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Reminder: Walt Disney was a sexist Jerk

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Yeah yeah, Walt Disney was a genius and a trailblazer and a visionary…but he was also a racist and a horrible sexist. The letter informing a woman applying for a job at the studio informing her that “Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that work is performed entirely by young men. For this reason girls are not considered for the training school.” has been floating around for years, but recently a newspaper story by Disney biographer Bob Thomas laying out his ideas of women’s capabilities has been unearthed and it’s even worse. “I have found that very, very few women are good cartoonists,” says Mr. Disney. And besides they don’t have a sense of humor AND they have babies and stop working! So…no animation for you. BUT they do like color so let’s keep them in the color department.

Comic scholar Jeet Heer unpacks these statements and how they perhaps relate to the Disney princesses and their stereotypical roles, while pointing out that, mirroring may aspects of society, women were most free in Disney films when they were villainesses. It’s also part of the popularity of Frozen—Elsa gets to be a villain and an empowered character at the same time.

Anyway, when I wrote about the animation letter seven years ago I pointed out that actual sexism isn’t just a construct of the female “victim mentality.” It’s a thing that powerful men used to say aloud and now say privately. And it’s stupid.

35 COMMENTS

  1. What is the point of these Disney bashing articles? Is there some kind of controversy about white males in powerful positions in the 1930s? Any time someone dusts off some negative Disney quote I think the person who created it must be terribly naive and sheltered to think all great people in the world are saints. I can’t wait until your next post about Santa Claus. (Spoiler alert: he’s not real!)

  2. PRM and JG I guess you can’t read, eh?

    “actual sexism isn’t just a construct of the female “victim mentality.” It’s a thing that powerful men used to say aloud and now say privately. And it’s stupid.”

    AND I should have added, STILL makes it difficult for women today to continue in their chosen vocations. That alone makes it good to revisit the past.

    Oh yeah and MARY BLAIR FOREVER.

  3. I don’t think that the Vulture article that you linked actually shows that Disney was racist. The Gabler biography cited by Vulture is quite good and fair. If you want to pick on Disney for his views, it really should be for his thoughts on labor.

  4. I think PRM and JG make a valid point, Heidi. Sexism and racism in the 1930’s are hardly news, you could make similar allegations of Barks, Tezuka, and Herge (heck, CARAVAGGIO was a pedophile!), but they’ll always be pioneers in the field.

    On a further note, if Walt was such a chauvinist, how come he hired Mary Blair? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Blair

    It’s quite naive to think it’s harder for women to pursuit their vocation that it is for men… it’s tough for us all regardless of gender.

  5. I’ll second JN’s observation. The main VULTURE article only offers a fair amount of circumstantial evidence, while the very first response-post is a link to a more in-depth look at Disney’s supposed anti-Semitism.

    http://www.disneyhistoryinstitute.com/2014/02/in-defense-of-walt-walt-disney-and-anti.html

    Among other things, the Disney History Institute piece lists 40 known-to-be-jewish Disney employees. Yes, I suppose it’s possible that one can have racist beliefs and still hire the people you supposedly hate– but it’s not exactly one’s go-to definition of racism.

    The “racist crows” deserves to be analyzed in more depth, rather than being turned into a cheap SIMPSONS joke (at least twice by my count). At the very least the crows are pretty damn tame next to some of the “black-baiting” cartoons of the period. The only sins of the DUMBO crows that I can see is that (1) the fact that they’re crows puns on their blackness, (2) they talk in dialect– though I defy anyone to show that their use of dialect shows them to be stupid or corrupt.

    On sexism: yeah, I’ll give you that he doesn’t seem to have been any kind of feminist, though I would add that the Disney live-action films sometimes present women in a more active light. Jeet Heer’s comment that Disney was more likely than “current Hollywood producers” to make pictures about women is really odd. What’s Jeet’s definition of “current?” Is he leaving out the heyday of Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts as not being “current?” Is HUNGER GAMES current enough?

