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'Brave' Director Brenda Chapman Says Animation Is “Run By A Boys Club” & Weighs In On 'Frozen' Controversy

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by Drew Taylor
October 16, 2013 11:00 AM
16 Comments
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Over the past week, Disney Animation has had a rough go of it. To explain: Jenna Busch, reporting for Fan Voice, picked up on a distressing comment made by Lino DiSalvo, a veteran Disney animator at a long lead press day for "Frozen," the studio's forthcoming animated feature. These comments were somewhat unsettling, especially considering they were delivered completely free of context, but the comments were, of course, quickly picked up around the web, most notably by bastion of journalistic integrity Buzzfeed, who complemented their Tumblr-like piece with funny gifs and images taken from other websites. Now Time has actually gotten someone of note to weigh in on the controversy: Brenda Chapman, the former Pixar director who won an Oscar for "Brave," who claims that animation as a whole is “run by a boys club.” 

First off, let's review the controversial comment that DiSalvo made, "Historically speaking, animating female characters are really, really difficult, ’cause they have to go through these range of emotions, but they’re very, very — you have to keep them pretty and they’re very sensitive to — you can get them off a model very quickly. So, having a film with two hero female characters was really tough, and having them both in the scene and look very different if they’re echoing the same expression; that Elsa looking angry looks different from Anna (Kristen Bell) being angry.”

Like we said: this is a distressing comment, for sure, but it's something of a leap to think that he was making some misogynistic comment; Disalvo was talking about the technical problems associated with animated female characters. It's true that female characters often do go through a wide, complex range of emotions (think about the journey of, say, "The Little Mermaid"), so we can't fault him for that. And yes, the characters should be pretty, because princesses often are, and people go to the movies to see pretty people, animated or otherwise.

Before we get to Chapman's comments, we'd just like to say that is incredibly annoying that all this "Frozen" finger-wagging before anybody has seen the movie. This writer is one of a handful of folks who have seen the finished version of "Frozen," and as both an animation fan and a women's studies minor (yes, seriously), I was  blown away by the feminist message of the movie and how prominent that message is. (It should be noted that Jennifer Lee co-directed the movie.) I'll tread lightly because I don't want to spoil anything (or break embargo), but this is a movie that has very little to do with the typical notion of marriage and falling in love (although those aspects are there), and has much more to do with sisterly love and affection, both of which are deeply drawn and highly emotional. There's a musical number that the ice queen Elsa does that is really breathtaking; she's never portrayed as the bad guy even though she's something of a witch. In her ice palace, she's positively empowered.

But back to the controversy: When Chapman, who originally developed "Brave" at Pixar as a "feminist fairy tale" before being taken off the project and replaced by a male filmmaker (the two had to awkwardly share the movie's Oscar win), saw the comments, she told Time, “My immediate reaction was that I was absolutely appalled that anyone would say that.” Animators are often goofy, slightly aloof men and taking to press months before their new movie comes out probably isn't the most natural environment for discussion.

”I think that would be a good thing,” Chapman told Time. "You’re acting them — of course they go through a range of emotions. And so should the guys!” Again: he wasn't whining about them having to go through emotions, he said that it was a challenge to get those emotions right, on a technical level. Chapman, both at DreamWorks Animation and Pixar, had to oversee a legion of similar personalities. 

Chapman then talked about her experience on "Brave." "For Merida, when we were designing her, I wanted her to have the mouth that gets really wide, and the grimace,” she told Time. “I wanted to let her have an ugly expression or real expression … even beautiful women will have a sour look on their face when they’re upset.” There was controversy, too, about the physical dimensions of her characters. “At one point they thought I was making the mom too big, her bum too big,” Chapman explained. “And that was frustrating for me because I wanted her to feel like a real middle aged woman.”

Yes, it's true that there should be more diversity amongst the Disney princesses, although we did just get an African American princess a few years ago in the wonderful "The Princess & the Frog" and the first Pacific Island princess is coming to the mostly top-secret "Moana" in 2018. That gift that everyone has been circulating suggests that there is a decided lack of creativity in the design department of these movies, but that's not exactly fair, either. Disney is trying to create an identifiable "look," just as powerful and memorable as the look that existed amongst the features during the Disney Renaissance phase in the late '80s and early '90s. The similarities to the characters have less to do with sexism and more to do with consumerist needs. 

