By Brian Smith
We had two buildings when I started working at Walt Disney Feature Animation in 1999. There was the Northside building up near the Burbank Airport and the Southside building across the street from the lot off the 134 Freeway. It’s commonly referred to as the “Hat Building” because of the giant iconic wizard’s hat from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice on the west end. The original Disney Animation building still stands in the middle of the Disney lot, but now it’s mainly production offices. It has a long center section with four wings sticking out of each side. They were built in a way so that they move independently of each other in case of an earthquake. There were plenty of windows with motorized blinds so that artists who were primarily drawing on paper could maximize the amount of natural light they would get in their offices over the day. It was a building that was ahead of its time.
And yet, it couldn’t have been more of its time. From the outside, it looks like a 3-story building. However, there is a fourth floor that only goes along a portion of the center section of the building. When I worked at Disney, there was a barber shop there where you could get a cheap haircut. But for the first 40 years or so of the building’s existence, that space was a bar for the animators to go and have drinks after work. This was told to me by an animator I worked with who had been there in those days and had even partaken of a drink or two in that bar. Only animators were allowed to drink in the bar; in those days, only men were animators, so only men were allowed to drink there. By the time the late-70’s/early 80’s rolled around, and women were starting to enter the ranks of animators, several women wanted to be allowed into the office bar to have drinks. The man who ran the bar for decades closed it down instead.
The animation industry is not unique in how it has discriminated against women throughout its history. Like almost any other industry, men, particularly white men, had a decades-long head start. That allowed men to become entrenched in all positions in the industry, and that entrenchment is not easily relinquished. When I was studying animation at USC, we had a copy of a letter a woman received when she applied for an animation position back in the first half of the 20th Century. The letter said in black and white that Disney Animation did not hire women as animators, but she was free to apply for a position in ink and paint, which was almost entirely women but was completely uncreative. It was literally a color-by-numbers position.
But both of those anecdotes are from years and decades ago. How is the animation industry doing these days in terms of gender equality? The big studios like Disney, DreamWorks, Netflix, Illumination, and others have opened their doors to women, but how widely open are those doors, and how many women are being invited to the party? A sampling of the women I reached out to told me that the industry has come a long way since they entered years ago, but there is still more work to be done.
Anecdotally speaking, I have worked at several animation studios around LA, including Disney, DreamWorks, Sony, and Netflix. In fact, while I was at DreamWorks, the majority of producers actively working at the studio were women. However, most people working in creative positions, especially animators, storyboard artists, and directors, were still men.
Jinko Gotoh was the producer on animated features like Lego Movie 2 and Klaus. She has multiple decades of experience in the industry, and she actively works through the organization Women in Animation to improve gender equality at all levels of the animation industry. I asked her if she recognized this phenomenon, and not only did she recognize it, but she also had the numbers to back it up.
“In 2015, Women in Animation pledged to gender justice (underrepresented genders: women, non-binary, and transgender), 50/50 by 2025,” she told me. “At the time, local 839 represented approximately 20%. Today underrepresented genders represent only 30% of the industry creatives, while 70% of animation school graduates are of underrepresented genders.”
It can only be described as discouraging that the ratio has only increased by 10% for underrepresented genders in the past seven years, and it makes the goal of a 50/50 ratio just three years from now feel like a long shot at best. The silver lining of those statistics is the high proportion of underrepresented genders that are graduating from animation schools.
Angela Lepito is also an active member of Women in Animation, and her career spans back to the mid-90’s when she started as a PA at Walt Disney Feature Animation on Hercules. She, too, has noticed that women have traditionally fared much better in production roles than in artistic roles in animation.
“Yes, you do see many women in production roles,” she told me. “I am one of those production people myself! It can be hard to visually see the issue when there are so many women in the workplace. We want and need women to be represented in our top creative roles. We have seen some progress with female directors. We are looking for that same opportunity for department head roles.”
Brenda Chapman is one of those directors and could be called a pioneer for women in animation. She earned an opportunity as an artist at Disney on The Little Mermaid, and a few years later, she was co-director on Prince of Egypt. Most notably, she also wrote and directed Pixar’s Brave. She pointed out that women’s success on the production side has helped to open doors for some on the creative side.
