Women as Creators in Animation (and Why it’s Important)

Several times I have gotten in a debate about why it is important to draw attention to women creators in the animation industry. “Why do you need to point out that they’re a woman?” they say. “Why does it matter?”

The argument often continues with saying that whether the creator is male or female all that matters is whether they portray girls and women in a positive light. It doesn’t matter the gender of the person creating the program or film.

But it does. While many might not know this, the percentage of female directors and showrunners in animation is incredibly small. Nearly microscopic.

The Walt Disney Animation Studios, who have been producing animated films since 1937 just had their first female director, Jennifer Lee co-directing Frozen in just 2013. She also wrote the screenplay. Disney’s long-time partner, PIXAR beat them out in 2012 with their studios first in 2012 with Brave with Brenda Chapman co-directing and writing the story. Many found this surprising seeing as a good portion of the Disney movies star women. Disney princess anyone?

Disney Princesses ©Disney Studios

Though Disney has had many female artists working on their projects, none had ever directed the films. It seemed the studio was male dominated. Interestingly enough both leads from Pixar’s Brave and Disney’s Frozen have been arguably considered some the strongest female characters created. With Merida, a fifteen-year-old girl who refuses an arranged marriage and Elsa an anxious, soon-to-be queen who tells her sister “you can’t marry a man you just met,” and continues to toss playful nudges at prior princess films.

Brenda Chapman, creator and co-director of Brave was also the first woman to direct a feature-length animated film of any studio. This was in 1998 with DreamWorks Animation’s The Prince of Egypt. The film has popped up in recent arguments actually as having depicted Egyptians more historically accurate than several big Hollywood features (but that’s off topic).

So why is it important to see female directors and creators? Why aren’t strong female characters enough? Many men have created fine women and girl characters, I mean, check out Hayao Miyazaki’s plethora of critically acclaimed masterpieces, almost entirely starring girls.

Well, simple, because there are tons of girls who want to go into animation themselves. For one to see someone like them, doing what they want to do…well it sets of a little bulb that says it’s not impossible.

As a kid I wanted to create children’s books and I actually hid the fact that I was gay for several years because I thought it was something I couldn’t do if I was that. I didn’t see anyone gay writing or illustrating books for kids. Then I stumbled upon a documentary about Maurice Sendak, creator of the world famous Where the Wild Things Are who is gay and a thing clicked in my head that said “yeah I can do it too.”

So that’s why it’s important for girls to see women creating and running the show.

It was only in 2013 that Cartoon Network brought on its first series created by a woman, Steven Universe by Rebecca Sugar. An animated series that showcases a wide-array of diverse women and girl characters. This year Disney Channel brought on its first series created by a woman with Star Vs. the Forces of Evil, created by Daron Nefcy.

Women in animation have come a long way from the days of old.

Rejection letter from Walt Disney Animation Studios

A lot has changed since this letter. In fact many of Disney’s artists are women, many of them in prominant creative roles. Including the Disney famous Mary Blair, known for her concept art on anything from Cinderella to Peter Pan, her work is more prominently displayed in the Disney Parks attraction “it’s a small world.

Mary Blair and Walt Disney

The number of women in animation is growing in recent years and it’s always nice to see diversity in creators because it brings in a more diverse perspective on characters and stories.

Until next time!

damian alexander

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