The point is that this discussion is an important one, for sure, and needs to happen. The way that the depiction of women in these movies affects young viewers (in particularly disastrous ways) is something that is hugely serious. In particular, Chapman thoughts are insightful, but they would have been more insightful if she had offered them after seeing the movie. What couldn't be more clear is that "Frozen" is kind of the wrong target. The movie, which opens at the end of November, doesn't deserve this kind of ire, especially since it's all been spawned by comments made by goofy animator more interested in manipulating pixels than chatting with people.

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16 Comments

  • K | November 28, 2013 10:07 PMReply

    Why does this still go on? You don't see and haven't seen the Japanese have any problems with creating all kinds of female characters for their animation over the past 40 years, including their video games! So what's the problem in America? I don't get it. It's really sad.

  • La | October 20, 2013 6:04 AMReply

    I'd like to inform you, since you're apparently not aware, that people were having a discussion before DiSalvo said anything -- Frozen does have a source material that people can already contrast it with. Frozen is a supposed adaptation of 'The Snow Queen', which I'd recommend reading before you even weigh in on the controversy and call Frozen feminist. On its own as a story that was wholly original, it could be, but I'd be very hesitant to call Frozen feminist for going from 'The Snow Queen' and its male:female character ratio of 4:10 -- all 14 being very well written as characters, I'd say -- and downgrading it to Frozen's ratio of 4:2. The comparisons and derisions come from completely working Hans Christen Anderson's very feminist story and making it into a story that sure, could be feminist, but is markedly less so and has far less female characters to the degree that I'm not sure if they've read the source material they're pulling from.

    It's also unnerving that you pitch in your own personal opinion of "the characters should be pretty, because princesses often are, and people go to the movies to see pretty people, animated or otherwise" to defend someone literally saying that female characters in movies have to be pretty -- I don't know about you, but I go to the movies or watch television to see a story. The characters in 'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia' or shows like that aren't pretty people -- the characters in 'Family Guy' or 'Bob's Burgers' or really show that's mainstream and animated aren't pretty people -- and all of these shows draw in viewers to an incredible degree. Of course, you know, those shows are all marketed towards adult men, and not young girls who we want to impose beauty and self-worth standards on the earliest possible age. It's not like young girls bully and form complexes based on appearance, or develop eating disorders that are directly correlated with wanting to meet the standard of beauty that's pushed upon them, or that any girls and women experience constant harassment that can and does verge on violence for being both attractive or unattractive. So that comment of DiSalvo's doesn't come from anywhere and doesn't feed into something that actively harms girls and women, that's just someone being "goofy", right? Just like you said.

    But hey, let me just be honest. If you, an adult who works on a film review website, literally only goes to see movies to look at people who are conventionally attractive, even if those characters are underage and in movies marketed at children, I might as well not even bother trying.

  • Illyria | October 17, 2013 7:51 PMReply

    Sure Drew, please keep lecturing women about how they're supposed to feel about Frozen and animation being an exclusionary, male dominated industry. It doesn't sound smug or condescending at all...

  • Brenda Chapman | October 17, 2013 10:12 AMReply

    I couldn't agree with your article more! As was DiSalvo's quote, my comments were taken out of context, as well. It's very disheartening, the lack of integrity that goes into some reporting. The article in question was a jumble of out of context thoughts and quotes and in the end, didn't really come to a point.
    I would very much like to set the record straight in regards to my reaction to DiSalvo's quote. If she had continued on with my own quote of my initial reaction of being "appalled", it would have gone against the type of article she wanted to write. I continued on to say that then I put his quote in the context of what he was really discussing, which were the characters specifically in FROZEN. And it made perfect sense. The two characters, I believe, are sisters (what I gleaned from the trailer) - maybe even twins - I don't know because I have not yet seen it. Of course, if they look so much alike, it would be difficult to give them individual expressions and make them feel like different people. I was actually trying to defend the poor guy! His only mistake was to use the word "pretty" instead of "appealing"... which I have no doubt was his meaning behind it. As with the TIME article, my words have been taken out of context way too often - so I did recognize it in DiSalvo's.
    My other comments were about the industry in general needing more variety in female characters - both physically and character personality - and NOT at Frozen, which I am very much looking forward to seeing.

