The Poor and the Poorer

In one of my sociology of deviance lectures, I learnt about the distinction between two concepts of poverty – absolute deprivation and relative deprivation. 

Instead of telling us what it is directly, Prof Gana shared with us two true stories of three children.


#1

Here’s the story of Bill and Jack. 

One day, Bill and Jack were caught for stealing flowerpots from HDB flats and selling them to the nursery for about $4-5 per pot. The conversation between Prof Gana and the children went as such: 

Bill: Sir, how much you earn?
Prof: (pause) Enough to get by.
Jack: No la, he study very hard one. I’m sure his pay ah, about $800!
Bill: Maybe $1000? Wah.. you earn so much. 

As a matter of fact, they had an elder brother. But he passed away. Cause of death? Falling from a HDB block while trying to steal a bird cage that was hung on the ceiling.

#2

Here’s the story of Anna.

One day, Anna went back home crying.

Father: Dear, why are you crying?
Anna: Papa… why are we so poor??
Father: Poor? What do you mean?
Anna: All my friends’ houses have backyards in their homes, but we don’t have!!

As a matter of fact, they lived in a high-end condominium in Bukit Timah district.


These stories haunt me till today. In my prof’s words, “For Bill and Jack, they were so poor that the limits of their material mind was only at $800-1000. $800 was such a big money, which was why they were willing to go behind bars for selling a potted plant for $4. In contrast, Anna’s story just shows us that the pursuit of material wealth is basically a bottomless pit.”

I wish I could dismiss Anna’s point of view and condemn her as greedy and insatiable as others would. But I have to admit that the feeling of greed, of jealousy, of desire, is very real. I know, because like many others, I’ve experienced it on my own as well.

I recall one night when I went home looking all gloomy and upset. I had caught up with an old friend over lunch that day. During lunch, we talked about where all our classmates are up to these days. Almost all of them are studying overseas, and doing degrees such as medicine and law.

Sure, I’m extremely happy for them. But there was just something gnawing at my guts.

When I went home, my terrible mood was written all over my face. Again, I can’t seem to hide anything from my Mum, so she asked, “What’s wrong?” It wasn’t long before tears starting welling up my eyes and I started breaking down, and sobbing uncontrollably.

I told her about all the great universities my friends are studying at, all the great things they are doing in school, the great life that they are leading. My Mum looked at me in the eye, and said all the things that all mothers would say.

“You can’t compare yourself with others. Everyone can succeed in different fields.

“Studying medicine or law doesn’t make them more successful. It’s what they make of the degree in the future that determines how successful they are.”

Then, she continued quoting stories of her relatives – how they are rich and successful, but lead lonely lives, or are not people worthy of respect, so on and so forth.

She never realised that the whole time, her words were drowned out by my inner dialogue. Till today, I’m not sure whether or not she knew why I cried. She didn’t ask, and I didn’t mention, for fear that she would feel hurt.

I knew that my friends were clever, smart and wonderful people. But the thing is, I never saw myself as a person of any less virtue or stature as them. I knew for a clear fact that, what most of them had that I don’t was a family that could afford to send me abroad for an overseas education, without scholarship that is.

Just as my friend once said, “There comes a point of time when meritocracy ends.” And I think there is some ugly truth to this statement. So, at that moment, there and then, I caught myself asking the same question as Anna did.

“Why am I so poor?”

I asked myself that question, knowing fully well that I am not poor. My family is not struggling to make ends meet. I live comfortably with a shelter over my head. My family owns a car. My family travels to other countries whenever we can.

So maybe, then, the question I should have asked myself is this.

“Why am I poorer than others?”

But at this point I’m sensible enough to be aware that posing a question like this has no end. Other than the richest person on earth, 99.99999999999999999% of the world is poorer than at least one other person. Yet, we continue to strive to climb further and further up.

We have long been taught the “how” to be rich and successful – study your assess off, get a great job (best as a doctor, or lawyer), buy a house, buy a car, marry someone nice, bear two kids, and live happily ever after. Our teachers – parents, friends, and the almighty social media has done a very good job at that.

