Study Zootopia at the University of Tennessee!

Did you ever think that you would see Zootopia as a required part of a university course?  I mean, it deserves to be studied by every film student, but I’m talking outside of media arts class.  I’m talking…  Ethics.

Meet Trevor Hedberg, a graduate student in the Philosophy department at the University of Tennessee.  He is currently teaching a course called Contemporary Moral Problems, with a unit on the topic of how various psychological phenomena can cause us to unwittingly act unethically.  As a part of this course, he is screening Zootopia for his students as an introduction to their textbooks on the subject of implicit bias (as seen above).

As a part of his job, he’s put together a relatively short paper titled “Moral Psychology and Prejudice in Disney’s Zootopia.  This paper gives a brief explanation of the deeper issues at play in the movie, demonstrating how its message is not a direct allegory to any one race, gender, sexuality, etc., but how it serves as a lesson in recognizing and overcoming prejudice in all forms, regardless of the specific circumstances.  It goes beyond just a simple “Racism is bad!” message, and tackles the hard questions of implicit bias and how it affects decisions made by people who are fundamentally good.

You can read his paper here.  Not only is it fascinating in its current state, but he has opened it up to critique from the fandom at large.  That’s right, he wants to hear what YOU have to say about his paper!  As he put it, “They are probably in a better position to critique it than most of my peers in academic philosophy, who have probably only seen the film once or twice.”

The goal here is to point out details in the film that a casual observer might not notice, which tie in to understanding implicit bias.  For example, the scene at Jerry Jumbeaux Jr’s Ice Cream Parlor is riddled with Microagressions, both from Jerry the elephant AND from Judy herself- and she didn’t even realize!

So, if you’ve read the paper and think there was something important that he left out, or otherwise missed, leave a comment down below!


  1. (If Mr. Hedberg is reading this, then let me first say: Great paper!)

    The issue of Judy being assigned parking maid duties even though she graduated best in her class was an ambiguous point, for me.

    Certainly it can be interpreted as discrimination against a gender/species…

    But what if we view it this way: Judy was a rookie, after all.

    You don't hand out important cases to a rookie. On the rookie's very first day on the job. *I* certainly won't. Especially if said rookie was not partnered with a more experienced cop.

    (Yes, I'm preemptively answering the inevitable question "but Nick didn't get assigned to parking duty?" *He* had a more senior partner, a well-known hero of Zootopia, even.)

    I'm not saying that Bogo is free from implicit bias. Far from it. He *was* biased against foxes anyways. That might also affect how sternly he was on Judy.

    Another thing to note in the movie, was that bias/prejudice seems to be so strongly entrenched, that for Judy to be able to join the ZPD she had to utilize Mayor Lionheart's "Mammal Inclusion Initiative". It's perhaps not institutionalized (no "tame collar", for instance), but it's still a well-known variable. The "Jim Crow" of Zootopia, so to speak.

    • Thanks. These are good points. I am not sold on the notion that Judy was not discriminated against by Bogo by being relegated to parking duty, but I realize that I may need to say more to properly support that idea. I had not considered how the mayor's Mammal Inclusion Initiative might be playing a role here.

    • So I just did some research into how realistic Judy's first day would've been in real life. It seems that rookie cops are all supposed to be taken under the wing of a field training officer (FTO), and not be given the absolute freedom to do what she likes as Judy did.

      On the other hand, it seems that most parking violations aren't handled by actual police officers, but by parking enforcement officers who are not official cops. In that light, giving Judy that job does seem rather demeaning.

      So basically Judy was both better and worse off than should've been the case, since she got a demeaning job but had the freedom to go at her pace.

      Nick's first day is a much more realistic depiction of an actual first day for a rookie cop, where you follow around your FTO and go handle minor crimes, like dealing with unruly drunks.

    • That's very interesting. I'll have to brood on this a bit further.

      I'm thinking that the most relevant detail is that parking duty is usually something that "real" cops don't do. This point is reiterated over and over again: Nick says Judy will never be a real cop after leaving her in the cement, Jerry Jumbeaux Jr. assumes that she is not an officer — just a meter maid, Judy's parents rejoice in the fact that she's not a real cop during the phone call that follows her first day, McHorn tells her to "wait for the real cops" when she's chasing Weaselton, and Judy says repeatedly "I am a real cop" while banging her head against the steering wheel during a rough second day on the job, as if she's trying to convince herself that what others think isn't true.