  • Sean | October 16, 2013 5:21 PMReply

    It's really annoying how in the lat few years, these kind of discussions have arises and how it seems as though everything has to be PC now.

    And I don't care what gender or race you are, stop using that as your downfall. I want creative films with good quality to them. Brave was not that.

  • benutty | October 16, 2013 1:48 PMReply

    Is taking a dig at Buzzfeed really necessary though? Such journalistic integrity.

  • Drew | October 16, 2013 3:13 PM

    Taking a dig at Buzzfeed is always necessary.

  • benutty | October 16, 2013 1:53 PM

    In the lyrics of Elsa, "let it go."

  • Film Femme | October 16, 2013 1:32 PMReply

    Is anyone else seeing the inherent contradiction of "the conversation needs to happen" vs. reducing the ACTUAL female director of Frozen to a footnote? "It should be noted that Jennifer Lee co-directed the movie." is the only mention of her.

    As far as I can tell, as this story spreads, not a single source has bothered to ask Jennifer Lee what she thinks. Interviewing the ousted helmer of a Pixar movie is perfect drama fodder for the controversy machine that is modern entertainment reporting.

    It's easy to see that they won't reach out to the helmer of Frozen because she would put the kibosh on the faux outrage and the drama of the story would dissipate. But where's the conflict in that? Clarity is the opposite of what these stories really want.

    Asking a different woman from a different studio what she thinks of the story seems entirely as sexist as the controversy itself. Particularly since her experience doesn't include that of the animation studio in question.

  • yer | October 16, 2013 12:48 PMReply

    She's been butthurt for ~3 years now. Get on with your career lady.

  • Shame | October 17, 2013 9:50 PM

    I'm sure you've never harbored any bitter feelings after being fired from your job, or having the artistic integrity of your work destroyed. You're too tough (on the internet) for that.

  • Laura | October 16, 2013 11:48 AMReply

    It seems to me as though you are suggesting that once Disney has made a movie featuring a lead of a different race, they can check a box and go back to work on white movies.
    And as far as "consumerist needs" I find it hard to believe that I wouldn't be able to remember a face as a Disney princess if it didn't look exactly like the other ones..
    Most importantly, I think you're missing the point. I'm not mad because I automatically assume the movie will be sexist, I'm mad because on man, in charge of creating role models for little girls, sad that female emotions are hard, and that these women ALWAYS have to be pretty. Real women are not always pretty. When they cry or start yelling, it can be really scary.
    I'm still gong to see the movie, because I think it will be entertaining and cute. I will however, hope that Disney learns from this experience and adds some more variety and "ugliness" to their future princesses... And all the other characters too.

  • Marie | October 16, 2013 11:25 AMReply

    Well I work in animation and I second the "boys club" comment. We have women in production but literally no (or VERY rarely) women director or animation supervisor in the creative side of things, I've been supervised by men most of my career and there is such a thing as the male gaze in how animation is produced.
    There are depths and layers to it, it's not all generalities but honestly, despite you vouching for Frozen and saying it's more than what it looks like, characters are characters, and making these kind of statements combined with the generic look Disney is going for, plus the fact that Pixar has yet to deliver its first female-lead character movie (yes it's coming, I know, but it took freaking ages), then comparing it to, say, Miyazaki's incredible list of amazing and complex female characters and all I can say is: we don't have time for this shit anymore. It's time for Western animation to grow up and for people to stop making comments like this, it's not acceptable anymore and I find it difficult to say "let's not be dramatic" because we've been angry about this for years and it's exhausting. I don't know, I have zero patience and tolerance for this anymore.
    As a side note, I'm intrigued by your support of Frozen from a feminist POV, and will see it anyway, despite already hating the incredibly lazy, tropey and awful snowman sidekick character (another case of marketing gone wrong, that's a whole other topic on its own).
    Voila :)

  • Jess | October 16, 2013 5:59 PM

    Jennifer Lee happens to direct this movie so Frozen actually is a female lead movie directed by a female director...

  • Marie | October 16, 2013 2:13 PM

    Sorry I typed too fast with all the emotions ahhaha and I meant a female lead movie directed by a female director, considering Brenda Chapman got fired. My bad :D

  • Dan S | October 16, 2013 1:15 PM

    "...plus the fact that Pixar has yet to deliver its first female-lead character movie..."

    Doesn't "Brave" qualify as such?

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