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.