Zootopia, an Animal Movie About Humans

By Aaron Bumgarner

zootopia


 

It wasn’t surprising to see Disney Animation’s new movie, Zootopia, top the box office during its opening weekend. The biggest competition was London Has Fallen, the sequel to the underwhelming Olympus Has Fallen from 2013. It was still almost expected when Zootopia was number one again the following weekend, since the only other new opener with a chance was niche thriller 10 Cloverfield Lane. But this past weekend, when Zootopia bested the third Divergent movie, making it the number one movie three weeks in a row, it was time to pay attention.

You honestly already should have been paying attention to Zootopia, for its quality if not for the quantity of dollars it’s bringing Disney. Again, even in the area of quality, Zootopia wasn’t really a surprise. Disney Animation (separate from but friendly with Pixar, both of which are under John Lasseter’s management) has released great movie after great movie, starting in 2010 with Tangled, then Wreck-It Ralph in 2012, Frozen in 2013, and the Marvel collaboration Big Hero 6 in 2014. With this track record, quality was to be expected. But what was wholly unexpected was the kind of movie Disney ended up making. Zootopia is not only an exciting, zippy piece of children’s entertainment but also an insightful and timely plea for human decency.

Of course, it takes a movie about animals to demonstrate our need for human decency. Zootopia follows Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a rabbit from the country who wants nothing more in life than to make the world a better place by becoming a police officer in the great metropolis of (you guessed it- congratulations!) Zootopia. Zootopia is filled with animals of all kinds, both prey and predators, but Judy would be the world’s first bunny cop. We see a montage of Judy working hard at the police academy, and then a scene of her being badged in which we learn Judy is the first officer instated under the mayor’s new “mammal inclusion program”. That phrase alone should give you an idea of which side of this movie’s bread is buttered.

And yet it goes in a completely different direction. You’d think this might be a harmless movie that uses Judy’s story of succeeding against prejudices within the police force as a paean to both hard work and inclusion. And the movie does explore that angle to great effect. But Zootopia goes further, giving Judy an assignment to find a missing otter with the help of an untrustworthy fox (Jason Bateman) and finding ways therein to comment on police violence, identity politics, and fearmongering politicians. What starts as a “you can be anything you want to be” fable becomes a kind of social commentary unprecedented from Disney.

I feel comfortable designating Zootopia a liberal movie because of the ways that it comes down on a lot of these issues. But ending my description there (as I often have over the past few weeks when describing the movie to friends) has seemed incomplete in retrospect, especially after a conversation with a few of my good friends last weekend. We talked at length about the concepts of privilege and diversity and what the costs and benefits are of a culture that uses such demarcations. We disagreed on a lot and agreed on some, but by the end it was clear that we were all seeking solutions to the same problems: disunity and disharmony. Zootopia, while being decidedly in favor of liberal ideals, is far more in favor of unity and harmony, and the movie recognizes that achieving those goals in the real world is complicated.

And that’s why Zootopia is such a special movie. Some have gone so far as to call it anti-Trump- that’s probably a stretch, since it went into production before our country’s Trump situation had reached peak Trump. But I suppose it’s inherently anti-Trump just by virtue of being pro-human decency. More than anything- more than a celebration of diversity or an ode to hard work or an argument for inclusive government programs- Zootopia is a movie that values harmony above all. And in the midst of this divisive political campaign, harmony seems to be what we need most.

Aaron Bumgarner is a speech-language pathologist for Oklahoma City Public Schools, but he’s mulling over a move to Zootopia.

Why We Still Need Feminism

By Kaileen McGourty

maxresdefault


The feminist movement has never been unanimously popular – whether due to honest disapproval of gender equality, like that experienced by the Suffragettes, or a disbelief that feminism is still necessary today. And that’s why I’m writing this article, because of the recently blooming opinion that we don’t need feminism anymore. There are a significant number of people in this country, and possibly throughout the world, who believe that we ended sexism and gender discrimination (Yay! We did it apparently!) and therefore see feminism as redundant or even causing victim-hood among women. But that’s simply false. Discrimination based on sex is still very present in the US (and the rest of the world); those who do not see it either aren’t women or aren’t looking very hard. A good way to expose the ever-present sexism in our society is to examine dominant versus popular culture.

