Oct 12, 2006

Panel Recap

In lieu of a more suitable illustration--here we have two striking women of animation, circa 1941(see Walt's contemporaneous reference to such of his staff below)

Back from the See Jane/Union "Where The Girls Aren't" panel. Wow. That was a heck of an evening. I felt incredibly proud to share a dais with Brenda, Jill, Dean, Fred and Geena, all moderated cogently and well by Kevin Koch. A lot was said, yet it was obvious that any one of us could have gone on much longer and I was eager to hear more from everyone--especially Dean, Brenda and Jill. 90 minutes and we barely scratched the surface. I feel it was a success. The turnout was great, many more than I expected might attend. Thanks to Kevin for asking me, and thanks especially to the supportive attendees who came and participated. I was thrilled to see some friends I've missed for ages, and very humbled and gratified to hear some kind words about The Blackwing Diaries. Shucks!

I'd carried a book up with me and almost had a perfect moment to read a relevant passage I'd marked, but the moment passed so I'll share it here. Kevin Koch had just alluded to the infamous "no thanks" letter that's been passed around and published, a letter sent in 1939 to a young woman artist who'd inquired about how to get a job as an animator at Disney's. She received a formal reply flatly stating that "women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing cartoons for the screen in making animated cartoons, as that is performed entirely by young men". Of course, this was in fact totally untrue, since there were indeed some few women in the story, visual development and assistant animator areas at the Disney studio at that very moment, but apparently the official line was don't even think about it--but if you must, try out for ink and paint. At least they were accurately honest about that division having nothing to do with the "creative work" of animation.

Yet barely 3 years later, in 1941, his studio full of unrest and at the brink of the strike that would tear apart the old illusion of happy cloudless days, none other than Walt Disney himself said these words in front of his assembled employees, at a kind of "state of the studio" speech:

..."The girl artists have the right to expect the same chances for advancement as men, and I honestly believe that they may eventually contribute something to this business that men never would or could. In the present group that are training for inbetweens[sic] there are definite prospects, and a good example is to mention the work of Ethel Kulsar and Sylvia Holland on the "Nutcracker Suite", and little Rhetta Scott, of whom you will hear more when you see "Bambi".

...if a woman can do the work as well, she is worth as much as a man"

This, from Walt Disney--in 1941! He wouldn't have said it if he didn't believe it. He was a genius, a mercurial character and a product of his age--almost a victorian by birth--yet he cared more than anything else about the end product, the films he was obsessed with making better than anyone else's.

I wish I could have managed to wriggle this stellar quote into the evening, but we had plenty of good discussion without it.
Personally, I come away lost in thoughts of how to best inspire the next generations of artists...why are so few of the applicants at Calarts or indeed at Disney or Pixar or Dreamworks girls? Is it, as I suspect, largely a matter of ignorance about the possibilities of telling stories and using one's artistic skills in this medium? Does it have anything to do with how few girls are comics geeks in grade school? Is drawing, after all, de-emphasized in school to the point where it's relegated to nothing more than a "hobby" for all but the most fanatical who wield a pencil or pen? Naturally I'm prejudiced in thinking that art should be a crucial part of any child's education; for a century or so it was a sure fire part of a well rounded american child's curriculum. Now I don't think most 7th-12th grade kids even get exposed to studio arts at all--not in public school, anyway. That can't be a good thing.

I could go on and on, and not strictly about girls...but as I said at the panel, these little thoughts are motes floating next to the Titanic-sized context of The Entertainment Industry and Art of animated film & television we work in. I think it does help, somehow, to float some subjects and perspectives out into the open sea of discourse and acknowledge them, adding our own experiences where they might be enlightening. I certainly benefited from what I heard tonight.
Thanks again, everyone.

EDITED TO ADD: The union blog's just posted (10/13) a synopsis of the event with a few photos. I wish it had been better edited, with real rather than remembered quotes. There are three abbreviated statements attributed to me which aren't quite what I said or how I said it--and for someone who is as in love with words and meaning as I am, it's a bit painful to read. One example: When Brenda Chapman told of being sought out by Joe Ranft specifically to help with the female characters in "Cars"--and when Geena (or Kevin) noted that there was only one female "car" character, I held up my fingers to indicate "two"--also blurting out as it occurred to me: "Isn't it funny?--cars are usually always referred to as female, as in "She's a cherry!", that kind of thing--they're thought of as feminine, like boats, traditionally. Yet in "Cars" almost all the cars are male...." This off the cuff observation is given in the TAG recap as this: Jenny Lerew: And aren't cars usually designated female, like ships. But almost all the cars in "Cars" are male. What was a spontaneous thought comes off sounding like a complaint or problem. Not so!

Further, some of the non-verbatim contextual recounting of observations made by the speakers makes use of perjoratives they in fact didn't use nor flatly imply, as in this: "In another example of job stereotyping, Jill recalled being assigned sequences involving the character Jessie in Toy Story 2 while she was at Pixar."
While Jill did speak of that, she wasn't in my opinion talking about "stereotyping", not did she use that hugely loaded word. Or is my memory failing me?

