Showing posts with label censorship. Show all posts
Showing posts with label censorship. Show all posts

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Please Don't Cancel Zootopia: An Editorial

by Alexandra Bowman

In light of the renewed conversation about racism in our country after the death of George Floyd, another sub-discussion has emerged. Works of art, films, and media properties with subjects relevant to the events of the past few weeks are being reexamined--and the 2016 Disney film Zootopia has once again become a topic of discussion.

The film famously attempted to tackle about 45 social and political issues. It seems, at first glance, that racism is the one central issue to the film, but closer analysis of the filmmakers’ intentions and the film’s storyline itself prove that the film is not centrally anti-racist, but anti-bias. And the reason for this, as I’ll explain, is to help explain bias to children from a bird’s-eye view, and should not be condemned for its mission--to help teach the very young to seek out and eliminate prejudice within themselves.

There is a seven-part documentary available for viewing on YouTube about the multi-year creative process behind the movie. Throughout, and in Part Seven especially, the filmmakers speak about their intentions while creating the film, the effect they hoped the film would have on its viewers, and the effect of the film on their own children. 

“You certainly look at the world through a different lens after telling a story like this… Maybe I can do better. Maybe I’m looking at things the wrong way. I’ve been thinking about how to have those conversations [about bias] with my kids… the process of the movie has already changed how I talk to them, and how I want them to hopefully perceive the world differently,” stated co-director Jared Bush.

“I think in my own family. When I look at my little boy, I see a very Asian face. I first and foremost want to instill that he should be proud of who he is no matter what. You know, this world, it’s not easy to not be white. So, as much kind of inner strength and inner confidence and belief that he can do anything is what I want to instill. I hope this movie is part of that,“ says co-head of Story Josie Trinidad.

While some may argue that what the filmmakers intended to do doesn’t matter, and that the thing they ultimately created speaks for itself while their motives in creating the film are of little-to-no relevance, given that recent attacks on Zootopia have been leveled toward its creators--attacks that accuse them of being insensitive in their discussion of complex issues within the film and putting forth a sloppy, incomplete product--it is important that these creators’ intentions be publicized. According to their words, they intended to create a piece of popular art encouraging tolerance.

When talking about Zootopia in 2020, in light of new and complex conversations about racism, we have to realize what Zootopia is.

In Part Three of the behind-the-scenes featurettes, the filmmakers speak about and show clips from an ABC documentary released in 1970, called The Eye of the Storm, in which a teacher of a class of white children conducts a social experiment with her students. She has half of her students put on small black collars. The teacher immediately set rules and limitations for those children to abide by that were intended to be perceived instantly as unfair. Later that day, the teacher gave students an academic test, and the students who wore collars performed significantly worse having been told that they were inferior. Some students even broke down crying over their new inferior social status. 

The teacher states in the documentary that she hoped to teach these children about the arbitrariness of racism. The filmmakers explain that this documentary was deeply influential for them in creating the film, not only for themselves in thinking about that arbitrariness of societally-imposed labels, but also with regard to the impact that can come from teaching young children about bias in ways they can understand.

The filmmakers were inspired by the problem of racism to create a film about bias. They did not, however, seek to create a film about racism, nor to create a film explaining it.

Bias is just one element of racism, and racism is just one kind of bias. Zootopia is ambitious to a fault, seemingly attempting to tackle tokenism, police brutality, regionalism, sexism, racial slurs, and racism more broadly. These are all issues and behaviors that result from the problem of bias. Racism is, of course, incredibly complex, and so is bias. But the concept at the center of bias--assuming something about someone based on their appearance or observable traits, is slightly easier to boil down for the sake of a kids’ film.

Producer Clark Spencer spoke about the need to simplify, which came with an enormous sense of responsibility. “On this film more than any other, this has been a very difficult story to nail down,” he said. “We were dealing with this important topic, and it needed to be told in a very elegant way… it’s a responsibility. They shouldn’t all be enormous ideas, but there should be something very optimistic and very hopeful in our storytelling that allows kids, teenagers, adults, to relate to that story and makes them think about something.”

This is a movie intended to teach children about loving your neighbor and being able to recognize bias in yourself. It is about avoiding relying on generalizations about the many that will cause you to create conclusions about the individual. It is not, at least directly, about racism.

“In this world, predator and prey have figured out a way to coexist in the same city. But what we’re going to find out is that coexistence isn’t as utopian as you might think. There is truly a problem in the city And that is the fundamental part that gets to the idea of bias, about two groups that assume something about somebody else,” says Spencer.

