What makes a story feminist? What elements should it contain? I could go on all day (and have) about the long list of qualities I would like to see in a feminist narrative, but first and foremost comes one thing: an important female character overcomes the tyranny of low expectations.
These expectations do not have to revolve around gender in order for the story, and the heroine, to be feminist. They could hinge upon almost anything — race, nationality, species, social class, magical ability or lack thereof, physical appearance, ethnicity, religion, or even profession/walk of life. In one especially fun feminist tale I’ve read recently, K.B. Wagers’ science fiction adventure Behind the Throne, the heroine comes from a matriarchal society where being female is an advantage rather than otherwise, but because she’s a known gunrunner living and working along the edges of the law, almost no one thinks she’s up to the task when she is forced to take her place as heir to her estranged Empress mother’s throne. She overleaps these low expectations and reveals herself to be a capable and even compassionate leader, thwarting a conspiracy to destroy the government. A feminist heroine, a feminist story.
By this definition, Disney’s Zootopia, a Golden Globe winner for Best Animated Feature and a front-runner in the Oscar race in the same category, qualifies in spades. Overcoming low expectations is key to the journeys made by both the movie’s central characters, as they and, by extension, the movie’s youthful target audience are encouraged (in song, the merits of which are up for debate) to “try everything.”
This ethos has an interesting history within the Disney canon. As a fan of animation, I admire Disney’s early work, and I consider the first five of the company’s animated features among the most gorgeous pieces of art ever put on film. Yet many of the early works have a core of conservatism directly at odds with the individualistic message of “try everything.” Consider the 1934 Silly Symphony “The Flying Mouse,” a lovely and at the time groundbreaking animated short. All the mouse protagonist dreams of doing is taking to the air, and after he performs an act of kindness, his wish is granted — and oh, does it ever not go well. Dreaming too far or too high, this little cartoon suggests, will only bring disaster. Rise (literally) above expectations, and the birds you so long to befriend will shun you, your family will flee from you, and gangster bats will taunt you. Be happy where you are. Settle. I can almost hear Judy Hopps’ parents talking.
This same stay-within-the-lines conservatism can be found covertly in Snow White (don’t open the door to strangers!) and more overtly in Pinocchio (can anyone ever forget the fate of bad little boys in that film?). Then, in 1941, a little film called Dumbo happens, and we get what may be our first Disney glimpse of “try everything,” which may be why I love it so much despite its obvious flaws (e.g. the product-of-its-time depiction of race and the tough-to-take cruelty to which poor blameless Dumbo is subjected for most of the film). Elephants are not supposed to fly. Everybody knows that. But Dumbo does, and it’s awesome. And where the poor flying mouse is punished for his aerial antics, Dumbo is rewarded.
In this regard, tiny rabbit Judy Hopps is Dumbo’s spiritual heir, a defier of expectations in multiple ways. Everyone knows rabbits don’t become police officers. Even if, through the power of sheer resourcefulness, they manage to graduate from the police academy (at the top of their class, no less!), the most they can ever hope to do is hand out parking tickets, which everyone knows is no job for a “real cop.” They don’t manage to crack the most baffling criminal case the city has seen, and they don’t, ever, become friends and partners with foxes. But by the end of her story, Judy has done it all.
It’s hard for me to decide between Zootopia and Moana as my favorite Disney film of 2016; I’m thankful I can freely love them both, as they diverge wildly in tone. Yet Judy and Moana resemble each other in some interesting ways, the most central being that both of them are eager to leap over the fences meant to hold them in. Unlike so many previous Disney heroines, Judy and Moana both have living, and loving, parents. They aren’t cruel tyrants who stand in the paths of their daughters’ dreams out of envy or sheer malice. Rather, they set up the boundaries with the most sympathetic intentions, to protect their daughters from danger and disappointment. Through them we see that sometimes our biggest obstacles can come not from those who hate or fear us, but from those who love us.
Another key element Judy shares with Moana is her central relationship in the film, not a romance but a friendship with a male co-lead. Nick Wilde and Maui also have striking similarities, both being tricksters whose sense of responsibility begins and ends with themselves. Both are forced to work against their will with idealistic heroines. And both are won over, slowly but surely, by the deep, strong integrity they observe in the heroines. This is why it matters so much that these are friendships rather than romances. The relationships are cemented not by beauty or by charm, but by character.
Yet while I love both heroines, after a recent rewatch of Zootopia on Blu-Ray, I think I love Judy just a little bit more, because she has a deeper obstacle to overcome: her own prejudices. At the very moment that should have been her biggest triumph, she messes up in a major way, and despite the fact that we of the audience have been rooting for her wholeheartedly throughout, her mistake falls in line with what we know of her. She still has growing to do. As the magnitude of her misstep becomes more and more apparent to her, it takes her some time to figure out how to atone for it; for a moment she even (shudder) gives up. But the bigger the error, the greater the satisfaction when she finally corrects it, and she does so partly by giving someone else, Nick, a chance to surmount expectations and try everything.
Judy’s mistake highlights something crucial about the “try everything” ethos: we can’t be afraid of failure. When we fail, we learn. When we first see Judy at the police academy, we see her failing constantly. But from that place of having stumbled and fallen, she figures out how to transform failure into success, to turn weakness into strength. This is her repeated course of action throughout, whether her failures are small or big, and it makes her a very satisfying heroine.
Zootopia isn’t flawless. The positive female-character interaction such as we see between Moana and her grandmother is largely missing from this film, since the one major female character we think is Judy’s friend turns out (Spoiler Alert) to be anything but. Also, while I love the look Mrs. Otterton gives to Judy after our heroine has helped her reunite with her husband (perhaps they will become friends in the future), I wish we could have seen just one more female predator as a significant character. But now that I’ve rewatched it, I feel pretty sure I’ll rewatch it again. And again.
Because Judy’s story makes me want to try everything.