Yes, there was very honest and matter of fact noting of the byproducts of working in a mostly male environment. Brenda took some words directly out of my mouth that I was all set to say, in fact--namely, that the guys at Pixar, several of whom I know and who I feel fairly certain are a lot like, well, like me and my closest [male] friends in the business, do what comes naturally: they write and conceive and draw stories and characters that are dead honest--that come from their own guts and experiences. And they're guys, many of them fathers, all former little boys as I was a former little girl...they naturally(in my opinion)think of a boy's reaction and persona before a girl's, for good reason--they're boys. That's who they are, that's what they know. And I often start a new story with the hero being--guess what? A girl. Usually a girl an awful lot like youngest, feisty(not to say bratty), redheaded me.

Now, stories get embellished and fleshed out, and characters are changed, stretched, gender-bent--even made into another species or thing--but we all start with what we know best, first. Sometimes we stick to that, because it's the story we want to tell and it works best...or sometimes, as happens, we change a character from a girl to a boy or vice versa, because it makes a better story. And sometimes we might do something with some of our characters that we aren't aware of, that we'd be enhancing our stories to think again about.

The big point I personally believe--that I will hazard Brenda and Jill do too--is that's perfectly okay--it's just that as so many of the creators of stories are guys, sometimes the characters' gender and approach, reflecting the guys doing the drawings and thinking, are weighted towards the male end of the balance. That's not to say that a good storyteller--man or woman--can't or shouldn't or wouldn't choose to use whatever or whoever they please for their specific story...I could give concrete examples of what I think are unusually successful, conscious choices, one being all the characters in "Incredibles". But right now this is long enough already, so I'll pass.

A very important observation all three of us, the women on the panel agreed upon was left out of the TAG report: we all said that we hadn't felt "held back" or hindered as artists due to gender in any obvious, substantial way--that is, not as far as we knew, anyway. In fact, I said that given the tiny numbers of women vs. men at school, the females in the business who've stuck with it have fared better statistically than the men...maybe that means that if you're committed enough to seek out animation as your life's work, when it's already a male-dominated field, you'll just keep at it no matter what-but it also suggests that somewhere, from someone there'll be encouragement and help.

I talked repeatedly about the common goals that I share in story work with my male colleagues...that the aims we have far outweigh the differences. I'd like to have had that quoted. And Geena Davis herself made clear that her interest is simply in a hope for more interesting, reflective and inclusive stories that can be told for all children to enjoy.
I add these points as the recap as presented by the union blog comes off rather confusingly and certainly doesn't give the tenor of the evening as I experienced it...then again, it is a very very big subject.

I'd want Blackwing readers to know It wasn't any sort of a venting or bashing discussion. I'd likely be unsatisfied with anything but a straight transcript of the evening, but I still feel compelled to note my take on, well, my take. If you've read this far--I owe you some more pith on this blog.


Mark Mayerson said...

Hi Jenny. I wish I could have attended that panel.

Right now, the second year of Sheridan's animation program is approximately 43% female. This is the third year I've been teaching there, and that figure feels about right for the other years that I've taught.

David said...

Thanks for the report.

Wow, that's quite a quote from Walt. I've never seen that one before and in the context of what was happening in 1941 at his studio it is doubly amazing.

I was encouraged at the recent Ottawa Animation festival to meet quite a few young women enrolled in animation programs at Sheridan College, Algonquin College, Art Institute of Pittsburg, and other animation programs. And the four young Korean women who won for best High School film, Hye Jin Park , Hyun Joo Song , Ji na Yoon , and Min hee Jang. Their winning film, "Black Box" , was made at Korea Animation High School (how cool is that ?!) where they are third-year students.

Here's a link about them and their film (copy & paste into browser): http://tinyurl.com/y5y6mt

Michael Sporn said...

Hi Jenny:

I love your thread here and hope you'll keep it up. This is a sorely overlooked subject on all of the animation blogs.

Michael Sporn

Anne-arky said...

The panel last night was great!

Thanks for sharing the Walt Disney quote...it's definitely inspiring to hear that at least one studio exec was thinking ahead back in 1941. :)

One of the women last night made a comment that really struck me, about how women are taught to police themselves, and to be good at something, but not TOO good, which I think is utterly ridiculous and frightening, especially in this day and age. Working in animation and filmmaking takes guts, and the ability to sell yourself and your abilities to a studio. I think the sad fact is that a lot of little girls are still taught that being meek and quiet and self-depricating is some sort of "virtue," and as a result nobody has the gumption to defy tradition and go into animation because art is commonly just seen as a "hobby" and not a real job.

I think the solution is twofold--getting the word out to high schools and colleges that animation is a real career, and teaching our daughters that confidence in their talents and abilities is nothing to be ashamed of!


the doodlers said...

Huzzah! Good to see more thoughts on this subject. I too wish I could have been at this panel discussion.

Once a male producer owner of a studio said to me that he could see me as either a woman or a director but not as both. I guess that was a problem of HIS perception, not mine. I don't think I gave up being female in order to direct!