Dominant Culture

Let’s being with a definition. The dominant culture is made up of established societal aspects like language, rituals, or social customs. These aspects maintain dominance through institutions like the education system, law, politics, and business. This is the layer of society where first and second wave feminism focused – attacking where the most obvious and detrimental acts of gender discrimination existed at the time. The lack of women’s right to vote or own property, unjust pay, discriminatory educational practices, and workplace sexual harassment all were obstacles in the dominant culture. As a result of strong feminist efforts, we have seen great improvement in this sphere of society – this is what some are referencing when they claim that feminism is no longer necessary. Women won the right to vote and hold land. Laws punishing sexual harassment and encouraging workplace safety have come into effect. Title IX was created to insure educational institutions treat female students equally.

But have we really improved gender discrimination in the dominant culture as much as some may think? Let’s say we’re going to measure the presence of gender discrimination in dominant culture with wages. Over time, in the U.S. it is very clear that the average wage for women has moved closer and closer to that of men (see the graph below). However, we’ve yet to actually reach wage equality. As Harvard economist Claudia Goldin explains, if you calculate the average annual earnings of all full-time working women and divide that by the equivalent calculation for men the result would be around .77 – meaning, on average, women earn 77% of what men earn. So we can’t quite say there is gender equality in pay yet.

Screen Shot 2016-02-19 at 10.20.31 PM

But is this a fluke? Let’s try a different measure. How about the portion of political positions held by women? According to the World Bank data-bank, in 1990 women held a mere 6.6% of political seats in the U.S. and as of 2015 women held 19.4%. That is a huge improvement across time; however that number pales in comparison to the other one-hundred and eighty nine reporting countries in 2015. Ranking from highest percentage to lowest, the U.S. finds itself, just barely in the top 50%, at number 96 – below countries like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, nearly every “developed” country, and many more. So, sadly, we can’t claim political gender equality either.

Popular Culture

We have to accept that our country has not reached gender equity in dominant culture. That does not mean we’ll forget the huge improvements women have seen in our country’s history – something both genders should be proud of. But there seems to be a final obstacle preventing real equality and an end to gender discrimination. I believe that it’s the sexist foundations of popular culture standing in the way. Popular culture is more than the who’s who and what’s what. It’s defined as the sum of attitudes, beliefs, ideas, and values within the mainstream or dominant culture. It’s the culture of how we interact and what we believe. This is where those who believe sex discrimination has vanished lack an understanding or haven’t connected the dots, so to speak. Our popular culture is built upon the sexist cornerstone that women are not equal to men – this holds back gender parity in dominant culture and perpetuates potentially harmful attitudes. These attitudes account for things like street harassment and catcalling, “mansplaining”, and even rape culture. Let me give a few examples:

I asked twenty women I know, all of different ages, sizes, and locations, a question: how many days out of the week do you experiencing catcalling or other forms of street harassment? Accounting for how many days they actually walk on the street or use public transportation, on average they experienced some sort of harassment approximately 5 out of 7 days – and that’s not considering how many times it happened each day! And if you don’t believe me, ask the women in your life.

I am a huge hockey fan (go Blackhawks!), probably more knowledgeable on the topic than the average fan. But I cannot count with all my digits the number of times a man has tried to explain rules or aspects of hockey to me, based purely on the assumption that because I am a female I must not know about sports. Nor can I count the number of times someone, knowing my academic and professional experience, began explaining topics in my field of expertise because the intelligence of women is constantly challenged in our culture.

While those examples may seem harmless, and on the surface they mostly are, they are representative of a dangerous attitude – what women know, want, or say doesn’t really matter. And when that attitude gets applied to something more complicated than hockey knowledge, like sexual consent for example, heinous violations of women occur.

If you still aren’t sure that our popular culture is built on a foundation of gender discrimination I have a dare for you: in this awards season, watch all the red carpet (whatever color carpet) interviews. The presence of sex discrimination is thinly veiled at these events and is most apparent when comparing how male artists and female artists are interviewed. Compare the types of questions – are women being asked about their love life or beauty regime, while men are asked about their role preparation or inspiration behind a song? Of course, you already know the answer. This type of sexist interviewing goes undisguised in every sphere of pop culture, just watch how absurd the questions for female athletes are in this video by #CoverTheAthlete.

