A Look at ‘Zootopia’: How Its Heroine Plays in the Field of Fellow Disney Women

Spoiler alert: the plots to Inside Out, Frozen, Brave and Zootpoia are all discussed.

Disney’s growing list of female protagonists has gained many strong, capable women in the last several years, and have always been ahead in animation by creating beloved characters. They range in backgrounds and give a different special quality to the Disney catalogue, however; this article argues how these women are not as accessible to many young children; meaning, such icons as Elsa, Joy, and Mérida are subtly devalued as women. No matter their intent, wishes or heroic journeys, they are brought down by their own self-worth and ambition. Is this the best way to depict icons whom become loved and revered?

This article does not argue the love for these characters, nor their strength as women; the argument is whether these women were portrayed as strong and empowered without negative sub-text. Where does their strength come from? Are there demeaning subtleties overlooked in the development of these women? What do the first steps, in not the right, but true direction look like? These answers may be found when comparing some of the most recent female icons to a anthropomorphized rabbit, named Judy Hopps, in 2016’s Zootopia.

The Persistence of Self-Isolation

A promotional photo from Frozen, 2013.
Promotional Photo. Frozen. 2013.

Frozen is one of the first in Disney history where there are two female leads centered in an epic adventure. Elsa, the eldest of the women, is born with ice powers; as a child, she is free and confident in her abilities. She delights in using her abilities to entertain her younger sister, Anna. Yet, a traumatic event strips away her delight and security, forcing her to live in fear of her gifts.

Depicted as a misunderstood figure, Elsa is tragic in her wishes to harm no one and the secrecy of who she is; this is very easy to relate to as a growing child, as well as adults. Her love of her sister is so overpowering, she decides to protect her in the only way she understands. Her fear which is learned by those who should have nurtured her is paramount to her story. It creates a powerful lesson in self-sacrifice and loving bonds with another; however, is it the first choice she makes feels condescending to her struggle.

When the audience is introduced to her, Elsa learns a harsh lesson about her abilities; Anna is struck by her magic and must be cured by another mystical force, trolls. Confronted with her growing fear, Pabble (the elder troll) explains to her the importance of control. His instructions are vague, as the audience learns; his last words build her character for the entire film: “Fear will be your enemy” 1. Of course, her character is plummeted directly into fear of herself and she believes Anna is not safe around her. This sets Elsa as a character to root for, to watch grow and to see the love for herself flourish. Her arc does come to this, but it is built with a façade of empowerment.

Elsa’s emotional vulnerability eventually outs her, which leads to a perpetual winter as her powers unleash in full force. Fear does become her enemy; she flees a scared public and her worst fears are realized. Her moment of understandable fear ushers in her conflict: what embracing and controlling mean to her. Elsa embraces her powers when she finds herself alone in the snowy mountains, however; this is a false embrace. While Elsa finds freedom in loving herself, she is written as the damsel in distress of her own self-rejection. Her fulfillment is a smoke-screen; and Let It Go is a cover song for the false embrace. Yes, her intentions are the mark of an icon Disney is known for; but how does every character in this film imply the fear Elsa was cautioned against is in others, not herself? Elsa’s self-worth is not raised, it is stunted the moment she decides self-acceptance is equal to ignoring self-worth.

She does not stay isolated for long; her sister comes to show her support for Elsa. This exposes the true value her arc has in her character; her fear of harming her sister is a redeeming influence, however if her fear of herself is set up as a direct link to her lack of control, how has she become in any way, self-aware or empowered? She is still devaluing herself even after she comes to a realization she is stronger than she has been; she is written as having a false enlightenment, undoing any work to build a strong character. Her writing builds her past Let It Go, yet debases her when she is confronted with a possibility of saving herself through self actualizing. Her love for herself does flourish, and creates an ability to control her powers; her empowerment as a woman is fulfilled.