Recently I had the pleasure of working as a storyboard artist with director Lynn Reist on the Miss Spider television series. We shared a feeling of mutual acceptance and creative encouragement. This made work a whole lot of fun. I do think that there was something to the fact that we are both 'girls'.

Each person male or female brings their own rich p.o.v. to the creative table and all sexes should be welcome! I do feel though that the animation arts can stand a lot more 'feminizing'. Just look at the contributions from the likes of artists Deanna Marsigliese, Katie Rice and the magnificent Marlo Meekins. (I just want to say that name over again Marlo Meekins Marlo Meekins...Yup). Creative goodness.

As you say Jenny, 'the drawing is a creature of its own--who can tell the sex of the person who drew it? No one'.

adding to that: There's lots more drawings to be done!



Eddie Pittman said...

Wish I could have been there. Sounds like a great panel. Thanks for the Disney quote! I'd never read that one before. Great post as always!

Kevin said...

Hi Jenny -

Met you briefly at the end of that meeting last night. I'm the efx animator who told you I read your blog everyday. I thought it was a great meeting.

I brought my daughter along to the meeting to show her that it's not at all bad to be in the business and be geeky and nerdy about cartoons. She knew this already from being around the business with me for the last 17 years. But it was added reassurance that it's okay and these might be the type of people she is looking for as she always complains she can't find the types of people like her that are nutty creative types. Look no further I said.

Keep up the great blog Jenny. I love the history and stories and especially the drawings.

Kevin O'Neil

Kevin Koch said...

Great posts, Jenny, as always. Thanks again for being a panelist, and for being a beacon of sanity in our industry.

After the panel I had dinner with my girlfriend and a group of four other women, and they were all so grateful that we did it. It was a good thing.

I've been trying to put my finger on the mood I felt in the auditorium by the end of the evening, and the closest I can come is that it seemed like a lot of very creative and accomplished women (panelists and audience alike) were mutually giving themselves permission to start being BOTH animators/directors/writers AND women. That somehow no one has felt comfortable acknowledging the obvious, and that maybe the world won't end if we do.

I don't know . . . maybe I'm so worn out right now I'm getting philosophical, but I did feel some creative tectonic plates shifting, and I think some positive change will come from it.

By the way, I posted some notes and photos from the panel on the TAG Blog.

Emma said...

Hey Jenny,

I read your post and the TAG post, and I'm bummed that I didn't have the means to get down to LA to see that panel - I would have loved to hear the whole thing, because women in animation and female characters is something that I've been thinking about a lot lately, desiring to become one myself (not just a woman, but a woman in animation).

I have so many thoughts on this that I'm trying to type out here, but it would end up as a novel and I should probably put it on my own blog instead of taking up your whole comments page! Briefly, though...

I don't think there's very much in the way of people deciding NOT to put women in a crowd scene, it's just one of those things where when you sit down to draw a crowd, you draw a bunch of dudes and a few chicks. If you're thinking about it, you can make decisions consciously instead of just whatever comes out first. It's not like some humongous world-shaking change. It is great, that attention is being called to it and that people are interested in changing it.

I remember going to see Mulan when I was twelve or so and being just thrilled to see it, the whole thing. I mean - does she even kiss the guy at the end? She fights, she rescues people, she takes down the bad guy herself... I mean, that to me is a strong girl.

It seems like a lot of the arguments over women in animated movies becomes arguments over strong women in animated movies, and then people throw out Ariel and Belle. I never thought those characters were terribly strong. They are interesting, but Prince Eric kills Ursula, and Belle just can't seem to figure out the right way to tell Gaston to leave her alone. Even though the stories are strong and the girls are the main characters, their bad guys are for their boys to take care of, and the problems that Ariel and Belle themselves have to overcome are related to Love.

Which is a valid story! I'm not saying it's not, and the thin ice that I always feel like I'm on when this subject comes up is that I'm not saying that these films should be changed, or are wrong. I enjoy watching The Little Mermaid. What I'm saying (and what I think you and the people on the tag panel were, too) is that with every new production, there is the opportunity to do something different, put more girls in the crowds, make the sidekick a girl. It doesn't have to be a criticism on the stories that came before...

Wow, so this ended up being long anyway.

One last thing - I thought it was interesting how Brenda said that Slinky or T-Rex could have been female, without changing the story. A couple of weeks ago I was talking about this with some friends, and we found that Nemo himself could have easily been a girl, too. No story changes! Just a girl!

Thank you for listening. I always enjoy reading your blog!

Kevin Koch said...

We just put up the audio of the first half hour of the panel here. I wish we had the whole two hours, but it gives a good feel for the tone and substance of the panel.

Andrea said...

Dear Jenny,

Thanks again for having this blog up. I'm so glad I was tipped about it; what a relief to know these issues are being discussed. This post in particular is a favorite of mine to read over and over again when I'm down.

I got into CalArt's Character Animation program as a 17 year old out of high school. I know that I should be animating - but I'm not, only because I can't afford it. I was so misinformed about base-need financial aid and I wish there was a scholarship open for just animation. Now, I haven't run across any - the only ones are for visual arts (and even with couldnt get me to afford CalArts). Would you happen to know of any?