The Case of Brenda Chapman

Director Brenda Chapman has her photo taken on April 1, 2008 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif., when she was directing Brave.

Photo by Deborah Coleman/Pixar.

On August 14th, Brenda Chapman wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times,  “Stand Up for Yourself, and Mentor Others,” which starts off by asking, “How can we get more women in positions of power in Hollywood?” The piece was the result of Chapman being fired during the production of Brave, certainly the best film from Pixar in some time.

Needless to say, there’s something very wrong with the whole situation. Maybe I’m being a bit naïve, but here we are in the second decade of the 21st century and women still have to fight for recognition in what still remains an male-dominated industry?

Let’s see, in 1926 Lotte Reiniger finished The Adventures of Prince Achmed, a feature-length film which still inspires filmmakers around the world (including Michel Ocelet), that was certainly more sophisticated than what the Disney Studio was doing at the time. In the mid-1930s, Mary Ellen Bute began making her pioneering abstract shorts. In 1933, Lillian Friedman became the first woman animator at Fleischer Studios, until she was forced out of the business in 1939 because of her sex and pro-union views (Hicks Lokey called her a “crackerjack animator,” and Harry Lampert, who would go on to help create The Flash for DC Comics, said, “she was such a talent, you know! She was really excellent!”).

When I asked Dori Littell Herrick about her memories of working in an animator  before becoming an academic, she pointed out that she and other women were essentially invisible.

Which brings me to the time I was an Annie Awards juror back in the 1990s.  One of the categories I was to judge was that of animated TV show. The committee was ushered into a room piled high with VHS tapes for our consideration. There simply was no way any of the committee was going to be able to go through all these tapes in time and make anything like a reasoned judgment. Then fellow juror Becky Bristow came to the rescue. (At the time, I believe she was Acting Chair of CalArts’ Character Animation Program.) She insisted that we pick one or more episodes with a woman director. In going through the list of entries, she spotted what may have been an episode of Animaniacs, looked at the opening which featured an hilarious parody of the The Lion King opening, and it became one of the nominees. That clip was screened at the Annie Awards ceremony and was a big hit. I don’t recall whether it won an Annie that night, but it doesn’t really matter. Obviously, what we need today is to put someone like Becky Bristow in charge of a major feature animation studio with instructions to use women directors; I suspect we would be at least no worse off than we are now, and perhaps we might even be a bit better off.

Author: Harvey Deneroff

Harvey Deneroff is a Los Angeles-based independent animation and film scholar specializing in labor history. He formerly taught at the Savannah College of Art and Design and was editor of Animation Magazine, Animation World Magazine, and Graiffit (published by ASIFA-Hollywood). He is the founder and past president of the Society for Animation Studies.

2 thoughts on “The Case of Brenda Chapman”

  1. Thanks Harvey for bringing up the issue of sexism in animation. There has been alot of conversation about women in live action and Brenda Chapman brings animation into the conversation.
    I am a founding member of Women in Animation back in 1994. And also was a founding member of LIPS back in the early 1980’s with Ruth Kissane and Elrene Cowan. The acronym stands for Ladies in Production Services. We had a good sized membership and we lasted for a few years. LIPS was great for support and and community in animation. Women in areas like animators and heaven forbid directors, production designers, storyboard artists. As you can imagine we were a pretty small group, that is why we expanded it into production services.
    I decided I wanted to be an animator when I was 5 years old and never wavered in that desire.
    When I was in my teens I asked a friend of the family who was on the Imagineering side at Disney if he could introduce me to some people at the animation studio. Like every young person craving to be in animation I loved Disney. Well, it never happened and I couldn’t figure out why they wouldn’t even meet me and give me a tour. Well, many years later when I began teaching at CalArts a female student gave me a letter her mother got when she wrote to Disney inquiring how to become an animator there. The response she received said that only men have the creative jobs at Disney but if she wanted to be an ink & painter she could apply. I was shocked and then realized that must have been why I could never even get into the door for a tour by someone.
    Imagine my feelings when I would read many years later how Brad Bird and John Lasseter were welcomed with open arms into the animation studio and were even tutored by some of the 9 old men. Great for them not nice for me.
    I would like to correct the title you gave me in your article. You thought I was the “Acting Chair of the Character Animation Program at the time” I was never the “Acting Chair” that was Glenn Vilpuu. I was named the Chair of the Character Animation Program at CalArts in 1994 just after the earthquake.
    I was the first woman in CalArts’ 25 years at the time who was hired to teach animation fulltime in the program and certainly the first female to ever chair the program. I felt I could have an impact on the quality of animation for the years to come by Chairing the program and serve as a role model for the few women in the program (25 out of 175). I feel that the program I created and the faculty who worked with me have done just that and now, I am proud to say, now in the Character Animation Program at CalArts 1/2 of the student population is young women.
    The industry still does not reflect those statistics, but even it is better. Many of my female students from the program are now senior animators in the big studios as well as holding other creative positions. Glad to see the beat is going on and progress is being made. I just wish it was faster.

  2. I also wanted to mention that people seem to think because 2 women have now served as directors on 2 feature films, it by no means means we have made great leaps. Brenda Chapman and Jennifer Yuh Nelson are great examples of women directors. But people seem to think because we have 2 female directors that there is no problem anymore. I am sorry to say that we still have a long way to go. We will know that progress has been made when we start seeing women’s names as Creators, Head of Story, Production Designers and the other creative positions in film making….and not just in film but also in TV.

    And by the way….if I found myself “at the head of a major feature animation studio” I wouldn’t need instructions to hire women directors. 🙂


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