So… how do you tackle a topic like good old racism in storytelling? With an allegory of course.
The only problem is that you don’t know how to do it right. You want to highlight problems in the society we live in but you don’t want your screenplay to sound like an essay.
But, at the same time, you want your audience to know that they should take you seriously and you don’t want to slip up and write cringy stuff like “fairy lives don’t matter today”.
There are many great stories to use as examples for a movie or series about the difficulty of racial tensions told through an allegory, and here I want to talk about two of my favorite ones: Disney’s Zootopia and Netflix’s BNA (Brand New Animal).
What is an allegory?
In storytelling, is a device used by the writer to talk about a complex topic in a way that is more accessible to the reader. Basically the writer will use characters, locations, dialogue, situations that are familiar to the reader to explain something abstract.
For example, a story about the importance of respecting the environment could have trees, rivers, and hills turn into humans and rebel against an anthropomorphic version of pollution.
One of the earliest and most famous examples of allegories is Plato’s story The Cave: a group of men has lived their whole lives inside a cave being forced to stare at a blank wall, so they end up thinking that the wall is their whole reality (their whole world). Here Plato is using something practical and familiar (people chained, caves, walls) to talk about big and complex concepts (freedom, perception, reality).
The famous director Hayao Miyazaki uses allegories ALL the time in his movies. For example, the spirit of the great river (in Spirited Away) represents a polluted river.
Zootopia and BNA
In recent years there has been a lot of movies and shows that try to tackle the topic of race, culture, and prejudice. Some have managed to talk about this complex topic with respect and thought, others are at best… a lazy attempt to be woke (*cough* Bright *cough*).
The best thing about BNA and Zootopia series is that they complement each other, by tackling the topic of racism from two different angles: BNA is about systemic racism and Zootpia is about individual racism.
Systemic racism and BNA
Systemic racism (or institutional racism) refers specifically to certain measures (like policies, laws, profiling etc…) put in place by powerful organizations (like governments or companies) in order to put certain racial groups at a disadvantage.
What does this serious and important problem have to do with the cute furry animals of BNA? It’s the main focus of the series.
Just a few scenes in we’ve already been given an idea of what’s happening:
- A poster in the background that says “Let’s hold hands” gets vandalized by a group of humans (this means that the government has some kind of campaign to promote cooperation between humans and beastmen, but the public is not interested)
- Michiru doesn’t ride the bus with the rest of the passengers but hides on the roof (things are so bad for beastmen that just being seen will get them into trouble)
- She is attacked by beastmen hunters on her way to the city, but saved by smugglers who end up taking most of her money (humans are actively persecuting beastmen, but the beasts have their own countermeasures to protect themselves)
We’re less than 10 minutes in and we’ve already been told everything we need to know: humans are discriminating and hunting beastmen while their government has a phony “let’s all be friends” policy; meanwhile beastmen are forced to live separately from humans and have based their society (and even their economy) on survival.
After Michiru enters the city, she begins to learn more about the infamous beastmen that humans fear and despise so much. They reject any human religion in favor of their own (the church of the silver wolf), they are not scandalized by violence and aggression, they have their own festivities, health-care system, sports, traditions, etc…
But here’s where that systemic racism that I was talking about comes into play. Michiru befriends and helps a wolf named Shirou who works with the police on their toughest cases.
Shirou despises humans because of the way beastmen are treated and fights every beastman who decides to betray his own specie for money. There are a lot of those…
He and Michiru see how desperate and broken some beastmen have become as a consequence of poverty and discrimination.
Each case they’re working on presents them with characters who do horrible things, but rather than condemning their bad behavior and moving on, BNA gives those characters the chance to explain themselves. And, most of the time, their actions are motivated by the unfairness of the system that puts beastmen at a disadvantage.
In episode 2, they meet some women who own a daycare/orphanage that welcomes kids who were rejected by their human parents for being beastmen. Michiru admires those women at first until she realizes that they are actually selling those kids back to humans for money.
When she confronts their boss, she says that it’s hard to be both a human and a beastman in such a cruel world and that this leads to choosing between doing the right thing or surviving.
In episode 4, Michiru befriends an influencer who lives in Anima City but pretends to be human on the internet. With her, she finds out that she is capable of shapeshifting back into her human form and blending in with the crowd back in Japan.
