Zootopian Social Engineering

Zootopia, Byron Howard, Rich Moore & Jared Bush, 2016 

Everyone comes to Zootopia thinking they could be anything they want. But you can’t. You can only be what you are.” 

From childhood, Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) has always desired to make the world a better place. She sees great injustice in a society which makes people conform to their nature, and dreams of one day stepping out of her box and becoming a police officer. The problem is, people don’t believe she has what it takes. Because she is a bunny.

In Zootopia, an anthropomorphic wonderland where animals all live in harmony, everyone has their role to play. The “predators” are strong and fierce, and as such make excellent law enforcers. The “prey”, due to their co-operative and meek nature, are more suited to working in the fields. In this society, everyone fulfils their role perfectly, but there is a distinct lack of ambition for many. Everyone seems happy, to some extent, to stick to their natural abilities.

Judy Hopps is a contradiction to this ideal. She is a dreamer and an idealist, a naïve optimist in a world of corruption and closed-minded social slaves. So far, so Disney. When she meets Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a sarcastic and pessimistic fox, she begins to lose her optimism. She sees that changing social norms takes more than just a cheery disposition and a “can-do” attitude. Social structure is a difficult pyramid to topple.

Judy’s opposition to this rigid social structure holds a lot in common with the political philosophy of Karl Popper, and his challenges to the ancient political ideals of Plato’s Republic.


Judy Hopps, stuck as a meter maid

In Republic, Plato starts by claiming that all people are essentially slaves to their natural desires and appetites, acting as feral “beasts”, but that certain people are better than others at rejecting these appetites, and using the uniquely human powers of reason to resist biological urges. The animals in Zootopia are in a similar position. They have evolved beyond the point of their natural instincts to attack each other. However, they are in many ways not as evolved as they want to be. There are deep-seated prejudices that define a lot of what they do, and define their social structure.

In fact, Plato saw a rigid social structure as necessary for justice in a society. Plato’s ideal society was one based on everyone “doing one’s own work and not meddling with what isn’t one’s own” (Republic 433a-b). The ruling classes rule, and the working classes work. Those born into a life of menial labour should see value in what they do, working without complaint in order to allow the philosopher class to philosophise without the distractions of cleaning or running a household. Or, in Zootopia’s terms, the bunnies should be happy to farm carrots, and let the lions get on with running the town.


Nick Wilde and Judy Hopps

Writing in the twentieth century, Karl Popper saw that Plato’s society was not in fact one that creates justice, but rather one that thrives on injustice. He differentiates between what he calls a closed society and an open society. In The Open Society, Popper denies Plato’s reliance upon rigid social structure, instead focusing on allowing people to be free to pursue their own desired role. For Popper, freedom is paramount for a democracy to function.

The closed society of Plato’s Athens forced people to focus on the needs of the collective, rather than the needs of the individual, yet a truly open society is one that allows difference and opposition to norms to flourish. We should encourage people to challenge society’s norms in order to allow for greater autonomy, and thus a happier world. Plato’s utopianism, for Popper, laid the groundwork for totalitarianism and fascism.

Popper’s idea of an open society is similar to the attitude of Hopps. She will not allow for people to be put in a box, instead saying that everyone has an ability to exercise their freedom to become whatever they want. There is a great deal to be said about tolerance of difference in the film, and how we can transcend our natural instincts. While not mentioned in the film, presumably all animals in the world are vegetarian, lions and leopards included. The resistance of the predators to eat meat is the same triumph over their base desires that Plato said humans were capable of. For Plato, closed societies facilitate this, but for Hopps (and Popper), we need an equalitarian and individualistic ideology to truly resist our natures.

zootopia 3

A brighter future for society?

The big worry, for Popper, was “utopian social engineering”, a situation where people are forced to conform to a blueprint to create a utopia. No matter if they are forced into jobs or social positions that make them unhappy, it is necessary for the good of the whole. This has parallels with the illiberal doctrines of some modern governments, where freedom of speech is often diminished for greater control.

One of the more dangerous manifestations of this in the modern world is the politics of fear that is often used to curry political favour. The principle antagonist of Zootopia wants to use the prey’s fear of predators to control them, keeping everyone in their box and therefore stopping people from challenging authority, a clear parallel to some of the more Islamophobic rhetoric of some modern politicians. Popper’s claim is that we need to allow all people to be free, even if that sometimes means risking social order. Only with liberty could the Zootopian society ever arise.



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