These Female Animators are Redrawing an Industry’s Gender Lines

Women make up 70 percent of CalArt’s animation program but hold just 25 percent of the jobs

In the 1930s and ’40s, if an aspiring female animator wanted to work at Disney — then one of the few games in town — she would find herself relegated to the studio’s ink and paint department, where she would be limited to tracing and coloring the work of an all-male animation team. “Women,” reads one rejection letter from the time, “do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen.”

Years later, in 1961, Walt Disney co-founded California Institute of the Arts, a school intended to be a feeder to Disney and the industry. In the 1970s and ’80s, CalArts went on to attract some of animation’s most influential names. There were Tim Burton (The Nightmare Before Christmas, Batman) and Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille), Henry Selick (Coraline, James and the Giant Peach) and John Lasseter, chief creative officer of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios. Annie Leibovitz memorialized them in a 2014 photo for Vanity Fair — 17 men in all. Dead center were the photo’s only two women, Leslie Gorin and Brenda Chapman.

Scenes from CalArts student projects: Icebergs by Eirini Vianelli

Today one sees a very different picture in the CalArts hallways. At last count, more than 70 percent of the animation students on the Valencia campus were female. But even with similar numbers of women at the other local animation schools — 69 percent at UCLA, 55 percent at USC — women still hold fewer than a quarter of the union jobs in the animation industry here. The disparity has sparked a movement to close the gap: The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media at Mount Saint Mary’s University tracks the number of female characters in animated features, while the West L.A.-based organization Women in Animation pursues gender parity with its “50/50 by 2025” initiative.

Thinkers at CalArts aren’t stopping at numerical equity, though; they’re calling out the industry’s worst offenses at the school’s annual symposium on gender bias in animation, “The Animated Woman.” Originated by Erica Larsen-Dockray, a professor in the experimental animation program, the conference grew out of her class of the same name, where students discuss everything from the narrow range of female cartoon characters to unrealistic body types. It’s not surprising that many topics tend to revolve around Disney, given the studio’s prominence. Ask grads about their favorite animated features growing up, and you’ll hear titles like Robin Hood, The Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast.

While they may be fans, the animators also hope to improve on the past. “In a lot of these standard textbooks, women are hardly ever portrayed with jobs,” Larsen-Dockray tells me one afternoon. “They’re usually either old women or sexy women, and they’re nude a lot of the time.” We’re in her office, where she’s leafing through The Animator’s Survival Kit. At 342 pages, the tome by Oscar-winning animator Richard Williams (Who Framed Roger Rabbit) is one of the school’s canonical texts. If you want to illustrate a guy walking, running, leaping, staggering drunkenly, picking up a heavy stone, or poking his finger into a balloon, the book will show you how. But it’s remarkably limited when it comes to women. “Check this out,” she says, flipping to page 157, where the author lays out four options for how women walk: “normally,” “fashion models,” “strippers,” and “ballerinas.”

One solution that Larsen-Dockray is advocating may sound familiar: Build a more diverse workplace. CalArts is uniquely positioned to help do just that. TV and film execs regularly attend student screenings and “portfolio days” at the school; connections also come through faculty members, several of whom are in the business. Chapman, who appeared in that Vanity Fair photo, became the first woman to win a Best Animated Feature Oscar for her work on Pixar’s Brave. Josie Trinidad, class of 2002, is head of story at Walt Disney Animation Studios. Niki Yang has worked as a storyboard artist on everything from Family Guy to Adventure Time, as well as voiced popular characters on Gravity Falls and We Bare Bears. Emily Dean was story artist on The Lego Batman Movie, while Daron Nefcy runs the Disney show Star vs. the Forces of Evil.

Scenes from CalArts student projects: I Think I Love You by Xiya Lan

Many of them are bringing female colleagues with them. “I’ve seen Daron Nefcy’s show hire our female alumni, and that’s been great,” says Maija Burnett, director of the CalArts character animation program. “There’s obviously a mix of men and women there, but I think it’s spawned its own great unofficial group of female artists.” Nefcy is only the second woman to create an animated series for Disney. Now in its third season, Star has gained notice for its multicultural cast and historic airing of what’s been called “Disney’s First Gay Kiss” (the scene takes place at a huge boy band concert, so there are actually several). “For the third season, out of 12 storyboard artists, only three were guys,” says Nefcy. “But then, that’s my show, and I’m always looking for people I know and people I’ve heard good things about.”

