Friday, 2 February 2018

Defending Disney - Part 4: Walt the Supposed Gender Bigot

[<- Index]
[<-Part 3: Walt, the Anti-Nazi Propagandist]

A letter warning a potential female applicant of stiff competition for a job at Walt Disney Studios was discovered a few years ago and has been repeatedly brought up as proof that Walt Disney hated women. While certainly containing evidence of changing times and a reminder of sexist segregation in the workplace in the 1930's, once again Walt Disney has to be bizarrely blamed personally for somehow not having sensibilities 80 years ahead of his time. 
First of, the letter is clearly signed Mary Cleave, so everyone claiming that Walt was sending these letters personally just to shatter the dreams of young women is simply wrong. At the high point following the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938), Walt Disney Studios had grown so large that it is inconceivable he was still screening every potential applicant personally.
Secondly, I think this letter is being misread as a rejection letter when it clearly is not that. Yes, it mentions women were not currently considered for creative work at the time, however it merely warns Miss Ford that there is some stiff competition for openings because, as you can see, she lives in Searcy, Arkansas, and as such traveling all the way to Hollywood for a job with very few openings and a lot of competition might simply not make the trip worth the risk. Nowhere in the letter does it state she is being rejected as she is even being asked to bring samples if she were to apply (A similar letter also signed by Mary Cleave comes without the advise and simply mentions to apply a Tuesday morning between 9:30 and 11:30, but that applicant already lived in California at the time).
So yes, a harsh reminder of what workplace conditions looked like before the second World War pushed women into them? Certainly. The smoking gun that Walt Disney hated women? Please. The entire American corporate landscape was male-dominated. To come to that conclusion you have to strip away all historical context (as well as misread half the letter) and hold Walt to an impossible modern standard. Once again we are down to conspiracy theories regarding a man Internet sensationalism is intent on making a bad guy.

After Fantasia (1940) failed to live up to expectations, partially because the onset of World War II prevented a release in Europe, Disney decided to solve a financial crisis by making a cheaper film primarily for profit rather than artistry, by which he could finance the pictures he refused to cut back on. The result was The Reluctant Dragon (1941), a live-action film with animated segments in which American humorist Robert Benchley is forced by his wife (played by Nana Bryant) to present Walt Disney with an idea for a new cartoon (the titular Reluctant Dragon). The hesitant Benchley however keeps dodging his escort by wandering through the new Walt Disney Studios Burbank location to get a look at how Disney cartoons are created (while actors were employed, most people shown were the actual staff). One of the departments Benchley finds himself in is the Ink & Paint Department that's mentioned in the letter above.
The Reluctant Dragon (1941)
The immediate sense you get is that the Ink & Paint Department wasn't some condescending position reserved for a few token women at the company (unlike what those who diminish their contribution just for another stab at Walt Disney would have you believe), but an involved organization staffed by highly-technical pioneer women who added life to the animators' sketches. Remember, color cartoons were still less than a decade old and at Disney it was a frontier overwhelmingly staffed by women. They didn't just painstakingly paint the drawings, they were also involved in the chemical lab making the actual paint. The process of transforming black and white sketches into the colorful images you end up seeing was thus the work of women, and Walt Disney himself wanted to show that by including them and their work in his behind-the-scenes tour.
Furthermore, Mindy Johnson in her book Ink & Paint: The Women of Walt Disney's Animation (2017) notes that the segregation of men and women served a practical purpose, which unfortunately rings familiar for anyone having kept up with certain horrific revelations about Hollywood in the last few months: "This restriction served a dual purpose, as Walt Disney consciously sought to provide a comfortable place for women to work without unwanted harassments, which was sadly not the case at many other studios of the day" (restriction meaning men and visitors were discouraged from the department).

