Disney’s latest animated blockbuster shows audiences do enjoy stories without princes or royalty of either gender.
Zootopia has received rave reviews (1), beating single-day animation records in China (2) and topping Frozen for the biggest domestic opening of a Walt Disney Animation Studios feature film (3). Zootopia isn’t just a family-friendly police procedural with an anthropomorphic twist. It also deals with complicated issues of intersecting privilege and systemic prejudice in a way that is accessible to children (4). This dovetails nicely with its treatment of primary protagonist, Judy Hopps, a female character that stands out in a figurative sea of princesses.
To really understand what makes Zootopia so unique, it’s important to take a look at female primary protagonists in theatrical animation, particularly the royalty. Animated princesses, especially those of the Disney Princess variety, often fall under critique. Peggy Orenstein’s book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, is a good example of this. One might wonder why these kinds of characters are criticized so harshly. Outside of the aggressive marketing and product pushing, in most cases, it’s not the individual protagonists or films that are the issue, but the trend. There are relatively few female primary protagonists in American animation, and a large number of them have either been royals or women whose love interests are royals.
Including all mainstream Disney animated features theatrically released in the U.S., from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) to Zootopia (2016), there have only been 16 films with a female primary protagonist. Comparatively there have been 60 films with a male primary protagonist, and five with male/female co-protagonists (5).
Looking at the Disney films with a female primary protagonist, nine have a female royal as the main character or a woman whose love interest is a royal. Eleven of them feature protagonists that are marketed as part of the Disney Princess line (6). This leaves Alice in Wonderland, Return to Never Land, Home on the Range, Inside Out, and Zootopia as the only films not part of the Princess Franchise. Not that there is anything wrong with princesses, of course, but when in 79 years there have only been a handful of movies that break this mold, it creates a very narrow look at viable opportunities for a women hero (6).
It’s worth noting that this isn’t unique to Disney. Fairy tales are a popular animated film genre. To put the princess trend and lack of female primary protagonists into a larger context we can look at two decades of family-targeted animated films released in the U.S. from 1993-2012 (7)(8).
In the first decade, from 1993-2002, there were 13 female primary protagonists, 1 co-protagonist, and 41 male primary protagonists. During the nineties “girl power” became trendy and marketable. As Sarah Banet-Weiser put it, “...female ‘empowerment’ became the buzz word – not in marginalized political communities, but squarely within main-stream commercial culture (9).”
By the next decade this trend had begun to fade. While the number of animated films being produced exploded, female primary protagonists declined. From 2003-2012 there were 10 female primary protagonists, 3 co-protagonists, and 83 male primary protagonists.
Looking at these two decades as a whole, out of 151 animated films released in the U.S., 23 of them had a female primary protagonist, compared to 124 with a male primary protagonist. Thirty-nine percent of films with a female primary protagonist starred a royal or a woman whose love interest was a royal (10). Only thirteen percent of films with a male primary protagonist starred a royal or a man whose love interest was a royal (11).
Due to the sheer volume of movies featuring male primary protagonists, it’s not surprising that the types of male heroes are far more diverse in their design, struggles and the worlds in which they exist. It’s not to suggest that the creators of these films think less of the female characters they design as protagonists. It’s just that from 1993-2012, with a hundred more movies made starring men than women, there are a hundred more chances to explore male main characters. Naturally, they are more varied.
This is part of what makes Zootopia’s Judy Hopps so unique as a primary protagonist. Not only is she not royalty: she’s an adult woman, she works a job, and her character struggle does not revolve around a romantic relationship. This is incredibly rare for any animated film produced in the U.S. Of course, it’s not to say that there aren’t many interesting and dynamic secondary female characters in animated films starring men. So, why are diverse characters like Judy Hopps so important?
Geena Davis, in discussing a study done through the Geena Davis Institute for Gender in Media in conjunction with J. Walter Thomson, said, “…the more TV a girl watches, the fewer options she thinks she has in life. She doesn’t see all the great options that are presented to men and boys; male self-esteem goes up when they watch TV. People can be inspired or limited by what they see. (12)”
In Colin Stokes’ 2016 TED presentation, he speaks humorously about the effects of women as secondary protagonists on male viewers. “Are they absorbing the story that a male hero’s job is to defeat the villain with violence and then collect the reward which is a woman that has no friends and doesn’t speak?” He suggests that it is important to show boys a new example of manhood, by showing them films with complex female characters and allowing boys to identify with female protagonists (13).
