About to embark on an animation project, I’ve just come across Lotte Reiniger. Needless to say, I had never heard of her before. Before last week, if you’d asked me to name any animators, I would probably have scratched my chin and then, feeling utterly embarrassed, said, “Walt Disney.”
And yet, it was Lotte Reiniger who created the world’s first animated feature film in 1926. It took 3 years to complete - I feel moved to tears that someone believed so much in her that he funded the entire project, which didn’t pay off until about 50 years later! She was a true pioneer, creating films one can only call hypnotic, in a genre she forged and defined: the silhuette film. She painstakingly created all her paper cuts herself, fashioning characters that moved with a grace one would not think possible in that medium.
And yet, ladies, there’s still limitations set for us. Mostly in the mainstream, of course. You can tell by the appalling lack of strong female characters in Disney films, that more men than women are hired as animators.
The only strong female Disney character I can think of and that I’ve got something like respect for is Merida - and there’s a strange fact for you… Brenda Chapman, who created Brave, was fired from her own project and replaced by a man.
Of course one could say that was mere coincidence. Maybe he was just the best person for the job, and he happened to be a man. But Disney isn’t exactly famous for gender equality.
In 1938 an aspiring animator called Mary Ford applied to Disney, and the response she (and others like her) received stated the following:
“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 India ink and filling in the tracing on the reverse side with paint according to directions.“
And to add insult to injury, for this job, Walt Disney liked to hire only good-looking women. Apparently it wasn’t much different from working in a factory. The conditions were terrible, the hours long and hard. In 1941 the pay was $18 per week, while a top animator would earn $300.
It was probably only due to a lack of animators during the war, when most of them were drafted, that eventually women were employed.
This is even more disturbing, considering the extreme influence this company has been having on girls' self-image and their role within society... maybe you could even say, it's been impacting on the types of roles society is willing to give to women.
So why does this upset me so much? Maybe because my personal experience shows some parallels. (And we’re talking recent past here, not the 30s!)
Growing up I had the misfortune of attending a girls’ school - which in itself wouldn’t have been bad, but I was attending a branch of it which was seriously preparing us teenage girls for a life of being a housewife, a mother, a bank clerk, a nurse, a midwife… you get the picture. I knew myself to be an artist, and I felt forced into a life that wasn’t me at all. When I did show up at school, it was to demonstrate how few hoots I gave. And yet I was affected deeply, because I felt graduation sneak up on me, time running out, and I’d be forced to choose. Something. Anything. And the only thing I knew was that any of the available choices would lead me to be miserable. Forever.
I vividly remember the day a job consultant visited us. I listened for almost 2 hours as she provided all my class mates with (in my opinion) depressing information. Then I gathered all my courage and raised my hand. “Are there any creative jobs?” I asked, and it took all my strength not to have my voice waver or tremble.
She thought for a moment, and then, very pleased, proceeded to answer:
“You could be a sign painter!”
At that stage I realized suicide seemed to be my best option here.
Fortunately I didn’t go with either sign painting nor suicide. But I got depressed, physically ill, felt forced to go underground, and eventually lost my way. School failed me. Society failed me. Disney failed me - no one came to rescue me. Because I didn’t need rescuing. But what I would have needed was somebody to believe in me, somebody to tell me to go my way regardless, to assure me that all those limitations were in actuality just opinions.
I wish I had grown up in a world where Walt Disney was but a footnote of film history, and where pioneers like Lotte Reiniger were held up to light my way.
What am I trying to say here?
I guess it’s simple:
Don’t listen to the bullshit, go blaze your own trail.