This report explores the construction of collective identities and how they relate to power dynamics within classic and contemporary animations. The films, A Bugs Life (1997), WALL-E (2007) and Zootopia (2015) will form the groundwork of my study. Throughout, I will be analysing key characters, metaphors and political agendas within each film. To support this, I will also elucidate the identity theory in these animations and discuss my understandings and knowledge around this topic, to give a new perspective.
According to Millar & Rogers, (Relational dimensions of interpersonal dynamics, 1987), relationships involve three basic dynamics: effect, respect and power. Power, used as a degree of control over humans, financial resources and is exercised differently by classes of society. It is dynamic and relational; used in social, political and economical relations between individuals and groups. Power can also be unequally distributed, as some may have excess to more resources – the extent of power towards identities is correlated to how many accessible resources they can control. (Srilatha Batliwala, 1993, Women’s empowerment in south Asia – concepts and practices)
In society, all relationships involve power and control. People like to influence other behaviour while at the same time they do not like being unduly controlled or influenced: this is a power dynamic. (Truth About Deception, 2019) The power dynamics, form the basis of three categories; physical, social and intellectual; the structure dictates that physical/social power remain superior to intellectual authority. (Molly Muir: Power Dynamics within Society, 2013).
The interaction between power and identity is nonlinear. (The New Context 2012.) Castells (1997) proposes when explaining about the power of identity, that within identity lies three origins: Legitimising identity, referring to the dominants of society who to extend their domination would inject fear to those around them. Resistance identity, refers to the devalued or stigmatised by domination, survival on different basis of principles from the opposed those permeating the institutions of society. Lastly, Project identity, would refer to new identity that redefines their current position in society, would seek to transform themselves and the overall social structure for change. (Castells, Power of Identity, 1997)
It lies within these types of required identity by which we can gain expected power. The infamous villain, Hopper (A Bugs Life) has a legitimising identity. He is psychically bigger and stronger than all ants in the colony and this is how he gains his power, an illusion that has been kept up through fear and intimidation. This can ben seen as a metaphor for an oppressive government with greedy political engenders.
The colony of ants have been subordinates to the grasshoppers for years. The protagonist, Flick (A Bugs Life) is a pariah. Disrespected and under-valued within the colony, he is longing for respect and the heart of the princess. Castells would observe this as resistance identity. Flick’s character is a metaphor for the over-shadowed man within society: overlooked because of his less dominant attributes.
The ambiguity of Hopper’s legitimising identity is matched by a cultural ambiguity: he seems to simultaneously dominate socially, yet has his own fears – the bird. In the ending scene, Hopper loses control and is fed to the bird’s; the natural order is shifted and there is a metaphor of the Hoi Polloi, nature and its order.
Such themes are translated in Zootpia. Judy, the protagonist links to project identity. A policewoman striving for success in a male dominated workforce. Portrayed as a cute and soft bunny rabbit, she is initially disregarded and deemed an outsider within the police work force. As the film unwinds, she proves herself as a worthy defendant of the city, breaking down the stereotype that a member of the police force must be a typical patriarch. Here, the writer is highlighting Judy as a metaphor for the regular working class female, fighting for acceptance in an androcentric world. There are political metaphors of sexism, chauvinism and misogyny.
The stereotypes of race and gender in Zootopia are socially constructed ideas of identity, race, ethnicity, and class hierarchy. This is implied when the elephant cashier refuses to serve the fox because of his race. The elephant uses the phrase “In your part of town”. This is a great depiction of the power construct that perpetuates the cycle of social class and discrimination – the fox is looked down on as the underclass. In Western literature, the Fox is described as the predator class and omnivorous where as, a Rabbit is a small, timid creature. The Rabbit and fox here, can be seen as metaphors for the power dynamics within the food chain, fox’s tend to eat rabbits, a further ambiguity of identity.
The Antihero and assistant Mayor, Bellwether, also relates to project identity, a diminutive sheep turned deceptive and becoming a cunning mastermind. Most of the film Bellwether is the subordinate to Mayor Lionheart, from this oppressed position Bellwether becomes power hungry; adapts a deeply prejudiced view against the predators and is sick of being viewed by society as a weak prey, never getting recognised for her work, Bellwether knows where she belongs and where she wants to be. This is seen as a metaphor for under-valued women in the work place, working for men in the CEO positions, working harder than the men in CEO position and never being promoted to the CEO position. Here, the film displays themes of oppression and feminism.
The concept of sheep being followers and lions being strong at the top of their food chain is traceable as far back as the bible. A symbol used throughout Christianity and Judaism, “The lamb with the lion” a paraphrase from Isaiah (35:2); is repeatedly mirrored in film making and literature throughout history. This makes it particularly controversial as mayor Lionheart ends up being succeeded by bellwether.
Robots are incredibly advanced in many ways, however their inability to express the inner most emotions means they are powerless to make conscious decisions. Castells would categorise WALL-E with resistant identify, the alienated robot locked in a dystopian world who falls in love with the deuteragonist, Eve only dedicated to her mission in scanning for any signs which could make Earth habitable again. There is a strong illusion of utopia on the Axiom, by the use of propaganda. We see human dystopia portrayed by fat and lazy beings consumed by the mega corporation. This is a strong metaphor for our reliance on technology and how it is increasingly controlling us.
The antagonist AUTO; an auto pilot machine villain with a secret directive, vows to never let humans back to earth. AUTO has a powerful sense of self awareness and relates to legitimising identity, he knows if the humans go back to Earth he will loose his control. Here, the film displays dynamics of power. AUTO can be seen as a metaphor for the government who use propaganda to distract and trick civilians into maintaining power and control, another visual signifier of disturbed political engender.
A further paradox we see is the robots WALL-E and Eve personified, yet they are robots, not humans. WALL-E is a romantic with a sense of self and nostalgia, he romanticises about the past by watching old movies and longing to not be alone. Eve was sent to earth with a directive and hostile towards WALL-E at first, this order ends up over-riding all others. Here the author demonstrates that compassion and love overcomes power, order and oppression; a common themed echoed throughout history in books such as 1984 (George Orwell) and the film THX 1138 (George Lucas).
The central hypothesis of identity theory is the categorisation of identities, who am I? Where do I belong? Stryker (1968), who originated identity theory, argued that the self consists of a collection of identities existing in the hierarchy of salience. An identity with a high salience are the characters identifying with more identities and how likely they are to be used to dominate in a particular situation. Salient identity, a concept that makes sense of how a person responds to different situations considering these identities; legitimising, resistance, project which are then characterised by other identity factors, such as gender, profession, culture, intellect and physicality.
Hopper, has a legitimising salience, intimidating Ants as the dominate grasshopper, Castell would argue the protagonist Flick employs a resistance identity. Hopper’s salience is higher thus succeeds greater power in this dynamic. The Salience between WALL-E and AUTO similarly are the identities of project and legitimising. The anti-hero’s salience is higher and thus presenting a power dynamic relationship between the two. Judy and Bellwether project a similar salience, it is Judy’s rationalism which sets the characters identities apart.
Legitimising identity is found within the most antagonists which explains their characteristics and desire for power. The protagonists with resistance identity, together create a sense of powerless until they develop a new identity, project identity, which helps them overcome the raising action of their narrative.
Characters and identity theory are intertwined. (Jane Batkin, 2007). It is the collection of these identities which contribute to the sense of self and a seed to the dynamic relationships presented by the author. Power still matters, of course: power lies in the information of these collected identities (Castells, Power of Identity, 1997).
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