However, right when she is considering going back to live with her family, she sees how the humans that were claiming to be Nina’s friends mistreat her and show their prejudices against beastmen. This makes her realize that she doesn’t belong in the human world anymore
In episode 5 Michiru joins the Bears, a baseball team (that is actually made of pandas, raccoons, other animals, and very few actual bears). She admires their dedication to the sport despite the fact that they are being coached by an alcoholic who bets against them at every game and that each team member has the IQ of a bag of chips.
As Michiru’s ability makes the team win every game, she gets closer to the rest of the team who brings her to the slums where they live, all while the coach is being threatened by a bookie who wants the Bears to lose.
At the final game of the tournament, Michiru finds out that her friends have accepted money from the booker in order to lose. They tearfully confess that as much as they love baseball, this is probably their only chance at a better life out of the slums. The coach, who has been the butt of the joke for the entire episode, is revealed to be a very talented baseball player who became cynical and disillusioned after years of being discriminated against and bullied by his own human teammates.
In episode 7 Michiru meets a charming Albatros named Pingua who crash-lands on her bed after escaping the human military. He takes her out for a flight above the city and talks to her about migration.
His family, for generations, has been migrating just like normal Albatros each year. But now that beastmen have been granted the same civil rights as humans, migrating birds find themselves at a disadvantage because a loophole doesn’t allow them to migrate anymore. And the ones who try to migrate anyway get hunted down and killed by human pilots.
Shirou, however, finds out that Pingua is in the city to plan a terrorist attack against the mayor. When he gets captured, the Albatros defends himself by saying that his reason for doing it was to attract attention to his cause. Since most species of beastmen benefit from civil rights, they would rather ignore the ones who don’t to avoid causing ulterior problems with humans. This way, the plea of migrating birds continues to be ignored.
Through the shapeshifting beastmen allegory, BNA manages to shine the spotlight on systemic racism by telling a story from the point of view of the ones who fall victim to it.
- The kids-trafficking women are just taking advantage of an unfair system that allows humans to buy and sell beastmen without getting caught
- Nina’s human friends would not have suffered any consequences for hurting her, however, if Nina and Michiru were caught, they would most likely have been arrested
- The Bears sacrifice their greatest passion because their non-aggressive nature and their poverty doesn’t allow them to have a better life
- Pingua has become a terrorist in a last desperate attempt to same himself and the ones like him, because for the human government it’s easier to pretend that everything is ok rather than taking someone’s protest seriously
The “dominant group”
In BNA we rarely get to see humans, and when we do, they’re not painted as the “good guys”. Unlike other series and movies that focus on the same topic, we don’t get the “it’s just a few bad apples” or the “white savior” storyline.
Other shows will give the audience a sympathetic character from the dominant group (Will Smith’s character in Bright, Viggo Mortensen’s in Green Book Emma Stone’s in The Help for example), make him the protagonist, and send him on a “journey of discovery”.
In the end, he will realize that the struggles that the other group is facing are bad and probably give a heartfelt monologue about how “we need to be better”.
In BNA, the one who goes on a “journey of discovery” is not a human protagonist, but Michiru herself. She learns about the beastmen’s hardships and struggles to be accepted by living through those unpleasant situations, and not by listening to students of color talk about their hard lives and doing her best “Oh that’s so sad, I get that racism is bad now” face (*cough* Freedom Writers *cough*).
Humans are indifferent at best and aggressive at worst. BNA doesn’t give racist characters redeeming qualities. The Prime Minister of Japan starts out as an a-hole and ends the series as a traitor and an a-hole.
What I like most about BNA is that it doesn’t shy away from telling you that prejudice and even indifference can hurt people. So much so that the indifference of the humans in this story is what caused the villain to thrive and hatch his schemes in the first place.
Individual racism and Zootopia
While systemic racism is perpetuated by faceless organizations, individual racism is created by people. It refers to the beliefs held by one person against an entire group and when they manifest themselves they end up supporting racial discrimination.
And isn’t a city full of different animal species that treat each other like racial stereotypes the perfect allegory for that?
Jokes aside, Zootopia manages to make the audience understand what individual racism really is both from the perspective of the minority that is being discriminated against and the perspective of the group doing the discrimination.