Exactly. Zootopia creates a problem in a fictional world--that predator and prey animals must now live together in coexistence, and it isn’t working as well as the city’s Thomas More-derived name would suggest, as the film quickly demonstrates. Then it uses that very fictional problem--that revolves around, remember, talking animals not getting along--to allude to macrocosmic issues plaguing the human world today. 

The conflict within Zootopia’s story alludes to the problem of racism, but any direct ties between Zootopia’s story about bias and the ongoing problem of racism in the United States are overextrapolations. Zootopia does not appear to stake its plot on the delineations between individual animal species--it draws its main distinctions between predators and prey. If the filmmakers sought to make a film with direct, literal statements about race to be carried literally into our human, 21st-century lives, they will have made a film that suggests there are only two races of human beings. It feels safe to assume that, if someone managed to work their way up to the best animation studio in the world, this is not something they believe.

Jared Bush comments on this universality in Part Three of the documentary. “I think that’s one of the biggest things for us. It’s not a specific group it’s not a specific race, it’s not a gender, it’s none of those things. It’s simply two groups that do not get along, and one group that’s feeling lesser than… For me, in thinking about what are we trying to say--it should feel universal.” 

Ultimately, the people who made Zootopia set out to tell a basic animal fable about bias, are following in the steps of a tradition as old as Aesop. It is unreasonable to throw out a film, or no longer be willing to learn from it or be entertained by it holistically as a work of art, because it doesn’t perfectly accomplish its many goals.

Zootopia is not intended to teach about racism specifically, but if a parent wants to use the film in a dinner conversation with young children about events going on in the United States right now, it is certainly a good introduction for very young children to these profound struggles and issues plaguing our world. And Zootopia should not by any means be the only thing a parent shows their child to teach them about racism.

And for those of us who are no longer children living in this complex world, Zootopia is an entertaining film that reminds us to be tolerant of those who are different from us, who we might expect to be one way but are in reality another.

In the words of Byron Howard in Part One of the featurette documentary:

“In this world of animals, where the animals are so different from one another, those things that are common are where they find that connection, and realize, ‘You’re not so different from me,’” stated Howard. “You may look different from me, you were brought up differently, but in the end, we all care about the same things. And we all deserve the respect that we want from each other. We all deserve to be happy in our lives. We deserve love, we deserve equality. And that’s why I think these movies are so powerful, because they are modern fables. We’re able to talk about things that are very very difficult, and we’re able to bring into conversation things that are kind of awkward to talk about. But that’s what the film is about.” 

It is also unreasonable to expect Disney to set out to make a film under the umbrella of the Aesop’s Fable model and capture every piece of nuance regarding one of the biggest social issues plaguing our world today. No filmmaker would walk into creating a movie with the intent of “explaining racism.” It would be wrong of their audience to accuse them of doing so. Further, to say that the filmmakers failed to create a way to explain racism to children is to assume “explaining racism” what they sought out to do.
If Zootopia wanted to perhaps shield itself from the critique that it oversimplifies—a critique that, perhaps surprisingly, only one Rotten Tomatoes reviewer leveled upon the film’s release in 2016—it could have put an explanatory statement before its opening scene.  Dreamworks’ 1998 film The Prince of Egypt, opened with a black title card and the following in white text:

“The motion picture you are about to see is an adaptation of the Exodus story. While artistic and historical license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values, and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The biblical story of Moses can be found in the book of Exodus.”

Zootopia could have said something that would convey the following, “This is a family movie about a complex issue. We took artistic license—not only to make the story more entertaining when adapted into a film, but also to keep that film to a 90-minute runtime. This film is about a serious subject that is foundational to the lives of millions, but we believe this captures the ESSENCE of, or an introduction to, the story we want to tell.”

However, the film’s unspoken premise arguably serves in place of that statement. Zootopia is a Disney film, about talking animals, descended from the Aesop’s fable, intended for children. Animal fables have been used for centuries--think Aesop telling “The Fox and the Grapes” in the sixth century BCE--to simplify issues to teach children moral lessons. By definition, a fable is a simplification of an idea, simplified for the benefit of children who come of age in a complex world and must gradually come to understand complex ideas.

Clark Spencer mentions in Part Three of the documentary that the Disney team actually hired Dr. Shakti Butler, President and Founder of World Trust Educational Services, as a diversity consultant and advisor. Butler speaks about what she hoped Zootopia would accomplish with its immense reach as a Disney film:

“Disney’s role in creating culture is profound,” says Butler. “Culture teaches you who you are, where your place is in the world. And a lot of it is implicit. So if I go to school, and I see all the former principals are all white and they’re all male, I’m learning about power. If you’re going to create a society that’s equitable, you can’t do it without changing culture. And so when we shift culture, and children can see themselves inside of a story, and that they can play all different kinds of roles. That degree of flexibility is very important. Prejudice, of course, is something that everybody has. But where does prejudice come from? It comes from the ways that we are taught to be biased. And those two elements are linked together. And they’re also linked to the larger system of inequity.”

