In the year in which Patty Jenkins became the first female director to be granted a budget over $100 million with Wonder Woman — and with the film's success finally providing proof that women can get the job done, too — it's safe to say progress is being made for women in film, even if just in tiny amounts. However, things move even more slowly in the animation industry because of the sheer size of the projects, which can take decades to complete. Meaning that if studios are reluctant to invest large budgets in female directors, the aversion is ten times worse for animated films.
A few years ago, a man named Kevin Burg unearthed a 75-year-old letter from Disney, addressed to his grandmother Mary Ford after she applied to be an animator at Walt Disney Studios. Dated from June 7, 1938, the letter rejected her application not because of her experience, but simply her gender, indicating 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."
It does sound ridiculous now, but at the end of last year, Deadline was reporting that according to the Animation Guild, 23.2% of their union jobs were held by women. Granted, that's an increase from the 20.6% measured 18 months earlier, but it's still below a quarter of the employees registered with the Guild. Meanwhile, The Hollywood Reporter is holding animation roundtables on ethnic and female stereotypes with exactly seven white men (where's Snow White, may I ask?).
Thankfully, there are women who are transforming the landscape of the animation industry with their talent, vision and commitment. Following the THR story, Elle Magazine interviewed four of them on their work and their thoughts on gender-related hurdles as animators; plenty more are helping make animation studios a more welcoming place for young women dreaming of bringing their drawings to life.
Meet The Women Who Are Really Breaking The Mold Of Princesses
One of the biggest animation success stories can be attributed to Jennifer Lee, who at 40 years old was invited by a former fellow student of her Columbia degree in Fine Arts to contribute to the script of Disney's Wreck-It Ralph, which led her to later write and direct Frozen. She also earned a writing credit on the animated hit Zootopia, and has penned the script for Ava DuVernay's upcoming adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time.
The first woman to earn a solo director credit for an animated movie by a major Hollywood studio is also named Jennifer. After creating the gorgeous opening for Kung Fu Panda, she stepped up as a director for Kung Fu Panda 2 and 3. In 2011, Kung Fu Panda 2 was nominated at the Oscars for Best Animated Feature and became the highest grossing animated movie of the year.
Another major figure of animation is Brenda Chapman, who started at Walt Disney Studios by working on the story for the original Beauty and the Beast, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and The Lion King, which earned her the Annie Award for Best Individual Achievement for Story Contribution in the Field of Animation in 1994. She went on to direct The Prince of Egypt for DreamWorks, participating in the creation of the studio, and earned the coveted director spot at Pixar for Brave, for which she won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.
It's Time To Hire More Women
As Chapman told Elle, the most important factor in encouraging more women to pursue their passion in animation is mentorship — the idea that successful women in animation will serve as mentors to young professionals, inspiring them to keep going despite the obstacles that might stand in their way:
If young girls and women see other women working successfully in the industry, it will encourage them to follow and work for their own dream job in film and entertainment. If they see it, they can do it, too.
And there are more and more mentors to look up to! Clearly, the industry has made major progress since the days women weren't deemed fit for "creative work" by Disney. Yet limitations persist in more subtle ways, as a most of the directors behind the biggest animated features, from the Disney classics to the Pixar Braintrust, are still men. Most recently, Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen made Inside Out; Ron Clements and John Musker made Moana, Andrew Stanton and Angus McLane made Finding Dory, and Pixar's upcoming movie Coco will have been directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina.
They're excellent, inspiring and award-winning movies, but the current men to women ratio isn't one that might encourage girls to pursue a career in animation. Diversity in the voices behind the scenes is crucial to bringing more diverse stories to the screen, and at the end of the day, no one can tell a young girl's story as well as someone who's been a young girl themselves.
Which female animator do you admire?