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How Has Feminism Influenced the Art of Animation?

Introduction

It has been suggested that animation is even older than live-action, or motion picture — its more popular and more commercial counterpart in the film industry but it has been accorded of less importance not only in formal discourse but also in theory so that up until recently, it was also noted “Animation studies” now exists but not as pervasive as film studies (Darley, 65). In fact, the author has agreed to group it with live-action film or motion picture, video, television, and newer digital modes or audiovisual images although animation still shares most with live-action films.

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Superiority between mediums has been a point of contention among scholars but this paper shall focus on how feminism has influenced the art of animation.

History and Overview of Women in Animation

It has been suggested that women in the film industry have been under-represented with marginal participation as female producers, directors, and head writers are relatively few (Perras, 18). Accordingly, there are also a limited number of women animators and several of the major reasons cited was “systemic discrimination, institutional bias, and the fact that traditional animation and its focus on violence and physicality appealed to very few women,” (Perras, 18).

Filmmaker Sharon Couzin commented that “Historically a woman had no voice at all in animation. The field was occupied by men in the conception, rendering, and distribution,” (Pilling, 72). Karen Mazurkewich likewise noted that animation studios are boy’s clubs and that there were females were allowed only in the paint and ink departments, thereby, generally off-limits in other areas (p 5).

It is notable, however, a woman was one of the main players in the world’s oldest animation studio – the Walt Disney – with storyboard artist Dorothy Ann Blank in its first full-length animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs released in 1937 (Barrier, 229).

By 1951, Canadian animator Colin Low observed that women worked best in lettering as “girls are usually steadier, happier, and quicker at work,” (Mazurkewich, 185) interpreted as both flattering women’s contribution but relegating them only to supporting roles in animation production. Cartoon Network’s Director of Programming Linda Simensky later confirms the situation by proposing that men in animation had more important tasks but proposed that it was “a function of the eras involved and of the history of the business,” (Simensky, 24).

By 1998, the situation for women in the animation industry has improved as Furniss observed that women are hired and promoted as creators and producers, including other capacities. She has added that that was an act to amend the historical imbalance believed to have been institutionalized by sexual discrimination as women reach top positions and began considering a better future for women in the animation industry (p 234). Canada’s National Film Board and independent film companies in Canada claimed that women in the animation industry have increased substantially. Perras noted that women have an increased role in animation as they enjoy more opportunities as they are encouraged for their new perspectives, themes and techniques (p 19).

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Incidentally, it is also difficult to refrain from discussing feminism issues with regard to popular films such as those produced by Walt Disney. One taken into consideration has been The Beauty and the Beast retold in a Disney fashion.

Easily, perhaps for reasons beyond their need to confirm, Craven claimed that “Disney’s Belle is a down-to-earth-girl, fussy about boys, and a bit of a feminist to boot. The Disney love plot develops around the Beast’s anxieties not to offend her feminist sensibilities,” (124). Another opinion was that the film picked details of contemporary sexual politics with only a few of the tales to present it to an audience who grew up listening to Madonna or even the more believable Sinead O’Connor (Warner, 313).

However, a rebuttal followed that the film instead imposes on the belief that women could only find happiness in the arms of a prince (Cummins, 22) of which he added, “Disney […] strips the traditional fairy tale of anything but the romantic trajectory […] and woos its audience into believing that it has been educated as well as entertained,” (Cummins, 22). Warner joined this view as he added that Disney instead fit feminism into a domesticated mold (Warner, 313).

Women’s Influence in Animation

One notable woman animator, Evelyn Lambart, apparently started to help contribute to the animation industry with her works in animated films Begone Dull Care (1949), Mosaic (1965) and A Chairy Tale (1957) with Norman McLaren (Mazurkewich, p 188). It was said that Lambart’s technological skills and creativity helped refine and improve the films even when Lambart was left out in the credits for A Chairy Tale. Apparently, Lambart was more grateful for the experience she had with McLaren over the treatment she received. She is seen as an independent spirit and admitted that “The way I was brought up was to think of yourself as a person who had an obligation to use your talents in any way you could. Whether you were a man or a woman didn’t make any difference,” (Munn, p 64).

In an interview, her work attitude had her overlook any forms of gender discrimination at her workplace, noting instead the cooperation that transpired, and that, “My father taught us that certain behavior was expected of women and certain behavior of men, but that we all had intellectual capacity,” (Pilling, p 30). Another explanation to Lambert’s attitude was proposed by sociologist Seymour Lipsett noting the difference between American and Canadian values. Canadians give importance to group effort and success instead of individual glory.

