Real problems in fake worlds: oppression in fiction

Originally published on JohMyWorld by Joash Musundi

2016 was a year of rough reminders that things aren’t as good as we thought they were. Conversations about racism, homophobia, transphobia and misogyny and other forms of discrimination were incredibly common. And these conversations made Zootopia, (released in 2016) all the more relevant. Zootopia uses the dichotomy of “predator” and “prey” between mammals species as an allegory for racism in America and for the most part, the allegory is strong and clear. For those unfamiliar with the movie, it follows Judy Hopps, a plucky young bunny as she attempts to join the police force but faces workplace discrimination. Despite her passion and intelligence she is still “just a bunny” and isn’t seen as fit to work with the larger mammals on the force. Despite this, she ends up teamed up with a lawbreaking fox, Nick Wilde to uncover a conspiracy that has predators going “savage” (entering a feral state).

Now despite individual stereotypes based on species, the Zootopian universe is based on the premise that predators were wild and dangerous to the safety of the prey animals until they became ‘civilised’. The most obvious way this mindset is shown to be ingrained into Zootopian culture is the used of the terms “predator” and “prey” as opposed to “carnivore” and “herbivore”. Using “predator and “prey” perpetuates the existing notion of carnivorous animals being dangerous, and actively aggressive as opposed to being mammals who just survive on meat based diets (and in Zootopia meat is confirmed to be non-sentient insects and fish). Nick Wilde’s experience of being cruelly muzzled as a child (or rather a cub) also shows that these sentiments are still present in the Zootopian world, and Judy Hopps suggesting that there was a ‘biological’ factor to predators going savage on a large platform shows a swift resurgence in these regressive views.

Zootopia. Credit:

Despite this suggestion, the mystery as to why the predators went is savage is solved at the end of the movie and Gazelle (Shakira) sings a song and all is well because at the end of the day this is still a Disney film!
But the idea of ‘savages’ becoming ‘civilised’, and being perceived as physically more dangerous, is not dissimilar to forms of racism that have occurred and still do occur in the real world. From early colonisers to slave owners to people who attempt to justify police brutality, the sentiment of black people being seen as ‘dangerous’ can be gleaned from their actions right across history. This is where Zootopia’s allegory for racism starts to develop some unfortunate implications when applied to the real world, and the real problem of racism that it attempts to reflect. We’re looking at anthropomorphic animals in this film. And some animals do pose a very real threat to other animal species. So especially as people who are aware of animal species and food chains and whatnot, the prejudiced motives of the characters in the film may seem justified.

A similar issue comes up in the X-Men franchise. Now the parallels between who the mutants were meant to represent change depending on which incarnation you look at. Sometimes parallels can be drawn on racism, sometimes an LGBTQ angle can be seen, and sometimes other forms of discrimination are focused on. In this sense it can be argued that X-Men uses allegories of oppression better than Zootopia, because not only does anti-mutant sentiment exist as its own entity in the universe (in that it isn’t seen as a direct parallel to other forms of oppression), it also looks at other forms of discrimination that exist in our real world and has them exists side by side with anti-mutant behaviours. However, most of the mutants we encounter have genuinely dangerous powers. Incredibly powerful telepaths, people who control the weather, people with telekinesis, and many, many, MANY others, all pose more of an actual threat to people than non-mutated humans. Because of this, some of the things that occur in the X-Men universe, that exist based on the preservation of non-mutated humans (i.e the creation of the sentinels, the mutant registration act, the development of the cure for mutation), may seem justified.


X-Men. Credit:

In both films, it’s too easy to side with systems, ideologies and characters that antagonise characters that we’re meant to be rooting for. And this is through using basic logic. This is why I feel that allegories for discrimination using what TV Tropes describes as ‘fantastic racism’ (fantastic as in, relates to a fantasy world, not fantastic as in good) are inherently flawed and real systems of oppression are significantly more insidious and complex than these universes present to us.


The saving grace of this is that, despite these flaws within the trope, fantastic racism forces the audience members to see the humanity (so to speak) in characters who in the real world, they very well may fear. Yes, Rogue may be able to send people into a coma with a touch of her hand, but we also see how that affected her self-esteem as a teenager. Yes, Erik Magnus (or Max Eisenhardt, depending on who you ask), could level building with his mastery over magnetism, but he’s also a hurt and angry Holocaust survivor and his feelings are rooted in that.
The fact that we’re looking into these alternative forms of the human experience, experiences that we may not be used to seeing or even considering, presents us with a ray of hope in that we can continue seeing it in others in real life, and continue to support those of us, whose humanity has historically and systematically been put under trial.

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