      So I think on the whole, the film is trying to send the message that she's not getting fair treatment. (That's also consistent with how she's treated after apprehending Weaselton and coincides with Nick's comments about how no one at the ZPD was going to help Judy in cracking the case.) But it's obvious I need to say more to establish this point in the paper.

    • That neither Judy nor Bogo are faultless here I think is quite important to create that we all have our hidden (and sometimes righteous) views. Bogo is very much diminishing Judy by assigning her parking enforcement — as you point out Trevor, Judy keeps having to correct others that she is an actual police officer, not a regular employee (very much this is the type of work a fully-fledged officer would not normally be doing — if Bogo did not want to assign her to the case as a rookie, having her do traffic patrol or beat cop would have been more the entry level position to get her familiar with the city). Judy, on the other paw, was very full of herself in thinking she _should_ be assigned to the highest profile case on her first day, rather than work her way up to it (of course, there's a lot of backstory and identity wrapped up around this that the movie explores).

      That said, it is an equally big key that Judy is very much so being discriminated against for being a bunny, a mammal-inclusion graduate, and maybe even for being from the countryside, and that makes her own biased behaviour towards Nick a few scenes later that much more poignant. 🙂

    • Haha. Thanks! I hope my current students share that enthusiasm — always hard for me to tell how much my students are enjoying (or dreading) my courses until I read the evaluations at the end of the term.

  2. I would say his point on her saying he was articulate as a micro-aggression is actually more of a compliment, as Jumbeaux had insulted Nick saying he couldn't read. Judy just wanted him to know that she though Jumbeaux was wrong in that assumption, and wanted Nick to know that she didn't feel the same way about him. So with that being the comment from the elephant that caused her to act on Nick's behalf in the first place, she wanted to make sure Nick knew she thought he was a good guy with the first compliment that came to mind to belittle Jumbeaux.

    • You're probably right that that's how Judy intends it, but that's not how it comes across — at least not to most viewers. The word "articulate" has a historical connotation of being used to describe people of color who are well-spoken (as if it were surprising that people of color can be charismatic, effective speakers). I have some well-educated biracial friends who routinely have to deal with this stereotype. A big feature of microaggressions is that they do not have to be intended to send harmful or disrespectful messages, and I think that's what's happening in that scene.

    • Speaking of microaggressions, I'm fascinated by the similarities between Zootopia and Get Out, another movie about insidious racism, and filled with microaggressions:

      1. They were released at nearly the same time of the year (Late February and early March)
      2. Both deliver a social message about the subtler forms of racism
      3. Both involve the majority race changing the mental state of minorities to oppress them
      4. Both have gotten nearly unanimous acclaim from critics (99{fc17e15ed6c8f701884a899a735d4ed94fc8cfa66fc2f404dd33f42f9afeb7a1} and 98{fc17e15ed6c8f701884a899a735d4ed94fc8cfa66fc2f404dd33f42f9afeb7a1} on Rotten Tomatoes)
      5. Both have terrific word-of-mouth from audiences

      I had so much fun following Zootopia's box office numbers (first in China, then in the US and finally in Japan), and now I'm doing the same for Get Out. Greet stuff.

    • The way the dialogue progresses where Judy calls Nick articulate is also really telling: "I just want to say you're a great dad and just a… a real articulate fellow." That pause is the key, displaying how distant a compliment or even nice thought about a fox was for her. She searches, struggles, and the best she can come up with is articulate, which, as you note, has deep connotations in the USA.

      Nick's response here is also great: "It's rare for me to find someone so non-patronizing." He fully gets the backhanded nature of it, the underpinning of distrust (which confirms his world view). Judy completely missing the sarcasm and taking it at face value nicely reinforces how hidden her bias is. 🙂

    • Yes. I get the impression that Nick knew about her biases from the very beginning. When he mentions the fox repellent at the press conference, he says something like, "Oh yeah. Don't think I didn't notice that the first time we met." Since I think the fox repellent is a symbol of her (mostly implicit) bias, I take this as the film telling us that Nick knew about these latent biases all along. That also happens to coincide with your observation about his sarcastic remark to being called articulate.

