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Behind Every Animated Princess... Is Still A Lot Of Men?

Elsa in Disney's Frozen 2. (Courtesy Disney)
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The animation industry has made strides when it comes to inclusion, but large gender disparities remain. The Animation Guild is trying to bring more attention to that imbalance.

Mindy Johnson, who studies women and diversity in animation, said the animation classes she teaches are 75 to 80 percent female, and she's heard similar numbers from other animation and film educators. But only 3 percent of animated film directors are women, with only 1 percent being women of color, according toa 2019 USC Annenberg report.

Johnson wrote about the history of women in animation in her bookInk & Paint: The Women of Walt Disney's Animation. On Wednesday night, she moderated a discussion on diversity, inclusion, and bias for members of the Animation Guild, with a panel including animators Floyd Norman, Jane Baer, Willie Ito, and Enid Denbo Wizig.

"Our numbers are shifting, and yet we need to get that representation reflected in the industry," Johnson said.

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The numbers are stronger in lower-level positions -- 28 percent of story editors are women, for example -- but those numbers don't hold with many higher-level jobs.

The growing numbers of young women interested in animation is tied with female representation in animated film, according to Johnson. They grew up being able to watch movies like The Little Mermaid and Beauty & The Beast on home video -- but only 17 percent of recent animated films had a female lead or co-lead, according to the USC report.

"When children are exposed and given a wider range of what their options are, they'll explore further," Johnson said.

There was an effort in the late 1970s and early '80s to bring more women and minorities in at Disney, according to Johnson, helping to lay the groundwork for more gender diversity in animated movies.


Floyd Norman attends a 30th anniversary screening of "When Harry Met Sally..." at the 2019 TCM Classic Film Festival on April 11, 2019 in Hollywood. (Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for TCM)

Floyd Norman was one of the first African-American animators at Disney. From the time he started there in 1956, animation has been a largely color-blind industry for those breaking in, he said.

"Animation is comprised of individuals who are basically creative individuals, where the only thing that mattered was the talent," Norman said. "I never felt anybody was shut out because of their ethnicity, their color, or anything like that."

But while the doors were open to get into the industry, according to Norman, that didn't mean you could always rise to the top. He never got the chance to be a producer or a director, despite a legendary career that included working on Sleeping Beauty, The Jungle Book, Pixar movies, and more.

"While there was never any active discrimination in the cartoon business, I honestly feel that I could have gone further had I not been a person of color," Norman said. "When opportunities to promote someone to be the head of a department, to be an associate producer, to be a director -- I think that, as a person of color, I was often overlooked."

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Norman said he feels that the industry has made major positive changes since the time he broke in. As an example of the way things have improved for minorities, Norman cited Matthew Cherry's recent Oscar win forhis short film Hair Love.

"I look at myself as maybe being a trailblazer," Norman said. "We kind of hit the beach first -- didn't get a chance to advance as far. But I see the young people today doing a lot better than my colleagues of color and I did back when we started out decades ago. There just weren't that many opportunities for people of color back then."

Willie Ito started at Disney in 1954, assistant to animation legend Iwao Takamoto, illustratingLady and the Tramp's spaghetti-eating scene. Ito taught himself cartooning as a kid while he was interned by the U.S. government, along with 120,000 other Japanese people, during World War II.

"I entered [animation] rather cautiously, because I wasn't quite sure if a big studio like Walt Disney harbored some sort of resentment," Ito said.

But early diversity helped to provide him comfort as he broke in. The first person he encountered at Disney was a fellow Japanese-American who had also been interned: Iwao Takamoto.

Takamoto recommended that Ito be brought back in for a test, which led to him being hired into Disney's training program. Ito said Takamoto laid the groundwork for animators like him.

Ito went on to work for Warner Bros., where he noticed that he was the only Asian who seemed to be working at the studio. But he still felt that there wasn't any prejudice and that animation was a color-blind industry.

Echoing Norman, Ito said there was more diversity in animation than the film industry at large thanks to the unique skill set that was required.

One thing that helped to continue opening up the industry when it came to diversity was the outsourcing of animation, according to Ito. They would send extra work to studios in countries like South Korea and the Philippines, and it ultimately encouraged Asian animators to move to the U.S.

That was also aided by the growth of computers in the animation industry, with Asians being early adopters of the technology, according to Ito. Ito has tried passing along the mentorship he got from Takamoto, going on to mentor young artists around the world.


Jane Baer near the Art Center photo lab when she was a student. (Courtesy Jane Baer)

Jane Baer started at Disney in 1955, working on Sleeping Beauty.

Baer had dreamed of pursuing art, but as a woman coming of age shortly after the Depression, she faced trouble getting an education.

"My dad's feeling was, well, you don't want to waste money on a girl, because she's just going to get married and have babies," Baer said.

Her family only had money to pay for one college education -- they decided to pay for her brother. So she worked her way through school herself.

"It didn't occur to us that we could go further," Baer said.

"Gender roles hadn't quite matured at that time," Norman said. "[Women] recognized there wouldn't be as many opportunities."

Baer was laid off after Sleeping Beauty but continued to make her career in animation. In the 1980s, Baer started a small animation studio with her then-husband. After they divorced, she kept the studio going -- but had to deal with men who resented a woman owning and running a business, according to Baer.

Johnson said that elements of strong female influences go back to the early days of animation, from the creation of Minnie Mouse alongside Mickey to the decision to focus Disney's first feature animated film on a female protagonist: Snow White.

"But we, as a society, our collective conscious tends to lean towards male," Johnson said.


Floyd Norman, Mindy Johnson, and Jane Baer. (Susy Shearer Photography)

The Animation Guild is looking to bring more attention to continuing diversity issues. In a press release, they cited both the small number of women directors working behind the scenes, as well as small percentages on-screen -- while making up 17.8 percent of the U.S. population, only 1.4 percent of animation children's TV characters are Latino.

Johnson said that the advantages of increasing diversity include both financial and story incentives. She thinks it's important for women to be able to share through animation their unique perspectives.

"We've all missed out on not getting these stories told," Johnson said.

Clarification: While Floyd Norman is often referred to as Disney's first African American animator, Frank Braxton worked briefly at Disney before Norman in the early '50s.

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