Guest Post: How I Accidentally Became a Feminist Animator

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by Adele Han Li
August 1, 2013 11:00 AM
1 Comment
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Henrietta Bulkowski

Two years ago, I walked into a dimly lit garage on a severely potholed street in Hollywood. The linoleum floors were covered in waves of styrofoam powder interrupted only by piles of broken dollhouse furniture because director Rachel Johnson (The Toll Collector) was making miniature garbage hills for her new stop-motion animated short film, Henrietta Bulkowski. I had seen her ad for set builders on a website, and though there was no promise of pay, no scheduled end date, and no idea of what I was getting myself into --- I stayed, because the thought of a hunchbacked woman building her own plane to see the world seemed like such a worthwhile story to tell.

The truth is animated films that spotlight unique heroines like Henrietta are a rare find in a sea of tales led by adventuresome boys. Girls in animation are almost always the sidekick, the sexy love-interest, the ugly old witch or at best, the beautiful princess on a quest to find love. Not every girl wants to be a princess, looks like a princess, or feels like a princess.  It's time to show them that it's ok if they have more fun fighting their own battles and creating their own adventures.

Mainstream stopmotion animation is no exception, as Coraline is the only female protagonist in its history. And while characters like Coraline, Princess Mononoke and Avatar Korra are admirable role models for their courage, determination and spirit, they are still brave little girls invented by men and that's not enough. We can't rely solely on men to structure the image of who we are. No man can ever truly understand what it's like to grow up as a little girl in a man's world, and that's why we need the nuance and insight that only female writers and directors can provide.

It is tremendously exciting to see films like Bridesmaids and shows like Girls do so well both critically and commercially. They are powerful not only because they are hilarious, but because Kristen Wiig, Annie Mumolo and Lena Dunham know exactly what they are talking about. We need more of that in animation. It's great to see the following that Lauren Faust's My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has generated across genders, and it's motivating that Rebecca Sugar (whose unique voice on Adventure Time has earned her two Emmys) has been rewarded with her own show. Hopefully, these visionary women can continue to prove that content made by women can appeal to audiences of girls and boys, men and women alike. They are examples of hopeful progress, but the glass ceiling in animation and in Hollywood in general, is far from being broken.

Let's make women creators and directors a norm rather than an exception. Maybe then, characters like Merida of Brave and the Ponies of My Little Pony wouldn't be threatened by the image transformations that they are now. Maybe then, the few strong female protagonists that currently exist for our children have a chance of staying the intelligent and independent role models that their creators envisioned instead of becoming yet another sexualized ideal that men at big companies think girls should grow up to be.

It is for all these reasons that I am still working at a fledgling stopmotion studio in a garage. Despite its lack of glamour, I'm proud of the unique and meaningful characters we've created and excited for the ones we have yet to create. Worlds brought to life by handmade puppets have a unique ability to highlight the charm and lovability of unusual and unconventional characters --- characters often pushed to the fringe of mainstream society and pop culture. Strong girls and women not only deserve to be part of that world, but are essential to bringing its magic and beauty to light. Stopmotion animation is in an exciting phase of revival, and I'm hoping that this provides the perfect opportunity to plant a ripple of change for women in animation.

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Adele Han Li is an Associate Producer and Set Builder at Lift Animation. Their short film, Henrietta Bulkowski, is currently seeking crowdfunding on Kickstarter.

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1 Comment

  • Brenda Chapman | August 7, 2013 11:07 AMReply

    Beautifully written. I hope and wish the best of success to you!!

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