Disney’s Zootopia as a Modified Trickster Tale: Reconciliation for a Racist Past

It was not until I took a humanities class at Brigham Young University that discussed the controversy surrounding Song of the South that I comprehended the movie’s disagreeable nature: the film and its Disneyland counterpart feature underlying racist qualities. However, in 2016, Disney released Zootopia, a film about different animal species working together that provides an obvious allegory to overcoming racism. As I watched Zootopia, I felt that some aspects Song of the South damaged were mended in Disney’s new film.

The shocking similarities between Song of the South and Zootopia beg for comparison. Both movies not only incorporate elements of trickster tales—specifically those of African American folklore—but also modify those tales in various ways. These parallels between the movies suggest that Zootopia and Song of the South are connected somehow. Although some movie critics argue that Song of the South is not racist and that Disney has no interest in offering political commentary, my exploration of the films suggest that Zootopia is Disney’s restitution for the company’s racist trickster-tale modifications in Song of the South. In Zootopia, Disney again modifies trickster tales to achieve a progressive commentary on racial issues, which invites the audience to join the fight against racial injustice.

Is Song of the South racist?

Before we start comparing the two movies, we have to ask: is Song of the South even racist? Does Disney have something to apologize for? There are people who believe that Song of the South is not racist. Some might argue that the film was a historical milestone in African American history because James Baskett, the actor who played Uncle Remus, was the first African American male to win an Academy Award. If the movie is so racist, how did it facilitate this landmark achievement? Although Baskett’s accomplishment is an important triumph in African American history, Song of the South still contains many racist elements that sadly overshadow Baskett’s milestone for black history. These issues include the ambiguous time period (did the movie start pre- or post-slave era?), subservient black roles (the black servants say “yes’m”), and the portrayal of black people who seem to happily accept slavery (the slave-like laborers sing cheerfully while working in the plantation). These examples are just a few of the many racial concerns in Song of the South.

It is also important to note that the numerous criticisms of the movie far outnumber the defenses. In fact, when I googled “Song of the South,” most results included discussions of the movie’s racist qualities. However, criticism of the movie is not found only in online forums. Peggy Russo, author of “Uncle Walt’s Uncle Remus: Disney’s Distortion of Harris’s Hero,” provides multiple negative reviews of Song of the South that were given when the movie was released. She quotes Walter F. White, NAACP’s executive secretary in 1946, when she discusses how the NAACP “issued a statement…protesting the perpetuation of ‘a dangerously glorified picture of slavery’” (26). Russo also describes how the National Urban League viewed the film as “another…perpetuation of the stereotype casting of the Negro in the servant role” (26). These reviews are but two of many, and, in the end, the only voices that really matter are those of the African American community. Because organizations like the NAACP and the National Urban League have spoken out against Song of the South, we should support their view and consider the movie racist.

Does Disney even care about politics?

In order to recognize Zootopia as Disney’s restitution for racist features in Song of the South, it is important to understand Disney’s participation in the political sphere. Does Disney even have a political agenda? Would Disney Studios make a movie like Zootopia in order to impart a political message? Richard Breaux, professor of ethnic and racial studies at University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, explains in his paper about Disney’s Princess and the Frog (the first Disney film to star an African American character) that Disney claims to have no interest in making political commentary through its movies. Breaux quotes Kathy Franklin, vice president of Disney’s Global Studio Franchise Development, when he says that Disney “was neither trying to make a social statement nor did it ‘make a conscious decision to say we need an African American princess’” (413). Statements like Franklin’s are rare; Disney Studios is usually silent about the political implications of its movies, especially when it comes to race. Breaux says that Disney has “presented itself as a racially neutral, colorblind corporation with no intention of making a political statement” (413). Although Disney’s desire to paint itself as an impartial, monochromatic corporation, the company’s recent productions speak otherwise. For example, because Zootopia includes such a blatant moral warning against racial stereotyping, it would be naïve to claim that Disney had no intention to involve racial elements in the movie (more on Zootopia’s message on stereotyping later). Zootopia suggests that Disney does indeed participate in the political sphere, and therefore would be able to produce a politically sparked movie that could atone for the racist Song of the South.

Trickster Tales

Now that I have established that Song of the South is seen as a racist film and that Disney seems to now place political commentary in its movies, I can now explore the final preliminary step: what trickster tales are, where they came from, and what their purpose is. Trudier Harris, an English professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, defines trickster tales as stories about “animals or characters who, while ostensibly disadvantaged and weak in a contest of wills, power, and/or resources, succeed in getting the best of their larger, more powerful adversaries.” In African American folklore, the trickster figure (the prey) is commonly a rabbit, while the animal the trickster has to overcome (the predator) is commonly a fox. Sound familiar?