So What?

The reason I had to tell you all this? Gender discrimination is not done. Women are still fighting everyday to be treated with respect and equality. Our culture still does not truly value women’s intelligence, work, sexuality, or opinions. While our dominant culture has made great strides in the past towards gender equity and the fair treatment of women, society as a whole is being held back by the final obstacles – how we think, how we act, and what we value. To truly reach gender equality and an end to sex discrimination in our dominant culture and in all of society we cannot leave behind a popular culture built upon sexism. We need to rally around feminism and women. We need to examine how our individual participation in popular culture is impacting the existence of sexist attitudes. And we need to say “enough is enough pop culture, get it together!” I think it’s about time.

—–

Kaileen McGourty is a Graduate Student at American University’s School of International Service.

The 2016 Grammys and the Morning-After Anger

By Aaron Bumgarner

Kendrick's performance was riveting


You’ll be easily forgiven if you decided to skip watching last night’s 58th Grammy Awards. I’m not going to recap the entire awards show, because recapping something that lasted 810 hours sounds like a lot of work. Instead I’ll focus on the big moment, the one that had Twitter all aflame, the one that perhaps should have had me seething but instead just made me further resigned: Taylor Swift’s 1989 beat out Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly for Album of the Year.

I saw a lot of angry people on Twitter afterwards; chances are, if you’re reading this, you were one of them. I’m not going to tell you how to feel, but allow me to provide a little context, first in favor of what happened and then in condemnation of it.

Taylor Won

The temptation in the face of Taylor Swift beating Kendrick Lamar one year after Beck beat Beyoncé is to lump last night’s show in with #OscarsSoWhite or to simply cry racism. That’s not wrong, but it also doesn’t tell the whole story. First of all, Morning Phase, the Beck album that beat Beyoncé’s self-titled statement album last year, is lightweight stuff. It won’t be remembered even as one of Beck’s best albums, let alone as one of the best albums of 2013-2014.

1989, on the other hand, is an industry monolith. For 2014-2015, Taylor Swift ruled the world with that album as her scepter. She was dominating the industry on Adele’s 21 levels. Did we really think that the industry as a whole wouldn’t vote for an album as successful as 1989? Swift’s Album of the Year victory isn’t questionable in the same way that Beck’s was.

And on top of that, the little thing that Swift mentioned in her acceptance speech (no, not that little thing) about being the first woman to win this award twice is no small matter. In the 58 years that award has been given out, 18 women have won it, and that’s including toss-ups like John Lennon & Yoko Ono, Fleetwood Mac, the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack (which was probably actually given to T-Bone Burnett, but featured a lot of women), and Robert Plant & Alison Krauss. Maybe you noticed that everyone who came up onstage with Swift was a man. That’s very indicative of the music industry as a whole.

As much as Swift may feel like she’s a part of the establishment to you, she is one of few women in the industry who can truly take ownership of her business, and the fact that the Academy is recognizing her matters. We should celebrate that. There are multiple points of discrimination in the music industry, just like in the outside world, that need addressing. We can celebrate progress in one area without neglecting other areas.

Kendrick Lost

And yet I’m still shaking my head that an album like To Pimp a Butterfly was snubbed. I don’t want to jump to conclusions and claim institutional racism without knowing the facts first, so let’s look at Grammy history for a second. This isn’t like the Oscars; because the Grammys give so many awards and split those awards into different genres, you can’t just count the number of black nominees versus white nominees. But Album of the Year is the Academy’s premiere award, and… well, only 16 people of color have won it. Remember, this was the 58th Grammys.

The last person of color to win it was Herbie Hancock, which makes it sound like it happened in 1968, but don’t worry, it was 2008. There was actually a relatively rich 10-year period from 1999-2008 (it feels like forever ago, but it wasn’t that long!) in which 6 people of color won: Lauryn Hill, Santana, Norah Jones, OutKast, Ray Charles, and Herbie Hancock. Of course the last 8 straight have been white… but still.

