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MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Walt Disney used to not allow women to be trained as animators for his studio.
A great phrase that’s used to refer to societal change is the “new normal,” which is an excellent distillation of the idea that what is “normal” to us is always in a state of change. So while we can look back at the past and pass judgment on how backward certain viewpoints were, there’s a good chance that 80 years from now people will be looking back at 2014 and shaking their heads at some of what’s “normal” in our culture. However, while you can accept that will always be the case, it doesn’t mean you still can’t be surprised at what once passed for “normal.” You can still be surprised to look at the lengths a studio had to go through to get the word “damn” into a movie in 1939. And you can still be surprised to see sexist views matter-of-factly expressed by a company in its correspondence. That’s what we’re examining today, as reader Mark G. wrote in to see whether I could authenticate (or debunk) a letter purportedly from 1938 that made the rounds in 2007 stating that Walt Disney wouldn’t hire any women to train as animators for its films (Meryl Streep famously quoted this letter earlier this year in a speech about Emma Thompson’s performance in the historical drama about the contestable relationship between Walt Disney and Mary Poppins author PL Travers, Saving Mr. Banks).
In 2007, Ken Burg shared the letter belonging to his recently deceased grandmother on his Flickr page.
Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that work is performed entirely by young men. For this reason girls are not considered for the training school.
The only work open to women consists of tracing the characters on clear celluloid sheets with Indian ink and filling in the tracings on the reverse side with paint according to directions.
Interestingly enough, it was signed by a woman on behalf of Disney, Mary Cleave.
So is this letter authentic?
I think I can say with strong certainty that yes, this was an authentic form letter Disney sent in the late 1930s to women who applied to be animators. Steve Hullett had another one of those letters that he posted in 2006 at the Animation Guild, this time turning down a Miss Frances Brewer in 1939.
With the authenticity of the letter demonstrated, let’s look at the specifics of the situation a bit and why it is a BIT misleading.
First off, while it’s not spelled out in the letters, the reasoning behind the policy was a common one for many companies at the time: The theory was that it was pointless to train women to be animators because just when they would begin to be really good at their jobs, they would leave the company to get married and have babies. Reidun “Rae” Medby, who was turned down back then for an animator job before going to work in the Ink and Paint Department, wrote to her boyfriend in 1937 (in letters reprinted by Vanity Fair a few years back) explaining exactly that, stating about Disney’s views about female animators: “each time they were beginning to get good they’ve quit to get married or something. So now he’s thumbs down on girl animators.”
It was that very logic that led to the first female animator hired at Disney, Mary Blair, in 1940. Blair (born Mary Robinson), you see, was already married to fellow artist Lee Blair. The two worked as animators at a few studios before Lee Blair went to go work for Disney in the late 1930s; in 1940, his wife joined him there, working on backgrounds on Dumbo (she wasn’t credited for actual animation until a couple of years later, allowing another woman to beat her to the punch as the first credited female animator).
Similarly, Walt Disney’s sister-in-law, Hazel Sewell, worked in the Ink and Paint Department but also served as the art director on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. So Disney’s real “ban” was on training young women animators. That’s still bad, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a slightly different idea than strictly “Disney wouldn’t hire women for animation outside of the Ink and Paint Department.”
Next, as soon as the United States was drawn into World War II in 1941, Disney’s views changed, and he gave a group of women in the Ink and Paint Department an opportunity to try out to be trained as assistant animators. The first one of these women to get a gig was Retta Davidson in late 1941. Things quickly opened up during the war for female animators. Another woman, Retta Scott, was the first woman to be given a screen credit as an animator, for the 1942 film Bambi. Women have worked regularly in animation at Disney ever since (although yes, like most fields, the inroads they made during World War II mostly diminished when it ended — but a number of women stuck around).
Finally, just a word on the Ink and Paint Department: As comic book fans well know, inkers and colorists, as this department basically was, do very much creative work. I think the Ink and Paint Department sometimes gets a bit of a bad name, as it was, in effect, a “ghetto” for female artists. It was still important work, and the way the letter makes it sound like it’s just “tracing” and “paint by numbers” paints (pun unintended) an incorrect picture of what the women did. The aforementioned Vanity Fair profile does a marvelous job spotlighting the intense work these women did at Disney at the time.
But as to whether Disney, at one point, did not allow women to apply to be trained as animators, the answer is…
Thanks to Mark for the suggestion!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Be sure to check out my Entertainment Urban Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the worlds of TV, Movies and Music!