Like the rest of the film industry, animation also has a history of keeping women away from positions of creative control and well-paid jobs, a fact that is very obviously reflected in the content of mainstream animation, where female characters have mostly factored as princesses,pin-ups and eye candy, bland love interests, damsels in distress, token Smurfettes and so on and so forth. Even so, there are many women who managed to leave their mark on this art form and there are more and more women working in animation in contemporary times (while still severely underrepresented). Since today is International Women’s Day, let’s take some time to celebrate women in animation, although, of course, I don’t have the time and space here to mention as many as I’d like.
Animated feature directors
German artist Lotte Reiniger (1899-1981) was not just a pioneer for women in animation: she is one of the world’s most important animators, full stop. Her film “The Adventures of Prince Ahmed”, a silhouette animation made in 1926, is the oldest surviving animated feature. Reiniger wrote and directed the film and invented the cardboard shadow puppets technique that was used to animate it. She made many other films, including another fully animated feature (Doctor Doolittle and his Animals, 1928), and she enjoyed success in her work as a filmmaker as well as in commercial endeavours as a designer and illustrator.
British animator Joy Batchelor co-directed “Animal Farm” (1955), an adaptation of George Orwell’s book, with her husband John Halas, the first British animated feature to get a theatrical release. Their production company was responsible for many animated films, including propaganda shorts during the World War II. Of course, since the US believes the world revolves around them, I have most often found Brenda Chapman credited as the first female (co-)director of an animated film (“Prince of Egypt”, Dreamworks, 1998), but the distance in time between the first woman to direct an independent animated feature and the first woman to direct a major American animated feature is not flattering to the American industry at all. Brenda Chapman is also the first woman to direct a film for Pixar (“Brave”, 2012), although she was fired during production and did not receive sole credit in the end. “Kung Fu Panda 2” (2011), a major hit for Dreamworks, was the first US studio feature to have a solo female director, Jennifer Yuh Nelson. Disney’s first female director on a feature is Jennifer Lee, who co-directed their recent success “Frozen”.
Here are a few other animated features with women directors: “Sita Sings the Blues”, directed by Nina Paley- a film Nina made almost by herself on her own computer, and which she made freely available online; “$ 9.99”, a stop-motion feature directed by Israeli filmmaker Tatia Rosenthal; the Czech puppet trilogy “Fimfarum” features segments directed by Vlasta Pospsisilova, who started her career as an assistant to animation legend Jiri Trnka. And, for a bit of national pride, let’s not forget our very own Anca Damian, who won the grand prize at the Annecy festival with her animated documentary “Crulic”.
Women in animation at major studios
The early studio environment was extremely sexist, and it explicitly forbade women access to positions of any creative control; the famous rejection letter from Disney Studios, in which a young female artist is being told that she can never aspire to be more than an inker, has already travelled all across the Internet. However, a few remarkable talents managed to break through. Lillian Friedman Astor was hired in 1930 by Fleischer Studios after being rejected by Disney, and she was eventually promoted from inker to in-betweener and then full animator. Friedman worked on several shorts, including Popeye the Sailor Man and Betty Boop cartoons, even though she didn’t always receive proper screen credit, and, according to “Who’s Who in Animation” (Jeff Lenburg, 2006), she was paid only 40 dollars a week, compared to the salary of her male counterparts, who took home 125 dollars a week.
Another notable early female animator in the American industry is Laverne Harding, who was recognized as an animator at Walter Lantz Productions around the same time (as per Lenburg’s book, she was the second woman to receive screen credit). Harding’s work concerned mainly Woody Woodpecker cartoons, she was responsible for the longest-used design of the character and she was often credited as “Verne” to give the impression that she was a man.
Walt Disney’s studios first credited female animator was Retta Scott, who was promoted as such during production on “Bambi”; her ability to draw animals from all angles was unequaled, according to Disney animator Marc Davis.
Disney’s most well-known female artist from the so-called Golden Age was not an animator, though, but concept artist Mary Blair, who worked, most prominently, on “Cinderella”, “Alice in Wonderland” and “Peter Pan”. We should also mention Tissa David, a Hungarian animator born in Cluj, whose career after emigrating to the US included commercials, short films, television productions and main animator for the character of Raggedy Ann on “Raggedy Ann &Andy: A musical adventure” by Richard Williams. Olga Khodatayeva (1894-1968) was amongst the first women in the Soviet animation industry. In the anime industry in Japan of the 1950’s and 60’s, Kazuko Nakamura and Reiko Okuyama were the first notable women, the latter ending up as the head animator for Toei Doga.
Women in television animation
The world of television is so vast and complex, and television series employ so many hands, that I cannot embark upon compiling an extensive overview of women in television animation, so I will stick to mentioning a few prominent women working for high-profile TV animation. Arlene Klasky co-founded Klasky Csupo with her then-husband Gabor Csupo, and together they developed the Emmy-winning Nickelodeon series “Rugrats”.
Lauren Faust is perhaps the most well-known current name in TV animation- having worked on “The Powerpuff Girls” and “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends” at Cartoon Network, Faust went on to become a successful showrunner for Hasbro, turning “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic” into a media phenomenon. Cartoon Network’s more recent hit “Adventure Time” has launched the careers of Rebecca Sugar, now the Network’s first solo female showrunner (“Steven Universe”) and Natasha Allegri, who is now developing her own web series “Bee and Puppycat”.
Independent filmmaking is where it’s at for women animators: outside the old boys clubs of the studio system, they had more freedom to express their point of view and to innovate (and of course, to make less money.) Here are a few names worth remembering: Faith Hubley, director of many experimental animated shorts, both in collaboration with her husband John Hubley and on her own (Faith and John’s daughter, Emily Hubley, is also an animator, and she debuted as a feature director with the live-action/animation mix “The Toe Tactic” in 2008); Sally Cruikshank, creator of acclaimed surreal short “Quasi at the Quackadero”; Canadian artist Caroline Leaf, who made famous the technique of animating with sand on a lightbox; Suzan Pitt, also an experimental artist, whose animated short “Asparagus” used to be a screening partner to David Lynch’s “Eraserhead”; Joanna Priestley; British BAFTA winner and Academy Award nominee Joanna Quinn; Signe Baumane; Michaela Pavlatova; Suzie Templeton; younger artists such as Kirsten Lepore and the many excellent graduation films from women students that come out every year etc.
But the list is too long, and it includes, of course, artists from all over the world, even if the ones from the English speaking world have gained more attention. By visiting film festivals (which I have done quite a bit), it’s easy to notice that female independent filmmakers are very numerous and interesting and that it’s not for lack of creativity or talent that the mainstream doesn’t promote them more. Of course, festivals are dominated by men as well (which is why female-only festivals, like the Austrian-based animation festival Tricky Women, exist) but it’s important to understand that the reason why women aren’t more prominent in animation isn’t a lack of talent.
Happy International Women’s Day!