It’s important to see female characters not just in relation to the male characters they support - not just as daughters, love-interests, girlfriends, friends, or wives, but as heroes of their own stories. It’s important for boy and girls to identify with male and female main characters.
While there might not be a lot of female primary protagonists in animated films, those that exist are beloved by adults and children, female and male. Frozen featured two female characters, their relationship as sisters, and was a global box-office phenomenon. Proving animated films with female leads are worth investing in. Dory, the nuanced and much loved supporting protagonist of Finding Nemo is getting her own film, set for U.S. theatrical release in less than two weeks. Pixar’s Inside Out featured a wide variety of female characters and a daring story that takes a girl’s feelings and not only personifies them, but treats them as a universal example of human emotions.
Which brings us back to Zootopia. In a movie dealing with prejudice, Judy Hopps is a refreshingly complicated character. As a small prey animal, she is the first of her kind to enter the police force under the ‘Mammal Inclusion Initiative,’ and subsequently forced to deal first-hand with the bigotry of the other officers. But she isn’t just a bright-eyed innocent that teaches the world a “lesson on caring.” Hopps also has to address her own prejudices passed down from her kind and well-meaning family and ingrained within her own cultural heritage.
Zootopia also addresses the optimistic idea that anyone can do anything. But while Judy Hopps can work hard and create opportunities for herself, there is a limit. Systemic oppression isn’t something that can be easily overcome, even in a Disney movie. Judy Hopps, is a step-forward for change in her community, but there is still a long way to go for equality in the world of Zootopia, just as there is still a long way to go for animated films starring women. Inside and outside of the film, Judy Hopps seems like a hopeful symbol of a change in progress.
- Rotten Tomatoes. Web. <http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/zootopia/>.
- "‘Zootopia’ Bunny-Hopping To $100M In China; Sets Single-Day Animation Record." Deadline. <http://deadline.com/2016/03/zootopia-100-million-china-box-office-single....
- "Weekend Box Office: 'Zootopia' Breaks Disney Records." ScreenCrush. Web. <http://screencrush.com/weekend-box-office-report-zootopia-records/>.
- "Struggling to Talk to Your Kids about Race and Privilege? Disney’s “Zootopia” Has You Covered." Quartz. Web. <http://qz.com/633398/struggling-to-talk-to-your-kids-about-race-and-priv....
- All American animated theatrically released Disney films (released under Pixar Animation Studios, DisneyToon Studios, ImageMovers Digital, Skellington Productions, Walt Disney Animation, Walt Disney Television Animation), excluding films that included live action, straight to video films that had a single theater or international premier only, shorts, Disney package films, and films not produced by Disney but distributed under the Disney label.
- All G or PG rated American (or American coproduced) animated theatrical releases that were released to at least 500 theaters and were primarily animated (there could be live action scenes, but focus was on animated characters in an animated world). Excluding package films.
- Banet-Weiser, Sarah. Kids Rule!: Nickelodeon and Consumer Citizenship. Durham: Duke UP, 2007. Page 112. Print.
- Happily Ever After, Thumbelina, The Swan Princess, Anastasia, The King and I, Happily N’Ever After, The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Brave
- Nightmare Before Christmas, The Lion King, Arabian Knight, Antz, A Bugs Life, The Prince of Egypt, The Emperor’s New Groove, Shrek, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Shrek 2, Arthur and the Invisibles, Shrek the Third, The Ten Commandments, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Delgo, Shrek Forever After
- Khaleeli, Homa. "Geena Davis: 'The More TV a Girl Watches, the Fewer Options She Thinks She Has in Life'" The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 2016. Web. 21 Apr. 2016. <http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/feb/29/geena-davis-tv-girl-....
- "How Movies Teach Manhood." Colin Stokes: Web. 21 Apr. 2016. <https://www.ted.com/talks/colin_stokes_how_movies_teach_manhood?language....
Final Note: What constitutes a primary protagonist or co-protagonist might be something people will debate. Many films contain strong secondary protagonists. Though Flynn Rider has his own story-arch, he is the supporting character to Rapunzel. Similarly, Fiona is a complex character whose story is given much screen time and weight, but Shrek is the primary protagonist of the franchise named after him. I didn’t use the term co-protagonist lightly and looked to which character’s wants, needs, and story took priority.