“As time went on, these women on the production side more than proved their worth and did great things for this industry,” she said, “and they continue to do so. I believe that is a big part of why we are beginning to see more women coming into the creative side.”
The numbers that Gotoh pointed to, however, clearly show an industry that, while trending in the right direction, needs to do more and do it faster.
“What we really need is for directors and producers to be willing to give young women opportunities based on their creative talent and not just on their work experience’,” Chapman continued. “Otherwise, men will continue to dominate. How can they gain experience if we never hire them? I’ve witnessed young white men given jobs they’ve not done before based on their portfolios, but I have rarely seen that happen for young women or people of color. We need to be willing to recognize an individual’s creative ability and whatever their unique spark is, then give them the support they need to apply it to the job. With the passion they’ll have in being given that opportunity, they will hopefully rise to the occasion.”
Chapman used her own experience as an example. “That was the opportunity afforded me by Ron Clements and John Musker at Disney on Mermaid. And I am still deeply grateful.”
Personally, I wonder if this is a corporate problem just as much as anything else. All three women pointed out that it’s up to producers and directors to have the courage to hire more women by putting more emphasis on their artistic credentials rather than their work experience. The problem is that all of the major animation studios are pieces of large corporations and external applications go through Human Resource departments that are trained to look for the person with the most or best experience. With women already forced to a late start in animation history, that can be another difficult hurdle to overcome.
What is the path to achieving gender equality sooner rather than later? Being happy with just getting closer can no longer be good enough. Chapman pointed that out while putting the onus on women to maintain their tenacity.
“We also need more women in leadership roles who aren’t afraid to hire other women. We need more women CEOs and CCOs. The industry needs to have an equal amount of women leading the creative from the top. We also need more female creative leads. Those would all be great starts! The responsibility is industry-wide, which includes the hiring practices of the studios and the promotions of lower tier artists within the studios… and it’s the responsibility of the women trying to get into the industry and/or be promoted to not give up!”
“It takes both external and internal forces to make a change,” Gotoh added. “Studios and producers need to see hiring the underrepresented as an opportunity for the creative industry and not as a risk. We need programs that support and train inclusive workspaces and communities and tear down barriers. We need to do talent development to advance their careers as well as give opportunities by sponsoring the underrepresented genders. Lastly, we need data-driven transparency for the industry and companies to identify areas for improvement, set measurable goals, and create action to address workforce disparities.”
“The first step, which I believe many companies have taken, is to truly recognize the lack of women in our creative roles,” added Lepito. “And second, get to know women in our industry, whether that be top talent or emerging. Finally, offer support, mentorship, and training for those women who you wish to grow in your organization. I feel this combination is the most critical aspect to getting women into leadership roles.”
Another thing the animation industry needs to recognize, and this is unique in animation and the overall entertainment industry compared to other walks of life, is content. It’s not enough for studios to improve their hiring practices regarding gender equality. They also need to do better in creating strong and positive female, non-binary, trans, and gender-fluid characters to achieve true equality.
Gotoh agrees that the industry can and needs to do better. “It’s not simply about promoting strong female characters. We also need characters from the underrepresented genders to be portrayed as normal people, as we saw in The Mitchells Versus the Machines. We have seen more in the TV series space with creators like Rebecca Sugar.”
Chapman concurred but expanded on the notion that there is more to it than simply plugging in a female character and moving forward with the same tired plot devices, again using her own experiences as an example.
“Yes, it’s nice to have a kick-ass female warrior once in a while, but those characters do not really represent a diversity in character,” says Chapman. “It just feels like, that character was once conceived as a boy, but now it’s a girl because that’s politically correct. I cannot tell you how many offers I had to develop stories with “kick-ass warrior princesses” after Brave! They completely missed the point on that one. It’s very frustrating. That’s why I found Turning Red to be so refreshing and real and relatable.”
We all love animation because of its limitless possibilities. It is the only form of cinematic or televised storytelling that starts literally with nothing, and every single thing the audience sees is a product of someone’s imagination. A diversified workforce only expands those imaginations and broadens the potential of where those beautiful, imaginative, interesting, terrifying, funny, and emotional ideas come from.
As Chapman said, “Let’s broaden the scope of the stories, please!”