Women animators drawn to more realistic characters
Santa Clarita, Calif. — The California Institute of the Arts was created partly by Walt Disney’s desire to bring more top-flight animators into the profession. And it has during its 47 years, though for a long time almost all were men.
Now, nearly three-quarters of CalArts’ more than 250 animation students are women, and there’s a new goal: ensure that when they land jobs, they get to draw female characters reflective of the real world and not just the nerds, sex bombs, tomboys or ugly villains who proliferate now.
“Male villains, for example, can be any shape or size. But female villains are usually in their menopausal or postmenopausal phases. They’re older, they’re single, they’re angry,” said Erica Larsen-Dockray, who teaches a class on “The Animated Woman” for CalArts’ experimental animation program.
“Then you have the innocent princess,” she added with a chuckle, “whose waist is so small that if she was actually alive, she wouldn’t be able to walk.”
To call attention to that cartoonish reality, CalArts has played host the past two years to “The Animated Woman Symposium on Gender Bias.” This year it focused on the roles of “Sidekicks, Nerd Girls, Tomboys and More.”
During a recent two-hour symposium, nearly a dozen student researchers who spent months watching cartoons and reading comic books questioned why almost all female sidekicks look like nerds.
“What are nerd-girl stereotypes? They have glasses, they’re shy, they’re awkward, they have some freckles going on,” said film-video student and artist Madison Stubbs as she flashed drawings of several, including two of the most popular: Velma from “Scooby-Doo” and Meg Griffin of “Family Guy.”
Not that all female cartoon sidekicks are unattractive.
Kim Possible, who couples her intellect with martial-arts skills to scuttle nefarious Dr. Drakken’s plans to take over the world, has her own problems. Unable to attract any handsome, smart guy, she ultimately settles for her nerdy male sidekick, Ron Stoppable.
There’s a reason for such drawings and scenarios, said Marge Dean, president of the industry group Women in Animation: Men still fill animation’s writing rooms and director’s chairs.
“Many, many, many women are going to animation schools. At CalArts, it’s over 70 percent. But yet if you start looking at women in creative roles, the last number we have is only 22 percent,” said Dean, whose organization tracks figures through schools and industry groups.
In an effort to boost those numbers, CalArts faculty invites studio representatives to campus for events like portfolio days and maintains a close relationship with groups like Dean’s, which is pushing the studios to have a creative workforce of half women and half men by 2025.
Dean believes the character landscape will change as the popularity of animation continues to grow. Three of last year’s top 10 box office films were animated — “Finding Dory,” “Zootopia” and “The Secret Life of Pets.”
To make real change, students entering the animated world must demand it, said Stacey Simmons of the production company Stoopid Buddy Stoodios.
“The only way you’re going to change it is to keep doing it,” she said.