Decoding Innocence in Disney’s Zootopia

© Copyright 2017 Sijia Qian, Ryerson University.
As a dominant media corporation, Disney plays a profound role in shaping popular culture and media culture. Part of its success lies in creating an innocent world that resonates to childhood fantasies. However, it is not merely producing harmless entertainment. The innocent ideology constitutes a deeply conservative and disturbing view imparted to children and adults (Giroux). By studying the innocence coding in Disney’s recent animated film Zootopia, I attempt to show how Disney address the issue of social inequality and stereotypes through a departure from its traditional form of innocence, yet still produces the social stereotypes along the way. Zootopia sets in a city that is mammal metropolis with different neighborhood for different kinds of creatures. However, predators start going savage in the initially harmonious city and it’s up to a bunny cop (Judy Hopps) and a fox (Nick) to solve the case. This paper will begin by introducing the concept of innocence politics. Then it will show the innocence coding in the film through the setting of the city and framing of characters. Deeper analysis reveals that the innocence is only an illusion. Under the superficial innocence, there lies the production of gender stereotypes as seen in the previous Disney films.

  What is Innocence Politics?

In order to present how innocence is coded in Zootopia, I will first borrow the insights of innocence politics from scholar Kiyomi and Whitley. Kiyomi defines innocence politics as Disney’s creation of a conflict-free world in which everyone is equal and can live harmoniously and happily. Kiyomi contends that this politics roots in Disney’s ability to produce and promote a universal concept of childhood and in making Disney a guardian for an innocent childhood. However, he also points out that this worldview is ahistorical, decontextualized and depoliticized, which is evident in the removal of violence, conflict, inequality and poverty in its characters and stories.

For Whitley, the innocence politics resides in the figure of innocent child or animal that easily engenders sympathy and normally experiences some kind of hardship in the film. He develops two frameworks of how innocence works in cartoons. One framework is demonstrated through the example of Disney’s Snow White, in which innocence is embedded as passive goodness. Snow White’s essential passive identity is evident in her unconditional acceptance of her servitude duty and her role as the victim of the witch’s conspiracy. Although she is the heroine of the story, she does not contribute to the development of the plot. Likewise, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella also present their main characters in this framework. The other kind of innocence is more active. Whitley uses the example of Kirikou, whose main character, Kirikou, shows innocence through his naked, tiny body and his childhood like personality. However, Kirikou is endowed with power and is determined to save the world that is under threat. These two frameworks of innocence well summarize the innocence politics in most of Disney’s characters.

The strategy of appealing to innocence has a long history in Disney’s films. It shapes public memory of Disney’s characters and sanitizes Disney’s image by making it free from power (Giroux 30). As the purveyor of innocence, Disney protects itself from political scrutiny because of people’s fantasy for an innocent and happy childhood.

  Innocence Coding in Zootopia

When considering Kiyomi’s view on innocence politics, it is clear that Disney hopes to break through the normal innocence coding by creating a world that gives rise to social inequality and prejudice in Zootopia. Using an animal kingdom as a metaphor in order to avoid cultural representation of ethical groups, Disney aims to show more nuanced perspectives of how social inequality and prejudice work systematically.

Zootopia Wiki.

Initially, the animal world seems harmonious with preys and predators all living together despite their biological differences. However, under the glamorous appearance, systematic inequality is hidden in this troubled utopia. Animals are treated differently based on their size, their specific species or, whether they fall into the category of prey or predator (Crewe 29). Though preys outnumber predators, predators still posses more power in the city. The mayor is a muscular male lion and the law enforcement consists of exclusively burly predators. On the other hand, when Hopps tries to join the police force, she is faced with a lot of difficulty because she is viewed as not having enough strength compared to other big animals. Also, when she starts to work as a police officer, she is not taken seriously. The police chief (a buffalo) only assigns her to traffic duties because of her small size. As the image shows, the police station is designed only for larger animals. In another scene, the assistant mayor, Bellweather (a sheep), complains about how the mayor consistently underestimates and underuses her.

