Whore Next Door: The Zoo Story

Decades ago, there must have been some kind of backdoor agreement between Hollywood and American law enforcement vowing to portray police officers only as heroes (or, at worst, comic relief). But now that racialized police violence is getting some much-deserved scrutiny, it's more difficult to stomach a barrage of buddy cops and good guy detectives parading across the silver screen.

So I was dubious about Zootopia, the new Disney/Pixar animated feature, from when I first saw the preview. Though the writing seemed smart and fresh — somebody got the memo that sloths have been trending — I had trouble getting excited about a kids' movie where the main character is a cop. Even if (and maybe especially because) she is a bunny.

While the furry fetishists of the world were quick to rent out entire theaters to celebrate what may be considered Disney's hottest anthropomorphized fox heartthrob since Robin Hood himself, I was excited about it for a different reason.

Zootopia is wrapped up in a palatable, family-friendly package, but it easily contains the most intensely topical social commentary in a kids' movie that I've ever seen.

The story follows an idealistic, small-town bunny named Judy who dreams of moving to the titular metropolis — a modern America with animals instead of humans — and becoming the first ever rabbit police officer. She overcomes the speciesist obstacles in her path, getting hired by the Zootopia P.D. as part of an affirmative-action-sounding “Mammal Inclusion Initiative.” Judy thinks she should be cracking the big missing-animals cases plaguing the city, but instead, she's assigned to parking duty, struggling to prove to her stubborn ox of a boss that she's not “just some token bunny.”

In Zootopia, interspecies stereotypes and prejudices are ever present, percolating just beneath the surface despite cultural myths about having evolved past that sort of small mindedness. Sound familiar? As the mystery of the lost Zootopians unfolds, the film confronts and examines cartoonified versions of systemic and internal racism and sexism.

But the cherry on top of this Disney/Pixar social justice sundae is the subtle, age-appropriate messages about body autonomy and post-heteronormative family values.

Judy's neighbors in her first Zootopia apartment appear to be a gay male elk couple. They're casually dropped as normal background characters — no special attention or jokes about them, just two gay dudes living next door.

Spoiler alert: Judy ends up diving into the missing animals case in between meter-maid shifts. (You've seen movies, right?) Her investigation leads her and her criminal informant-slash-partner — a foxy street hustler named Nick — to an underground hippie hangout where one of the missing animals had taken up yoga — because in this world, even upstanding otters named Emmet Otterton do naked self-care. A stoner yak voiced by Tommy Chong leads the two investigators past a curtain to reveal a community center full of activity, complete with bathing hippos and giraffes playing volleyball, all sans clothes.

Nick the fox seems to delight in exposing the naive officer to one of the cities' more flamboyant subcultures, but it is Judy's discomfort and subsequent anxieties about politeness that are played up for laughs more than the free-spirited club members.

In Zootopia, accepting one's neighbors' alternative lifestyle choices is just part of life in the big city.

As a hardcore Disney fan, I would love to give them the credit for being progressive and thoughtful in which values the company represents, but it's more likely that Disney's just following the market research on this one.

This month at a SXSW panel, the J. Walter Thompson Innovation Group panel found that only 48 percent of respondents ages 13 to 20 identified as “completely heterosexual.”

The study also found that 56 percent of the same demographic knew someone who used gender-neutral pronouns and 70 percent favored gender-neutral bathrooms. Those numbers represent a significant shift from even the attitudes of generationally adjacent Millennials, who self-reported as unambiguously straight 65 percent of the time.

It will be interesting to see what those numbers will look like when we ask the same questions of Zootopia's target audience in 10 years.

I know I have a reputation for being overly optimistic, but Zootopia has me ready to declare that the evil curse of heteronormativity has been lifted from the land, and soon we may all be free.

However, I know that gay neighbors and tolerance for naked weirdoes in one Disney bunny-cop movie may not open a whole new world of sexual freedom just yet. But I'd say it's definitely a step in the right direction.

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