Animation is a notoriously male-dominated field. That’s not an opinion—it’s a fact. In the early days of Disney, women were outright barred from what the company called "the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen" and relegated to the ink and paint department. While women are gaining steady ground in animation programs, as of last year, only 21% of working members of the Animation Guild—the key union for animation artists—were women. And you hardly need statistics to know the field is heavily white. Just look at the history of damaging ethnic caricatures that animation has given us over the years.
Which is why it’s absolutely baffling that, when The Hollywood Reporter decided to have a conversation about racial and gender issues in animation, it turned to…seven white men. No, I’m not kidding. The magazine sat down with six middle-aged white men—and also Seth Rogen—to talk about working in the industry and “avoiding ethnic stereotypes.” (I reached out to THR for comment on this story, but didn't hear back.)
You know things are not going to go well when you read Byron Howard, director of Zootopia, advising:
What I would say to a new filmmaker — if you're a film student now, if you have a diverse background, if you're female, if you're from a different country, if you don't see yourself being represented onscreen — animation is a great medium to explore films and ideas.
I would just like to take this time to remind everyone that it’s not like women aren’t trying. They just keep running into insane sexists. For instance, earlier this year, Adult Swim executive vice president and creative director Mike Lazzo explained the dearth of women in animation by claiming that “women don’t tend to like conflict, comedy often comes from conflict, so that’s probably why we (or others) have so few female projects.” (In unrelated news, comedian Brett Gelman recently cut ties with Adult Swim over its sexist practices.)
So we’re off to a great start clearly. But then the THR conversation veers toward cultural stereotypes, racial diversity, and well, let John Musker, co-director of Moana say it himself:
We had the challenge in Moana of dealing with this culture that we were really outsiders to in a way. I knew something about the South Pacific just from a distance, reading books set there and seeing paintings by Paul Gauguin and that sort of thing.
He went on to explain how he and Ron Clements were “forced” (his words, not mine) to visit some Pacific Islands in an attempt to accurately represent a culture and not, you know, completely desecrate millions of people because it’s a byproduct of white supremacy. And even this was a huge step forward from the effort they put in for 1992’s Aladdin:
Our research on Aladdin, it was during the first Gulf War, so for our research, we went to the L.A. Convention Center, where there was a Saudi Arabian expo.
And even that was somehow more cultural engagement than what went into Kung Fu Panda, as its director Mark Osborne admitted:
That's pretty good. On Kung Fu Panda, we just Googled China. That was as far as we could go.
Then, Seth Rogen—who isn’t an artist or animator and mentioned that he only got to write a very expensive, terrible, feature-length animated movie because he did some voice acting and knows people at Dreamworks—chimed in. When asked about the criticism he received about the very racist lesbian taco character in Sausage Party, he responded with some really touching words about the "bigger" message.
You know, our movie is directly about racial stereotypes and how religion divides us and how our beliefs divide us and how we look different divides us and how we speak different divides us.
It’s clear that Seth Rogen was brought in because he’s the only recognizable name on the roster, but I can’t imagine that even he believes that bullshit. He did, after all, later acknowledge how ridiculous the "white male take" was in this context (though that didn't stop him from participating).
Anyway, as ill-advised and insulting as many of these remarks are, the real question is: Why are we even asking these white dudes about this? I get that these men are at the top of the game, but the inclusion of Seth Rogen, who is not an animator, over someone like Sanjay Patel, a Pixar animator whose short Sanjay’s Super Team was nominated for an Academy Award, says a lot about any commitment to diversity. There was a big clamor about Zootopia's roster of female animators—why weren't any of them included?
An even more interesting discussion would have been with people like Rebecca Sugar and Lesean Thomas, who constantly deal with race and gender in their animation. What could have been an interesting discussion about how to address different identity issues in animation ended up looking like brand relevancy maintenance gone wrong.
Note: this post initially said that women were barred from the animation department in the early days of the medium. It has been updated to reflect that we were referring specifically to Disney's animation department.