If you missed the big superhero movie this week, it’s probably because you went to see the new Disney masterpiece Zootopia instead. Although it’s not uncommon for a family film to be packed with ethical lessons, Zootopia goes aggressively after current political topics, including bigotry, law enforcement, culturally mixed societies, and bullying. It handles them with grace and compassion, which is all you can hope for in an animated film, but I want to talk about a subtle, but nonetheless affecting message in the show: how it portrays women helping women.
Gender dynamics play an interesting, if understated role in Zootopia. I’m going to to avoid any significant spoilers (wouldn’t want to ruin the crime mystery!), but I was fascinated by the small details in the film about how women interact in the workplace and the “adult world” that the city of Zootopia represents. First out the gate: Judy is a new police officer, a rabbit in a precinct full of much larger mammals. They are overwhelmingly presented as male in the film, and so are most of the suspects and witnesses she meets through police work. The film takes a metaphor about race relations, and adds a distinct extra layer about gender discrimination in the workplace.
The four main speaking parts for women in the film all belong to physically small animals, including Judy. It’s clear she is moving through a world where “predators” (i.e. men, if you didn’t catch the symbolism) could attack her at any time. She literally carries pepper spray, urged on her by her parents. The show has some amazing things to say about two-way bias in this regard, but for now I’d like to focus on three women that Judy meets through work: Assistant Mayor Bellwether, Fru Fru, and Mrs. Otterton. They are all coded heavily female in the film, through clothing, voices, and actions.
In their own way, Bellwether and Fru both help Judy, and Judy in her way helps Mrs. Otterton. While some of these favors are done in the range of Judy’s normal duties, the notable ones are not. In contrast, this film shows women: A) going out of their way to help each other, B) helping each other in a hostile male workplace, C) freely demonstrating compassion and emotional range, and D) acting “girly”, such as complimenting one another, without hesitation or appearing self-conscious.
Judy aids her early in the film, and takes a moment to stop and say “I love your hair,” to which an excited Fru Fru squeaks “Thank you!” This is shown as one of those compliments that women and girls freely give each other all the time, at work or in casual company, often to total strangers. I noticed it because it’s something that women do for other women, and usually just for the sake of doing it. Judy’s aid to Fru later benefits Judy, as Fru is able to return the favor in a big way. Judy again compliments her, this time on her dress. This small relationship shows both the value of good community police work, and how women use social kindnesses to network and create positive connections. Someone like Nick (or Judy’s male peers) could not have made this personal connection with Fru Fru in such an inherently gendered way, and that demonstrates one of the assets achieved by keeping a diverse workplace.
Right off the bat Bellwether offers to help Judy, one “prey” animal to another. Both Judy and Bellwether work for large, dominating male supervisors: a predator in Bellwether’s case, and a buffalo in Judy’s. While this networking connection can serve as analogy for any under-represented or under-powered group in a workplace, the way Bellwether’s boss treated her (like a secretary instead of an Assistant Mayor) read as a strong metaphor for women working in male dominated fields like politics, banking, etc. Bellwether gets called a derogatory nickname, given demeaning office care-taking tasks below her professional status, and is scolded in a condescending manner by her huge, alpha male boss. In such fields, women mentoring other women and making those professional connections is fundamental to survival and success. It is both altruistic and self-serving at the same time.
While the Ottertons are “predators”, Mrs. is small, of a size with Judy, and is presented as a mother and housewife. She is ignored by most of the police, who neglect the missing persons case she desperately needs solved. They treat her crying and distraught presence as an annoyance. Judy intercedes and listens to Mrs. Otterton when no one else will, giving her hope by the simple act of taking her ‘story’ seriously. Again, compassion allows Judy to help another woman in trouble and to connect: i.e., what other officers either were unable or unwilling to do before.
In the world of Zootopia, women help other women, and doing so brings everyone closer to their goals. This is able to happen without these female characters being judged by the script for being female. No one cracks a negative joke about Fru Fru shopping, even if she’s portrayed as girlish and squeal-y. Bellwether’s size and “passive” prey traits mean people overlook her, but she’s learned to use her position to help out others like herself who just need some encouragement to succeed. Otterton’s grief and pain as a victim is treated seriously by Judy, and thus by the film itself. In the long run, Judy’s intuition to help the Ottertons solves the mystery.
The film captures a wonderful truism: that even when we might feel encouraged by modern culture to see each other as rivals in beauty, jobs, family… women do help other women. Girls help girls. Old women help young women. We compliment each other, we acknowledge each other’s positive efforts, and we try to bring others forward into our successes. The message of “women helping other women” may be subtle in the film– far below the themes of bullying and racism– but it is definitely baked in there. This movie is a deep look at all kinds of discrimination and bias, and how we can work to overcome those biases inside us. It’s a great movie, and I hope a whole lot of young girls and boys get a chance to experience it.