Social stereotype and prejudice are also notable in many scenes. Foxes are viewed as a species that are born tricksters, which makes it a legitimate underclass in the city. For example, Hopps’ parents warn her about foxes and give her “fox repellent”. In a flashback to Nick’s past as an eager scout, he is betrayed and bullied by his prey peers. Discrimination towards Nick in both scenes is portrayed only because of his biological identity, which is a metaphor to show unfair treatments towards marginalized ethical groups in real world. There are more real world associations about prejudice in the film. In a scene, Hopps thinks she is complimenting a fox by calling him “articulate”, which is a reminiscent of Joe Biden’s comment on Barack Obama in 2007 and now is seen as a racist way to describe African Americans (Keegan). Also, when officer Clawhauser (an obese cheetah) calls Hopps “cute” with a well intention, Hopps responds that “cute” may not be an appropriate word as only a bunny can call another bunny “cute”. In anther scene, Nick is deeply offended by Hopps’ anti-predator words, “it’s not like a bunny could go savage” (script of Zootopoia). These details show that prejudice operates under consciousness and the role of both the individual and society in reinforcing the inequality.

Disney intends to break from its “innocence world” setting by tackling the contexts and challenges of social inequality and prejudice in modern society. However, the ending of the film again falls into the normal coding of innocence. At the end, Hopps and Nick uncover the conspiracy of Bellweather and save the predators who were given drugs. It seems like a happy ending as the city becomes peaceful again. However, the social evil is presented as only an individual’s conspiracy. The moral of the film seems to be that the society can reach a racial harmony when the villain is thrown out of power (Lang). Similar to the previous Disney films, unavoidable conflicts are presented as threats to the innocent world, which will certainly be controlled by Disney’s heroes (Wallace). Therefore, the filmmakers protect the innocent world by designing the ending as a triumph of innocent over social evil, failing to acknowledge that the systematic inequality is the true social evil and will still persist in the city. 

On the other hand, innocence politics is also used in the framing of characters. The female protagonist Hopps is a miniature bunny, which instantly associates to innocence and pure in a lot of cultures. Her small size and cute facial expressions are easy to engender sympathy from the audience when compared to these muscular predators that are framed with intimating attitudes. The coding of innocence in Hopps falls into the second framework of Whitely, for she actively engages in changing her own fate and saving the city, just like Kirouku. Her childhood like quality is her optimism. Hopps dreams of being a police officer despite skepticism from her parents and peers. “This is Zootopia; anyone can be anything”, Hopps states (script of Zootopia). Having a positive female protagonist is becoming a trend in Disney’s films. As the study shows, female characters are portrayed as more independent and intelligent in the post 1980s films, much of it away from gender role stereotype (Thompson and Zerbinos). Hence Disney intends to have more positive presentation of female characters.

  Production of Stereotypes Under the Surface of Innocence

Despite Disney’s efforts to address social inequality, there remains critical voice on the inadequacy in the messages delivered in Zootopia. Crewe contends that the Disney’s scope is limited for its reluctance to challenge the underlying ideology of contemporary institutions of authority, like the police and law enforcement (29). Lang claims that the film shows only an individual view instead of a worldview for Disney fails to explain systematic racism, which needs to be carried out with power and privilege. However, “in the film no one benefits from racism” (Lang).

Yet more alarming is what under the superficial innocence. Studies on Disney’s films through history show its contradictory agenda of reproducing stereotypical presentations of race and gender. Towbin et al. have conducted a systematic research on organizing principles such as gender, race and age in Disney films. What they have found is that gender, racial, and cultural stereotypes have persisted over time in Disney films when compared to earlier studies. Although there are some positive changes, still few examples of positive portrayals emerged. For example, male are presented as physically aggressive and female as dependent on men and fit in the gender role (Towbin et al). While some progress have been made in portray of female characters, which are presented as strong initially, but in the end, they often require rescue from even stronger male characters, which is an ideology of female subordination within patriarchal system. A strong case is Disney’s film Pocahontas (Kiyomi). Thompson and Zerbinos have studied stereotypes of gender representation in Disney films. They found that in the pre-1980s films, there are significantly more male lead and minor characters than the female lead and minor characters. Differences not only exist in the presentation of the male and female characters in terms of the importance or prominence, but also they are presented within traditional gender role stereotypes, although the situation has changed since 1980s.