  6. I’ve got a lot of issues with Disney (re: labor, for one) but the charges of his being a full-on anti-semite and racist of a higher order might not be the slam dunk most of think it is. Amid Amidi (who is no Disney apologist or Team Animation-type in his criticisms) has written about this over at Cartoon Brew, and while everything’s debatable and more nuanced than we tend to portray it (myself included — I made a glib Disney anti-semite joke in Dork back in the day, based on nothing more than it being what everybody said was true), delving deeper into this can’t hurt anyone writing or thinking about Disney (and then researching on from there, of course):

    http://www.cartoonbrew.com/disney/why-walt-disney-is-a-jew-hating-hitler-loving-racist-37185.html
    http://www.cartoonbrew.com/disney/the-walt-disney-image-problem-76157.html

    Disney was clearly of his time, that’s not a defense, just something to keep in mind, because we don’t go after the heads of other animation studios (most of whom people generally have never heard of). His sexist attitude in that article and letter re: women as cartoonist/funny/etc is old horseshit and has been proven to be old horseshit . At the same time he did hire women as more than cel painters, women who influenced the films rather than simply labored on them, which many studios did not. I’m not nominating him for sainthood, understand that, but I’m not sure if the case has been made that Disney was a racist or sexist of a higher boogeyman-caliber than the average white guy mogul in Hollywood (or average joe, for that matter) at the time. Which, sure, isn’t a compliment or a reason to be a fan. But picking him out because of the racial content of his films like in that Vulture article — well, at least contextualize it and point out that unfortunately he’s in good (or bad) company. Pretty much every cartoon (and live action) studio trafficked in racist (and sexist) depictions (and behavior) , from WB (Coal Black, Bugs Bunny singing Mammy crap, et al) to Iwerks (Little Black Sambo, fer hell’s sake) to MGM/Hanna Barbera (Mammies and Irish maid stereotypes in Tom and Jerry). Pretty much every “golden age” cartoon depiction of Africans, pacific islanders, American natives, asians and jews is horrible and offensive, and some of them incredibly mean-spirited (not even counting the over-the-top jingoistic racism in all the WW2-themed cartoons, which sometimes even stereotyped allies in a way that didn’t go over too well, for example, the Russian gremlins in “Gremlin From The Kremlin”).

    What I’m trying to say is that basically, I’m not sure what the super truth is, but if I was a journalist I’d maybe get into it a little more, because just tossing links to a thing like that Vulture article…I think that’s kind of dicey proof for the argument, if nothing else. Maybe there’s a better article to link to, if nothing else.

    Now, Pat Sullivan…call him anything you want. Link away. I believe everything they say about that bastard.

  7. I forget to mention the face-palm that is Speedy Gonzales and the horror that is Slowpoke Rodriguez. Thanks, WB.

    I’m sure there’s lots more. Actually, I know there is.

    That’s all, folks.

  8. When the full-blown race & gender wars commence shortly (I mean the kind of wars with real bullets, real death camps) it will be interesting but not the least surprising to see how the folks most responsible for fomenting the problem (internet “watchdogs” like MacDonald, Gawker, Jezebel, etc.) don’t actually have to participate and still have their sideline privilege. Too bad, because there’s nothing the working classes (and no, anyone who makes a living online is not working class) of any color or sex would like more than to see every individual in the media burnt at the stake.

  9. Diego Jourdan: >>>It’s quite naive to think it’s harder for women to pursuit their vocation that it is for men… it’s tough for us all regardless of gender.

    Because men get letters all the time told they’re not allowed into certain fields of work? What on earth are you talking about. Nice troll though.

    Evan, you are correct on that. I did link to the Vulture piece because it seemed to be an investigation that looked at both sides. But the evidence on the record is not entirely a slam dunk.

    Also, to everyone else in this thread, if you can show me how sexism (and racism and anti-semitism and other kinds of prejudice) have been removed in the present day, I’ll stop quoting historical examples that show the pernicious effects of prejudice. Like stopping women from working at Walt Disney in any capacity other than colorist.

    ALSO, is no one interested in what else Jeet Heer had to write about Disney’s heroines? They continue to be influential right to the present day!

  10. Does anyone know what Heidi thinks these articles accomplish?

    Does Heidi care if they accomplish anything?

    And it’s hard to take Heer seriously when he flogs the “Dead Disney Mom” thing.