Knowing the features of trickster tales is essential to understanding the connection between Song of the South and Zootopia, but it is also important to understand where trickster tales came from and what their original purpose was. Harris describes how trickster tales originated in oral stories told by African slaves brought to America. She also explains how the tales were later recorded by Joel Chandler Harris, who published a collection of the tales in a book titled Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings. Joel Chandler Harris wrote his book to share the “the folk-lore of the old plantation” (J. Harris 1). The history of trickster tales is closely related to the purpose of the tales. Trudier Harris notes that the trickster tales of the slavery-era “contain[ed] serious commentary on the inequities of existence in a country where the promises of democracy were denied to a large portion of the citizenry.” The purpose of these tales was to criticize the oppression against the African slaves; the tales reflected the lives of the people telling them, exploring the persecution they faced.

Song of the South as a Modified Trickster Tale

Trickster tales are present in Song of the South. While trickster tales themselves are not marked as racist, Song of the South is. Although some critics have theories about what exactly makes Song of the South racially insensitive, my research suggests that some of the racist elements are a result of Disney’s modifying the original trickster tales.

Before I discuss how Disney modified the tales, it is necessary to illustrate how Song of the South can even be linked to trickster tales. Besides the obvious connection that the animated scenes in Song of the South are based on Joel Chandler Harris’s collection of trickster tales, which Walt Disney bought the rights to in 1939 (20–21), such tales are also exemplified by the animated characters. Brer Rabbit, the trickster figure, is continually threatened by Brer Fox and Brer Bear, the predators. Brer Rabbit uses his wit and cleverness multiple times to overcome his attackers. For example, when Brer Fox catches Brer Rabbit and threatens him, Brer Rabbit begs, “Only please, Brer Fox, please don’t throw me into the briar patch” (Song of the South). Wanting to harm Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox throws the rabbit into the briar patch, unknowingly delivering Brer Rabbit safely home. The elements of the trickster figure (a rabbit), the predator (the fox), and the trickster’s ability to outwit the predator combine to make the typical trickster tale.

Although many of the elements of the movie constitute the usual attributes of a trickster tale, Disney modifies other features of the tales, modifications that result in some of the film’s racial insensitivity. For example, the focus of the film is not on the African American folklore; only three tales are present in the film. The rest of the movie follows the little boy, Johnny, in his adventures on the plantation and in his struggling relationship with his separated parents. In fact, of the movie’s 94 minutes in length, only 25 of those minutes present the Brer Rabbit stories. The short amount of time dedicated to the tales is partly a result of Walt Disney’s attempts to save money (Russo 20), but Russo offers another explanation as to why Disney did not focus on the Brer Rabbit stories: Disney’s desire to make the movie a commentary on divorce, “a popular topic in 1946 because of the rising divorce rate” (23). However, we know from Trudier Harris’s article that trickster tales were originally supposed to be a commentary about slavery and racial injustice. These differing purposes create a problem: the modification is disrespectful not only to the folklore itself but also to the authors of the folklore as well as the authors’ descendants. Russo also claims that Disney did not have an African American audience in mind when Song of the South was created (27). A white-only audience would enable the movie creators to strip the trickster tales of their original purpose and replace it with their own moral lesson about divorce.

In addition to downplaying the tales and replacing their purpose, Disney modified the intensity of the trickster tales. Russo suggests that Brer Fox and Brer Bear “come across as inept bullies picking on the smart little kid on the block, and Brer Rabbit never seems in much danger” (25). Modifying the violence level reflects Disney’s desire to tame and sweeten the tales for child audiences. However, the violence in the trickster tales reflects the time period that they originated from: the slavery era. Because these tales mirror the trials of the slaves, taming the tale is like taming history. This modification belittles the grave oppression that slaves faced.

A third modification that Disney made to the original trickster tales is the demeaning portrayal of Uncle Remus. Although Uncle Remus is not one of the animal characters, he acts as Joel Chandler Harris’s narrator for the tales, and is therefore closely related to the trickster tales. Many movie critics have commented on the various reasons why the Uncle Remus character is a racist representation of a black man. Bernard Wolfe, an American writer, describes Uncle Remus as “an Uncle Tom Negro telling amusing stories for the little white boy, son of the plantation owners.” Wolfe adds that “this painful reminder of slavery times, in which a grown Negro man is depicted as the playmate or nursemaid of a ‘boy,’ is offensive to contemporary American Negroes and some whites” (42). Surely this portrayal is not how Joel Chandler Harris intended his narrator to be. Disney’s modification of the Uncle Remus character from moral teacher to playmate results in a racist projection of Joel Chandler Harris’s hero.

