Screen legend Kim Novack looked positively gleeful as she announced the winner for Best Animated Feature at the 86th Annual Academy Awards. Sure, she was standing next to Matthew McConnaughey, and who wouldn’t be alright (alright alright) about that? But there was an even better reason for her enthusiasm about that particular category on March 2, 2014.
“Oh,” she said, opening the envelope. “Are you ready?” With that, she called out the winner — ”Frozen!”— instantly making history.
Frozen’s unparalleled success at the box office had already broken records, making co-director and writer Jennifer Lee the first woman whose film earned over a billion dollars worldwide. But that night, when Novack called her name along with collaborator Chris Buck and producer Peter del Vecho, she also became the first woman director at Walt Disney Animation Studios to win an Academy Award. Four years later, in 2018, Lee shattered yet another glass ceiling when she was promoted to chief creative officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios, after John Lasseter exited the company in the wake of allegations of workplace harassment. (In a memo to staff, he acknowledged his “missteps,” and originally left on a temporary six months leave. He’s since found another job.)
Now, Lee and Buck are back at the helm of Frozen II, which hits theaters on November 22, and doubles down on Elsa and Anna’s sisterly bond. But Frozen’s ties to women go all the way back to 1946, when Disney art director Mary Blair started work on what would eventually become Cinderella, Lee’s favorite childhood movie. In a new book, The Queens of Animation: The Untold Story of the Women Who Transformed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History, Nathalia Holt describes how Blair — and her female colleagues and contemporaries — paved the way for movies like Frozen, and continue to influence animators at Disney today.
“It’s important that we understand that women have always played an important role in these classic films,” Holt said in an interview with Refinery29.
It’s a poorly kept secret that Frozen almost had a very different plot. Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel), Arendelle’s ice queen, was originally the villain of the story, complete with light blue skin, spiky short hair, and a coat made of live weasels. (Yes, you read that correctly.) This was consistent with the character of the Snow Queen from Hans Christian Andersen’s story, which loosely served as inspiration for the film. Most significantly, however, she and Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) weren’t supposed to be related, let alone sisters. That changed when Lee realized it was the only way to earn the ending she had in mind: Anna sacrificing her life for Elsa, subverting decades of “happily ever after” marriage plots.
As part of a brainstorming effort, Lee held a days-long “Sister Summit,” inviting women from every department of the Walt Disney Disney Animation Studios to share their life experiences, and give input on the story’s direction. Male colleagues were invited to sit in, but forbidden from speaking. It was a turning point for the studio, which had long built its success on women’s ideas and talent without giving them the credit they deserved.
The first woman to receive named credit on a Disney film was Retta Scott, who worked as an animator on 1942’s Bambi. Nearly a decade earlier, in 1934, Bianca Majolie was hired by high school acquaintance Walt Disney to work in the previously all-male story department. Before then, women were mostly relegated to the ink & paint departments, where they would trace and color outlines made by male animators. As one rejection letter from the time read: “Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen.”
Majolie’s persistence paved the way for colleagues Grace Huntington, Sylvia Holland, Scott, and Blair, whose pioneering achievements are documented by Holt throughout the book. During Disney’s early days, they worked on many of the movies we now consider classics — Snow White, Dumbo, Fantasia, Pinocchio, Bambi, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella, to name a few — imbuing their work with their personal struggles and achievements. (The devastating “Baby Mine” sequence from Dumbo, for example, came out of Blair’s struggle with multiple miscarriages, and her longing to hold a child in her arms.)
Holt describes a difficult atmosphere for these women, who had to put up with a permissive “boys will be boys” atmosphere that ranged from being denied entry to the all-male company Penthouse Club, to being actively harassed during meetings. (In one scene described in harrowing detail, Majolie is literally chased into her office by jeering colleagues, and she sits sobbing on the floor as they bang on her door.) Their vital contributions were also routinely overlooked, even though, as in Blair’s case, they quite literally kept the lights on.