To put things into more specific context, for students, the “how” looks more like this – enrol in a top primary school, go for endless tuition and enrichments classes, excel in PSLE, enter the top secondary school (preferably a school that offers Integrated Programme – so you can skip O levels altogether), enter a top JC … the ultimate dream is of course to enrol in an Ivy League school in the US, or Oxbridge in the UK. And of course, spam your friends’ social media feed with amazing photos of your summer getaways to Niagara Falls or the Antelope Canyon.

But. Why though?

Nobody really teaches us, or tells us the “why”. It’s one thing to desire and pursue all of these, but do we really want to pursue all of these just for the sake of it? Just to check things off our bucket list?

I guess that “why” is something we’ll constantly have to navigate for, and navigate towards for the rest of our lives. We’ll have to roll our sleeves up and get in the dirt. We’ll have to quietly accept the kind of lives and lifestyles we are not endowed with, and make the hard decisions as to how much of ourselves we want to put in to pursue THE life, and if it’s worth pursuing at all.

Most importantly, we need to recognise that we are the poorer, and not the poor. On bad days, I forget that. But on good days, I am reminded that I am luckier than most. I am reminded that while it’s one thing to strive for the best, it’s another to forget about the 10 percent of the world’s population who still live in absolute deprivation today.

Today’s one of those good days.

In Praise of Zootopia: A Sociological Perspective

I went into the cinemas today, not quite sure of what kind of movie to expect. Well, for one, I knew that my friends were raving over it. But about 2 hours later, I left the cinemas, feeling entirely overwhelmed and impressed. That was hands down the best cartoon I have ever watched in my life.

In a short span of 2 hours, the movie encompassed a wide range of themes, ranging from prejudice and racism, to power and deviance. In this article, I will pen down some of the details I had noticed and analyse them in a sociological approach.

Brief introduction of movie

The movie revolves around how a tiny rabbit, Judy Hopps overcomes all the invisible social barriers of stereotypes and prejudices around her size and thus her perceived weakness, to become a top-notch police officer. Later, as she moves to Zootopia and work as a police officer in Zootopia Police Department (ZPD), she is tasked to find a missing otter, which leads her to investigate a queer case of predators turning savages in Zootopia.

Race and Prejudice

When I first saw how Hopps, the rabbit, said, “Only a bunny can call another bunny ‘cute’. But when another animals call us cute, it’s a little…”, I knew that I was in for a ride. Even though Zootopia appears to be a place where “anyone can be anything.”, prejudices between the predators and the preys always exist at the background. For example, the assistant mayor, Bellwether, is a sheep that has always been undermined and unappreciated by the mayor who is a Lion. The conflicts are exposed and intensified by the case of predators turning savages as the majority prey population, are quick to assume that only the predator population have the tendency to become savages, and must hence be feared upon and removed from Zootopia.

Sociologically defined, race is a group of people (or animals) who are perceived to share the same biological traits or physical differences. Because of these perceptions, people make oversimplified stereotypes about the characteristics of an entire social group. More significantly, this affects the attitude they have for the other social group and are used to justify discriminatory acts. Zootopia has reflected that stereotype, prejudice and discrimination cut both ways. On one hand, preys are perceived as weak and incapable and preys that are small in size such as rabbits are doubly discriminated. On the other hand, predators are also perceived as dangerous and intimidating.

Yet, we have seen many scenarios when these prejudices and stereotypes continue to be maintained in Zootopia even as they are continually broken. First, the most obvious example is when Hopps became the first rabbit to become a police officer and a valedictorian in her police academy. Next, the Clawhauser is a resident cheetah at ZPD with a jovial and cheerful personality like no other. All these examples show that there are more varieties between social groups.