Zootopia as a Modified Trickster Tale

Like Song of the South, Zootopia incorporates elements of trickster tales. Although the movie is not advertised as having anything to do with African American folklore, the movie’s use of trickster-tale features implies a connection. Because Zootopia is such a recent film, there has been little time for scholars to explore it; thus, my analysis is my own interpretation.

So how does Zootopia involve trickster tales? Judy Hops, the protagonist, is a rabbit. The second main character is a fox named Nick. Judy and Nick exhibit the typical trickster rabbit versus fox storyline that is found in trickster tales. Nick fulfills the stereotype of a predator; he is portrayed as a conman, trying to swindle Judy. Judy similarly fulfills her role as trickster by tricking Nick into confessing his tax fraud into a tape recorder. However, Nick is not the only predator that Judy faces. Zootopia follows Judy through many confrontations with animals who are physically larger and stronger than she is (such as the mayor, a lion; the police chief, a buffalo; the schoolyard bully, a fox, etc.), but Judy consistently uses her cleverness and wit to overcome them.

In addition to these elements, Zootopia follows the traditional structure of trickster tales when it comes to the intensity of the violence. In Song of the South, the violence levels are lowered to the point of disrespecting the tales’ original purpose while Zootopia preserves it. For example, when Judy is trapped in a display in the natural history museum with Nick, Assistant Mayor Bellwether shoots Nick with a poisoned night-howler bullet, with hopes of turning him “savage.” Bellwether wants Nick to attack and kill Judy, but Nick only appears to fatally bite her neck. Although this whole scene is just an act put on by Judy and Nick, for a moment Judy appears to be dead. This moment highlights how Zootopia tries to follow the trickster tales’ use of violence in a way that is still acceptable for child audiences.

Now that I have connected Zootopia and trickster tales, I will explore how Zootopia has made modifications to these tales. For example, Judy Hops uses not only her wit and cleverness to overcome bigger animals but also her high sense of morality. When Judy is chasing a thief, she spots a stray donut rolling toward a small mouse, about to squish the small creature. Although becoming sidetracked means possibly letting the thief run free, Judy runs to the small mouse’s rescue and catches the donut before it kills the mouse. This mouse ends up being the daughter of a mafia boss named Mr. Big. Judy’s selfless act allows Judy to earn the respect and aid of Mr. Big. This relationship with Mr. Big not only ends up saving Judy’s life (Mr. Big’s daughter begs her father not to “ice” Judy, because Judy saved the daughter from the donut) but also enables Judy to have Mr. Big as a valuable ally, which would not have been possible if it were not for Judy’s high morals.

In addition to modifying personality traits, Disney modifies the trickster tale by reversing the role of the oppressed figure. In traditional trickster tales, the predator oppresses the prey. However, in Zootopia, the prey oppresses the predator. The big dilemma in Zootopia is that many predators have gone “savage,” meaning they have reverted to their animalistic tendencies toward violence. Because only predators have been affected, the characters believe that the reversion is a result of biology: only predators can go “savage.” Singling out predators causes the prey in the city of Zootopia to fear the predators and oppress them. For example, when a tiger sits down next to a rabbit family on the bus, the mother rabbit eyes the tiger suspiciously and pulls her child in close to her, even though the tiger is harmless. Another example is when the police department’s receptionist, a cheetah, is demoted because of his predator status.

Why would Disney modify the trickster tale in this way? Back when Joel Chandler Harris recorded trickster tales from the plantations, the slaves were like prey—under complete control of the predator, the slave owner. However, in modern times, there are many people who, sadly, view African Americans as predators. This awful stereotyping is discussed in Shaun Gabbidon’s et al. book African American Classics in Criminology & Criminal Justice. Gabbidon examines how black people have been demonized, resulting in many people viewing blacks as “dangerous” (349). Disney reversed the original structure of prey versus predator so that modern viewers would be able to apply the movie to their own lives and time period. Zootopia’s highlighting of stereotyping is especially poignant in light of current events of the last few years. Racial profiling has been a hot topic recently, especially with the growing #BlackLivesMatter movement. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Zootopia and #BlackLivesMatter originated around the same time. According to Marc Gaser, senior editor of Variety online, Zootopia was announced to the public in August 2013, a little over a year after the formation of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Disney might have observed the growing political tensions and the produced its own take on the matter: Zootopia.