“In 1948, the studio was deep in debt, they were on the verge of bankruptcy, and Walt says to his employees: ‘This is it, if this picture doesn’t make money we’re going kaput,’” Holt said. “It is really Mary Blair’s vision that ends up transforming Cinderella, a film that used her sense of color and contrast and styling on a very modest budget. And that film makes $8 million, and rescues Disney. She ends up working as art director on many films after that, including Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland.”
Even so, Blair — the most famous of the women discussed in the book — was largely written out of the studio’s history. “After Walt dies, that’s it,” Holt said. “She can’t find another job at Disney. It seems crazy! And after Mary Blair’s death, the studio’s newsletter prominently puts the obituary of an accountant on the front cover, but her obituary is way, way in the back.”
"After Mary Blair’s death, the studio’s newsletter prominently puts the obituary of an accountant on the front cover, but her obituary is way, way in the back.”
Holt never planned to write a book about Disney. As she writes in the preface, “Until I began writing this book, I viewed the Disney princesses, with their fluffy dresses and vulnerable demeanors, warily, suspicious that they had been dropped into my life by unknown misogynistic forces that were bent on turning my daughters into boy-crazy women.”
She stumbled upon the subject by accident, while researching her previous book, Rise of the Rocket Girls, about the women pioneers of NASA. One of the women Holt interviewed had worked for Disney, and told her about life at the studio in the 1940s.
“I was most surprised about how many women were in her stories,” Holt said. “Some of my greatest childhood memories are watching cartoons with my dad, and I remember very clearly looking at the credits, and not seeing any female names. To now hear that there were all of these women involved in Disney was really exciting to me.”
But when she flipped through the many biographies available about Walt Disney, looking for names and details on the women he hired, she was immediately disappointed.
“I was dismayed to find that these stories I wanted to hear just didn’t exist,” Holt said. “They had been left out of these history books. And so it became really important to me to be able to document their histories, especially considering the state of women in animation today.”
Despite high numbers of women students at some of the country’s most prestigious animation schools — the Walt Disney co-founded California Institute of the Arts counted 70% in 2018, compared to 69% at UCLA, and 55% at USC — women still hold less than 25% of union animation jobs. In response, The California-based organization Women in Animation has launched a gender parity initiative, “50/50 by 2025” to try to close the gap.
Those are frustrating statistics, made even more so by the running theme of Holt’s book: In times of crisis throughout its history, Disney has routinely turned to the women in its ranks to solve its problems. The success of Cinderella was later followed by the Disney “renaissance” of the late 1980s and early 1990s, led by Princess Ariel (The Little Mermaid), Belle (Beauty and the Beast), and the eponymous Mulan and Pocahontas. Then came the late aughts, which brought us Princess Tiana (The Princess and the Frog), Princess Merida (Brave), Moana, and now, Anna and Elsa (Frozen and Frozen II.)
The success of these films speaks volumes: Audiences crave stories about women, be they glass slipper aficionados or skilled with a bow and arrow and ready to kick ass. And yet, one doesn’t have to look back to the 1940s for injustice behind-the-scenes in animation. In January 2006, Disney bought Pixar Studios in a $7.4 billion all-stock deal. In 2010, news broke that Brenda Chapman had been tapped by Pixar to write and direct Brave, about a feisty tomboy Scottish princess, making her the first woman to direct a feature-length animated film for the studio. But in 2011, she was abruptly taken off the project, and replaced with a man, Mark Andrews, a move that left her confused and distressed.
“This was a story that I created, which came from a very personal place, as a woman and a mother,” Chapman wrote in a New York Times op-ed in 2012. “To have it taken away and given to someone else, and a man at that, was truly distressing on so many levels. But in the end, my vision came through in the film.”
The Academy thought so too, because in 2013, Brave won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, and Chapman triumphantly took the stage. She was the first woman to win an Oscar for an animated feature period, setting the stage for Lee’s victory for Frozen (and Disney animation, rather than Pixar) just one year later. And yet, she still had to share the award with Andrews, who took over the film after she was let go.
“It’s maddening how men have gotten so much credit for these movies,” Holt said. “Once again, it is women and princesses that save the day.”