Say Goodbye To The Boys Club Of Animation

Photo: Courtesy of netflix.
In the midst of the #MeToo movement’s deluge of predatory revelations, certain public figures became the face of Hollywood’s monstrous ills. They were men we saw often; men we usually watched accept awards and smile on television daily. Stars like comedy favorite Louis C.K., morning show staple Matt Lauer, and super producer Harvey Weinstein. But, the tide of #MeToo wasn’t limited to the entertainment industry’s most visible pockets.
There was also a reckoning in animation, a world that, by its very virtue as animation, isn’t filled with the kinds of individuals the general public immediately recognizes. But, that didn’t stop men like John Kricfalusi, creator of Ren & Stimpy, and Chris Savino, creator of Nickelodeon’s Loud House, from being outed as alleged predators. Kricfalusi apologized for some of the allegations, while denying others. Savino apologized.
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But, the reported sins of men like Kricfalusi and Savino haven’t stopped the women of animation from flourishing. Rather, a year after #MeToo began dominating our conversations about Hollywood, the ladies of animation are riding high on a wave of success and inclusion that began half a decade ago.
“In the last five years or so, the industry itself began leaning more toward not only representation in its media, but also hiring, honestly more than just white dudes,” BoJack Horseman director Anne Walker Farrell told Refinery29 over the phone. “We still have a ways to go. It's definitely not a perfect world by a long-shot, but it does give me heart to see growth.”
It’s no surprise Farrell doesn’t think animation is “perfect world” just yet. Adult-focused animation still also overwhelmingly focuses on men. The dude-bro humor of Family Guy is still spinning its wheels on FOX, and has spawned a little kingdom of television for creator Seth MacFarlane. The domain currently includes fellow still-running cartoon American Dad on TBS and FOX’s live-action The Orville. Elsewhere, there’s Archer, Rick And Morty, and the seemingly unstoppable South Park. Plus, everything from King Of The Hill to The Simpsons stands as the bedrock for those series.
Yet, Farrell is certainly one of the women leading us past these long standing, male-obsessed shows. The Netflix veteran joined the BoJack team in 2014 after a decade in animation. Previously, she had storyboarded on series like Cartoon Network’s The Mr. Men Show (remember those “Little Mister” and “Little Miss” books and tees everyone had back in the day?), HBO’s The Ricky Gervais Show, and MTV’s Good Vibes. Storyboarding is the first step in the animation process, where one plans the narrative, and draws out the action, panel by panel.
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“I was starting to question, ‘Why am I doing this?’” Farrell admitted of her mindset before BoJack, as she became increasingly tired of monotony in storyboarding. “Then I came onto the show and I realized it is something really special and cool.”
In season 1, the artist continued her storyboarding career, but was upped to lead animator for season 2. By season 3, she was assistant directing for fellow woman animator Amy Winfrey. In season 4 she began lead directing, and continued to do so with the recently released season 5, helming the integral turning point episode “BoJack the Feminist.” Currently, Farrell is directing the very mysterious, “fantastic” season 2 of TBS’ cult favorite Final Space (“I am not allowed to say anything about it other than it is coming out in 2019,” the animation veteran teases).
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Fellow animator Domee Shi has enjoyed a similar career evolution in roughly the last five years. While Shi, who directed Pixar’s breakout short Bao, started at the animation company in 2011, her prospects began exploding in 2014, when she first came up with the adorable dumpling character of Bao. In 2015, the same year Shi’s first official Pixar credit, Inside Out, debuted, she pitched the fully fleshed out Bao idea to Pixar executives when the company held an open call for internal ideas for its next theatrical short. “It felt kind of like American Idol in that there were different rounds, panels of judges, you had like five minutes to pitch each idea,” Shi recalled over the phone. “[It had] everything except for the cameras.”
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Obviously Bao won out, and production began the following year in 2016. The film premiered this June in theaters ahead of Incredibles 2, which employed Shi as a story artist. Now, both projects will be released on digital on October 23 and Blu-Ray November 6. Currently, Shi’s first long-form feature is in development on Pixar.
“When I first joined [Pixar], I think I was one of a handful of women in the story department,” Shi admitted, noting how open Inside Out director Pete Docter was to hearing about her perspective as a former 11-year-old girl, much like the film’s own heroine. Shi obviously offered up an outlet Docter never could. “Now I think our numbers have doubled, but we still have a ways to go before we’re 50-50,” Shi said. But one thing I appreciate about Pixar is I think they’ve really tried to actively look for different voices in the story rooms.”
While Shi is certainly one of those voices — as the first woman to direct a Pixar short in its 34-year history — her opportunities are also opening spaces for other women to make history. One of those women is Rona Liu, Bao’s production designer. Liu also happens to be Pixar’s first-ever woman female production designer for a short. Again, in over three decades of shorts.
“I hope we’re the first of many,” Shi said. While she admits she was “tunnel visioned” into her two massive 2018-premiering projects during animation’s #MeToo deluge last year, she is working on giving back in other ways. Shi has dedicated herself to everything from getting coffee with animation hopefuls to becoming more socially aware and putting women like Liu in leadership positions. “I really want to support other women, other people of color, coming up and really try to pass on those good vibes,” Shi said.
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In the same way Shi’s initial good vibes stemmed from mentors like Pete Doctor asking “curious” questions, BoJack Horseman is now running on a similar engine. “I noticed in the room, we’ll ask, ‘Hey, was this line okay? Is it offensive? Is this the direction we want to take this character? Is this right?”’ director Anne Walker Farrell noted of the Netflix show’s evolution over the last five years, noting how prevalent such discussions have become in a post-#MeToo world.

