Three Lessons from Zootopia to Discuss with Kids

By Allison Briscoe-Smith | March 23, 2016 | 0 comments

The new Disney film raises tough questions about prejudice for parents and teachers to explore with children.

I braved opening day of Zootopia with four kids. I had seen the previews and thought it would be a sweet, funny Disney movie about “becoming who we want to be no matter what” or “following our dreams.”

It did meet those expectations, but there was actually more. As I watched, I wondered: Was this Disney movie actually making a political commentary about bias, sexism, racism, and xenophobia? Did they really do that?

Yes, they did. My first hint was a subtle joke in the beginning when the hero—a determined, hard-working bunny named Judy Hopps—shows up for her first day at work as a police officer. She’s called “cute” by the dispatcher—a cheetah named Clawhauser—and Judy replies, “Ooh, you probably didn’t know it, but a bunny can call another bunny cute, but when other animals do it, it’s a little….”

I looked around the theater. Did other folks catch that? Was that actually a line just for me, a black woman, about what can be said within a group but not without? Surely that was a blip?

But it wasn’t. The movie turned out to be explicitly about bias of all types, from unconscious prejudice to a “we don’t serve your kind” attitude to the deliberate cultivation of fear to achieve political power. It speaks directly to our heated political climate, however imperfectly. It did this with compelling characters and by echoing words we often use in conversations about race and bias: “well I didn’t mean to,” “don’t be sensitive,” “they shouldn’t be here.”

Now, I’m not saying that the movie is perfect. There is something really disturbing about the way the animals are sorted according to their biology, with some reverting back to their inherent “savagery.” Also, the relationship between prejudice in the movie and real-world racism is not entirely clear; Zootopia does not have much to say about power or exploitation.

Perhaps as a result, much of the writing about Zootopia has run the gamut from “this is the best racial commentary ever” to “this is the worst.” It is neither, in my view. If you want a Disney movie to do all the work of explaining bias to your kids for you, then this isn’t it. Zootopia isn’t a perfect movie about bias, but it is the perfect opportunity for you to talk about these issues with your children. 

In fact, you absolutely need to see Zootopia with them—and you need to talk about it afterward. Teachers can do the same in the classroom.

Many children over the age of nine will easily be able to grasp the descriptions of prejudice and bias, and they’ll understand the parallels. But research indicates that even children as young as five will be able to understand the concepts of bias and prejudice. The majority of the kids who see this movie will understand the “unfairness” and the lack of justice in it. Then we as adults can help them make the direct connections to the world around us. In my dissertation research, I found that children who were better able to identify prejudice when they saw it in movie clips had parents who were helping them make sense of bias. Those children, in turn, had more cross-race peers and lower overall rates of bias.

You can start with language like this: “I wonder what you noticed. Have you ever been treated that way? Have you ever treated others that way?” From there, you can use Zootopia to impart at least three lessons to kids about prejudice. (Warning: Some spoilers below!)

1. Stereotypes hurt everyone

Nick Wilde and Judy Hopps Nick Wilde and Judy Hopps

The language of stereotyping is explicitly used in the movie, as when Officer Clawhauser apologizes for calling Judy “cute.” So we can ask children if they know what a stereotype is, encouraging them to come up with examples. The five year old in our group said, “Yeah, like when kids think that I can’t do the monkey bars fast because I’m a girl or because I’m little.” That’s exactly it. We can help them understand that stereotypes are sometimes true about some people, but certainly not always true about all people.

The movie quite cleverly shows how stereotypes can harm both the people doing the stereotyping and the people being stereotyped. Judy is stereotyped—but she also stereotypes other characters. She is initially deceived by a kindly, meek lamb, who (spoiler alert!) later turns out to be the movie’s villain.

In the typical children’s movie, the dark, ferocious creatures are pretty much always the bad guys and the small fuzzy ones are the good guys. Not so in Zootopia, where the animals are seldom what they seem—and the lesson gets driven home over and over again that thinking in terms of stereotypes can lead you to bad conclusions or even put you in danger.

2. Prejudice is unfair

This is the next step: Prejudice is when stereotypes are used to differentially treat people. This is where kids often go to the “it’s not fair” portion of their understanding. There are many scenes in the movie where prejudice happens. Prejudice forces Judy to do meter-maid work instead of the job she trained for.

There is a particularly sad flashback scene when one of the main characters, the con artist fox Nick Wilde, is getting ready to join an animal “cub scouts.” He is excited because foxes usually aren’t allowed in this activity, and he has worked hard to join the group. He is lured downstairs by the other animals to be initiated—but instead they tease him and tell him that he’s never allowed to join. In fact, they go so far as to muzzle him.

It’s a cruel depiction of exclusion—and will certainly resonate with children’s experiences of not being included. It’s a great scene to ask: “Do you remember when they wouldn’t let Nick in their group? What did you think about that? Have you ever felt that way? Did anyone not let you into a group because they held a stereotype about you—thought that you were something you weren’t? Yes, well that’s prejudice.”

By talking about these scenes and using kids’ language about fair treatment, we can actually help our children better identify prejudice when it is happening. We can help them to connect empathically with those who are the targets of bias. We can ask them how it feels to be treated that way and encourage them to think about times when maybe they treated others in prejudiced ways. The idea here isn’t to make kids feel guilty, but rather to help them put themselves in another person’s shoes and begin to identify behavior that they might want to change.

3. We can fight prejudice—and people can change

The characters in Zootopia don’t just see discrimination—they also fight against it. You can highlight the strategies that they use, which include connecting with family and talking about what is going on with friends. The movie definitely conveys how members of a stereotyped group must often “work twice as hard” to achieve the same result as others. This idea is taken for granted in many families—that members will encounter barriers that force them to defy stereotypes or convince others that they are worthy. But for some kids (and some adults), this will be an entirely new idea. It also shows how “working twice as hard” isn’t a perfect strategy—despite her hard work, Judy is still discriminated against.

Can people grow and change? Zootopia‘s answer is yes, but change isn’t easy. The movie shows a lot of conflict, even between friends. Through these conflicts it explores the difficult idea of “allyship”—the process of supporting people who face prejudice and building relationships beyond those who share our social identities. We can use the term “ally” with our children, using Judy and Nick as examples.

In Zootopia, Judy and Nick become allies. They hurt each other and make mistakes, but they also forgive and decide to work together to overcome bias. Of course, one of the best ways we can illustrate this ability to evolve and support each other is by embracing it ourselves—thus modeling for our kids. How often do your children see you connect to those who are different from you in race, sexuality, or class, to name a few? Do they see you cooperating, having fun?

This might be the most valuable lesson contained in Zootopia: By connecting across our differences, we can make the world a better place. This is what Judy the bunny and Nick the fox learn to do—and your children can learn to do it, too, with your help.

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About The Author

Allison Briscoe-Smith, Ph.D., is a psychologist and assistant professor at the Wright Institute. She is a former Greater Good Science Center Graduate Fellow.


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