What comes to mind when you think of personification? For most people, talking tigers, spiders, and mice bring them back to stories they read in their childhood: the Cat in the Hat, Aesop’s Fables, Winnie the Pooh, or (if they’re lucky) folk tales like Anansi the Spider or Why Opossum’s Tail is Bare. “Mature” use of non-humans in literature is typically limited to drug trips, suspiciously humanoid aliens or stereotypical fantasy creatures with speaking (orcs, dwarves, elves) or non speaking (griffins, basilisks) roles attributed based on how bestial the creature is. The furthest reaches of common media, extending out into film adaptations of novels, are probably the insect-aliens of Ender’s Game — and even then, the Formics / “buggers” are not allowed to speak directly. In popular media, anything short of human or humanoid speaking or illustrating human characteristics is considered childish, an imitation of Mickey Mouse — but this view de-legitimizes a viable, useful strategy for exploring the human experience as “too indirect” or “precious.”
Zootopia uses anthropomorphic animals to illustrate issues ranging from political corruption to slurs to the effect of stereotypical rhetoric on political systems. Its use of phrases like “Hey! That’s our word!” or “You can’t just touch a sheep’s wool!” can hardly be accused peddling around a point; the connections to race-based language are clear to anyone who has come into contact with racial tensions. The portrayal of social issues in this movie makes sense based on the narrative’s setting, using the split between prey and predators — rather than a lazy reliance on “they’re minorities, but not real-life minorities — they’re green!” — to offer a nuanced illustration of said issues. Issues on both the protagonist and the antagonists’ parts are brought to light. All of this is presented in a bright, vibrant world characteristic of cartoons — and perhaps the “childish” label that anthropomorphism has accumulated through the years made its message more acceptable to audiences. (How often have you gone to the movies and thought, “Gee, I’d love to watch a movie about political corruption, stereotypes, and racism?”)
Supposed issues with anthropomorphized characters being “unrelatable” or “not empathetic” fall dead in the water. If the Berenstain Bears are an acceptable medium to teach children moral and societal lessons, they can’t also be too “unrelatable” for a child to be confused. A lack of empathy in a character is a result of either the character’s characterization — how they act — or the reader’s interaction with the text — not the wrapper the character comes in. Complaining about a non-human character being both too human and too non-human invokes Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword — there is no way to prove or disprove that person’s opinion.
It’s also worth noting the importance of animals in various folklores (such as Anansi in Ashanti folklore). Grouping animal-based folklore into a “childish” group reflects a strikingly Western, ethnocentric perception of literary value that ought to be avoided. (Compare with the Christian Four Living Creatures, who are variously “like a lion,” “like an ox,” with “a face like a man,” and “like a flying eagle,” with “six wings and […] covered with eyes all around” (Revelation 4:6-10) — not even remotely Earth-like beings, but somehow these avoid being classed as “precious” or unrespectable.)
The issues people have with animal characters are largely issues of association (with children’s stories), bad characterization (in which characters would be boring human anyway), and too narrow an evaluation of values (ignoring the value of animals in folklore), rather than the use of animal forms for characters.
by Xenia Greniuk