Lambert, however, finally pursued her own style using wholly different techniques and content. She focused on linear stories of animation with bright reds and blues centered on concrete stories such as 1973 The Story of Christmas, and fables such as the 1974 Mr. Frog Went A-Courting, 1976 The Lion and the Mouse, 1980 The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse, amongst other films for the National Film Board and independently for more years (Perras, 20).

Another animator and director who made her mark were Caroline Leaf whose work such as The Street (1976) and Two Sisters (1991) provided compassion and humanity in animation, seen as rare (Pilling, p 41). She was supported by her long-time mentor Derek Lamb who tried to convince the National Film Board to hire her. Co Hedeman finally had her hired by the NFB in 1972. The NFB through Rene Jodoin was also credited for the active hiring and promotion of women in the industry. French Canadian animator Francine Desbiens noted that during Jodoin’s time, women dominated the department, but when Jodoin left the department, the department has not hired a freelance or permanent woman for about ten years. Jodoin was perceived as advanced in his time (Robinson, 2).

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Leaf merge innovative techniques with her moving and emotional stories although she started her career using animal legends such as Lambart. She also used glass with sand or ink which made her more remarkable that even McLaren was impressed, claiming, “This is wonderful! In all my years of animation, I’ve never thought of this! (Pilling, p 41). Wells described her The Street innovation on metamorphosis through the use of glass and ink as a brilliant evocation of the passage of time and memory (p 69). In Two Sisters, she used etchings to picture a fragile relationship between siblings who are dependent on each other in a dark and mysterious mood, highlighting human emotion. Caryn James observed that “Leaf combines visual elegance with a deep humane narrative,” ( p 1).

Other Canadian animators that came after Leaf and Lambart are cel animator Janet Perlman, Wendy Tilby, and Amanda Forbis (Perras, 21). Perlman is an independent animator whose 1978 work Lady Fishbourne’s Complete Guide to Better Table Manners was highly acclaimed. Some of her other works include 1978 Why Me co-directed with Derek Lamb, 1981 The Tender Tale of Cinderella Penguin, and the 2005 Invasion of the Space Lobsters. Her themes “range from the very silly to the very serious as Lady Fishbourne pokes fun at special conventions while Why I explore the nature of the terminal illness (Perras, 20).

Tilby and Forbis were inspired by Caroline Leaf but they, too, exerted their innovation in their films such as in the award-winning When the Day Breaks (1999). It incorporated the use of Hi-8 film with live actors, photocopied frames, and re-drawings. It “examines the inter-relatedness of all people as it portrays how a chance encounter between two strangers changes both of them forever,” (Perras, 20). According to Forbis about their partnership, “[It] allowed us to air and explore ideas in a way that we couldn’t have done alone,” (Siegel, p 4).

Difference Between Male and Female Animators

Perras noted the difference between men’s and women’s animation as women’s animation explored as well as provided feminist issues. They also express concerns specific to the female experience (p 19). Pilling explored Susan Young’s belief that boys socially brought up as giving importance to hierarchy provides in part an explanation for men’s domination of their animation characters. This, however, provides opportunities and increases the development of new styles and techniques for women in animation (p 6).

Women’s presence, however, also caused debate whether gender differences in the created animations between men and women were noticeable. Director-writer Antoinette Starkiewicz proposed that animation is “particularly suited to women because it requires infinite patience,” (Quigley, 16). Ann Shenfield added that animation and gender are related in a way that both are “marginal […] Being a woman animator is a bit like being against the margin of the margin – not that you can’t succeed, but […] it’s tricky,” (p 93).

It was Animator Carol Beecher who saw important differences between men and women animator’s works, especially in themes and approaches. She noted that where violence may occur in women’s animation, there is the existence of underlying psychological or sociological reasons. Animation by men uses violence for effect or simply for the sake of violence (Perras, p 19). Jayne Pilling suggested that “there is no overriding thesis about the specificity of women’s animation” although she accepts possible theories such as the ability of women to share or express personal emotion easier than their male counterparts (p 6).

Women in animation, for most Australian animators, had diverse practices in their creative process. Choice of techniques and working methods are dictated by personality and skills bias. 2D techniques have a wide range but a recurring motif has been noted to be the pleasure of tactility, as well as growth for an organic process, and local experience, in this instance Australian (Quigley, 124).