The political correctness problem
The dialogue is full of phrases very similar to the offensive stereotyping that people of color have to hear very often.
“You probably can’t read fox, but the sign says: We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone”
The only difference is that the bigotry, rather than being directed at human beings and real racial groups (that might not be happy to hear it), it’s directed at animals. Fictional animals.
This means that Zootopia, despite having children as its target demographic, can go further in its exploration of racism than many “adult” movies dare to do.
The allegory of animal species as racial groups allows the movie to point out the hypocrisy of those microaggressions. Very often people think that their prejudices are justified and they will bring up science, history, hearsay, anecdotes, etc about a certain person of a certain group doing a certain bad thing. Those are obviously just bs excuses, but if phrased the right way they can sound logical, even reasonable.
Zootopia makes us question the racist nature of those excuses. It shows us nonsense to make us arrive at a logical conclusion.
“Foxes come here illegally” or “Lions are raised differently than us” or “I could never date an otter, have you seen what they look like?”. This is just nonsense as long as the subject matter is an animal, but it becomes way too real and way too familiar when you replace the word “fox” with a racial group.
The “allegory gone wrong” argument
I’ve actually read many articles where people claim that the allegory in Zootopia (predators=POC preys=white people) is offensive because “in real life, foxes eat rabbits”. Well, in real life foxes don’t wear pants, don’t commit tax fraud, and don’t drive cars.
At no point in the movie, we see a predator actually hunt a prey. Why? Because there’s no need to. In the reality of Zootopia animals don’t need to eat each other, rely on instinct, form packs etc…
The only times where we see predators acting aggressively, it’s presented to us an anomaly, a problem; because despite Bellwether’s propaganda the truth is that in Zootopia knows that predators don’t eat preys. In real life they do, but in Zootopia they don’t.
The genetic difference
In both Zootopia and BNA there is a “genetic” difference between the groups that are discriminated and the ones who do the discriminating. However, the discrimination in those stories (just like in real life) isn’t actually based on the real problem.
There is a difference between people of color and white people: and it’s a purely aesthetic difference that actually doesn’t affect the lives of the people involved in any practical way. Despite this fact, though, sOmE PeOple will insist that this minor and irrelevant difference is a huge gap that doesn’t allow us to coexist. They will sensationalize it, exaggerate it, and spread false information around it.
It’s actually really cool how Zootopia and BNA seem to accidentally be compatible.
In Zootopia, the difference between predators and preys is physical. Predators are larger and equipped with fangs, claws, muscles, and other features typical of carnivores.
Here’s the thing though, this physical difference doesn’t matter. As Judy says at the beginning of the movie, animals have moved past the necessity to hunt, hide, and follow instinct. In this fictional world just using the terms “predators” and “preys” doesn’t make sense because nobody is hunting anybody.
Yet, the characters still use those archaic terms to describe themselves and others. And as a consequence, SoMe pEoPlE use this type of mindset to their advantage.
Just like us humans in the real world, the animals of Zootopia see this minor difference, that could easily be ignored, and turn it into a huge problem for themselves.
BNA manages to somehow eliminate this difference to highlight the absurdity of sOmE PeOpLe’s prejudice. For the beastmen, it’s possible to change their appearance at will and transform from anthropomorphic animals to regular humans.
This means that if a beastman wanted to live in the human world without revealing to anyone his real specie, it would be possible (difficult, but possible). As a matter of fact, it’s implied that not only they have been doing this exact thing for THOUSANDS of years, but that many beastmen are still doing it now. I mean, even the villain of the story spends almost the entire season pretending to be human.
The difference here is a cultural one. Beastmen and humans have coexisted for centuries, but political schemes and cultural tensions have made this coexistence almost impossible in recent years. So much so that the beastmen had to be kicked out from their countries and sent to Anima City.
Basically, beastmen could very well pretend to be human their whole lives, but it’s the pride in their culture and identity that prevents them from doing it. And humans, instead of accepting that someone different from them can be proud of who they are, see this as a threat.
In the end, I can only applaud the writers of both BNA and Zootopia, not only for exploring the topic of racism through an allegory but for doing it in a way that forces the audience to confront their own prejudice and walk in the shoes of someone who is a victim of discrimination.