I’ve been warned to steer clear of this subject and up to now I’ve managed to do so. However, I cannot help but think back to the nineteen fifties when a group of young kids, both men and women arrived at Walt Disney Productions to begin a career in animation. If the decks were stacked back then there is little doubt it was in favor of the men. After all, this was the nineteen fifties and hardly an enlightened time. Dads went off to work each day and moms stayed home with the kids. When a young woman did decide to choose a career it was always considered temporary. After all, it was expected the woman would eventually find a husband and become a homemaker. Heck, even high schools taught home economics back then. Girls were trained as homemakers and only a few “oddballs” would seek a career in a “Man’s World.” In spite of the time and culture of fifties America, a group of young men and women sought employment at Walt Disney Productions. You could say we were equally foolish for seeking a job that not only paid poorly, but was hardly considered stable. Animation in the nineteen fifties was more hobby than profession. Employment was sporadic and long term employment was practically a fantasy. Those who had managed to find work in the handful of Hollywood and New York studios were lucky indeed. The only positive note in this wacky scenario is the fact that competition was practically non-existent. After all, who would be willing to fight and scrap for such a crummy job?
There were a few who lined up to take the stupid in-between test at the Walt Disney Studio. And, what was that test, you ask? You had to put a drawing of Donald Duck in-between two other drawings of the famous duck. If you managed to do that, you just might qualify for the tedious, mundane and low paying job at the Burbank cartoon factory. Many of the young men and women saw the job as simply a stepping stone to something far better. Most were just out of school and eagerly seeking employment. Their career paths were illustration, fashion design and hopefully art direction gigs in media. Few considered cartoon animation a viable career and more than a few were embarrassed to admit they earned a meager living at the “Mickey Mouse Factory” in the San Fernando Valley. Yet, believe it or not, a group of young men and women actually wanted to do this odd, and quirky job. We wanted to draw princesses and bunny rabbits. We were eager to create magic on the big and small screen. During our training period, the young men and women were kept separated. I was honestly never quite sure why. However, once our training period had come to an end, we were assigned offices with the general population and both men and women shared the same space. It may seem odd, but I don’t recall any competition between the male and female artists and all got along famously. Again, it was common knowledge that animation was a “man’s game” and women had best not aspire to becoming animators one day. Even though women had climbed the ranks of animation during the war and proved they could do the job as well as any, It would appear the Walt Disney Studio had taken a step backward. There were probably many reasons for this change in attitude at the premiere cartoon studio and I would suspect the controversial forties labor action might have played a part in this mindset. Even though Walt Disney eventually forgave his animation staff for their “betrayal,” I honestly don’t think he ever forgot it. In the fifties, I was just a kid hardly knowledgable about the history of Walt Disney Productions. Yet, even I could sense Walt’s affection for his cartoon department had wained. Wary, and cautious, I don’t think Walt ever truly trusted animation again.
Just when women had truly proven themselves, the opportunities for advancement were walked back. Naturally, this proved true for both men and women, and the hope of a promising future at Disney appeared grim. When “Sleeping Beauty” tanked in 1959, the Disney brothers seriously considered shutting down the animation department. Thankfully, animation managed to survive the sixties, and a new era of cartoon making began. Even better, women played a more active role during this amazing new period at Walt Disney Productions. In time, women would move back into animation, background and layout at the cartoon factory. Today, one can hardly imagine animation without the presence of women in the role of production manager, producer or director. While we still have a long way to go, I doubt we’ll ever think of the animation business as male dominated again.
When I think back on our arrival at Walt Disney Productions in the nineteen fifties, we were a unique group of young men and women eager to make our mark in the cartoon business. I honestly believe we all respected each other as artists and rarely did I ever hear of women being mistreated in the workplace. Of course, I’m not naive enough to think such things never happened. Sadly, on more than one occasion, they did. But, once we were made aware, we quickly moved to make sure such behavior did not continue. Our support for each other was important and we did not tolerate bad behavior regardless toward whom it was directed. Human Resources departments were non-existent in the fifties, so men and women had no choice but to stand up for each other. Of course, I grew up in another time where civility was considered the norm. There was an unwritten expectation when it came to behavior. Young men were raised to be respectful, kind and honest. Boorish, creepy behavior was looked upon with distain. In many ways, I honestly felt we were more mature back then. In today’s corporate world it’s all about litigation as large media companies scramble to protect themselves. I honestly miss the good old days when people confronted each other as mature men and women ready to settle a matter without a legion of lawyers. I miss the respect, honesty and maturity of days long past, and I often feel like people (both men and women) haven’t learned a damn thing.