Women’s History in Animation

As much as I love watching cartoons, I have to admit that I don’t know much about the animation industry. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that it’s historically been a male-dominated industry, but PBS’s documentary Walt Disney is what really made me want to seek out the women trying to blaze the trail. In one scene covering the production of Bambi, the film shows the inking department, made up of almost entirely women. That was the only part of production they were allowed to work on, and they made a significantly lower salary than the men. However, Disney himself had stated that he believed one day women might contribute something to the world of animation that men never would or could. So, for Women’s History Month, I tried to do a bit of research on women’s contributions to this field which is still male-dominated to this day.

Lotte Reiniger is considered the first prominent woman animator. Born in Germany in 1899, she was interested in puppetry from a young age, which led her to develop her own unique creations in the form of shadow silhouettes. She even created the first form of the multiplane camera, over a decade before Disney entered the playing field. Reiniger made over 40 films, the most notable being The Adventures of Prince Achmed in 1926. It took three years to make, and is the oldest surviving animated feature film. Silhouette animation is exactly what it sounds like—the characters are shown only in silhouette. It’s even more impressive, then, the amount of detail and emotion Reiniger was able to convey in her characters without the use of facial expressions. And remember, this was during the 1920s. She was the only one using cutout animation, and doing so successfully.

Lillian Friedman was the first credited American female studio animator. She started out inking Betty Boop cartoons at Fleischer Studios before going on to animate Betty Boop, Popeye, and other cartoons. Despite her animation work on various cartoons, she was only credited for a few of them.

Brenda Chapman is a modern-day animator, with an impressive filmography full of titles you might recognize. She directed DreamWorks’ The Prince of Egypt, becoming the first woman director of a major animated feature film. She also co-directed Brave, which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Fearute, making her the first woman to win the award. Thanks to major creep-o John Lasseter, Chapman was booted from Brave due to “creative disagreements,” a huge blow considering she drew inspiration for the movie from her own relationship with her daughter. Thanks to Chapman, and Merida’s wild curls, Pixar was able to hone their skills and go on to create even more stunning visuals in their future films.

Sandra Equihua is a Mexican animator, best known for creating the TV series El Tigre with her husband, Jorge Gutierrez. She also designed the female characters in the 2014 film The Book of Life. What makes Equihua stand out is her highly stylized art, inspired by her culture. Her work is fun to watch and to look at; it’s colorful, and her passion clearly shines through.

Of course, this doesn’t cover even a fraction of the women animators out there, so if this is something that interests you, try taking note of how many women’s names come up in credits of whatever animated thing you’re watching. I know I’ll definitely be paying more attention from now on!