      Some people criticized how Judy and Nick parted ways abruptly at the press conference despite seeming to be friends at that point in the film. But these facts can account for that because they suggest that Judy and Nick's friendship was formed on a very fragile foundation and that Nick never fully trusted Judy the way that real friendship requires. This is also why the bridge scene is so significant: it's not so much about forgiveness as about Nick deciding to genuinely trust Judy for the first time.

    • Mmmm, yes, absolutely. Complete agreement here with regards to Nick's reaction and storming out after the press conference. It's not out of place at all — Nick may have filled out the application but, and as much as he wanted to believe (and as much as his heart carries his hopes and character from his youth, as hinted by his shirt closely matching the wallpaper of his mother's home), it was still very much on shaky ground.

      The bridge scene I'd say is equally both about forgiveness and about choice: choosing to let go of what happened to him at the Junior Ranger Scouts and choosing to trust Judy. When Judy arrives, Nick is still very guarded. If you watch Nick when Judy begins apologizing (rather than watch Judy as we normally do because she's the one talking), right after she says "… and small minded," Nick has this wonderfully subtle shift come over him. His shoulders and whole body softens and he turns his head a bit to hear her better. In that moment, he puts his trust in her, and it's wonderful. 🙂

      (animated GIF of that moment if the DVD is not close at hand:

  3. (1/2) A very nice paper for sure. There is a lot of bias and prejudice or (speciesism as we call it) in this movie. You pointed out some good ones in your paper. Judy's parents however most likely got their bias from the incident with Gideon Grey when she was nine. There was no talk of fear of foxes before then unless something happened to mama and or papa Hopps long before Judy was born. I would just like to point out they didn't seem to be all that nervous about Judy being on stage with a predator cub or that they were sitting with some of their other little ones in the same room as other predators as they watched their daughter.
    I believe that Judy's-unknown to her-prejudice started with that incident as well and probably from her grandfather-pop pop-who we see in deleted scenes of the movie who states "foxes are red because they're made by the devil!" Likely the incident concreted it in her mind after what happened between her and Gideon though.
    Now on to Nick and Judy's first meeting. After she hears a loud truck horn which catches her attention, she doesn't immediately put her focus on the sheep driver and his truck which could have flattened Nick and that had come out of an alley way barely big enough to let it pass through. She instead focuses all of her attention on Nick who hadn't yet given her reason to be suspicious other than the fact he was a fox. Afterward she trails him and would have sprayed him like you said because he was a fox and she had suspicions about him because of what kind of mammal he was.

    • I disagree with that bit you mentioned about Judy getting her biases from Gideon Grey, more accurately that incident further encouraged them. The reason for the conflict in the third act, as well as why Nick fell out with Judy was because of her belief that "predators are inherently savage", a belief she held during that stage play before her run in with Gideon. The point was to show that Judy was flat-out wrong right off the bat, she has no freudian excuse.

    • Hey Judy. Thanks for your detailed comments. I basically agree with Thomas on your first point: I think there's more going on than just having had a traumatic experience with Gideon. Judy's belief that "It's not like a bunny could go savage" plays a crucial role in the film and expresses a latent attitude of prey superiority, though she is largely unaware of this. It's also worth noting that her parents don't just mention Gideon in their discussion with Judy about predators. Her father references bears, lions, wolves, and weasels (in addition to foxes) as creatures to fear. Foxes just happen to be "the worst" in his estimation.

