There’s been some recent discussion online regarding animation’s “Boys Club” and the fact that women have often taken a back seat in the cartoon business. While it’s true the business has had its gender issues in the past, I’d like to think that things have improved considerably in recent years. While the animation business has been far from perfect, I’m willing to give our industry higher marks than most. I’m not an apologist for the many wrongs committed in years past, and clearly there’s no doubt that women were continually given short shrift in the world of cartoon making. However, it might be helpful to add a little perspective from this old timers point of view.
When I entered the animation world back in the fifties there was little chance a woman would ever get a chance to animate at the Walt Disney Studio. However, the same could be said of young men as well. Let me explain. In the nineteen fifties the business of animation was contracting, not expanding and there were very few jobs available. Those who had earned the title of animator were desperately trying to hold onto those coveted jobs. If you were a young man or woman at fifties Disney your chance of animating at the studio was slim to none. Smaller, outside studios were your only hope of getting into the animator’s chair. No doubt this was doubly true for women. In any case, a career in the animation business was reserved for a unique group of young men and women who were clearly not normal. After all, who else would put up with a job that offered little job security and a paycheck that was often too embarrasing to show to your friends? Even with the gender issues at the Walt Disney Studio in the fifties, the number of women employed at the mouse house was still impressive. Sitting in an air condition private office drawing cute cartoons all day was still regarded several steps above waiting tables at a Los Angeles coffee shop. Most don’t know their Disney history or have simpy forgotten it. While the Disney Studio continues to be railed against for their treatment of women, the studio employed dozens of talented women during the Fifties Boom when Walt entered television and the Animation Building was filled top to bottom with artists. It would appear that people have forgotten that by the fifties a number of women had already made their way into the coveted ranks of layout and background. While the Walt Disney Studio is often slammed for their gender issues, it is totally forgotten that Phyllis Hurrell ran Walt’s commercial division back in the fifties. What other studio, I might ask, had a women at the head of a production unit?
By the early sixties, Sylvia Roemer and Sammie June Landham were already working on “101 Dalmatians” in Woolie’s layout department and a number of women continued to contribute to animation as key clean-up artists. Yes, it’s true no women were being promoted to animator at this time - but the same could be said of young men. The animation business was struggling to survive in the early sixties and this even included Disney. Suddenly, commercial production and animated television shows changed the cartoon landscape and opportunities became available for both men and women working in the industry. Were things always fair for both genders? Clearly not. However, there were more opportunities for young artists and I watched as both men and women took advantage of the television boom and climbed the animation ladder. It was during this amazing period that I had the pleasure of meeting and working with many talented women. Again, things were not perfect but women were making headway in the areas of production design, background, layout and even animating. In the years that followed many would move into story and directing. How did I know this, you ask? It was because I worked for many of those young women during that time. Of course, there were those times when men grumbled over a woman being promoted to department head. This was back in the sixties and seventies but I remember it as though it were yesterday. Finally, keep in mind that the talented women were given their promotions by a man. A boss who regarded their talent more important than their gender.
Today we spend a good deal of time finding fault with the animation business and we too often forget about the progressive individuals who saw a need for change. The studios, small and large that broke free of the past and promoted women, minorities and all those worthy of moving ahead. While there’s little doubt the animation industry has had its fair share of problems in the past, I’m inclined to think the constant harping on the “Boys Club” is a refrain I’ve heard just a bit too often. Unpleasant and unpopular decisions will continue to be made by studio bosses. What else is new? That’s the nature of our business. I’ve been sacked more than a few times in my long career. Was it because of the color of my skin? Hardly. It was simply a business decision because things don’t always work out. As animation artists, both men and women, it’s time we all grow up - just a little bit.