Zootopia, rural beginnings and workplace sexism

Judy's first day on the job in Zootopia (2016). Cred: IMDb

Disney has become the home of feminist film according to some, with the company having to reconsider the traditional tropes of fairy tales in which a helpless woman is rescued by a heroic prince. The film Zootopia follows Judy Hopps as she leaves rural life to venture to the city to become part of the police. She pursues her ambition, despite the expectation of her parents that she would join them working on the farm on which she had grown up.

Judy’s country background resonates with assumptions about rurality as synonymous with a community of conservative values that must be escaped. In contrast, Zootropolis is pictured as the home of diverse folk, filled with opportunities for self-improvement and a far cry away from the lifestyle she would lead by following the family business. This trajectory is comparable for young people who are able to migrate to university towns. Yet, rural locales shouldn't be over-simplified or the meaning attached to them disregarded, as affective connections to place are returned to later in the film. 

Getting into the industry is half the battle, as it becomes apparent that Judy is working within a sexist culture. Joan Acker’s work on ‘gendered organisations’ is useful here in exploring how work comes to be ‘dominated’ by a certain kind of person. She outlines the relationship between horizonal segregation, structures and assumptions that may prevent entry, and vertical segregation which are the barriers that may slow progression.

One of the cultural norms in the police is that showing emotion is deemed a sign of weakness which Judy embodied through the likes of her ears drooping. Apart from her supposedly inferior character inhibiting her ability to do the job, her body is also critiqued for challenging the ideal type of police person as physically threatening. Judy’s appearance is referred to as ‘cute’ and her size is compared to male colleagues in a way that symbolises an outsider status. 

As a result, she is assigned a peripheral role which is seen as dirty work, namely giving out parking fines. It isn't the gritty crime fighting that Judy envisaged and is frowned upon by passers-by as time-wasting. Secondly, by segregating Judy from the rest of the team, she may miss out on the informal sharing of knowledge and networking which are available by default to others.

Judy speaks out to acknowledge the unequal power relations at play, but is ignored. To challenge misconceptions about being a woman in a role traditionally occupied by men, she has to work harder – by giving out the most parking tickets in a shorter period of time – but this isn't rewarded or recognised. Although structures remain unchanged, she uses individual strategies to empowerment shown by her outsmarting corrupt powers of authority.

My research about women farmers resonates with some of these themes raised in Zootopia. The type of labour and historical context of the police and farming may not be similar, yet they both are indicative of the experiences of some women in masculine-coded industries. The cultural baggage of these sectors can assume that work and gender identities are in tension, shaping women's experiences as out of place.