Feminism and Disney: A Deeper Look into the Disney Studio and the Women who Defied Expectations

Women in the Ink and Paint Department working on Cinderella.

Feminism can be tricky in terms of its definition. Stereotypes of the often misinterpreted word are typically centered around the idea that women hate men or are out to get them. This is far from the true meaning. It is a word that is centered around the fight for equality in a society where there are great disparities in the rights and treatment of women compared men. Feminism is deeply rooted in the work place. Women have been fighting for their chance to be a beneficial player within society and the economy.

During the early 20th century, it was much more common to find women working outside of the household and in the American workforce rather than as the stereotypical housewife. Women were often seeking a sense of independence from their household lives and often found it in education and later, the work place. Particularly during World War II women were taking over many roles that were originally held by men only. The Disney Studio was a place in which women were seeking solace and liberty for their creative minds, however were only able to find it within the Ink and Paint Department rather than in other departments. To get a proper analysis of this shift and the importance of the women within the Ink and Paint Department, we must look back at the relationship between Walt Disney and women.

To begin, Walt’s relationship with women was not anything out of the ordinary. However, there were a few incidents in his life that may have led him to be wary of the involving himself with women in the work place, or as described by Katherine Kerwin; “Walt was shy and uncomfortable around girls”. Amy Davis lays out two key events in Walt’s life that could have led him to be this way:

  1. He was ridiculed by his female classmates for being the only boy in a domestic science class
  2. He was deceived by his high school girlfriend who had gotten married while he was in France and neglected to tell him until he returned.

While it is unclear if these were the causes of Walt’s original view of women, or if it was a societal influence that women were inferior in the workplace, we see during the late 1930s, the work of three women who completely altered the workplace in the Disney Studio.

How attitudes towards women shape the work place at Disney Studios? And how did women find themselves working outside of the Ink and Paint Department?

Rejection Letter from Disney to a woman who applied to be in the Animation Department.

Between the 1920s and 1960s, Disney Studios was a segregated workplace in which a majority of the women were employed in the Ink and Paint Department. Women actually applied for jobs outside of the Ink and Paint Department, like the Animation, Camera, or Story Board Departments and were rejected and thus referred to the Ink and Paint Department (see above picture). While the idea of feminism existed with women being able to work in the Disney Studio, there is still the question as to why this was occurring. Amy Davis analyzes Walt’s attitudes towards women and says that:

“While it is true that the staff of the Ink and Paint department — a department which was relatively low in status at both Disney and at other animation studios — was usually staffed entirely by women (or ‘girls,’ in the common parlance of the era), and while it is also true that the majority of the upper-level animators at Disney were men, this was apparently not because Walt was against the idea of women working in the higher ranks of his studio.”

Contrary to the analysis provided by Davis, Emma Thielk, through research centered around the Disney Studio and its films, has determined that Disney was not trying to be progressive in the hiring of women outside of the Ink and Paint Department but rather saw them as a small working piece in a much larger machine. However, I beg to argue differently in regards to Thielk’s idea in regards to the progressiveness of the studio. While Disney was not outwardly being progressive in terms of feminist views of women in the work place, many of the films produced by the studio would not be what they are today without the help and employment of women within the Story and Animation Departments. Thus, while not actively being progressive, there is an underlying and unacknowledged sense of progression in regards to feminist ideals within the Disney Studios, which later shifted Walt’s point of view in regards to women working in the Story and Animation Departments. However, it was not Walt that created this sexist environment within the studio, but rather the male workers within the departments, particularly the Story Department.

Bianca Majolie had been an exchange student from Rome and former classmate of Walts at McKinley High School in Chicago. She ended up studying composition, anatomy and painting at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, and later became a brochure designer for J.C. Penney (Holt). It wasn’t until she viewed one of Walt’s cartoons in a movie theater that she decided to reach out to him. After some correspondence between the two of them, she met with Walt in Los Angeles and presented him with her portfolio, and after viewing it over lunch, offered Majolie a job in the Story Department and began working on February 19, 1935 (Johnson).

Elmer Elephant short created by Bianca Majolie.