  4. (2/2) I'm going to try not to point out what you already did. 🙂
    So now I want to call attention to the fact that while Nick did in fact hustle a popsicle from Judy and the shop owner Jerry Jumbueax Jr. he didn't outright break any laws. He in fact melted it down to create his own which it was then his so he could do what he wanted to do with it. He even had the permit and license he needed, she just assumed he didn't and was grasping at straws to try to take him down. Sure he told the construction worker the pawpsicle sticks were red wood, but it could have been "red-wood with a space in the middle, wood that is red" just like he told Judy. Sure its clear that he knew the mouse would assume it was redwood but again, no laws broken.
    Now about Judy she was discriminated against for her species as well and for her size. Underestimated by her boss, by her parents, slandered by Jerry Jumbueax Jr. at first and even by Nick. She was even scolded by her boss for taking down a thief, nearly fired if it hadn't been for Bellweather, and forced to make a bet with her boss to solve a case in 48 hours that it was taking the whole of the precinct to crack in weeks. If she failed, she resigned. Probably her only friend in the whole of city was Benjamin Clawhauser, but even he underestimated her at first he said when first meeting her "that poor little bunny is going to get eaten alive".
    Now back to Nick who was humiliated and betrayed by the kids he trusted when trying to join the Junior Ranger Scouts. Prejudice learned from their parents without a doubt. No kid would be that malicious for no reason. But deep inside Nick was still that same fox kit that wanted what Judy did, to make the world a better place. Otherwise he wouldn't have accepted the application to be an officer, he would have torn it apart and laughed at her instead and look at how easily he came to trust and respect Judy after saving her from losing her job by standing up for her. Something he didn't have to do, he could have let her get fired and been free from her, but he chose to help her instead. Why? Because he saw himself as a kit again, he seen her being degraded for what kind of species she was and not what she could do. Because he let himself open up to her and start to trust her, it hurt him even more when the press conference fiasco came around.
    Before the press conference, if you pay close attention to Judy and Nick's expressions when they're secretly recording the exchange between Mayor Lionheart and the badger he was talking to you'll see a big difference in them. Judy was shocked and scared to hear that it could be predator biology that was making the predators go feral, or "savage" as the doctor called it. Nick was shocked as well, but also angry to hear this, disbelieving even. Its clear from the fact the press conference and Judy's mess up that Judy and Nick hadn't talked about it after.
    That's all I can think of off the top of my head. Great paper so far, good luck with it. 🙂

    • I definitely think that I could say more about the specifics of how Judy was discriminated against in her first few days on the job. (Several others have suggested this as well.)

      I had not considered how Judy and Nick appear to have different reactions to the conversation between Lionheart and his top scientist. I'll have to look at that scene a little more carefully.

    • Another interesting point is taking a close look at how the different members of the press react to Judy's Press Conference. The predators have a visibly different reaction than they prey.

  5. Quite an interesting paper, and a lot of good points; as seen though any of them could be taken a number of different ways (as any particular scene in a movie should be, as it is supposed to pander to a wide audience). For the most part I certainly agree with the points in the writing, even if I can also see the points others are making here, but that's the fun part about any argumentative topic: there's no one side.

  6. This is an amazing paper demonstrating how Zootopia goes deeper than "Racism is bad". This is what I've been continuously arguing with people that deny the power of it's writing.

    Although the thing you missed to mention, that people reading it may find confusing, is as to why Judy reacted the way she did at the press conference, when talking to Nick after her speech. This is also a cruicial piece of her memory and trauma she experienced with Gideon Grey, which explains how the incident/trauma with Gideon was really etched into her memory. The scene is exactly like the one with young Gideon. Nick was intimidating, angry and had a threatening look with claws and teeth showing. Above all, he is also a fox. That moment reminded her of the incident, and her instincts kicked in, and she went for the repellent. This is also a high-point of Judy's implicit bias. Assuming that the fox in front of her would try to harm her because the previous one did. But even though her actions seemed a bit too rash, she was sort of justified. It wasn't completely her fault. But she realizes that she destroyed Nick's trust, and regretted it immediately.

    Overall, the paper is very good and covers mostly everything seen and unseen about the meaning of bias in the film. You can tell that the creators Byron and Rich did put real effort into the aspect of bias, as they hired a consultant that is an expert on the matter (I forgot the name, I'm afraid)

    The paper will be a great way to give insight to new viewers of the film, as well as those who aren't convinced easily. Thank you, Mr. Hedberg! I wish you luck with the course you are teaching.

    • Several people have mentioned the parallels between the scenes between Gideon's attacking Judy and Nick's gestures later in the film. (Someone who emailed me even included screenshots.) I'm not sure this fundamentally changes the main points that I am making in reference to the press conference scene, but it is something I will have to revisit. I was genuinely unaware the parallels were that pronounced.