Lastly, and the most interesting of all, Nick Wilde, a fox who becomes a close friend of Hopps is a loyal, smart and caring character, unlike the typical connotation of foxes as sly and cunning. An interesting excerpt was when Wilde asked Hopps after the press conference if she is afraid of him and if she thinks that he too, is biologically predisposed to become a savage some day. Hopps answered, “No.. you’re not like the others!” It is interesting that people’s prejudice towards a particular social group may contradict with their behaviours toward individual members of that group. These individuals are viewed as exceptions to the rule, thus allowing people to retain their stereotypes despite conflicting situations in reality.

Well, what we realised in the end was that, many a time, race is not a biological construct, but rather a social construct that is maintained through social structures. This is most evident by the revelation at the end that it is not the predators’ genes or DNA that have caused them to become savages, but a planned scheme by Bellwether because of her prejudice and hate towards predators.

Moreover, it is also emphasised that what sets people apart are not their race, but their values and characteristics. Hopps and Nick can both make splendid police officers because they have merits such as quick-wittedness or self-righteousness. At the same time, Bellwether may not be a predator, but may embody a savage nature as she sets out to cause divisions in the society by turning the predators into savage and even kill Hopps.

Well, but on a light-hearted note, the sloth is the only animal in Zootopia which is still seen as biologically slow. That may seem inconsistent with the intentions of the movie, but I believe that some humour is needed to release some of the tensions in the film, and stereotypes are more often than not, the basis of humour.

Race and Deviance

In discussing the issue of race and deviance, I would bring in three sociological theories of deviance, namely the positivist perspective and the labelling theory.

The first theory that was most apparent to me in the movie was the positivist perspective. The positivist standpoint is that criminals are born. This means that they are biologically and physiologically predisposed to commit crimes. Cesare Lombroso, a positivist criminologist even argued that criminals are individuals who are stuck in earlier stages of human evolution and are hence ill-developed humans. This was strikingly similar to how Hopps attributed the possibility of predators turning into savages as their genes, DNA, or that they are returning to their “natural state”, which is their earlier state before evolution and civilisation.

This is dangerous because if one believes in this notion of deviance, it depoliticises the deviant act. People start to believe that predators are inherently savages without identifying the structural causes behind this “deviant” act, thus justifying social control against them. For example, Clawhauser was made to leave for another department because “it was not too good that the first animal other animals see in ZPD is a potential savage.” As mentioned before, as it turns out, the reason why predators became savages is not a biological cause at all.

The second theory, which is the labelling theory, made me feel rather upset in the movie indeed. The labelling theory argues that deviance results not only from the actions of the deviant, but also from the responses of others, who define some actions as deviant and other actions as normal. Over time, the constant labelling of an individual might lead to him or her internalising the deviant behaviour. Eventually, seeing oneself as a deviant becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The story of Nick was what made me recall this theory. When Nick was a child, he aspired to join the local Junior Ranger Scouts. Yet, upon “initiation”, Nick is bullied and muzzled simply for the fact that he is a fox and foxes are considered sly and unreliable by nature. As a result, he decided that “If the whole world is just going to see a fox as untrustworthy, then there is no point in trying to be anything else.” That is how he becomes a successful conman when he grows up. Nick’s story was a heartbreaking story for me because it shows how deviants may not be inherently evil, but are the victims of societal prejudices.

Additionally, this story also demonstrated the importance of analysing the context and biography of an individual before making a judgment on one’s reason of committing crime. That is not to say that every act of deviance is understandable and thus acceptable. But it does bring to light some of the structural reasons that may prompt someone to commit deviant acts.

Media and moral panic

Moral panic is a theory related to deviance. It refers to a mass explosion of fear at a particular time and place about a specific perceived threat. This occurs when many people believe that a form of deviance poses a profound threat to the well being of society. When there is a moral panic, there is often an increased level of hostility to a particular category of people who is perceived to engage in threatening behaviour. Yet, the concern over the phenomenon is also often disproportionate to the nature of the threat. Additionally, one essential component in moral panic is the media. It rapidly spreads concern over the perceived threat, thus heightening the climate of fear.