It does feel like we are at the beginning of a movement.

Anne Walker Farrell
This kind of thoughtfulness seems especially clear when you look at an episode like season 5’s “BoJack Is Feminist,” which grapples with predatory men in Hollywood and the ways they can use feminism as shield for their bad behavior (Never forget BoJack’s “Feminism is Bay” shirt). The end of the episode returns to a thread left by season 2’s “Escape From L.A.” when BoJack (Will Arnett) ended up in a precarious situation with an ex-girlfriend’s 17-year-old daughter, Penny (Ilana Glazer). While nothing happened between the teen and BoJack, who’s about 50, he’s aware of the fact that he avoided a sexually unethical situation simply because Penny’s mom Charlotte (Olivia Wilde) stopped him.
“It definitely speaks to [the talent of] Amy, the director, and the writers, there’s this great detail where BoJack says, ‘Go home, go to bed Penny.’ And then he leaves the door open,” Walker Farrell said, explaining the scene made her exclaim “Oh my God” out loud. “That’s such a dark but powerful detail that he’s saying, ‘No, I don’t want this; go away. But yet also, the door’s open.’”
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The scene becomes even more powerful in a world consumed with conversations about sexual harassment and misconduct, especially when it’s committed by the kinds of powerful Hollywood men BoJack reflects. “It makes you think, especially in the climate now, it’s not, ‘Oh, BoJack, he’s this trainwreck of a guy. Ha. Ha. Funny,’” Farrell continued. “Oh no, he actually did some really messed-up things, and now it’s kind of coming back to him.”
It’s impossible to imagine such an episode existing if animation wasn’t actually open to listening to, and then thinking through, women’s stories. That’s why Farrell has noticed the women around her achieving even more in the last year. “I see my lady friends getting book deals, I see over-all deals, I see more women who are leaders, who are in leadership positions: directing, assistant directing, [as the] heads of story,” the director said. “I see it popping up around me, and it delights me.”
That’s why Farrell seems hopeful for the future of women in animation, despite any #MeToo-related darkness in the past. “We’re headed to a good place. We’re not there yet, but we’re definitely on our way,” she predicted.
Farrell’s statements ring true when you look at the series gaining traction across the animation landscape. Not only does her own series, BoJack Horseman, have a stable of women characters — along with lots of women creatives working behind the scenes — but so do many other ascendant animated shows. Fellow Netflix gems Disenchantment and Aggretsuko both explore thorny, untameable womanhood. Cult favorite Steven Universe was universally praised for its depiction of the queer women in the titular Steven’s (Zach Callison) life. Even Daria, co-created by Susie Lewis and Glenn Eichler, is heading back to MTV.
“It does feel like we are at the beginning of a movement. Like all movements, it takes time and six years from now will be wildly different from where we are today. We’re in a different place than we were five years ago without a doubt.”
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