This Saturday, March 15, I'm moderating a panel at the Walt Disney Family Museum where I'll be talking with Claire Keane, Lorelay Bove, and Brenda Chapman about their experiences in the animation business, and their lives as animation artists.
Last October the museum also asked if I would write an essay for their quarterly on the subject of women in animation, past and present, which follows here.
In the 1970s there was one must-have for every aspiring young animator's bookshelf: Christopher Finch's oversized, heavy and beautiful The Art of Walt Disney. Illustrated books detailing the history of animation, and more specifically, the Disney Studio, were almost nonexistent at the time; and at over 400 pages the Finch book was something I pored over for hours. I'd already fixed on the idea of being an animator, seeing it as the perfect career to marry my love of drawing, film, and performance. I considered animation to be "the illusion of life": turning lines on a page into characters that lived and breathed in an invented world of color, design and graphic imagination.
Every page of Finch's book was filled with story sketches, animator's roughs, background paintings, and photographs– not just of Walt Disney, but also of his artists working at their desks, drawing just as I did and looking not much older than I was. But they were working on such memorable films as Snow White, Pinocchio, and Bambi. Decades before I was born they'd managed to achieve the gold standard: working at the greatest animation studio in the world on films whose influence would long outlive them.
The old images fascinated me and I wanted to know more about them. One was particularly striking. It showed a young woman, Retta Scott, animating on Fantasia. While far from being an expert in either social history or 1930s studio-hiring practices, I knew that a woman employed as an animator in those days was rare, and that this had been the case from the beginning. The form of cartooning which preceded and inspired animated cartoons and newspaper comic strips, also had many more men than women employed in the field, and this disparity carried over into the new medium of animated cartoons. With rare exceptions, cartooning/animation work became a "guy's thing," though the intended audience for the cartoons and comic strips was both male and female.
So, by the mid-1930s, it seemed that any woman with artistic talent or experience who applied to a studio for work in animation was limited to a career in the "ink and paint" department, doing the crucial but creatively stultifying tasks of tracing animators' drawings on celluloid and painting the underside. This was by necessity an assembly-line sort of job, and while the women who did it were rightfully proud of their skills, the work certainly didn't allow for individual expression. But there was Retta Scott, engaged in what was a traditionally male job. She was an anomaly—a female animator! I later learned that Scott had worked in the story department as well as in animation, and in fact, there had been other women assigned to the story and development departments, including Sylvia Moberly-Holland, Bianca Majolie, and most famously, Retta's friend Mary Blair, whose career and influence would extend further than many of her colleagues'.
In the 1930s and '40s, a confluence of talent, opportunity, timing and connections were required for a talented woman to land a creative job at Disney. This was also true for the men but to a lesser degree. It's impossible to know how many women who aspired to be animation artists were actively discouraged from trying, but certainly some were, as evidenced by the Disney Studio's 1930s form letter sent in response to women inquiring about jobs as artists. It stated that "women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that work is performed entirely by young men." While clearly untrue when one considers the placement of the women previously mentioned, the letter nonetheless expressed the company's attitude towards the idea of women artists in general.
This was unfortunate since not only were women at the Studio making artistic contributions, their work was also having a positive impact on the history of animation. The work of Mary Blair, in particular, caused a transformation in the look of Disney animation, and the opportunity for her to create stunning art was due to the direct involvement of Walt Disney, whose appreciation of her unique style and sensibility was not hindered at all by her gender. But Blair was a stunning exception; for most women, the opportunities to achieve personal distinction in animation were simply not available. Had it been otherwise, it's anyone's guess who else might have made her mark as Blair was able to.
Throughout my working life I've been asked the question, "Why aren't there more women in animation?" and I've never had an answer. I can only speak for myself and explain why I do what I do—a story that differs little if at all from that told by my female and male colleagues. But while the question still gets asked, things have changed more rapidly in recent years than ever before. As a student at Calarts in the late 1980s, I was in a class where the guys far outnumbered the girls, and for the first decade or so I was able to tick off the names of all the other females who were somehow involved in animation.
Now, there are so many women working in the field that I can't begin to keep track of them all– many working as I do in story, but also in visual development, animation, character design, and every other classification. Online blogs by aspiring female animation students are even more numerous, and from a cursory check, show ever-increasing sophistication and range in personal style and storytelling ability. It's a wonderful state of affairs for my industry and for everyone who's involved with the art of animation, and it'll be fascinating to see what the future will look like when a picture of a woman creating animation will draw no special notice at all.