However, how is her arc completed? By finding love for herself and her eccentricities, but not because she understands on her own. She experiences unyielding support from her sister, which in the end, is a beautiful sentiment which should not be forgotten; yet, this message suppresses Elsa as a woman so much, she only loves herself after realizing Anna’s. In a different movie, she would have found empowerment through an understanding of herself, not through realizing someone else loves her before she was able to manage the task. Anna’s love would not have been the only thing to truly build up an insecure woman, Elsa would have found vulnerability and strength within those insecurities herself. As an empowered woman, why would Elsa wait to love herself after any other person? Her strength was set up as something she found herself, which is a wonderful message, but she was written as an imitation of a strong woman with a façade of empowerment. A façade which covers a fundamental and disrespectful flaw in her writing, a stereotype of a weak woman who needs others to love her before she can do so herself.

Elsa does find self-acceptance, but not in the way Let It Go suggests. How can a female character be written as a strong woman, when she waits for others to love her first? There is a beautiful familial dynamic to Frozen, but what does it mean when the dynamic is subtly influenced by the ‘insecure woman’ stereotype? The writing behind her character creates superficial empowerment blanketing a deeply insecure, and frankly, insulting vision of a woman. On the surface, Elsa promotes self-love, however; under the superficial surface, the film promotes interpersonal dependence in place of emotional independence.

A Disheartening Look at Female Ambition

Film still. Inside Out. 2015
Film Still. Inside Out. 2015.

Inside Out is visually brilliant, fantastic and insulates the story with Easter eggs for behavioral psychologists. Creating a film centered around the emotions in a 12-year-old girl’s head is why Disney Pixar leads the field in children’s movies. The world of Inside Out balances between the story of Rylee; a girl living in San Fransisco, and Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust; her personified emotions dealing with the changes in her life. When Rylee is born, Joy is the emotion she begins with; but of course, soon after Joy exists, so do the others.

The emotions live in Headquarters, the main frame of Rylee’s mind. They oversee her reactions, core memories and the creation of her Personality Islands. Her core memories have a special place in Headquarters, and are used as tools to remind Rylee of her most formative experiences. Friendship, Honesty, Family, Goofball and Hockey Islands are the core of Rylee’s personality and activate when these points of her personality are stimulated. As the ‘main emotion’ Joy dictates most of Rylee’s development, but struggles through her arc as a character when Rylee moves with her family from the Midwest to the West Coast. 2

Joy’s story begins with a well-intentioned wish; she wants to keep Rylee secure, happy. Naturally, this is easy to understand and a great lesson. She would be the villain of the story if her purpose wasn’t to keep someone away from depression, angst, or fear. She is the perfect hero, keeping Rylee well adjusted, but she is brought down believing she is the best emotion. Joy expresses her ambition and personal strength through isolating herself from the other emotions in Rylee’s head, and controls their roles through dominance. Her arrogance discounts Sadness, whom she sees as the emotion hurting Rylee the most. Her reality is shaken when a fight with Sadness for dominance over Rylee ensues, and the core memories are lost in the long-term memory library. Joy and Sadness are forced find the core memories and make it back to Headquarters before Rylee goes numb.

She goes as far to prove her strength as an emotion to endanger the girl she means to protect; her fight for power leads to missing core memories and presence of Sadness and herself. During the journey with Sadness, Joy still continues to assert herself as the ideal emotion. Joy learns she is not the only one who is responsible for Rylee and realizes she needs Sadness. The film attempts to humble Joy by expressing the duality and necessity of multiple emotions, but she is still presented as the better emotion. Even as she realizes Sadness’ necessity, she is the only reason Sadness makes the journey back to Headquarters. Sadness is so overcome by her depression, Joy must use her drive and improvisation skills to coordinate the way home. Her revelations mean nothing; her humbling experience is superficial. The ability to save Rylee is on the shoulders of Joy, despite her lesson; the plot still renders Sadness and the other emotions useless. She is still seen as the leader at the end, because she orchestrates Sadness’ actions to help save Rylee, and is implied as the head of the control table despite the lesson she was meant to learn.

