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Women in the Animation Industry--Some Thoughts

The Cartoon Network's Linda Simensky offers some personal observations on the ways women make it in today's animation industry.

In the animation industry, a professional association called Women In Animation formed in 1993. Men in the business joked, "Where's the Men In Animation group?," to which the women replied, "That's what we call 'The Animation Industry.'"

Actually, there are a lot of women in animation, and their number has been rising. I don't know that there are statistics that are readily available, but since this is an opinion piece, my opinion is that there are more women than ever working in animation.

What is unusual and noteworthy, though, is that there is not an even breakdown of tasks between men and women. This is obvious to the naked eye of anyone visiting an animation studio or network animation department. Just as an entomologist can view the breakdown of gender roles in an ant colony, we can analyze the animation industry the same way. The following are some thoughts--not on the analysis itself--but on why we can analyze the industry that way.

First, imagine you were attending a large party for members of the animation industry. After a round of toasts to, say, Bob Clampett or Shamus Culhane, everyone went off to the lavatories at the same time. The line into the women's room would be comprised of a large number of network executives, studio management types ranging from producers to production assistants, color and background designers, and perhaps an occasional director. The line into the men's room would include studio owners, business types, directors, artists, show creators, designers, and a significant number of other animation artists.

While this is more of an observation, it has already been established that men and women gravitate to different parts of the industry. There are a couple of theories that are often discussed to support this.

Different Paths

First, there is the history of the industry. While there have always been women in the animation, historically the more important jobs have gone to men. This is as much a function of the eras involved and of the history of the business. When you consider that the entire animation industry has been around for less than a century, and that for years women were systematically relegated to such "lesser" jobs such as ink and paint, women have actually done fairly well even getting into any positions in the industry over the last 20 years.

It is also important to look at the motivations of people entering animation. The artisans of the industry (more men than women) tend to enter by first studying animation in school and then simply getting jobs in their chosen field. Some women have taken that path as well, such as director Becky Bristow, currently head of the California Institute of the Arts Character Animation program, and Nancy Beiman, a supervising animator at Disney. But many women, more often than not, tend to "end up" in the industry by one of three different paths, all not all of which involve animation or even an initial interest in the field.

The "different path" theory includes the following typical job motivations. Some women are driven by an interest in children's television, of which animation comprises a large bulk. These people could just as easily end up in publishing or teaching, where many began their careers. Geraldine Laybourne, formerly president of Nickelodeon/Nick at Nite, and now President of Disney/ABC Cable Networks, initially pursued a career in education and entered the media industry with an active interest in children's television.

Others simply aspire to work in the entertainment industry, and have career paths that take them through the animation industry as well as through live-action television and film production.There are also other career paths that can lead to animation, including the CD-ROM or CGI industries, as well as graphic design and illustration. Oddly enough several translators of Japanese language materials have gone on to careers as animation producers.

There are also those who aspire to work in animation but cannot animate. I offer myself as an example of this. People taking this path, which ultimately leads them to animation, often take the same paths noted above, but direct themselves toward animation and are not as interested in the other areas.

What's So Funny About Cheese?

Whether or not there is a historical precedent for women in the animation industry, there theoretically are no reasons for women not to be in it now. Perhaps the question to ask is, "Why aren't women as interested in animation as men are?" Maureen Furniss explored this in her article, "What's So Funny About Cheese? And Other Dilemmas: The Nickelodeon Television Network and Its (Female) Animation Producers," which can be found in the Spring 1994 issue of Animation Journal. She took a look at the animated shows on Nickelodeon, particularly Doug and The Ren & Stimpy Show, which were created and developed by men, and how the shows' staffs dealt with Nickelodeon's management, which was primarily women. Furniss discussed the difference in men and women's taste in what was funny, and how that shaped the animation they were doing. The article also chronicles the problems and arguments women encountered when opposing humor they saw as gross, inappropriate or obscure.

I think, though, to understand this difference in taste, we need to understand why girls lose their interest in watching cartoons; this seems to occur when many reach their early teens, as they become more interested in their personal lives, in music and films, as well as showing that they are "older." It's a time when cartoons are associated with their younger selves. I think girls are also driven away by their difference in taste, which involves less interest in watching slapstick, violence and the male-oriented topics of most animated fare.

There is a slightly old and out of date theory that girls will watch shows about boys, but boys will not watch shows where the main characters are girls. I disagree, as it seems clear that everyone will watch a clever, well-made show. Nevertheless, this theory, along with the feeling that girls no longer watch cartoons after a certain age, and the need to sell toys, has led to many of the animated programs being made specifically for boys. And then the lack of interest in cartoons by women ultimately led to the lack of women in the industry.

Many women who want to enter the animation industry tend either to avoid the more violent sorts of programs, or are in network management where they attempt to mollify the shows. Many, particularly those who wish to create shows, have directed themselves more toward preschool programming or more traditional Disney or Disney-influenced animation.

More Room For Self Expression

Another aspect of this is that women pursuing careers in the field seem more interested than men in animation as an art form. Thus, it is not surprising that the area of independent filmmaking seems to have more women than men; after all, it is an area of animation which has more room for self-expression and no real traditional hierarchy in which to fit.

It seems that as animation becomes more and more popular, a larger number of potential workers and executives will migrate to animation from other fields. This leaves us pondering how the animation industry will change in the future, particularly with regard to women in the industry. Will more women enter the industry, and will they shift over to the more male-dominated jobs? Will the financial success of animated films and television shows cause more workers to shift from live action to animation? Will more men supplant women in key positions in children's television, at the networks and at animation studios, as in the past?

It seems clear that as more programs are made that girls like as well as boys, such as The Simpsons, Doug and Rugrats, there will be more girls who will consider animation as a viable career option. However, if the industry continues to concentrate on animation that will sell toys to boys, the attraction may be less.

In the meantime, here is what I would like to see: Female show creators, more female directors, and a funny cartoon with a female lead character. After that, everything would be different.

Linda Simensky is Cartoon Network's Director of Programming.