I think what we’re seeing is a complicated kind of discrimination, and it appears rooted less in blatant dislike of a people and more of a resistance to a culture. It’s telling that the last African-Americans to win Album of the Year were Ray Charles and Herbie Hancock, both of whom were pioneers of their specific genres and had crossover success to the pop charts in spite of their blackness. When those men were young, I can imagine parents turning up their noses at their music and covering their kids’ ears in fear of what kind of effect their black music might have on them.

And yet over time Charles and Hancock became part of the good old boys’ club, and their music was celebrated. Our perspective on those artists reflects how much their work has permeated the industry since then and become part of what we think of when we think of the establishment. Hip-hop, as much as it dominates the charts, is just now beginning to seep into the foundation of the industry. I wonder if the Grammys don’t see hip-hop the way Bill Cosby did in the ‘80s and ‘90s: “Pull up your pants, boy!”

So Did We Lose or Win?

The Grammys’ awarding of Taylor over Kendrick isn’t a rejection of Kendrick but a continued rejection of hip-hop culture. No rap album has won since OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below in 2004, which is fine, except that rap has been the dominant pop music medium since then. The lack of hip-hop winners is a resistance to admit that black culture has won.

The memes of audience members watching Kendrick’s outstanding performance of “The Blacker the Berry” and “Alright” highlight this nicely. The Academy appears to be holding onto the supposed whiteness of rock and pop and folk, even though you can trace much of those genres’ roots back to black artists. I wouldn’t be surprised if Grammy voters were shocked to find out last night that Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes was black.

People are going to tell you that the Grammys don’t mean anything. And in a larger sense, in the bigger picture, maybe they’re right. In 25 years, we’re going to look back on the 2010s and remember Beyoncé and To Pimp a Butterfly (and good kid, and channel ORANGE…) as some of the most defining albums of the decade. It won’t matter that they didn’t win the big award at the Grammys, which will be remembered as out-of-touch and tone-deaf and white (and male!). But in the here and now, those of us who recognize that it is black culture that is producing the most vital and vibrant art of our time are tired of having to hang our heads the morning after.

Entertainment Reads (July 22, 2014)

dvdshelf

Each week on Tuesday we’ll post our favorite links to articles from the pop culture world. They’ll at least tangentially pertain to education or sociological issues in general, and they’ll be from the past week. There will be a few bonus exceptions though, usually in the form of a link that was too fun to pass up. Because we too like to have the fun.

In Captain Falcon: Hayes Brown both gets excited and slows his roll for Marvel’s announcement that Sam Wilson (who is black) will be the new Captain America. (Think Progress)

In hot sports takes: This is the article that spurred the Tony Dungy mess earlier this week. The Dungy part is really small, and the actual article is interesting as a look at tolerance in the locker room. (The Tampa Tribune)

In movie history: Saul Austerlitz explores how recent movies have revealed the LGBTQ community’s place in America’s history. (The Dissolve)

In chipping away at the glass ceiling: Natalie Nakase wants to be the NBA’s first female head coach. (The New York Times)

In something a little more close to home: The late James Garner had intimate ties to Norman and to the University of Oklahoma. (The Norman Transcript)

Bonus for fun: The key to life is found in the face inside Joaquin Phoenix’s forehead. (YouTube)

Entertainment Reads (July 8th, 2014)

DVDs

Each week on Tuesday we’ll post our favorite links to articles from the pop culture world. They’ll at least tangentially pertain to education or sociological issues in general, and they’ll be from the past week. There will be a few bonus exceptions though, usually in the form of a link that was too fun to pass up. Because we too like to have the fun.