Ambition is not a bad quality, nor is it right to assume ambition depicted in a female goes together with arrogance. Her arrogance fuels her ambition; this is the problem. How can Joy be a strong female icon when she is so blinded by ambition and sense of absolute truth? She is designed to fail; though, not because the reward is learning anything sincere. She is undermined by the ingrained stereotype of a bossy, career driven woman. Joy is a hero in her agenda, but her execution is superficial and one-sided. Is it reasonable to see her as a resilient female with complicated struggles, when the root of her struggle is her depiction as a strong-minded women, seeing no value other than her own, at the cost of someone she loves?

The Idea of Invincibility

Film still. Brave. 2012
Film Still. Brave. 2012.

Disney has no shortage of spunky young female characters who do anything to reach a goal, so it is no surprise Merida follows this trend. Her story begins with a strained relationship with her mother, due to the different ideas of female roles they hold. This is the generational conflict which is easy to relate to, however; Merida handles the conflict in an ill thought-out and selfish way. She finds a witch and asks for a spell to change her mother’s perspective, and chaos ensues when her mother is transformed into a bear. It is up to Merida to repair the conflict between her mother and stop the change from being permanent. 3 She learns she was in the wrong, thinking magic could replace fostering respect and understanding with her mother. Her arc is complete; but it is how Merida comes out of her lesson, how this heroine is robbed.

Merida not only saves her mother, her selfishness is rewarded. Her life does change after she knowingly casts a spell over her mother, not thinking of the consequences though, but not in a way where the lessons she learns are paid off. Yes, her relationship with her mother is put in a better place, however; she gets what she wants despite learning to respect the traditions of her world through understanding her mother’s actions toward her. Her wish to remain unmarried and be a single princess is respected; her maturity and growth during her arc does not matter. There is no compromise between herself and her mother, because despite the journey being theirs, she is depicted as being the one who does not need to change. Merida is merely ‘The One’. Her empowerment is rooted in forcing her views on others, nearly costing herself and family a mother and queen, while still being embraced and celebrated as a force of change. Change is only depicted for herself and others bending around her to fit her ideas; in face of her false arc. This conclusion of her infallibility and strong will is undermining. There is a sense of disrespect for Merida as a character, because her strength is boiled down to the stereotype of a ‘ball-buster’. She is strong-willed, opinionated and ahead of her time; do these positive qualities need to result in her arc matching that of a traditional antagonist?

The problems in these women at the core are the subtle inconsistencies in their journeys. Yes, they are defying the traditional dependent portrait of a woman in some ways; these heroines are strong, intelligent, and capable. But how strong can a heroine be if her empowerment is a thin veil over stereotypes woman have fought hard to combat?

A Similar Idea with Different Execution

Promotional Photo. Zootopia. 2016
Promotional Photo. Zootopia. 2016

Judy (Zootopia, 2016), is a rabbit whom wants to be a police officer, despite the stereotyping, rabbits (prey) cannot be anything but carrot farmers, (while predators are usually police officers). She works hard and at first struggles at the academy, when her character arc builds as ‘The One’. Her ambition leads her to being the valedictorian in the academy and assigned to Precinct Number 1 in the heart of Zootopia. Her implied arc climbs still by being isolated from mysterious predator disappearance cases, not because she cannot handle the cases, but because she is prey. It is clear she is a ‘token species’ within the force, and makes leaps to put herself on a disappearance case involving a string of disappearing predators, including striking a deal with the captain to keep her job by solving one in 48 hours. She does prevail, with the help of a hustler, Nick Wilde (a fox), whom she meets during her first day of work. They make a great team, although an unlikely one, where they both explore and shatter the stereotypes they have of each other. The disappearances are the result of the Mayor of the city capturing predators who are ‘going savage’. The Mayor, a lion (and predator himself), is trying to find the reason for these evolved animals regressing; and why it is only predators, and not pray, is a mystery. Of course, the reason for the savage nature of predators is a plot created by the Assistant Mayor, a lamb, to shift the power balance in the favor of the prey in society 4; however, this revelation comes at the end of Judy’s depression in her arc.