The way the film works with the image of the police force is certainly up for debate. It is at least worth noting that the filmmakers made the issue of bias central to its look at the police as well. Judy Hopps begins the film with the explicit goal of “wanting to make the world a better place” while not realizing her own bias, and then spends the rest of the movie realizing it in the context of her role as a police officer, and helps the rest of the force realize their own prejudice. At a minimum, this is a good step. After all, isn’t that one of the ultimate goals of the current conversation about policing in this country? To help officers realize bias within themselves and manage it?

Some have argued that Zootopia paints an entirely positive picture of police--which ignores Judy’s character arc and key moments in the storyline. In the middle of the film, Chief Bogo, a water buffalo (i.e. prey animal), says of Nick Wilde as a potential witness in an investigative case, “you think I’m going to believe a fox?” After Judy teaches Chief Bogo that, as he spells it out, “that the world has always been broken and that’s why we need good cops,” Bogo is later shown welcoming Nick to the police force.

It is probably clear that I am not dealing with the kind of suffering so many are during this time. It is a privilege to be able to sit and write out and publish an op-ed defending a Disney movie amidst an ongoing crisis of racial injustice and police brutality in this country.

I think that the question of whether this film is culturally renounced (or “canceled,” as the young’uns are calling it now) is not unimportant.

Back in 2015, I had just finished a tough freshman year of high school. Having transferred to a different high school for sophomore year, I had to rebuild myself--to find something that I was good at, that I would stand out for. I loved popular culture and literature, particularly The Lord of the Rings and Doctor Who, but I couldn’t quite place why. I knew I loved these series’ ethical and emotional depth, but I hadn’t yet mentally grasped what about that depth appealed to me. Going into my sophomore year of high school, I began to work with my interests in illustration and literature, and had begun working towards understanding my goals as a student and person in the world.

Nick Wilde by Alex Bowman, April 2016
But coming out of the Regal Cinemas theater on Zootopia’s opening night on March 4th, 2016, I finally realized what I loved about these works of popular art. By faithfully basing themselves on classical story structures, classic fables, and conflicts of good and evil and love and hate, these stories taught young children moral lessons. They helped them better understand in their hearts AND their minds the world they were about to grow into. Zootopia was released six months before Donald Trump was elected President, and its climactic scene of societal unrest was how I mentally framed this new world for myself from my small world as a high school student, coming into social and political consciousness during the most polarized time in American history since the Civil War. I remember looking over and making eye contact with my parents in the theater when the line “Have you considered a mandatory quarantine on predators?” was uttered by a Zootopian reporter to Judy in the press conference scene--earlier that afternoon I had just been reading headlines about then-candidate Donald Trump’s insinuations that quarantining all Muslims might be something he would champion as president.

Zootopia helped me to, even as a 16-year-old, start to wrap my head around the issue of tolerance, and how even those who consider themselves tolerant are likely to have seeds of bias, and even bigotry, inside them.

photo by Bruce Guthrie
The work I do today with political cartoons and satire is still based around my central mission of creating media to educate young people through entertainment. Zootopia enabled me to finally put the pieces together, to realize the power of media to affect the young and influence their minds for the better. My goal with my work across the board, both now and for the foreseeable future, is to realize the most effective means of doing just that.

If Zootopia is somehow “cancelled,” or made socially or culturally unacceptable to enjoy, generations of children will miss the chance to not only learn about the basics of tolerance--and perhaps even realize within themselves the potential of film to touch future generations. I hope that Zootopia can remain a beloved modern classic that will stay alive to do so. 

Alexandra Bowman is a freelance illustrator, political cartoonist, and fine artist from Washington, D.C. She serves as the Editorial Political Cartoonist for Our Daily Planet, a climate news platform. She serves as an in-house illustrator for Georgetown University’s Office of Communications. 

Alex is a member of the National Cartoonists Society and the Cartoonists Club of Great Britain, and is the youngest current member of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. She also currently serves as the Satire Correspondent on The Economist's Kevin "Kal" Kallaugher's webseries, "Satire Can Save Us All." During the Summer of 2020, she is interning for Voice of America, for whom she will be creating illustrations to be published across VOA's social media platforms. 