  7. Thank you for letting us edit this! Here is what I have found by just going through and analysing piece by piece. Hope you find it resourceful!

    Don’t completely think that no one would want to be like Nick. Some might argue that some may not want to be like Judy because she isn’t grounded. She doesn’t have a realistic look on life, she is always looking for the best possible outcome, when that normally is not the case. Unlike Nick, who although still is very pessimistic, still has a better view of reality. Some might also like to be more like Nick because he is more mature and knowledgeable than Judy. (Although that can all be learned in due time by Judy). Judy also seems very childish and narcissist especially during the “Token Bunny” scene when she gets assigned to parking duty and believes that it is because she is a bunny, when it is because she is a rookie. She believes that finishing top of her class already elevates her to being able to take a case on her first day without having any assistance by a detective, or training from an experienced police officer.
    Nick doesn’t necessarily have bad intentions. Although it may not be the most honest way, his intentions can still be good, because he is just trying to make a living for himself, and everyone who he scams still gets the profit. Jumbeaux still gets paid, the lemmings still get lunch, and the rodents still get their building material. In the end, everyone still profits in the end, except maybe the IRS. (Judy would STILL profit from it because she still made the ACTIVE CHOICE to pay for the popsicle).
    One sentence you mentioned is: “Fittingly, it is in this moment – where her status as a prey animal is an advantage to her – that she fully realizes how her words and actions have unwittingly harmed the predators of the city”(6). Again, this sentence ties in to the last one, but, they are in two different paragraphs. What I find odd about this statement, is that you tie it back into her being a prey animal. The rest of section was focused on her implicit biases. But, this one is calling back to her as a prey animal, and not her own biases. If you combine this statement with the last one mentioned, this would be a really good section.
    You finish off the section with the statement: “By that point in the film, she is aware of her latent biases and working to correct them, so it’s only natural that the symbol of her bias be absent” (6). I find this sentence odd because your entire essay is that we all have implicit biases, but, you say here that Judy now doesn’t have any.
    I find the last section a bit unnecessary. This is because you start to talk about how Zootopians tried to fix the problem in their own city. However, there is no conclusion. You say that there is not enough evidence to show what they do, or how it will play out. So not only is this not providing an argument, it also doesn’t really fit into the essay. The rest of the essay is about how we all have our own, individual, implicit bias, but this is talking about how to fix bias in society, not individually.

    Thank you for letting us edit this! It was interesting reading a college level essay. I am an IB Junior right now, and this was interesting, because in our Theory of Knowledge class right now, we are talking about the 6 levels of morals and moral decisions. This somewhat relates to that, and I and a lot of fun doing it!

    • The claim that no one in the audience wants to be like Nick might be too strong, but he is fundamentally a broken character at the start of the film — someone who has been warped by the word around him and abandoned the convictions he had when he was younger. The smooth-talking charlatan demeanor is a facade that he uses to cover up whatever frustration or sadness this created in him — the most fundamental manifestation of one of his core life principles: "Never let them see that they get to you." I think in this way Judy's broad outlook is preferable, since she still believes in herself and still has laudable ambitions. They are both flawed characters, of course, but I think Judy is the one the audience is supposed to relate to more deeply.

      I'll keep the editorial remarks in mind when I have time to revisit the draft. Regarding the remark about the fox repellent, Judy has had one major change of character: instead of carrying her bias around unwittingly, she has become aware of its presence, and she is making a steadfast effort to overcome it. I think the absence of the fox repellent in the third act is in part symbolic of this progress, but I do not think she has purged herself of bias completely.

      The point of the last sections was designed to address a common criticism of the film that showed up in reviews: many viewed it as a weakness of the film that it conveyed a message about individual change that was disconnected from the reality that widespread social change requires much more than just the alteration of individual attitudes. I was trying to point out that these two phenomena — changes in individual attitudes and large-scale social change — are not unrelated. I think, however, that I could make the central point of this section clearer and that the paper may be better organized if it's placed elsewhere.

      Thanks for your detailed feedback.

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