She and Nick figure out the case, win her bet, and she becomes the literal ‘One’ in the city. The true reason behind the chemical shift is not yet explained, but because she found all the missing predators, she is the face of the police department. Her expectations of herself are surpassed, but at an extreme cost. Judy’s downfall begins with an aired interview where she states the reason for the predators’ savage behavior is due to their biology. Her prejudice against predators is expressed in such a blunt way, even Judy seems conflicted as she blames their natural behavior for the phenomena. In her spotlight, growing up in the society she is trying to protect, she believes she is correct; invincible. Her statements cause city riots, open discrimination against predators, and the loss of respect Nick had found for her while they were solving the case. Judy sees the damage and removes herself from the force, because she understands she is not ready for the power she was given as the ‘poster bunny’. Her documented thoughts heighten the prejudice in an entire society, and change the lives of innocent predators as they are demonized. Judy goes back to working on her family farm, and has an encounter with the fox from her traumatizing childhood experience. Judy’s quick wit and suggestion of those around her help her come to the revelation: the reason for the savage outbursts is not biology, but systematic chemical warfare. She returns to Zootopia to correct her mistake with the help of Nick, of course. Her status of ‘The One’ is shattered, while still being the one who wins in the end, and her arc as the hero is complete. She is a special character of Zootopia, but deconstructed as another piece of the system; her arc as a heroine begins to feel much more realistic and grounded.

Zootopia creates a feminist hero who is strong, stubborn and intelligent and has many of the qualities as the women above; she is unyielding much like all of them. She is strong on her own and earns her confidence because of her ambition, which is not paired with arrogance, as seen in Joy. Her downfall is her prejudice, which creates a realistic flaw and explores the value of strength, but there is no such thing as invincibility. It is not condescending or isolating; it’s real.

The idea of the film at its roots is equality for all, and every animal in the society is equally guilty of prejudice. Judy shows isolation as some of the other characters above, yet she is not directly responsible for the isolation as the others; it is also forced upon her due to the prejudices of the society which she lives. Judy works as an amazing, complete female character because she is part of a whole, and changes her way of thinking as she sees others change their behaviors. An experience with a fox growing up as a child shapes her thinking as the hero of a case affecting the city; her learned prejudice is based on one scary experience, and controls her in ways she does not think of initially. She is no longer ‘The One’ in the city because she cannot elevate herself above the common mentality, she is just as capable as the rest of them for her prejudice to rule her actions. Judy is not implied as being a better animal than the rest, but part of a society which perpetuates the problem; she must work hard to learn to become better, not separate from, but with the other characters.

Promotional Photo. Zootopia. 2016
Promotional Photo. Zootopia. 2016

By the end of the movie, she regains her trust in herself to be a good police officer, but is not depicted as a ‘lone gunman’, so to speak. Nick is her partner by the end, which is fitting, because they worked at the cost of each other to overcome personal prejudice. This is different from a character like Elsa, because Judy is not dependent on Nick to regain her confidence as a person and police officer, she is merely supported by him. This is not a one-sided relationship either, he also realizes his potential as her partner in the force because of her support as he helps her solve the first case. The work off of each other and thrive, but are still their own self-actualized people. His confidence in himself as being smart and resourceful is there from the beginning, just as Judy, but his ideas of what he can do with his strengths are expanded and supported with the help of his unlikely companion. This on-screen relationship is supportive, dynamic and both animals share equal parts of it. Their relationship is even able to grow as they learn the hardest lesson about personal prejudice, and what is means to break and learn from it in the context of a changing society. She does not fix the problem, nor does she regain her first status; she is just another animal trying to adapt and survive in a world which has inspired change.

Judy Hopps is not better than the other women discussed, only different. Her character is not written with patronizing undertones or feminine stereotypes; she is the first Disney woman whom is not devalued or debased in any way, especially down to her writing. Her character is the first female who, during the course of her film, feels like she is completely supported by those who created her. She is honest in a current force of change for female protagonists in the most influential brand placed in front of the public. Judy should not only be celebrated as a triumph in the current company of women, but should excite viewers of the possibilities for the generations of Disney women following her.