This situation was depicted in Zootopia, after Hopps suggested that the predators became wild because of their DNA. One of the conversations between the predators and Hopps go like this:

Journalists: Who is that fox!
Hopps: He is my friend!
Journalists: Does that mean that we cannot trust our friends too?

In a climate of pressure and fear, the journalists fail to recognise that there are no clear evidence of the real cause behind why all the mammals that have turned savages are predators. Fear clouds logic and this can be seen from how both the journalists and members of the public jump into conclusions too quickly and make sweeping statements of the whole predator community. The effects can be as catastrophic as to cause the whole society to divide. One example is how Clawhauser was forced to go to another department.

Social structure vs individual agency, a.k.a. social reality vs individual dreams

This theme is a recurrent one in the field of sociology. This is also another theme that underlies the movie from the very start since Hopps decides to be the first rabbit police officer. First, she goes against the wishes of her parents to be a typical carrot farmer. Hopps’ father persuades her, “If you don’t try anything new, you will never fail.” In fact, the act of trying convince Hopps that there are no rabbits that have become police officers show that the rabbits have also internalised the prejudices against themselves. Next, Hopps also
 succeeds in cracking the case despite being discriminated by mammals such as Chief Bogo who tells her that “Life isn’t some cartoon musical where you sing a little song and all your insipid dreams magically come true. So, let it go.” 

Yet, while it seems that Hopps is a critical thinker who can make her dreams come true despite public opinion, the interesting fact is that she, too, is not fully free of being influenced by the social prejudices that are deeply embedded in social life. For example, before Hopps left for Zootopia, her parents pass her a fox repellent. Even though Hopps appears to find it unnecessary, she has a subconscious bias for foxes that she constantly tries to fight off. In a brilliantly designed scene, Hopps leaves her room for her first day of work, only to come back to retrieve the fox repellent “just in case”. Additionally, when Nick confronts her after her press conference, she instinctively reaches out for the fox repellant even though she has always thought that she trusts Nick as a friend. This reveals the grim truth that prejudice is not an inherent quality. Instead, it is learnt.

But the film also shows that every cloud has a silver lining because the reality is that individuals do have some degrees of agency. While many individuals in the film has experienced different pressures, but all of them responded differently. The most distinct contrast is between Hopps and Bellwether. While both of them are discriminated as small and weak, Hopps chooses to prove the predators wrong and showcase her ability to make the world a better place, while Bellwether chooses to hurt the predators. Additionally, while both Hopps and Nick have been bullied by a predator and preys respectively, Hopps chooses not to give in to social stigmas, while Nick decides that he can never fight against social opinions. This shows that sometimes, everything is just a matter of perspective and attitude.

Gender

This issue is an implicit one in Zootopia but as always, gender is a background identity that acts on our behaviours and influences how other people evaluate us. Let’s do a mental exercise and imagine how different the movie would be if Hopps is not a female but a male rabbit. For one, scenes such as the one where she is dismissed by Chief Bogo on her first day in ZPD, where large physical size and masculinity is prized, could be very different. When she is assigned as a meter maid, it is not only more salient features, such as her identity as a prey that is at work. Her identity as a female is also working at the background, making her doubly prejudiced.

One thing that I appreciate about the film is also a more nuanced perspective of gender. Females are often stereotyped as more emotional, but the film shows that females and males alike can be emotional. For example, when Hopps was leaving, it was her father and not her mother who starts to sob. In another case, although Nick expresses to Hopps that “you bunnies are so emotional”, he also has an emotional side which he reveals as he recounts his childhood story. His nonchalant and dispassionate attitude is not a result of his gender per se, but a result of his past experiences, which has forced him to “never let them see that they get to (him)”.

Moreover, being emotional should not have negative connotations to it just because it is tied to the concept of femininity and weakness. Sometimes, emotions can guide us towards doing things we feel is right. There are many cases in Zootopia when Hopps is guided by her emotions. For example, she helps Nick at the ice cream shop because she empathises with the feeling of being treated unfairly because of prejudice. She also agrees to help Mrs Otterton at the risk of losing her job because she cannot bear to see her feeling so helpless.