If the ratio of animated productions were to be considered, however, there is a wide gap between what could be a woman’s animation as a man’s. This is with the assumption that the majority of Japanese animation that has invaded many forms of media is considered as having a bigger chunk of the bulk. In Japanese anime, the female body is often portrayed such as that of the Mattel toy Barbie, thus an object for physical desire.

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Who Supports Women in Animation Industry

Canada’s National Film Board was credited for many women Canadian animators for their encouragement of the skills and talents of women in the industry. By hiring and promoting women animators, the NFB provided a solid foundation for women to gain and develop skills in animation. As Forbis commented, women artists were “supported, encouraged and paid. We had excellent technical assistance, and our David Verrall not only championed the project from beginning to end, but he also provided excellent insight in the editing room,” (Siegel, 9).

It was not clear how Walt Disney Animation Studios could have sustained or helped feminism or women in the animation industry. However, its films including the classic and enduring Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Beauty and the Beast, and subsequent animation films it produced provided women characters that are known worldwide including Pocahontas and Mulan. These characters may have taken from traditional tales but certain attributes, such as that of Mulan needing to portray or pretend as a male either promotes or is against feminist ideologies. Nevertheless, these films pushed the relevance of female characters as well as the female lead character’s potential in the film and entertainment industry.

In Women Do Animate: Interviews with 10 Australian Animators, Quigley featured Ann Joliffe, who first worked in Australia in the 1950s but moved to the United Kingdom to work with Bob Godfrey. Independent film-making has been highlighted as the main avenue for many of the female animators this early. To sustain a livelihood, these women artists had to have second or third jobs or engage in other endeavors related to filmmaking such as in television, commercials and film graphics. Others included in the book are Lee Whitmore, Ann Shenfield, Lucinda Clutterback, Wendy Chandler, Jill Carter-Henson, Kathy Smith, and Susan Kim. Sharon Lee-Parker also formed the activist group SLAGS or the Southern Ladies’ Animation Group.

The independent sector has been credited for the growth of women animators. Deneroff noted that “the dominant role [women] play among independent animators, whose films often constitute half the offerings at major international film festivals,” (p 1). Women in Animation was also said to be supporting the United States and Canadian artists. It has the mandate to advance the dignity, involvement, and concerns of the women involved in the animation industry.

Another body credited was the Quickdraw Animation Society or QAS based in Calgary, Alberta. It offers a wide avenue for activities as well as materials to help support professionals and newcomers in the industry. Carol Beecher is said to be one of those who have gained from the industry nd has put her own Fifteen Pound Pink Productions. Gail Noonan was mentioned as Beecher’s influences with Noonan’s works that include comical films The Menopause Song released in 1995 and Your name in Cellulite also released 1995.

Beecham noted the advantage of women animators in Canada as compared to the US. Apparently, Canada provides more grants. Canada is also less sexist as compared to Japan and UK (Perras, 21). Beecham’s works include the satire The Wind Between my Ears released in 2000 that parodies television, the cel-animation Mr. Reaper’s Really Bad Morning released in 2004 that makes fun of death, as well as a parody of Hinterland’s Who’s Who — the Intergallactical Who’s Who (Perras, 21).

Perras also mentioned Keltie Duncan and Ann Koizumi as Calgary animators with infectious enthusiasm (21). Duncan suggested that men and women can help improve as well as contribute different strengths and eventually complement each other in films.

Future of Women in the Animation Industry

There is generally a positive view about the animation industry in Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the US as perceived by Quigley, Pilling and Perras. However, the lack of attention on the disparity between a provision of importance between men and women in the industry should not be overlooked (Perras, 21). Where there is happiness and pride by women in the industry, this should be encouraged as much as any other endeavor. Perras noted that women are surviving well in the National Film Board as well as in independent companies or even on their own so that a supportive environment could encourage significant progress of women in animation, for the good of the industry (21).

The Women in Animation was also credited to have opened up an avenue for women in the animation industry. WIA claims to be “a professional, non-profit organization established in 1994 to foster the dignity, concerns, and advancement of women who are involved in all aspects of the art and industry of animation,” (WIA, 2009).

The website of WIA claims to provide opportunities, to get involved in the animation community as well as gain insight into the business. It makes professionals in from industry be in touch with one another as well as updated in the industry happenings.

Women In Animation is an international professional organization that aims to provide the following benefits of membership:

  • Learn the business of animation through scheduled events and publications
  • Meet and network with fellow members
  • Exposed to educational seminars about animation disciplines through activities, workshops, events and other undertakings
  • Involvement in mentoring, oral history taking, international outreach amongst others
  • Open doors that will help enrich member’s careers and life.