Alex is also the creator of “The Hilltop Show,” Georgetown University’s political comedy show, which seeks to present campus, national, and international news to a wide audience in an entertaining package. More information about the show can be found at 

Alex has illustrated three children's books and has had work published by BBC News, BBC Books, Puffin Books, the Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public Service, and Penguin Random House UK. Her work has been featured by a variety of groups on social media, including Disney XD and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Commentary: Alexandra Bowman of Georgetown's "The Hilltop Show" Responds to Callout and Critics

by Alexandra Bowman

Ms. Bowman is a 19-year-old student, political cartoonist, and humorist at Georgetown University. We interviewed her last December. When I met her in person last weekend, she told me about a minor university controversy about a pulp paperback book collection in a GU dorm library that had started to go national due to Brietbart picking it up. I offered her space at ComicsDC for her response. For the record, I'm in my mid-50s and grew up with many of the books pictured in the Georgetown Review story around the house, I have read some of them, and I personally do not find them generally offensive myself. However, I do believe that she and her colleagues have a right to make their opinions known without being trolled. And at least one of the books, The Cunning Linguist, is genuinely hardcore pornography. - Mike Rhode

Launched in fall 2019, The Hilltop Show is Georgetown University's political comedy show. Our team aims to make current campus, national, and international events accessible and entertaining to those who might not typically engage with the news - including not only students but the broader Georgetown community and beyond. In line with this mission, we publish journalistic pieces as well as comedic sketches and interviews with political practitioners and comedians. 

I founded the show last April. I write sketches and "informational monologues" (the thing John Oliver does), conduct and coordinate journalistic investigations, organize film shoots, edit videos in Adobe Premiere, and conduct outreach and PR for the Show. I create our graphics, drawing many by hand with traditional and digital media, like our Season 2 poster:

The Hilltop Show meets in a study space in a dorm that would be more accurately described as a glorified broom closet. Until a few weeks ago, the space included a bookshelf, on which were hundreds of books have been there since 2003 when the dorm opened and an alum donated them. During a weekly team meeting, we noticed one book that caught our eye, entitled Cherokee, which depicted a young Native American girl on the cover illustrated not only in an objectifying way but also with blood on her clothes. Upon further inspection, we realized that at least one of the books was hardcore pornography, but many others of them included derogatory racial elements and glamorized rape, including that of underage girls. We asked the university and multiple organizations if they were aware of the books and if they had any background knowledge of their origins, and within hours of one of our emails being sent, every book disappeared from the dorm library. 

The Hilltop Show partners with an independent student media publication on campus, The Georgetown Review, and we worked with them to publish a journalistic report based on The Hilltop Show's research and the events that had transpired. The Show also filmed and published a sketch (a Goodfella's parody) on the same day the books were removed. 

Shortly thereafter, the university newspaper, The Hoya, published an article that included a statement from me, with some remarks indicated as representative of the team's views and some as my own. As I noted to them, "While some were simply raucous crime noir murder mysteries representative of the literary and cultural time in which they were written, other books included extremely problematic and damaging elements, including the glamorization of rape, including that of underage girls. Completely naked women of all races were frequently featured on these books' covers. Further, many books fetishized young nonwhite women." 

The books were typical of the time in which they were written, but our main question was whether the university knew that they were present considering that the books' racist and pornographic content, regardless of when the books where written, could be harmful to those who read them. Several young children under the age of ten live in the buildings where these books were kept, not far out of their reach.

I'd point to how Disney has approached the issue of many of their older films containing culturally outdated and racist elements. On the new streaming service Disney+, films with these elements have warnings in their descriptions.  For example, on the 1967 film "The Jungle Book," the following lines are included in the description of the film: "This program is presented as originally created. It may contain outdated cultural depictions."  I believe that even a small plaque on the walls of the McCarthy and Reynolds library with a similar sentiment would have been enough. When we reached out to the university, we didn't want the books to ultimately be removed. We wanted them to be contextualized in a similar way to how Disney has handled such content typical of mid-20th century media.

Conservative higher education news site The College Fix published a laughably biased article, which was not based in fact nor particularly concerned with providing much context for the situation whatsoever. Breitbart apparently then noticed this article and then wrote one of their own based on the College Fix's report. 

Breitbart reported the story in a way that suits the narratives popular with their reader base. Their report paints the story thus: liberal snowflake college students complained when something offended them, and the university folded and banned the books those students whined about. The image accompanying the article, a photo of books engulfed in flame, has prompted thousands of commenters to compare what we did - which was to raise questions to the university regarding the presence of dime novels that glamorize rape and pedophilia - to Nazi book burnings. 

Brietbart's article has been shared over 38,500 times as of February 20th. Over 11,000 comments have been left. 

