I’m not making assumptions. I was simply told that by the executive at Disney Animation with the cold blue eyes who sat behind his desk. It was 1987. They were getting some flack because they didn’t have enough women in creative positions–especially their story department – their current count: 0.
“We need a woman. And you’re the right price.” His exact words – I kid you not.
I was hired fresh out of CalArts as a story trainee. Definitely the right price. Luckily, I’d learned a good hard working ethic from both of my parents (especially my mom, who worked twice as hard as my dad, holding down a full-time job, then came home to be the resident housekeeper, cook, etc.), and I had some talent to back me up. I just wanted to be a story artist – not “the first female story artist” at Disney.
Once I was in, I felt at home. I loved it. My fellow story artists welcomed me with friendship and acceptance. It was only on rare occasions that one of them would suddenly notice, “Hey. You’re the only woman in the room.” Then the other light bulb would switch on, “Do you realize you’re the first woman in Story?!”
“Only when you remind me.”
“That’s really cool. You should be proud.”
I tried to be, but mostly I was embarrassed by the distinction. (And technically, I don’t think I was the first… just the first in many years.)
Looking back, I can see now that my inherent “femaleness” may have had an effect on my work and the work of those around me. I think by just having my presence in the room, and because we had such a mutual respect for each other, the men were more aware of what might be condescending, or to put it bluntly, “sexist” toward women in their work. Or… as I assumed at the time, it could have just been that they were all just really nice guys who had open minds. Who knows? Whatever the reason, we all seemed to work together trying to move the Disney fairy tale into a more contemporary point of view for the heroines – and the audience.
I was thrilled to work on my two favorite fairy tales from my childhood – The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. I thought it was fate. Now, I was a little disappointed that we had to give a happy ending to The Little Mermaid. But hey, it’s Disney. What do you want? Sea foam? Or would it have been better if the real ending of Sleeping Beauty was added? You know the one… where the prince takes her home after he wakes her, marries her, they have a couple of kids, then he leaves to fight a war – leaving her with his half-ogre mother (yes, the prince is ¼ ogre!) who tries to eat the kids – then the prince comes home at the last minute and kills his own mother by boiling her in the pot she intended to boil her grandchildren in! Nice, eh?
I was just happy that Ariel had an obsession with the human world, and not just waiting around to get married. She saves the prince she falls in love with and then gets what she’s always wanted and her prince, too. She didn’t wait around for her prince to show up like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. She was a go-getter.
And Belle. She was my favorite. She was smart and brave. She wasn’t fooled by good looks. She rescued her father, making a huge sacrifice to save him. She stood up for herself and was able to break through Beast’s angry exterior to see that he was a good soul beneath it all. She wasn’t waiting to be saved. In fact, Belle saved the Beast at the end.
I know some hardcore feminists have ripped both of the above to shreds. But I consider both films a huge step forward compared to the old ones from the 30s and 40s. Can’t have it all at once – never seems to work that way. Just know we tried the best we could.
What’s been your experience? Have you ever been hired just because of your sex? Or your skin color? What was it like for you—I’d love to hear.
Brenda Chapman is an animator, writer and director. She's directed The Prince of Egypt and Brave. She's currently writing a memoir and working on a children's book. You can find her at her website.