Social capital and networks

This theme is probably less of an excitement for any readers, other than other Sociology geeks like me. I must admit that I have not studied social capital and networks in sufficient detail in school, but as I was watching the show, I can’t help but appreciate the fact that Judy’s whole adventure truly would not have been possible without Nick, the one who “knows everybody in Zootopia”. Social capital refers to networks that one possesses which allow he or she to gain crucial information because of concepts of mutual reciprocity.

The interesting thing is that Nick has contacts from people in both legitimate and illegitimate society. The former would include Flash, the sloth working in Department of Mammal Vehicles who is his good friend, and the latter would include the crime lord, Mr Big.

The American Dream

Zootopia, at its core, seems to address a deep-rooted pursuit for the American Dream, where everyone can be who they are. As a Singaporean viewer, the film embodies many American aspirations. At the same time, it also exposes the less glamorous social reality and contradictions that lie beneath the ideals of equality and peace that comes with the notion of “The American Dream.” Problems such as racism and prejudice continues to plague America’s society. But at the same time, these issues are not unique to America. Every country has its own dreams, just as Singaporeans also have her Singapore dream. But dreams being dreams, are dreams precisely because they are so immensely difficult to achieve.

On this note, I am deeply thankful to Disney for no longer portraying portraying a world in which “When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are. Anything your heart desires will come to you.” Instead, it is the little voice that soothes our harden soul and reminds us that “Real life is messy. We all have limitations. We all make mistakes … But we have to try… Try to make the world a better place. Look inside yourself and recognize that change starts with you. It starts with me. It starts with all of us.”―Judy Hopps

Conclusion

When I watched “Inside Out” last year, I thought that was the best Disney-Pixar movie I have ever watched. But after I came out of the cinema yesterday, I learnt that I was wrong. Zootopia stood out for me, probably because I am a Sociology student, and seeing how the social interactions between the mammals were so accurately represented made me utterly moved. The level of understanding was incredible and I appreciated how nuanced the movie incorporated all the paramount issues of our generation.

To me, that is not just the power of a movie, but also the power of art. I thought about this when a question popped into my mind yesterday, “What if the creators choose not to represent the subject through animals? What if the movie presented humans instead?” What an outcry it could cause, I thought. But because of the way Disney has chosen to tell the story through the world of animals, people step back and question, “How does this reflect our society?”.

But the more interesting and philosophical question that Zootopia raises is “What differentiates humans from animals?” In one scene of Zootopia, Mr Big responds to the moral panic in Zootopia, “We may have evolved, but deep down we are still animals.” Whether or not humans are really that different from animals is a debate that I will save for another time. But what’s important is, if we are to agree that humans are different because humans have developed morality and consciousness, then how are we going to stay consistent with that and stop causing unnecessary harm to other humans on the basis of differences- in colour, nationality, gender, age etc? These are big questions that emerges from Zootopia and they await inquiry. But I definitely look forward to the next Disney Pixar movie that is as intellectually and emotionally stimulating, as Zootopia has been for me. :’)

References:
1.Brym, Robert J. and Lie, John (2007) Sociology: Your Compass for a New World . 3rd edn. Belmont , CA : Thomson/Wadsworth
2. Cacciopo & Freberg, Discovering Psychology.
3. Roshier, Bob (1989) Controlling Crime: The Classical Perspective in Criminology, Milton Keynes: Open University Press. Part One pp 1–39.
4. Ridgeway, Cecilia L. and Shelley J. Correll. 2004. “Unpacking the Gender System: A Theoretical Perspective on Gender Beliefs and Social Relations.” Gender & Society, 18 (4), pp. 510-531.
5. disney.wikia.com

(Disclaimer: (1) The Sociology concepts are based on my understanding through classes. They are not expert opinion and pardon me for any inaccuracies in the explanation of these concepts. (2) Many quotes and excerpts are based on memory or the internet. They are not verbatim quotes. Hence, do correct me if I cited any quotes or described any scenes wrongly.)