Bianca worked at the studio for a little over a year before another woman was hired in the Story Department. During this time, she was often viewed as being inferior to the male workers. She recalls often skipping the story meetings, not because of her lack of ideas or imagination, but rather the fear of judgement and wrongful criticisms from her male counterparts (Holt). Before her work on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, she created a short titled Elmer Elephant, which was featured in the Silly Symphonies. Elmer the elephant is reflective of Bianca and her attitudes towards her work environment. Elmer is an elephant who doesn’t quite fit into the typical mold in the world he is living in (Johnson). Bianca felt the same during this time as she was the only female in a male dominated work place and the cartoon short reflected some of the daily challenges she faced in the studio. Elmer Elephant was released on March 28, 1936, and two days later, Grace Huntington was hired in the Story Department.

Grace, like many women, applied to be in the Animation or Story Department, however she did not receive one of the notorious rejection letters depicted earlier in this article. She was hired on March 30, 1936, and began working as one of two female story artists, the other being Majolie (Johnson). However Grace was unaware of what she was walking into until her interview with Walt were he very bluntly stated;

“You know I don’t like to hire women in the Story Department… First, it takes years to train a good story man. Then if the story man turns out to be a story girl, the chances are ten to one that she will marry and leave the studio high and dry, with all the money that had been spent on her training going to waste and there will be nothing to show for it. It’s difficult for a woman to fit in this work, the men will resent you. They swear a lot. That is their relaxation. They have to relax in order to produce good gags and you can’t interfere with that relaxation. If you are easily shocked or hurt, it’s just going to be too bad.” (Holt)

This quote is quite contrary to a statement from a former Disney employee, Dick Huemer, in which he claims that Walt’s “first consideration was what a person could contribute to the studio or the product. … I think he would have used the Devil himself if he was a great animator.” Walt had indirectly created an environment in which the men felt they had power over the women and Bianca and Grace both felt that. The time in which Majolie and Huntington had been hired was around the time first-wave feminism had begun to dull down as women were now being seen more and more frequently in the workplace. And while the Disney Princess storyline is one that is loved and well known, it highlights the ideals that women are supposed to follow that the first-wave feminist movement was fighting against. The goal of first wave feminism was to open up opportunities for women during a time of urban industrialism. In the Disney Princess movies following the period of first-wave feminism, Yu Masai characterizes the major themes as the following;

Women’s happiness is marriage.

For women, the goal of marriage is to marry a man of high status, and people does not care about their subsequent lives.

A woman’s life is not determined by effort, but by fate.

Women are encouraged to be passive.

Women are valued for their beauty and submissiveness.

These themes were what dominated and decided a woman’s life for her back in the 1920s which is what caused women to begin fighting for their independence. While the goal of first-wave feminism was accomplished and we saw evidence in the work force, as more women found their independence from the household life, it did not mean there were not disparities within the work environment, and by the Disney Princess films produced after first-wave feminism, it was clear that this studio was still made up solely of men. Bianca Majolie and Grace Huntington were witness to the discrimination first hand as they were the only two women who worked outside of the Ink and Paint Department in the Disney Studio in the late 1930s.

When Walt said the previously stated words to Grace in her interview, she did not meet them with fear, but rather excitement. She had lived her life by the limitations of her gender, like any woman did, however it was amplified by her families ideals of what was considered ‘ladylike’ or ‘proper’, and she wanted nothing more than to dive into a world in which she was no longer constrained by her gender (Holt). However, she should have headed to Walt’s warning. This work environment was still very much centered around the cultural narrative that the male worker was superior to the woman. Graces first experience in a story board meeting was met with this same narrative.

When Grace attended her first story meeting, she was met outside of the door to the meeting room by a security guard in which she was told she was not allowed to enter due to the fact that ‘only men were allowed’ (Holt). She was determined not to let him stand in her way, and after insisting that she was a new hire and was supposed to be in the meeting, she took matters into her own hands and stormed past him into the room where she was met with the piercing gazes and whistling (Holt). These interactions and the constant criticisms were the reason Bianca concealed herself in solitude during these meetings. Just how Bianca illustrated her feelings in Elmer Elephant, Grace created her own drawing as to how she felt when walking around in the office. She felt as though she needed armor to protect herself from the actions and words of the male employees (Holt).

Grace Huntington’s illustration of how she feels as though she need to wear armor to story meetings.