At Cartoon Network a similar phenomenon is happening with show creator Julia Pott’s series, Summer Camp Island, which premieres next year. “I think she’s made a definite effort to hire a lot of women — as many women as she can — to story positions, and for me, a supervising position,” says Elizabeth Ito, a 2004 CalArts graduate and a storyboard supervisor. To find her office, look for the papier-mâché Uncle Grandpa (from the Cartoon Network series by the same name) and the arcade claw game stocked with bags of Chips Ahoy.

CalArts alum and animator Kirsten Lepore in her home office

Photo by Amanda Friedman

Ito hopes that the growing number of women in story and creative positions will lead to changes in how the industry greenlights and produces films and TV series. “Six years ago I was working on a show pitch about these kids who form a garage band to fight monsters, and the lead character for the longest time was a girl,” she says. “I remember the first thing they said when we went to pitch the show was, ‘Oh, can we change the lead singer to a boy? Because boys aren’t going to watch a show where the lead singer is a girl.’ It seemed like such a stupid change. It didn’t seem like that would matter. Or it shouldn’t matter.”

The shifting tide became most apparent at CalArts in 2012, when the graduating class of 21 experimental animation majors included only one guy. “It was insane,” recalls Kirsten Lepore, an award-winning animator and member of the 2012 class. “There was a lot of estrogen in that room.”

Faculty and students alike noticed the change. “Some of our teachers were saying, ‘We’ve gotta find a way to get more of a gender balance,’ ” recalls Maureen Furniss, director of the experimental animation program. As it turned out, the shift happened organically. The admissions process at CalArts is famously blind: Faculty members look at the applicant’s portfolio, not at the applicant. And as Furniss points out, the notion of “gender” at the school goes beyond a binary male/female thing. “There’s a lot of attention and consideration given to people of varying degrees of gender here,” she says. “Not just female and male but every other combination.”

Scenes from CalArts student projects: Talk to Me by Mariana Yovanovich,

That complexity has contributed to some of the most thought-provoking — and inclusive — animation in years. Zootopia, Storks, and the Netflix series BoJack Horseman all featured LGBT characters. On Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe, the three main heroines appear to be female but are genderless aliens. One of the trio is in fact two beings in a same-sex relationship (it’s complicated; watch the show). The same network’s Adventure Time features female ex-lovers (Marceline and Princess Bubblegum), a genderless robot that looks like a Game Boy but sounds like a Korean girl (named BMO), and gender-swapped versions of the series’ two male leads.

With its pro-LGBT themes and gender-fluid characters, the series is a favorite of Lepore, who directed a special stop-motion episode (“Bad Jubies”) that won an Emmy last year. Lepore’s own stop-motion shorts often feature gender-ambiguous characters: mountain dwellers and narwhals, geometric shapes and adventure-seeking desserts. “I think binaries in animation are boring a lot of the time because that’s what we deal with as real-life humans,” she says. “The point of animation, at least for me, is that you can do anything. So you should explore that and venture into these new, weird, experimental worlds.”

Lepore and her husband, filmmaker Daniel Kwan, live in a Highland Park home filled with props from films. There are smiling pastries and a bass-playing vampiress, candy-colored castles, and the Claymation hero from her latest short, Hi Stranger. In it the nude figure lies on its belly, looking intently at the “stranger” (that would be you) and says things you might hear from the nicest friend in the world on the best day ever: “I just want to sit here and relax with you. You’re wonderful and worthy of being loved.” The character invites you to watch a sunset, then draws your portrait. Hi Stranger has drawn nearly 3 million views since Lepore posted it on YouTube in March, and while some people have called it creepy and made parodies of it, she insists the character is really her. “I want to shower the world with positivity,” she says. “I want to tell everybody they’re beautiful and wonderful! That’s my whole vibe.”

If she’s upbeat, it might be in part because, unlike a lot of her colleagues, she gets to work from home. “I don’t have to be in an office where I’m being paid less and there’s a gender problem,” she laughs. “I’m in my house.” No surprise, she’s also happy about the growing numbers of women working on animated feature films and TV series, but for Lepore, the quality of the work comes first. “My one and only thing,” she says, “is when people are like, ‘Hire more women! Get more women in there!’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, get more women in there —if they’re talented.’ It’s much better when there’s a mix.”

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