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.
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.
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.”
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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According to Buzzfeed, where the letter first appeared online, the letter has been in the works since at least last week, meaning that it is not specifically related to Cartoon Brew’s report earlier this week that Nickelodeon had suspended The Loud House creator Chris Savino after a dozen allegations of workplace harassment against women.
The signatories are requesting that all studios institute “clear and enforceable sexual harassment policies,” and that studios further pledge to take reports of workplace harassment seriously. Additionally, the letter asks that male colleagues “start speaking up and standing up for us” when they see sexist remarks or sexual harassment happening at the studio,” and that the union creates new policies to expel those who are found guilty of “conduct which is prejudicial to the welfare of the guild.”
The letter is signed by 217 people comprising a who’s who of the animation industry, among them prominent show creators Rebecca Sugar (Steven Universe), Lauren Faust (My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic), Shadi Petosky (co-creator, Danger & Eggs), Rikke Asbjoern (co-creator, Pinky Malinky), and Julia Pott (Summer Camp Island); industry execs Audrey Diehl (vp of series, Warner Bros. Animation), Jenna Boyd (director, kids & family creative, Netflix), and Jill Sanford (kids and family creative development, Netflix); and numerous other high-profile creative talents including Adventure Time director Elizabeth Ito, Pearl production designer Tuna Bora, Dreamworks TV Animation supervising producer Aliki Theofilopoulos, Bob’s Burgers writer/supervising producer Wendy Molyneux, Frozen and Kung Fu Panda 3 story artist Clio Chiang, and Wreck-It Ralph 2 assistant production designer Mingjue Chen.
Below is the full text of the letter:
An Open Letter to the Animation Community
We, the women and gender non-conforming people of the animation community, would like to address and highlight the pervasive problem of sexism and sexual harassment in our business. We write this letter with the hope that change is possible, and ask that you listen to our stories and then make every effort to bring a real and lasting change to the culture of animation studios.
In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, many of the women who work in animation have begun discussing more openly issues that we have dealt with quietly throughout our careers. As we came together to share our stories of sexism, sexual harassment and, in some cases, sexual assault, we were struck by the pervasiveness of the problem. Every one of us has a story to share, from tossed-off comments about our body parts that were framed as “jokes” to women being cornered in dark rooms by male colleagues to criminal assault.
Our business has always been male-dominated. Women make up only 23% of union employees, so it’s no surprise that problems with sexism and sexual harassment exist. Sexual harassment and assault are widespread issues that primarily affect women, with women of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community and other marginalized groups affected at an even greater rate.
As more women have entered the animation workforce, it seems that some men have not embraced this change. They still frequently make crass sexual remarks that make it clear women are not welcome on their crews. Some have pressed colleagues for romantic or sexual relationships, despite our clear disinterest. And some have seen the entrance of more women into the industry as an opportunity to exploit and victimize younger workers on their crews who are looking for mentorship. In addition, when sexual predators are caught at one workplace, they seem to easily find a job at another studio, sometimes even following their victims from job to job. We are tired of relying on whisper networks to know who isn’t safe to meet with alone. We want our supervisors to protect us from harassment and assault.
This abuse has got to stop.
The signatories of this letter demand that you take sexual harassment seriously. We ask that:
1. Every studio puts in place clear and enforceable sexual harassment policies and takes every report seriously. It must be clear to studio leadership, including producers, that, no matter who the abuser is, they must investigate every report or face consequences themselves.
2. The Animation Guild add language in our constitution that states that it can “censure, fine, suspend or expel any member of the guild who shall, in the opinion of the Executive Board, be found guilty of any act, omission, or conduct which is prejudicial to the welfare of the guild.” To craft and support the new language, we ask that an Anti-Harassment and Discrimination Committee be created to help educate and prevent future occurrences.
3. Our male colleagues start speaking up and standing up for us. When their co-workers make sexist remarks, or when they see sexual harassment happening, we expect them to say something. Stop making excuses for bad behavior in your friends and co-workers, and tell them what they are doing is wrong.
It has not been easy for us to share our stories with each other. Many of us were afraid because our victimizers are powerful or well-liked. Others were worried that if they came forward it would affect their careers. Some of us have come forward in the past, only to have our concerns brushed aside, or for our supervisors to tell us “he’s just from a different era.” All of us are saddened and disheartened to hear how widespread the problem of sexual harassment still is in the animation industry, and how many of our friends had been suffering in secret.
It is with this in mind that we resolve to do everything we can to prevent anyone else from being victimized. We are united in our mission to wipe out sexual harassment in the animation industry, and we will no longer be silent.
If any animation studios wish to speak to Cartoon Brew about new policies and efforts that they will be making to address these issues, we welcome hearing from you. Please drop us a line.
Pictured in header image (L-to-R): Julia Pott, Rebecca Sugar, Lauren Faust.