The WIA membership is open to all students taking up the animation program as well as professionals working in all aspects of the art and industry of animation.

Conclusion

The contribution of women and feminism in the animation industry discussed in this research points out a positive direction, although there is much room for possible growth.

The animation industry did not only shun away from women, or it could probably be that women shunned away from it, but due to its more popular violent features, it has established a “male dominion” that could have scared women away from it.

When it comes to the difference between male and female animators, it is quite difficult to specify details, as there is a wide gap as well as a ratio of quantity to consider. While female animators seem to be in their infancy when it comes to production, male animators are gone by the miles. However, if existing materials of women against those already made popular by men suffice for this argument, as already noted above, there is much more physical action emphasis for male works while women animation focuses on human essence, or the emotion. Visually speaking, there is also a wide avenue for women to explore, as men might already have explored around seventy percent of visual possibilities.

Women are still in their infancy as the works mentioned in this essay are limited to persona works and a collaboration between two artists whose visual exploration could be as personal, thus still very limited. However, the use of organic materials seems to provide a crafty women’s touch in the industry already. This could mean that a lot more ways in which animation could be produced using various media and techniques.

There is still a pervading animation culture glimpsed or shouted out of animation’s lungs as violent and aggressive, which are male characteristics that repel against women’s sensibilities and emotions.

However, if Disney cartoons were to be the gauge, much can be said about the adjustment that the male-dominated animation industry has taken: a greater consideration for a politically correct message to their general patronage audience. With or without females behind their productions, Disney has in fact contributed to the growth of feminist culture in the animation industry.

If the manga and hentai characters of Japan were to be used as a gauge, on the other hand, very degrading views can be glimpsed: women as objects for their exaggerated and sensualized physical attributes in Japanese anime which has gained notoriety in pop culture especially television, game consoles, and internet-based games. Even their more popular animation characters for general audiences with female lead characters are suspect.

Incidentally, there seems to be a need for more exploration as well as encouragement for women animators and artists or directors from the industry. To come up with improved animation as well as decrease the negative impact of Japanese manga, more creative and humane women are needed in the industry. Otherwise, it will remain a breeding ground for more violent games, movies as well as pornographic thrash that has proliferated in the various forms of media around the world today.

References

Perras, Lynne. “Steadier, happier, and quicker at the work?: Women in Canadian Animation.

Barrier, Michael (1999). Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age. New York.: Oxford University Press. pp. 229.

Deneroff, H. (1996). “Women in Animation and Bill Everson.” Animation World Magazine, Volume 1, No. 2.

Simensky, L. (1996). “Women in the Animation Industry: Some Thoughts,” Animation World Magazine, Volume 1, No.2.

Craven, Allisson. “Beauty and the Belles: Discourses of feminism and Femininity in Disneyland.” European Journal of Women’s Studies, 2002, 9,123.

Cummins. “Romancing the Plot: The real Beast of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast”. Children’s Lierature Association Quarterly, 20, 1995, 1, 22-28.

Quigley, Marion. Women Do Animate: Interviews with 10 Australian Animators. Menstone, NSW: Insight Publications, 2005.

Deneroff, H. (1996). “Women in Animation and Bill Everson.” Animation World Magazine, Volume 1, No. 2.

Furniss, M. (1998). Art in Motion: Animation Aesthetics. Sydney: John Libbey & Company Ltd.

James, C. (1992). “Multi-Faceted Animator’s Retrospective,” The New York Times.

Lipsett, S. (1992). The Continental Divide: The Values and Institutions of the United States and Canada. New York: Routledge.

Mazurkewich, K. (1999). Cartoon Capers. Toronto: McArthur & Company.

Munn, F. (1982). “Creativity Heightened by Change in Career,” Ottawa Citizen.

Pilling, J., ed., (1992). Women and Animation. London: St Edmundsbury Press Ltd.

Quigley, M. (2005). Women Do Animate. Australia: Insight Publications.

Robinson, C. (2000). “When I grow up I want to be Rene Jodoin,” Animation World Magazine, Issue 5.7.

Siegel, L. (1999). Web.

Simensky, L. (1996). “Women in the Animation Industry: Some Thoughts,” Animation World Magazine, Volume 1, No.2.

Warner, Marina. From the Beast to the Blond: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers. London: Chatto and Windus. 1994.

Wells, P. (1998). Understanding Animation. London: Routledge

Women in Animation. “Women in Animation”. Web.

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