Disney. Zootopia, 2016. Accessed 3 Apr. 2017

Similar to these studies, deeper analysis of Zootopia reveals the tension between the attempt to confront social stereotype, and on the other hand, the reproduction of gender stereotype. It is clear that in the film, main characters of predators like Nick are men and main characters of preys like Hopps and Bellweather are women. Men characters are depicted as physically aggressive, especially characters like hippo, rhino and elephant in the law enforcement. Do filmmakers believe women are meek by nature while men have more inherent violent impulses? The design that predators have a tendency to turn savage in a way that preys would not seems an biological explanation to the male violence and can even be used to excuse violent male behaviors (O’Neil). It resonates to the theory of biological determinism in the real world that is used to justify discriminatory police behaviors or explain systemic inequality. With this setting as a major part of the narrative, having a positive female protagonist ultimately does not help to modify the gender stereotyping. Yet the framing of characters is also disturbing. It is hard for the audience to imagine Hopps as a male bunny and Nick as a female fox when they are both so fixed into the gender roles. Moreover, only five out of 23 major characters are women with speaking parts (Hopps, Bellweather, Bonnie Hopps, Fru Fru, and Gazelle). Four of them are from the smaller animal species. These examples show the stereotypical gender presentation in the film.


As a synonymous with the notion of innocence, Disney again presents innocence as the deepest truth in Zootopia. Contradictory messages of innocence and gender roles are implied in the film. Disney’s appeal to fun and innocence should not protect it from the realm of power and ideology. We should recognize Disney’s role as an ideological force in regulating the meanings and values that define childhood, identity and gender relation.

Works Cited

Crewe, David. “Animal Harm: Discrimination and Difference in Zootopia.” Screen Education, vol. 84, 2016, pp. 26-35.

Disney. Zootopia, 2016Accessed 3 Apr. 2017.

Giroux, Henry A. Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999.

Keegan, Rebecca. “Did a Disney Animated Film Really Say That? If it’s Zootopia, Prepare to be Shocked.” Los Angeles Times, 4 Mar. 2016, Accessed 3 Apr. 2017.

Kiyomi, Kutsuzawa. “Disney’s Pocahontas: Reproduction of Gender, Orientalism, and the Strategic Construction of Racial Harmony in the Disney Empire.” Atlantis: A Women’s Studies Journal, vol. 6, no. 4, 2000, pp. 39-65.

Lang, Nico. “How Disney’s Zootopia Gets Racism Wrong”. Consequence of Sound, 10 Mar. 2016, Accessed 3 Apr. 2017.

O’Neil, Devin. “I’ve Decided Zootopia is about Rape Culture and Male Violence.” Medium, 2 Aug. 2016, Accessed 3 Apr. 2017.

Thompson, Teresa and Eugenia Zerbinos. “Gender Roles in Animated Cartoons: Has the Picture Changed in 20 Years?” Sex Roles, vol.32, no.9, 1995, pp.651-672.

Towbin, Mia A., et al. “Images of Gender, Race, Age, and Sexual Orientation in Disney Feature-Length Animated Films.” Journal of Feminist Family Therapy, vol.15, no.4, 2003, pp. 19-44.

Wallace, Mike. “Mickey Mouse History: Portraying the Past at Disney World.” Radical History Review, vol.32, 1985, pp.33-57.

Whitley, David. “Learning with Disney: Children’s Animation and the Politics of Innocence.” Journal of Educational Media, Memory, and Society, vol. 5, no.2, 2013, pp. 75-91.

Zootopia Wiki.

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