In light of of Disney’s recent announcement that its long-tenured animation head John Lasseter would be leaving his position by the end of the year, Jennifer Lee was named Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios, according to Deadline. The news is a huge deal for women in animation, particularly given the history of the studio's largely male-dominated culture. Walt Disney Studios Chairman Alan Horn announced the promotion on Friday June 19 in a statement which revealed that Pete Docter would also be taking over as Chief Creative Officer of Pixar Animation Studios. Per Deadline, Horn's announcement read:
“Jennifer Lee and Pete Docter are two of the most gifted filmmakers and storytellers I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. Pete, the genius creative force behind Up, Inside Out, and Monsters, Inc., has been an integral part of Pixar almost since the beginning and is a huge part of its industry-leading success. Jenn, in bringing her bold vision to the boundary-breaking Frozen, has helped infuse Disney Animation with a new and exciting perspective.”
Lee first became part of the Disney animation collective in 2011, signing-on as co-writer of the computer animated comedy, Wreck-It Ralph. She went on to co-direct and co-write the highly-successful fantasy animation, Frozen, which Deadline points out became a $1.27 billion global success and won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. She is currently in the process of working on the film's sequel which is slated to debut sometime in 2019.
Upon the promotion announcement, the screenwriter shared her hopes for the future in a statement shared with Deadline. She explained:
“Animation is the most collaborative art form in the world, and it is with the partnership of my fellow filmmakers, artists, and innovators that we look ahead to the future. My hope is to support the incredible talent we have, find new voices, and work together to tell original stories. The great films of Disney Animation – the films I loved as a kid and my daughter has grown up loving – are magical, timeless, and full of heart, and it is our goal to create films that carry on and grow this 95-year legacy for future generations.”
Deadline indicates that Lee's newly-minted position makes her one of just a handful of women who hold executive positions within the animation industry that has a widely-documented history of being led and dominated by men.
In October 2017, 217 women – and gender-nonconforming people – in the animation industry wrote a letter, which was sent to executives at Disney, Warner Bros., Paramount, Cartoon Network, DreamWorks and Sony, calling for an end to the years of sexism and sexual harassment within the industry. The open letter, shared by the New York Times, spoke about inequality in the industry, which has taken place for decades:
"Our business has always been male-dominated. Women make up only 23% of union employees, so it’s no surprise that problems with sexism and sexual harassment exist. Sexual harassment and assault are widespread issues that primarily affect women, with women of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community and other marginalized groups affected at an even greater rate."
To add context to just how far these issues with gender inequality date back, Vox shared a letter which was written in response to a woman applying for a creative position with Disney's animation department in 1938. The rejection note explained: "women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that work is performed entirely by young men. For this reason girls are not considered for the training school." (Bustle reached out to Disney for comment on this report, but did not immediately hear back.)
Vanity Fair points out that it was until World War II when more than 170 Disney staffers went to war that women were "allowed" to begin animating
While things for women at Disney have certainly progressed since those times, the momentum has seemingly traveled at a snail's pace – to say the least. Buzzfeed shared an exposé in 2015 which revealed that wearing a pantsuit to the office was a "fireable offense" for women at Disney until 1958. (Bustle reached out to Disney for comment on this report, but did not immediately hear back.)
To make matter worse, a February 2016 Variety article points out that only 20 percent of the animation workforce is made up of women, and shares that 10 percent of animation producers-directors, 17 percent of writers, 21 percent of designers and 23 percent of animators are female.
While there's certainly a lot of pride for Jennifer Lee's new position as head of Disney's animation studio, the achievement serves as a reminder that there's still a long road ahead for true equality.