We writers often like to examine real life issues through the lens of fiction, as a way of entertaining and educating at the same time. From religion to today’s topic, prejudice and persecution, there are few topics that can’t be examined through the lens of creative writing and other media. To cut to the chase then, this past weekend I saw the movie Zootopia and was struck by how it approached societal issues in such a nuanced and ‘real-feeling’ fashion. It’s something I think we writers can examine to help us approach examinations of prejudice and racism in our own works. So, yeah, SPOILERS AHEAD!
The trope of examining real-world racial prejudices by using fantasy races and worlds is often called ‘Fantastic Racism‘. It’s a silly sounding term, mainly as many depictions of such racism are handled bluntly and ham-handedly. Sometimes, these depictions go beyond that to straight insulting. Racism and prejudice are subjects that are extremely complex. It’s admirable that so many people want to tackle those subjects, but it can often do more damage than good when handled poorly.
That’s one of many reasons that Zootopia is an impressive movie. Unlike the ham-fisted approach of many fictional metaphors for racism, it manages a surprisingly realistic approach. I think it manages this in a way that writers can also benefit from and comes down to a few key points.
First, Zootopia avoids the trap of making prejudice a one-way street. Both predator and prey species in the world have prejudices towards the other side, while there are also prejudices and stereotypes associated with specific species within those broad categories. Some are understandable, if still flawed, while some have no real basis in reality, very much like our own real prejudices.
Second, there is no character presented who is purely good and washed clean of prejudice. The sad fact of reality is that no one is truly and completely equal in their viewpoints. Even the best of us have subtle prejudices, cultural influences we may not be consciously aware of, yet are still there in us. We see this in Zootopia as well, with both of our main protagonists. Even the idealistic Judy Hopps shows the subtle influence of her upbringing in the press conference scene and the aftermath there of. She may have been horrified upon realizing her own prejudices, but they were there.
Lastly, Zootopia dodges the critical flaw of making prejudice/racism a monolithic problem. When racial fears rise with the revelation of the savagery outbreak, you do not see ALL prey buying into the fear-mongering and you don’t see reactionary actions by ALL predators. Instead, we are shown the very realistic outcome of some predators and prey fighting to maintain their open-mindedness and showing solidarity in the face of prejudice. Again, this is a mirroring of our real world, where there have always been those who stood against racism and shown support and unity with other races.
It’s easy to miss these important points when writing your own themes about prejudice into a fantasy world. However, it’s critical that you don’t. Zootopia gives us a lot of what to do right and straying from the path into these pitfalls can turn a serious examination of themes into a comical farce, unable to be taken with any seriousness.
Until next time, good reading, good writing, and good luck!