Animation Opens More Screen Doors for Women and Their Stories

By Karen Idelson

As calls for diversity and gender parity in entertainment are reshaping the industry, animation continues to promote and represent women in game-changing roles, for executives and creative leaders. 

Jennifer Lee leads Walt Disney Animation Studios. Kristine Belson runs Sony Animation. Karen Toliver heads Netflix’s toon arm. Ramsey Naito oversees Nickelodeon. Margie Cohn tops DreamWorks. And of course there are a many more. 

“I think it was initially maybe 10 or 15 years ago, it was an area where women could get into a leadership role, somewhere on the ladder of say series production as a production executive, or studio executive in a junior way,” says Meredith Roberts, executive vice president, TV animation, Disney branded television.

“Over time they’ve had success and they’ve climbed the ladder and become much higher caliber, top producers, a senior studio level people, and along the way, because they were afforded those opportunities, they’ve created more opportunities potentially for other women to be promoted in those roles. I think what we’ve seen is the net result of probably a decade of toiling in the field that has resulted now in in the normality of female executives in these higher capacity roles.”

For Toliver, vice president of animation for Netflix, women mentors made all the difference. They are whom she can go to for advice and feedback.

“I was very shy and I remember being in rooms just really afraid to speak and had to really kind of get that confidence,” says Toliver. “But I remember Karen Foster, who’s a producer at DreamWorks, taught me how to stand up and use my voice. I remember Meredith Roberts sharing stories that just gave me the understanding that other people were going through the same thing. You see how all of these women move with grace through their careers and just being able to call them when you’re not quite sure. If I didn’t have those ladies to call, I don’t know what I would do.”

Nora Twomey, helmer of Oscar-contender “My Father’s Dragon,” sees the generation coming up behind her as surer of themselves. The filmmaker believes years of pushing for gender parity have helped create this attitude.

“I think the younger generations of women, in particular, are more confident,” says Twomey. “I think that everything that we’ve seen in the last five years in terms of the spotlight that’s been placed on diversity has only gone to help people feel more entitled to say, ‘Yes, I want to do that,’ rather than ask for permission. I think my generation — I’m in my 50s now — maybe asked for permission quite a bit. But I think that that’s something that’s changing. Education and training are seen as something that can continue through people’s lives, as well. So growing into new roles, like if you start as an animator and then want to become a director, that’s seen as possible for women. That’s all changing for the good.”

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Alyssa Sapire, head of content for Disney Junior, agrees.

“I think building a circle of advisers who can give you that feedback along the way and sort of give you that input is important,” she says. “Sometimes, you just need to check in with those who have gone through it before and who have made it through, who were the ones who made those moves to help you, build you up build more and give you that extra boost. You find they can show you what you can learn, what you can take away from an experience. Think in terms of building a team who can help you and who you can help.”

Women working as writers, creators and showrunners have also found opportunities in entry-level positions over the past decade or so. Many of them, after developing their work and advancing over time, are now running or launching their own shows and feature films.

Domee Shi, helmer and screenwriter of “Turning Red,” a film praised for its honest portrayal of female puberty, not only put together a successful woman-centric film but also did it with a predominantly female crew. The Academy Award-winner found many of the women working on the film had strong memories of their own experiences they wanted to share with younger audiences who would see the film.

“It’s funny, we didn’t set out to have a lot of women on the crew from the very beginning,” says Shi. “The candidates for the film that were a good fit were mostly women and that led to mostly women in leadership roles and I think that really benefited the story. I think it helped us take bolder risks when it came to subject matter in the in the movie, like when our main character is in that scene in the bathroom where she thinks she got her period. I think I had moments where I wondered if that was a little too awkward and I had a chorus of women saying, ‘No, do you remember how embarrassing it was to get your period? It was worse than that. Go for it!’ It really just created an environment where everyone was just comfortable to give out crazy ideas that they wouldn’t maybe otherwise hold back on if it was not a female-led production.”

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Chelsea Beyl, showrunner of “Alice’s Wonderland Bakery,” also sees advantages in having women creatives work together on stories that focus on female protagonists.

“I think that, when you have a show with a female lead, such as Alice [of ‘Alice’s Wonderland Bakery’ and other shows I’ve worked on like ‘Doc McStuffins’ or ‘Vampirina,’ and then you have a woman at the helm of that show, it really adds to the authenticity of that characterization of the main girl and that overall experience that the show provides,” Beyl says. “Personally, I want my daughter to see and what might inspire her. So, I think when it comes from that very specific perspective, it’s just going to resonate and be that more powerful.”

As Beyl has taken the reins on her show, female animators who worked with her are advancing in their careers. Some were even inspired to create animation based on their specific experiences.

Karissa Valencia, creator of Netflix’s “Spirit Rangers,” which follows three native siblings who join forces to protect a national park, was inspired when she arrived at Disney Junior and found women such as Beyl and “Doc McStuffins” creator Chris Nee already there. 

Valencia found Beyl’s leadership style very positive and looked to Nee as a guide for telling stories about the “other” in kids’ animation when she was looking for ways to draw on her own Indigenous background for storytelling ideas. Nee, who crafted “Doc McStuffins” as a series about a young black female protagonist, was supportive of Valencia’s goal. The two of them were also helpful when Valencia was coming up with pitches for her ideas. They became sound boards and cheerleaders.

“It was so cool to see women in leadership positions from the start so that for me, as somebody who was aspiring to be in a leadership position, it was really encouraging,” says Valencia. “I think it’s important that there are all these women that have amazing show ideas and film ideas. I think it starts with the executives. It’s also really cool to see so many women in executive positions, because then they’re the ones that have this hiring power that trickles down to someone like myself who’s now in a hiring position. It’s just like the beautiful domino effect, that I’m very happy to be a part of right now at Netflix. Both of my creative executives are women.”

Peggy Holmes, helmer of Apple TV+ feature “Luck,” thinks it’s also important for women to seek out supportive groups of artists and executives. Holmes directed a segment of “Mickey’s Twice Upon a Christmas,” “The Pirate Fairy” and “Secret of the Wings,” among other projects.

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“I’ve been lucky enough to be at companies where you’re really supported as you’re developing and telling stories,” Holmes says. “I think that what’s unique to animation is you create a studio, which has artists in it, and you start to create stories within that studio. It’s a great opportunity for more people to tell their stories.”

While more women definitely appear in executive, showrunner and mentor roles, the percentage overall still lags behind the 50/50 gender parity goal set by Women in Animation, an advocacy organization that champions women and diversity in the ranks of animation. WIA originally aimed to achieve the goal by 2025. It remains to be seen if the numbers will reflect that aim in the next three years, but there are still reasons to celebrate the data even if more work needs to be done.

“I know the numbers [of women in animation] have been changing,” says Marge Dean, CEO of WIA, noting that in 2013, the number of women in the field was about 20%. “A couple of years ago, we checked in with the animation guild, and we had hit 30%.”

Dean points out that animation may have not lost women in large numbers during the pandemic because the industry quickly shifted to a work-at-home model. This would make it a doable shift for women who suddenly had children or family quarantined at home.

With numbers holding strong and increasing numbers of women in animation programs increasing, Dean is optimistic about what’s ahead.

“I see a different approach and way of thinking and sense of self among the younger women who are coming up,” says Dean. “I can see that there’s a stronger confidence and commitment to their own careers, which is I think critical.”



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