The Hilltop Show has released a statement via a tweet commenting on the Breitbart article: 

"First, we didn't want the books removed altogether. We wanted them contextualized. Censorship? Nope. Second, if you're a fan of keeping books around that glamorize rape and pedophilia, we have Some Concerns. Something tells us you didn't read @thegureview's actual report."

I'd like to conclude by saying that we are more entertained by our Breitbart callout by anything else. After all, Breitbart has now called the Hilltop Show a "crack research team." Rest assured that "Crack Research Team Member" T-shirts are currently being designed. Cheers.

More information about The Hilltop Show can be found on our website, where you can also sign up for our newsletter. Our YouTube channel is linked here. We post updates, political cartoons, memes, and more on our social media pages: we are @hilltopshow on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. As our slogan states, we will continue to #capitalizeonthechaos. 

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Rob Roger's political cartoon exhibit opens at GW's Corcoran

Rob Rogers
by Mike Rhode

I was able to briefly stop by last night as Rob Rogers made a few short remarks about an exhibit of his cartoons, including 10 original pen and ink drawings and the companion colored prints critical of Trump that a Pittsburgh newspaper refused to print before they fired him. Also included are prints of sketches that they turned down before they became completed cartoons. Rogers' contentious relationship with the papers new editor has been written about extensively and soon after he was fired, GW announced they would exhibit his cartoonist directly across the street from the White House complex (information from their press release follows the images). The exhibit is sponsored by GWU and the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists. AAEC president Pat Bagley and Washington Post cartoonist Ann Telnaes contributed to the text of the exhibit.

The sold-out event drew local cartoonists Mike Jenkins, Joe Sutliff, Carolyn Belefski, Politico's Matt Wuerker, and Al Goodwyn a freelance cartoonists who appears locally in the Washington Examiner, in addition to Library of Congress curator Martha Kennedy (whose exhibit on women cartoonists is on display at the Library), and the Washington Post's Michael Cavna.

More photos can be seen here.

Incomplete sketch rejected by newspaper

Cavna, Goodwyn, Jenkins, Belefski

Belefski, Sutliff and Wuerker

Sutliff, Wuerker and Kennedy

Bagley's statement

 'Spiked: The Unpublished Political Cartoons of Rob Rogers' Opens at the GW Corcoran School of the Arts and Design

Editorial cartoonist was dismissed from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after facing censorship of his cartoons

WASHINGTON (July 18, 2018)-The Corcoran School of the Arts and Design at the George
Washington University opened "Spiked: The Unpublished Political Cartoons of Rob Rogers"
today. This pop-up exhibition in the atrium gallery of the Corcoran School's historic Flagg
Building features 10 finished cartoons and eight sketches that went unpublished by Rob Rogers'
employer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, between March 6 and June 3, 2018.

Mr. Rogers served as the editorial cartoonist for the Post-Gazette for 25 years, until his firing in
June 2018. Prior to his dismissal, the newspaper refused to publish a series of cartoons
produced over three months.

"I believe the role of a newspaper is to be a watchdog, keeping democracy safe from tyrants. I
hope that visitors to the exhibit get a sense of the important role satire plays in a democracy and
how dangerous it is when the government launches attacks on a free press," Mr. Rogers said. "I
am excited to have my original cartoons on display at the Corcoran. The fact that these are
cartoons about the president and now they will be on shown a few blocks from the White House,
that is pretty incredible!"

The Corcoran strives to promote diversity of thought and experience, address critical social
issues and educate the next generation of creative cultural leaders.

"Mr. Rogers' work has tremendous educational value to our students by speaking to the skills of
technical virtuosity, iteration, perseverance and creative methodologies on how to critique
power," Sanjit Sethi, the director of the Corcoran said. "His work also becomes a powerful point
of departure for this community to speak with each other about issues around censorship,
freedom of the press, journalistic and creative integrity and the consequences of hypernationalism to a democracy."

The Corcoran organized "Spiked" in conjunction with University of Pittsburgh's University Art
Gallery and in collaboration with the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists.
"Freedom of speech is more than words. It's pictures, too," Pat Bagley, president of the
association, said. "This exhibit draws attention to Rob Rogers, a popular voice at the Post Gazette
for 25 years. It points to what people in power do to people who draw funny pictures of
the powerful and why that is an important measure of a free and open society."

In addition to the exhibition this summer, the Corcoran will host a series of conversations this fall
regarding issues around censorship, freedom of the press, journalistic integrity and the consequences of nationalism to a democracy, in collaboration with both the Association of
American Editorial Cartoonists and GW's School for Media and Public Affairs.