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Nimona: Fictional Discrimination At Its Finest

How the cute animated movie subverts expectations

By Alex Mell-TaylorPublished 7 months ago 8 min read
Captured: Netflix's Nimona

Nimona is a futuristic fantasy story set in an alternate world where technology has surpassed modern-day heights, but the society we see has not moved beyond the politics and aesthetics of the medieval era. The movie is called Nimona, after the shape-shifting persona of the same name that volunteers to be the sidekick of fallen knight Ballister Boldheart. Along the way, these two outcasts not only become great friends but change everything they know about the society they live in.

The story is not the most original. If you are familiar with basic adventure story tropes, you will see most twists and betrayals well in advance. I was not surprised by how this story ended. Though, predictability does not in and of itself make a piece of media bad.

And indeed, even if its basic plot beats remained unchanged from your standard adventuring story, what Nimona does well is subverting expectations on how the portrayal of discrimination should work in a fantasy setting.

Fictional Discrimination

There is a common complaint with metaphorical -isms, where a type of discrimination meant to be a stand-in for racism, anti-queerness, and the like is depicted as impacting white cisgendered, straight characters. We watch or read about people who, in real life, are near the top of the hierarchy monologue about systemic oppression, and in the process, often undercut their story's message.

The superhero genre is full of these arcs, where overpowered white people face intense discrimination by the government for being superpowered. These characters fight against this discrimination while not only having immense privileges within the text (i.e., their superpowers) but are typically played on film by traditionally privileged people: think Captain America in MCU’s Civil War.

Nimona doesn't fall into this trap. It may use the discrimination this society has against monsters as a metaphor for queerness and, more specifically, transness (e.g., Nimona describing how shifting feels natural, her general gender fluidity, etc.), but it also ensures that it's textually queer. There is a queer romance in the story, with a central tension for one of the duo being whether they should have more loyalty to the state or each other. Many characters are also played by queer actors and actresses, including Nimona herself, who Chloë Grace Moretz voices.

There's also how oppression is shown within the film. Normally, texts like this will have a TROT character (i.e., that racists over there) as the main antagonist, who will explicitly show their discrimination for all to observe (see Bryce Dallas Howard's character in The Help). Nimona has a TROT in the form of Knight Thoddeus "Todd" Sureblade. He is someone who hates commoners (another type of discrimination in this medieval society), but he is importantly not the Big Bad. Todd is merely a cog in the machine, following his social conditioning.

Like in real life, this discrimination is far more subtle than what we often see in film and TV. Nimona constantly shows how this society's hatred for monsters is learned through ingrained messaging. From the games and advertising children see on TV to the transmissions they observe from political leaders, thousands of societal forces teach them from a young age to hate monsters. As Nimona monologues: "They grow up believing they can be a hero if they drive a sword into the heart of anything different. And I'm the monster?"

As we touched on briefly, another type of metaphorical discrimination is against commoners. This medieval society doesn't let non-nobles participate in prestigious roles such as Knighthood. At the film's start, co-protagonist Ballister Boldheart is "one of the good commoners" who has risen from the ranks to break this "glass ceiling.” Through media segments, we see the public debating this marginal improvement, with demonizations of Ballister coming via social media posts and TV punditry.

In a more traditional piece of media, this "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" narrative would have been played seriously. Ballister’s main point would have been to prove the TROTs and naysayers wrong. We would have observed Ballister struggle to gain acceptance in this system before finally proving himself to those on top and then finding his place there.

Take the animated Disney film Mulan, where the protagonist of the same name lies about her gender to join the army. She is shunned once her secret is revealed and only gains acceptance as a woman once she proves herself useful — in this case, stopping the Hun army from killing the emperor. Mulan (the film, not the person) doesn't create systemic reform or textually challenge the oppressiveness of these gender norms in anything more than offhand comments.

In the end, Mulan can only carve out a tenuous, individual acceptance for herself because she is so exceptional: a Savior of China — not a new mold that will liberate others. The film concludes with her conforming to the traditional female gender role of the 90s. She finds a partner, the exact thing she shunned at the beginning, ensuring the movie’s contemporary audience is not too challenged by the subversion they originally witnessed.