In addition to commenting on racial profiling, Zootopia demonstrates that stereotypes are not always true. Because Disney reversed the roles of prey and predator, the audience learns that villains are not always who we expect them to be. For example, although animals like lions, tigers, and bears exist in Zootopia, the truly violent animals are the sheep. The mastermind behind the savage-animal plot (Assistant Mayor Bellwether) is a sheep, and the violent attackers on the train scene (Bellwether’s minions) are also sheep. Stereotypically, sheep are gentle animals, but Zootopia illustrates that people (or rather animals) are not always who they appear to be. This message is especially relevant in today’s world, where black people are often automatically assumed to be criminals, and white criminals seem to be given lenient punishments. Zootopia invites the audience to remember that villains come in every color, reminding us that we should never be quick to judge someone on the basis of their race.

Another modification Disney made to the trickster tales is that the rabbit and the fox work together to overcome challenges. Although Nick is Judy’s opponent at first, they quickly become friends. In the original tales, the rabbit and the fox would have never befriended each other. Disney’s decision to bring the two together illustrates a moral lesson that we as audience members should adopt: love everyone, no matter what color, shape, size, or species they are. This modification enables Disney to call the viewers to action, to join in the fight against racial injustice, working together to love one another.

Conclusion

This call to action is what enables Zootopia to act as atonement for Song of the South. The invitation to fight against racism is a result of modifications that Disney made to the original structure of trickster tales. Unlike Song of the South, those modifications resulted in a racially progressive commentary against such injustices as racial profiling and stereotyping. Russo says that Disney would need to make a new version of Song of the South in order to reconcile the racist image it creates in that film (32). However, I think that Disney does not need a new version of Song of the South; I see Zootopia as Disney’s reconciliation. It seems that many other viewers have accepted Disney’s peace offering as well; movie critics have praised Zootopia and its timely message against racism. For example, Rotten Tomatoes, a popular movie review website, says that “Zootopia offers a thoughtful, inclusive message that’s as rich as timely as its…animation.” Rotten Tomatoes’s view is shared with other movie critics (see New York Times and Rolling Stone). Although Disney has made no official apology for Song of the South, I am pleased to see the racially progressive commentary Zootopia offers, because it shows the start of a healing process. In Zootopia, when Judy apologizes to Nick for speaking against predators, she says, “I was ignorant, irresponsible, and small minded.” Perhaps Judy’s apology is Disney’s apology too. No longer will Disney be “ignorant, irresponsible, and small minded” in its movies; the company will try to produce films that are inclusive and are filled with messages of love and equality.

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Works Cited

Barnes, Brooke. “‘Zootopia’ Tops the Box Office.” New York Times. New York Times, 6 March 2016. Web. 5 July 2016.

Breaux, Richard. “After 75 Years of Magic: Disney Answers Its Critics, Rewrites African American History, and Cashes In on Its Racist Past.” Journal of African American Studies 14.4 (2010): 397-416. Web.

Campbell, Brent. “Baskett, James (1904-1948).” BlackPast.org. Web. 5 July 2016.

Gabbidon, Shaun L., Helen Taylor Greene, and Vernetta D. Young. African American Classics in Criminology & Criminal Justice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2002. Web.

Gaser, Marc. “D23 Expo: Disney Reveals Animated ‘Zootopia’ for 2016.” Variety. Variety, 9 Aug. 2013. Web. 13 July 2016.

Harris, Joel Chandler. Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1921. Print.

Harris, Trudier. “The Trickster in African American Literature.” Freedom’s Story, TeacherServe©. National Humanities Center. 12 July 2016.

Lester, Neal A. “Disney’s the Princess and the Frog: The Pride, the Pressure, and the Politics of being a First.” The Journal of American Culture 3.4 (2010): 294. Web.

Russo, Peggy A. “Uncle Walt’s Uncle Remus: Disney’s Distortion of Harris’s Hero.” The Southern Literary Journal 25.1 (1992): 19-32. Web.

 Song of the South. Dir. Wilfred Jackson. Perf. James Baskett. Walt Disney Pictures, 1946. Film.

Travers, Peter. “Disney’s New Animated Movie May Be the Most Subversive Movie of the Year.” Rev. of Zootopia, dir. Bryon Howard. Rolling Stone 3 Mar. 2016: Web.

Watts, Steven. “Walt Disney: Art and Politics in the American Century.” The Journal of American History 82.1 (1995): 84-110. Web.

Wolfe, Bernard. “Uncle Remus and the Malevolent Rabbit.” Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973.

“Zootopia (2016).” Rev. of Zootopia, dir. Byron Howard. Rotten Tomatoes. Web.

 Zootopia. Dir. Byron Howard. Perf. Ginnifer Goodwin. Prod. Perf. Walt Disney Pictures, 2016. Film.