Before Bianca or Grace had been hired, Walt sent out a memo to the office that said:

“A thing we are sadly lacking in the Story Department is somebody who would be classed as a reader, capable of giving condensed versions of the stories, which could be read in a few minutes. This person should be capable of making adaptations to show the possibilities of stories for our use. Let’s see if we can find someone to fill the spot. This person would have to be someone who knows showmanship angles, and would also have to know what we can do with a cartoon” (Johnson).

Although both the recent female hires were talented, they could not fill this role, and nor did any of the men. That is why Walt hired Dorothy Ann Blank on July 20, 1936 (Johnson). She had been a journalist for Redbook and College Humor magazines and had no artistic abilities, which made her the perfect hire for Walts job specifications (Johnson). Nathalia Holt says that “what [Dorothy] lacked in ability in the visual arts, she made up for in her adroit prose.” Dorothy proved to be most beneficial in the making of Snow White. She was unaware of the debt the studio was in and continued to work as hard as she could on the film, keeping only what she thought to be essential. One of her most significant contributions to the title cards, which were the filmed, printed text that accompanied the scenes (Holt). The most significant one being the end scene where the dwarves are gathered around her glass coffin as it read;

“So beautiful, even in her death, that the dwarves could not find it in their hearts to bury her… They fashioned a coffin of glass and gold, and kept eternal vigil by her side”

While Dorothy was working on these scenes, she noticed a colleague of hers that kept his eye on her throughout the day. However, he was not watching her to see if she would make a mistake like the rest of the male workers, but rather using her as inspiration for the Evil Queen. Joe Grant made it possible for not only Dorothy’s words to find their way onto the screen, but also her “her arched eyebrows, her almond-shaped eyes, and her long, straight nose were all reflected in the face of the beautiful but vain and wicked stepmother” (Holt).

It is unclear what the exact reason Walt began hiring more women after the success of Snow White, but there is a high chance that it was the work of these three women. Bianca, Grace, and Dorothy all defied the odds that a woman would not be able to work in the animation department. In February of 1941, Walt gave a speech to his animation staff in which he said;

“The girl artists have the right to expect the same chances for advancement as men, and I honestly believe that they may eventually contribute something to this business that men never would or could”

He had determined that by employing women, they could provide different points of view that the men simply could not bring to the table. However, while Walt was seeking women’s opinions on film projects, his executive staff did not have the same point of view as him. Amy Davis, however points out that these sexist beliefs were not shared between Walt and his executives, and he believed that no matter gender, individuals should not be limited on the opportunities they were offered in the studio.

These women, joined by the ones after them, were pivotal in the shift to a more equally gendered staff. Sadly it was still common for many of the men to receive more credit even though Walt actively sought out a women’s point of view on many of his projects. However, no matter how upsetting it would be to not receive credit, these women conquered a much bigger task than any Disney movie and helped other women achieve their goal of working in departments outside of the Ink and Paint Department within the Disney Studio. Unlike past views that believed men were more committed to their work as animators or that women simply could not produce the same quality of animations as men, it became clear to Walt that a woman was not a small part of a larger machine, but rather an integral part of the Disney machine.

Bibliography:

Davis, A. M. (2005). The ‘dark prince’ and Dream Women: WALT Disney and mid-twentieth century American feminism. Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 25(2), 213–230. doi:10.1080/01439680500137987

Holt, N. (2020). The Queens of animation the untold story of the women who transformed the world of Disney and made cinematic history. In The queens of animation the untold story of the women who transformed the world of Disney and made cinematic history (pp. 3–36). New York, NY: Back Bay Books, imprint of Little, Brown and Company.

Johnson, M. (2017). Ink & paint the women of Walt Disney’s animation. In Ink & Paint the women of Walt Disney’s animation (pp. 80–130). Los Angeles: Disney Editions.

Masai, Y. (n.d.). Disney and Feminism. Retrieved from https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5e98be6d481b4a2fb546fce2/t/5ee0ed7e2c76fa49be9629c4/1591799166573/J413FinalProject_MasaiYu.pdf

Thielk, E. (n.d.). The Story of the Ink and Paint Departmen. Mountain Scholar. Retrieved May 10, 2018, from https://mountainscholar.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11919/1474/STUW_HT_2018_Thielk_Emma.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

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