The Reluctant Dragon (1941)
However earlier in the movie (before the movie converts itself to Technicolor, which Robert Benchley notices and points out), Benchley stops by the art class where artists are learning to caricature an elephant (Mabel, I believe) for the upcoming movie Dumbo (1941). There several women are seen sketching, including one Chinese women played by actress Bo Ling. While by itself not very impressive considering this particular women appears to have been an actress and not an active sketch artist at the Disney Company, the significance is that putting her in there was an obvious attempt at promoting the idea of a non-white female artist working on mainstream animation and that such people would be welcome at the Disney studio. A minute later a different female artist sketches Robert Benchley's caricatured as an elephant to set up a joke of him making a fool out of himself while he blissfully ignorant uses the sketch to describe how dumb elephants look. Evidently Walt Disney didn't scoff at the idea of female artists.

It also wasn't that much of a stretch to depict an Asian woman doing creative work at Disney anyway. The elaborate Fantasia (1940) theater program during its original run was designed by the female Japanese American artist Gyo Fujikawa, known primarily as an illustrator and author for children's books. Her obituary in the Los Angeles Times also names Walt Disney as her inspiration for how she handled bigots during World War II. Since she lived in New York she escaped the internment of Japanese Americans, however since she was at this time understandably anxious about her heritage, she would claim she was really the Chinese American actress Anna May Wong.

"But when she told Disney that she often lied about her heritage, he exploded. "Damn it! Why should you say that? You're an American citizen," he said."

"From that moment on," Fujikawa recounted recently, "that's exactly what I did tell them."

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
The thing with company policy as it came to gender segregation is that Walt himself regularly ignored it when he found the women's skillsets merited it. Even in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) we can see that Dorothy Ann Blank is given on-screen credit for her part in adapting the story. Later under Art Directors we find another woman: Hazel Sewell, who was the sister of Walt Disney's wife Lilian and was appointed the head of the Ink & Paint Department through recognition of her technical skill, diligence and keen eye. Snow White's production notes also cite Hazel Sewell's opinion a number of times which was noted to be clearly valued by her colleagues. So while women obviously still had a long way to go in animation, they were already a huge, unfortunately unsung, part of it when Walt Disney amazed the world with his first feature-length animated film.

From the horse's mouth we even have two speeches Walt Disney held five'o clock on February 10 and 11, 1941, in which he affirmed that there should be no differences in opportunities between men and women.

"If a woman can do the work as well, she is worth as much as a man," and "The girl artists have the right to expect the same chances for advancement as men, and I honestly believe they may eventually contribute something to this business that men never would or could."
- Walt Disney

It's common knowledge that Walt Disney owed his success largely thanks to Mickey Mouse. Lesser common knowledge is that Mickey Mouse started out primarily as a replacement for Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, of which the rights belonged to Universal rather than Disney himself. Even before that though he got his studio off the ground with a series known as the Alice Comedies, a series of 57 cartoons (many of whom lost) featuring a live-action girl interacting with a cartoon environment.
The first cartoon was made while Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks were still at Laugh-O-Gram, Walt's original and ultimately failed studio. Without even a studio yet to produce more cartoons, Walt managed to arrange a distributing deal with Margaret J. Winkler, the first woman to produce and distributed animated films (she also edited the Alice Comedies). The partnership only turned sour once Winkler got married and turned her company over to her husband Charles B. Mintz, who would eventually hire away all of Walt's animators except of Ub Iwerks. From the very start Walt had been working with women.

But let's return (... forward in time) to Walt Disney's eventual masterpiece. The impossible project the Hollywood movie industry derided as "Disney's Folly", on which Disney had gambled everything and which would show that not only are animated movies possible, but also viable. This movie was to be the story of a girl.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

A big negative I found regarding Snow White was how Walt Disney didn't want Adriana Caselotti, Snow White's voice actress, to use her voice for other movies as he wanted to preserve the illusion that Snow White was a real person, which would obviously have been a real problem if Caselotti ever wanted a career in Hollywood. However that's indeed an issue with Walt's overzealousness over protecting his movie's illusion of life rather than a problem with women, and even with that Caselotti continued to speak fondly of Walt and her role (which she embodied all her life) well into the 1990's, actively participating in publicity events and specials celebrating the movie.

Even today we have complaints about the lack of female representation in Hollywood movies (or video games), yet here was Disney kickstarting animated movies with Snow White. Does this really sound like a guy who hated women?

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