Works Cited

  1. http://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Frozen-%28Disney%29.html
  2. http://gointothestory.blcklst.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Inside-Out.pdf
  3. http://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/movie_script.php?movie=brave-2012
  4. http://www.the-editing-room.com/zootopia.html

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  1. Horacio

    This is the most a Disney film has piqued my interest since the original 1994 release of “The Lion King.” It reminds me a lot of the Disney I grew up with (TaleSpin, anyone?) but with some added depth to keep adult audiences engaged.

  2. Zootopia sounds as though it were meant to be the prequel to ‘Animal Farm.’

  3. I’ve been noticing a lot where Disney movie plots involve characters dying whether it’s a villain (Scar) or a loved one (Ellie). So, happy to see the movie and…no deaths!

  4. Disney’s been far more progressive than most studios since 1937.

  5. I loved Zootopia, and I can only hope that the sequel (if there is a sequel) will continue in this direction!

  6. Munjeera

    A very solid critique and a point that has been made about exchanging one stereotype for another when it comes to the latest in female characters. It is gratifying to see how your piece has evolved into a really amazing article. It takes a different level of thinking to look at the latest Disney has to offer with such a analytical perspective. I think you are ahead of your time.

    Hopefully, Disney will continue to evolve and start bringing in more multidimensional female characters starting with the Zootopia trend.

  7. Clifford

    This is a good movie and I enjoyed it immensely.

  8. Damaris

    Zootopia chiefly, is a film that warns against the dangers of characterising any group of people (especially those perceived to be in power) as inherently violent just because they have superior strength.

  9. Arriaga

    It’s probably a good sign if people are starting to make feminist movies without consciously trying to make feminist movies.

  10. I can’t wait to see Zootopia!

  11. Absolutely LOVE this movie… Women don’t have to demand that the world be changed for them, they can compete and achieve greatness even if the cards are stacked against them. If you believe you can achieve, no excuses ladies. We don’t need to be scared of men, the idea that all men are potential rapists is soooo backward, just because someone is born a man their genetics do not dictate that they’re going to rape everybody. And even if some men do rape there’s reasons behind it. We can’t allow that stereotype to make us girls live in fear. This movie is SSSOOOOOO empowering!

  12. I think since the nineties Disney has been pretty aware of girl power messages and infuses them when they can, so I don’t think the choice of making her female was entirely coincidental or any feminist message is completely by accident.

  13. Best movie I’ve ever seen.

  14. I must see this movie – but I don’t have any kids!

  15. Zola Huey

    Sounds like a really awsome movie with an even,better message! Nice to see Disney stray away from the whole princess needing a prince theme and having a female character whose goal isn’t to find love at all. Its her job.

  16. just because a movie has a female as ONE of the main characters, doesnt mean its a feminist animated movie, which is a good thing…

  17. Caspian

    I absolutely adore the way Zootopia handled the character arcs. It was an enjoyable watch, and the characters felt real and human (despite literally being animals).

    To me, Judy felt much more real than the other characters mentioned; she didn’t feel plastic-y to me.

  18. Great article! I love all four movies, and all four characters. Your analysis of all four characters was very insightful and made me think more critically about seemingly “strong” female characters, especially in Disney movies. Great job!

  19. I only went for the cute bunny. Yes, CUTE bunny. Frankly speaking I think Disney has been losing their grip on strong female characters for the latese couple productions.

  20. It’s a good article but just so you know, the girl from ‘Inside Out’ is called Riley not Rylee.

  21. Peyton Baker-J

    I have to disagree, personally with your interpretation of Joy’s character arc. Watching the film, I felt like the ending gave her a role as the leader among the emotions, but still aware of their different roles and willing to work with them to do their jobs. To me, as a character Joy was about learning about the difference between being “bossy” or “domineering” and being a leader that holds respects for the different talents of those they lead.

    • Agreed. I don’t think Joy “is still presented as the better emotion” towards the end of her journey with Sadness. That whole adventure set out to prove that Riley needs Sadness just as much as she needs Joy to be able to function.