In comic strips that should be required reading: Bill Watterson, of Calvin and Hobbes fame, is back. Sort of. (Paste)

In political cartoons that should be required reading: Cartoonists in Egypt are dodging censorship. (Daily News Egypt)

In the continued saga of UNC’s academic scandal: A learning specialist seems to think the school cares more about athletics than academics and is suing because the school demoted her for saying so. (Charlotte Observer)

In comics about superheroes that are definitely feminist: Kelly Thompson eviscerates David Finch, the new artist for DC’s Wonder Woman series, for his poorly chosen words about the titular hero. (Comic Book Resources)

In TV shows about superheroes that are surprisingly feminist: Emily Yoshida explains Sailor Moon and why it belongs in a category with Orange Is the New Black. (Grantland)

Bonus for fun: You need to smile, so watch goats scream along to the Jurassic Park theme. (YouTube)

12 Years a Slave (A Break from Our Regularly Scheduled Programming)

By Aaron Bumgarner


12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave is only the third movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture with a black person* in its starring role. The first was In the Heat of the Night, starring the great Sidney Poitier in a story about a black cop facing racism in a corrupt, Southern town. The second was Driving Miss Daisy, which I love but which does not give its black star, Morgan Freeman, a flattering role to play as the driver for the initially racist character that Jessica Tandy plays. So the movies that history will remember as the best movies starring black people in the first 85 years of the Academy’s history all deal with racism. That apparently, is the only story about black people that Hollywood has deemed worthy of setting in stone for future generations.

This is sad, but not the fault of those three movies. In the Heat of the Night and Driving Miss Daisy, while heavy-handed with their themes, are very entertaining stories with great performances. 12 Years a Slave is heavy-handed too, but only because it comes at you like a fist made of the heaviest of heavy stones and crushes any preconceived notions you might have entertained about slavery in the American South. It’s a hard movie to watch, to say the least. It’s also the best movie you could watch.

Film Review 12 Years a SlaveI’ve had several people tell me that they don’t want to see 12 Years, because it will be too hard to sit through. They don’t think they can endure it. As much as I want to grab their shoulders and shake them and tell them they have to watch it, I can’t blame them. It’s very hard to sit through. Screenwriter John Ridley has us following Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) from the everyday joys of freedom to the everyday ignominies of slavery, which is hard enough. But director Steve McQueen shoots 12 Years as if he’s documenting real-life events. When Solomon is strung up on a tree after challenging a white foreman, McQueen lets the camera linger on him struggling against the rope, his toes barely grazing the grass as they desperately try to touch, the other slaves on the plantation going about their business in the background, including children playing. With that shot, McQueen lets us see that the slaves know the futility of their situation, just as he lets us see the brutality of the whippings, the abuse, the rapes. I understand why people don’t want to watch that. But McQueen and Ejiofor and Ridley made this movie because we need to watch it.

We need to watch it, because it’s not enough for the history books to tell us that slavery was ethically wrong. It’s not enough to think of slavery as a political black spot in America’s history. It’s not enough to think of slavery as a past that the civil rights movement had to overcome. No, slavery was something that happened to people, real people, and that’s what we need to learn from 12 Years a Slave. There’s a scene near the middle of the movie in which the great Lupita Nyong’o’s character begs Solomon to kill her, so weary is she of her existence under the thumb of Michael Fassbender’s plantation owner. That’s the kind of human desperation that slavery bred. It’s hard to understand that slavery robbed people of their humanity when it’s considered in the abstract. Watching 12 Years a Slave makes that thought process painfully easy.

Review of 12 Years a SlaveIt worries me that we still haven’t learned that lesson yet though. It’s tempting to look at 12 Years as a faux-documentary of a terrible time in America’s past. And McQueen has shot it that way, paying close attention to the period details. But don’t think for a minute that McQueen didn’t make this movie with a thought to what it might have to say to us now. A period movie may be set in a different time, but it’s always meant for the time in which it’s released.

We can be excited that a gut-wrenching movie about slavery won Best Picture, and we can be excited that people actually turned out to watch it. But I worry that we’ll think we did it, we’ve made it, there’s no progress left to be made. If you were counting up top, that’s 3 Best Picture winners with black people in the starring role…out of 85. (Spoiler alert, sort of.) If the end of 12 Years is any indication, there’s work left to be done. Solomon is the only slave that gets freed at the end, and he has a moment with Patsey (Nyong’o) right before he leaves in which they both realize that his horrors are finished, but hers are nowhere near completion. If there’s a lesson to be learned from 12 Years, it’s not “Look how far we’ve come.” It’s “We can’t stop now.”

*Note: I say “black person”, but I really mean “black man”, because no movie starring a black woman has ever won.

—–

Aaron is a speech-language pathologist working for Oklahoma City Public Schools.