assuage studio worries of financial loss.

What I am hoping is that the success of Straight Outta Compton goes far beyond biopics. I hope studios can realize that the set in stone rule of black (and minority actors as a whole) not being marketable is a myth and a self-fulfilling prophecy. How are new minority actors supposed to become marketable if they are not given the appropriate chances to prove themselves? With 1 in 10 roles going to minorities in 2015, it is obvious that Hollywood’s practices of whitewashing and restricting casting calls to white actors severely impacts minority representation in films. Stars such as Will Smith and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson were fortunate to have established careers that made them marketable prior to their first film. Will Smith had The Fresh Prince, while The Rock had the WWE. Although these careers did not mean that both actors were taken seriously as actors it did mean that studios didn’t view them as risky investments.

Hollywood’s casting practices have demonstrated that white actors generally do not need to worry about this stigma as much. Studios will cast untested leads like Armie Hammer and Kellan Lutz in huge budget films, while hesitating to cast minority actors in roles for less expensive films. As I have discussed in my piece on double standards, people will often defend whitewashing in large numbers, using excuses such as “it’s just a movie”, “best actor for the part” and “artistic interpretation”. When a white character is turned black/Hispanic/Asian, suddenly those same excuses are not valid. I want to see studios take more calculated risks with black actors, pointing to the success of Straight Outta Compton, instead of emphasizing the failure of Red Tails.