  22. Slaidey

    I feel like comparing Zootopia’s female main character representation to princess movies is interesting but also difficult because princess movies are primarily bildungsroman. The princesses start with flaws so there can be a transformation or story of growth, which leaves the story line more susceptible to ending imperfectly. On the other hand Judy Hopps starts self-actualized; Zootopia was geared towards enlightening an entire society about stereotypes, not just following the inner struggles of one girl who in the end affects very few people.

  23. Lauren Mead

    Great article! I think you make a lot of interesting points about Disney heroines. In a lot of ways, Disney has worked to create more self-aware movies (i.e. making jokes within the frame of the narrative about past Disney movies), but I think there will always be some issue with stereotypes and character portrayal. In a way, the narrative for their animated features can only allow for so much originality.

  24. Females are for the most part, portrayed as damsels in distress or as cranky, lonely, and bitter souls if they are not seeking for love and prince charming. In reality, there is no such thing as prince charming, and if a female wants to have a relationship why must she be weak, incapable of self-reliance or independent? Who created that myth and why does it still exist in the year 2016? Men and women should have a choice of being in a relationship if they want to! It is a shame that due to the media and the upraising of family values, some girls may fall into the stereotypical trap of being week and needing others to love her before she learns to love herself.
    The film Frozen promotes interpersonal dependence which is an extremely valuable factor to embrace, pulling away from the focus of emotional independence. In the film “Inside Out” it is said that the main character, Joy, depicts ambition leaning more towards the stereotypical bossy, career driven woman. Which I do not approve of because she is a great, positive, reliable character that was trying to fix the problem (imperfectly) that has occurred not leaving anyone behind. The next Disney movie where the female is the main character is Brave. Brave’s main character is a princess trying to change her mother’s traditional way of thinking. She also thrives and fights for respect, strength, intelligence, maturity, and that she is capable of taking care of herself without having a man “saving her”.
    As for the last film discussed, Zootopia, the theme is equality and termination of prejudice beliefs. The film was all about the idea that anyone and everyone can be anything they dreamed of becoming. One of the main characters is a female rabbit. She was trying to fulfill her dream of being a police officer, which was against the norms of what rabbits in her town would typically do ( farm). The film provokes ambition, strength, and independence, which is what people of all races, ethnicities, religions, ages, and genders are still trying to achieve.

  25. I had to stop reading this article because every time I read the word “Rylee” I died a little more inside.

  26. very interesting! it still shocks me for how long Elsa lived in isolation. how is this any consolation to young women in our society? are they supposed to accept their weaknesses and run away from their problems?

  27. great article!

  28. Overall, I think all of the Disney movies are great.

  29. I loved Zootopia! I thought that the risk Disney took by making such a strong female character was fantastic. I’m glad that Judy is unabashedly feminine and not the strong, masculine female stereotype we see so often.

  30. Zootopia is quickly becoming one of my favourite films. The writing is excellent, the music spot on, and the themes and arcs well constructed and understandable. Now, after reading this, I understand why I also loved Judy Hopps so much as a character!

  31. Stephanie M.

    Oh, my goodness, THANK YOU. You brought up some great points, not the least of which are the ones about Elsa and Merida. I discussed Elsa’s isolation and non-empowerment, plus the reward of Merida’s selfishness, in my recent article on female Disney role models. It’s great to know someone else saw what I saw, even though I love those women and am sure you appreciate them, too. I also loved what you said about Joy being stereotyped as arrogant and career-driven. Real women still struggle with this so much! Despite feminism’s gains, it’s as if, should we dare to speak up for ourselves, we are automatically railroading other people. (So demeaning)! Anyway, GREAT article!

  32. maggieveach

    I liked Judy a lot because she was breaking tradition and accepted the flaws in herself. She felt really human for being an anthropomorphic bunny.

  33. Personally, I would have to say Inside Out and Zootopia provide for the best feature films with strong central female characters who seem so natural to us as opposed to movies where we are forcibly asked to see the female protagonist as the main leader under the guise of feminism.

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