Zootopia isn’t just a family-friendly police procedural with an anthropomorphic twist. It also deals with complicated issues of intersecting privilege and systemic prejudice in a way that is accessible to children. This dovetails nicely with its treatment of primary protagonist, Judy Hopps, a female character that stands out in a figurative sea of princesses.
To really understand what makes Judy Hopps so unique, it’s important to take a look at female primary protagonists in theatrical animation, particularly the royalty. There are relatively few female primary protagonists in American animation, and a large number of them have either been royals or women whose love interests are royals.
Including all mainstream Disney animated features theatrically released in the U.S., from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) to Frozen 2 (2019), there have only been 19 films with a female primary protagonist. Comparatively there have been 64 films with a male primary protagonist, and 7 with male/female co-protagonists.
Looking at the Disney films with a female primary protagonist (who does not share the film with a male primary protagonist), ten have a female royal as the main character or a woman whose love interest is a royal. Thirteen of them feature protagonists that are marketed as part of the Disney Princess line. This leaves Alice in Wonderland, Return to Never Land, Home on the Range, Inside Out, Zootopia, and Finding Dory as the only films that don't star a royal, or aren't part of the Princess Franchise.
Not that there is anything wrong with princesses, of course, but when in 82 years there have only been a handful of movies that break this mold, it creates a very narrow idea of what constitutes a female hero.
It’s worth noting that this isn’t unique to Disney. Fairy tales are a popular animated film genre. To put the princess trend and lack of female primary protagonists into a larger context we can look at two decades of family-targeted animated films released in the U.S. from 1993-2012 .
In the first decade, from 1993-2002, there were 13 female primary protagonists, 1 co-protagonist, and 41 male primary protagonists. During the nineties “girl power” became trendy and marketable.
As Sarah Banet-Weiser put it, “...female ‘empowerment’ became the buzz word – not in marginalized political communities, but squarely within main-stream commercial culture.” By the next decade this trend had begun to fade.
While the number of animated films being produced exploded, female primary protagonists declined. From 2003-2012 there were 10 female primary protagonists, 3 co-protagonists, and 83 male primary protagonists.
Looking at these two decades as a whole, out of 151 animated films released in the U.S., 23 of them had a female primary protagonist, compared to 124 with a male primary protagonist. 39% of films with a female primary protagonist starred a royal or a woman whose love interest was a royal.
The nine characters who are royal, or whose love interest are royal are very similar in design. All but one of the characters is some age between late teens to early twenties. All of the characters are human, though two of the characters spend a large portion of their film as an animal.
Only 13% of films with a male primary protagonist starred a royal or a man whose love interest was a royal. Of those 16 films, 4 of them are in the Shrek franchise, and 2 of them are biblical stories staring Moses. Unlike the female royals, or protagonists whose love interests are royals, there are far more varied types of heroes in design, there are 3 animals, 6 humans (Kuzco spends a portion of his film as an animal also), and 7 films with mythical or alien creatures.
The ages of the characters are also far more varied then the female royals. Most of the main characters are grown men of varying ages who are already established in their lives. Shrek lives on his own when the film starts, Kuzco and Jack are currently ruling their kingdoms. One is a young child, and two of the films (The Lion King and the Prince of Egypt) show their protagonists over a long period of time as they grow.
Due to the sheer volume of movies featuring male primary protagonists, it’s not surprising that the types of male heroes are far more diverse in their design, struggles and the worlds in which they exist, but their are also more chances being taken in the type of male characters designed. With a hundred more movies made starring men than women, there are a hundred more chances to explore male main characters. Naturally, they are more varied.
This is part of what makes Zootopia’s Judy Hopps so unique as a primary protagonist. Not only is she not royalty: she’s an adult woman, she works a job, and her character struggle does not revolve around a romantic relationship. This is incredibly rare for any animated film produced in the U.S. Of course, it’s not to say that there aren’t many interesting and dynamic secondary female characters in animated films starring men.
So, why are diverse characters like Judy Hopps so important? Geena Davis, in discussing a study done through the Geena Davis Institute for Gender in Media in conjunction with J. Walter Thomson, said, “…the more TV a girl watches, the fewer options she thinks she has in life. She doesn’t see all the great options that are presented to men and boys; male self-esteem goes up when they watch TV. People can be inspired or limited by what they see.”
In Colin Stokes’ 2016 TED presentation, he speaks humorously about the effects of women as secondary protagonists on male viewers. “Are they absorbing the story that a male hero’s job is to defeat the villain with violence and then collect the reward which is a woman that has no friends and doesn’t speak?” He suggests that it is important to show boys a new example of manhood, by showing them films with complex female characters and allowing boys to identify with female protagonists. It’s important to see female characters not just in relation to the male characters they support - not just as daughters, love-interests, girlfriends, friends, or wives, but as heroes of their own stories. It’s important for boy and girls to identify with male and female main characters.
In a movie dealing with prejudice, Judy Hopps is a refreshingly complicated character. As a small prey animal, she is the first of her kind to enter the police force under the ‘Mammal Inclusion Initiative,’ and subsequently forced to deal first-hand with the bigotry of the other officers. But she isn’t just a bright-eyed innocent that teaches the world a “lesson on caring.” Hopps also has to address her own prejudices.
Zootopia also addresses the optimistic idea that anyone can do anything. But while Judy Hopps can work hard and create opportunities for herself, there is a limit. Systemic oppression isn’t something that can be easily overcome, even in a Disney movie. Judy Hopps, is a step-forward for change in her community, but there is still a long way to go for equality in the world of Zootopia, just as there is still a long way to go for animated films starring women.
Originally published in AWN.
This Data looks at all G or PG rated American (or American coproduced) animated theatrical releases that were released to at least 500 theaters and were primarily animated (there could be live action scenes, but focus was on animated characters in an animated world). Excluding package films.
When discussing Disney films, I refer to all films (released under Pixar Animation Studios, DisneyToon Studios, ImageMovers Digital, Skellington Productions, Walt Disney Animation, Walt Disney Television Animation), excluding films that included live action, straight to video films that had a single theater or international premier only, shorts, Disney package films, and films not produced by Disney but distributed under the Disney label.
Final Note: What constitutes a primary protagonist or co-protagonist might be something people will debate. Many films contain strong secondary protagonists. Though Flynn Rider has his own story-arch, he is the supporting character to Rapunzel. Similarly, Fiona is a complex character whose story is given much screen time and weight, but Shrek is the primary protagonist of the franchise named after him. I didn’t use the term co-protagonist lightly and looked to which character’s wants, needs, and story took priority.
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