Nimona isn't interested in upholding such exceptionalism and, in fact, lambastes it. It's pretty clear from the start of the film that the Queen is using Ballister as a token. She does not want to reform the system but is rather desegregating Knighthood to guard against more radical change. "…starting today, any of you should be able to hold the sword if you want it. If you earn it," the Queen tells her people. She is pretending that meritocracy is enough to combat classism. The Queen is making the case that overcoming the systemic oppression commoners face in this fictional society— barriers she, as monarch, directly reinforces and benefits from — are as simple as using individual willpower.

This is a very insidious type of politics we don't see critiqued too often in children’s media. By placing what would normally be the entire arc of a movie at its start, we get an entire run time to deconstruct why this sort of representational politics doesn’t work.

As we soon see, even this token reform is too much for those in power. The Queen is assassinated for pushing this milquetoast change, and Ballister is framed for it in an attempt to stop desegregation from coming to pass. All of Ballister's knightly peers instantly turn on him, and he is forced to go underground, where he meets and befriends the titular Nimona. If he truly were accepted, his peers would believe him even during hard times, not merely when he's doing well: a point this text highlights at every turn.

As an example, Ballister becomes convinced that if he simply removes the person who wronged him— i.e., the Director of the Institute that oversees monster-slaying knights — then everything can go back to how it was before. "I don't know why she framed me," Ballister says upon seeing a video of the Director sabotaging his gear before his botched knighting ceremony, "but the Instiute's not the problem. The Director is."

Yet this text is explicit that Ballister is being naive here. As Nimona rebuts seconds later: "They brainwashed you good. You think this stops with the Director? You should be questioning everything right now. The will of Gloreth, the institute, the wall."

And indeed, all of those concepts she rails against are proven to be false, but that doesn't stop the public from being anti-monster. Even releasing a clip of the Director's confession to the assassination isn't enough to sway the public. She lies and blames it on Nimona's shapeshifting abilities. Only after the Director threatens to blow up half the city using its anti-monster defenses (and Nimona sacrifices herself in plain sight of thousands) do some people change their minds about the nature of monsters.

When it comes to fighting discrimination, it's not as simple as taking out the Big Bad. You have to assume the system will not be there to save you and engage in a very public struggle to win "hearts and minds." Nimona and Ballister didn't go about things the “right way.” They broke property, spied on people, and leaked state secrets to the public: the opposite of the bootstrapping narrative this film rejects in its first act.

A monstrous conclusion

It's evident from the start that this film doesn't want to follow the traditional narrative of metaphorical discrimination being solely the result of a Big Bad's opinions and viewpoints. The text has a very sophisticated conversation (for a children's movie, anyway) about the nature of social conditioning and how we come to hate and marginalize certain groups.

Now there are criticisms to be made that this narrative doesn't quite go far enough in its rebuttal of the TROT trope. After all, even as they criticize "the removing of the villain to drive social change" story structure, they still succumb to it in part. When the Director is killed, their society does begin to change, albeit because of a very narrow set of circumstances.

There is also the whole nature of policing in the film. We are shown a horrifying police state throughout its runtime, with the government directly spying on its citizens to “protect them from monsters.” Yet Ballister is still wearing his Shield badge in the final scene (an equivalent to a cop badge), and we see a knight playfully interact with a child as a sign that the institution is getting better. This futuristic, medieval society may have started questioning things, but the old, oppressive systems are still very much in place.

Yet these criticism feel very nitpicky, and the nature of societal reform seems like a lot of pressure to put on a 138-minute children's movie. While Nimona may not be the most innovative narrative, it still brought to the table themes and conversations that most children's movies cannot even dream to have, and what can be more metal than that?

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About the Creator

Alex Mell-Taylor

I write long-form pieces on timely themes inside entertainment, pop culture, video games, gender, sexuality, race and politics. My writing currently reaches a growing audience of over 10,000 people every month across various publications.

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