    Mike

  11. I don’t understand why articles like these persist. He may have been an unsavoury character and he may not have hired many women, but Walt Disney didn’t make the films on his own. Are we supposed to ignore and denounce the artistry and expertise that went into the animation, design (Mary Blair!) and music just because the movies’ producer said something stupid 60 years ago? Disney was probably a sexist, yes. And maybe one of the Beatles was a dick too. Does that mean the collective result should be judged on that alone? Because I really don’t see the point in this article other than to arrogantly suggest that if we enjoy old Disney movies we’re failing our daughters – and that’s pointless nonsense. And the Disney brand has – perhaps a little slowly, granted – moved with the times, and for that the company should be applauded. Be it Frozen, Brave, or – my personal favourite – Jessie The Yodelling Cowgirl, their output is progressing with positive role models for girls. Who cares what dead men might have said two generations ago? Shouldn’t we pick our battles with live targets instead of trying to tarnish the reputation of corpses?

  12. Holy shit, I’m going back to avoiding comments sections for a while, not just for my mental health, but I want to tell my daughter the great news that sexism in the workplace is a myth and then I gotta prepare for the coming full-blown race & gender war. Ralphe — dude — you are a robot wizard, 10-4, good buddy, I hope you are elected Lizard King when the working class wins the fantasy war against the effete in your crazy crazy little head.

  13. OK, so Walt Disney wasn’t a forward-thinking guy with his views on women in 1946. As others have pointed out, he’s a product of his time and certainly no different than the majority of employers in any industry of that era. If this article was from say, 1966, it would be a lot more telling. He does actually say that women can be good artists, not necessarily good cartoonists, and have a good color sense. A bit more telling is that rejection letter for Mary Ford, but again I’ll give them a little credit for honesty in letting her know she shouldn’t take a train from Arkansas only to be rejected. And I’m curious, with the depleted male workforce during the war years, how many women Disney employed, and how many had left by 1946 as men came home from overseas. At that time, the societal norm was for women to work until they married, so if you’re looking to hire someone and that someone may be likely to work for 30-50 years or 3-5 years, do your hiring practices make you a realist or a misogynist? Again, not saying it’s right, but calling out Disney for sex discrimination ignores the fact that as a body of work and/or genre, Walt Disney Animation has more female than male protagonists (and antagonists – female villains aren’t necessarily a bad thing – better an active than a passive role). You can argue the Disney princess thing and whether they are positive role models, but at least they’re there as such, perhaps more so than any other genre. It is an interesting article from 1946 reproduced as an artifact in the cold light of this day in 2014. Is it cause to get all “outragey” and demonize Walt Disney? Hell no, there are far better reasons to demonize Uncle Walt.

  14. So, looking above, the overall tone of the comments seems to be: “this is an unnecessary blog post, the point of which is ill defined”.

    If this were indeed a “damp squib” – I see dozens daily on the blogosphere; sometimes here, many on Bleeding Cool, or elsewhere. Whenever I see an article where I think “Meh” and shrug, I say “Meh”, I shrug and I move on.

    The amount of comments and the length of them, all by men as far as I can see, however give me an idea of “The Gentlemen Protests Too Much”. It’s the old issue of “woman points out (historical) injustice, men have to fight tooth and nail to deny it, or say that everyone was sexist (as if that makes it better), and to stfu, Heidi!”

    This, for me, is enough of a sign that Heidi pokes in a sore place, and the bottom half of the internet says “ouch!”

    Keep poking, Heidi! :-)

  15. Point 9: “The humourless Disney princess has to be set against male leads who are allowed to be funny: Pinocchio, Dumbo, etc.” Although your example is correct, your evaluation of the underlying motivations are just wrong. In fact, you are 100% wrong. Princess stories are invariably LOVE stories: Romances. The female leads must carry the story and not look like fools. Dumbo and Pinocchio are about little boys on quests. Totally different.

    And, by the way, is “Jerk” really called for? Disney was a man of his times. And, to be blunt, it was a time with which you are not familiar — you didn’t live then. Are you smart enough to project your views into the past or future and predict how they would be received?

    400 years ago: Heretic! Burn him!
    70 years ago: Radical extremist, lock him up and keep him away from the kids.
    Now: Predictable and PC. Boring.
    100 years from now: How quaint. He still blames media for a role in gender identity.
    400 years from now: Why was he wasting so much time yapping about gender when there were REAL ISSUES to worry about?

  16. By the way, I used only the male pronoun above. On purpose. I’ve decided that the only True Progressive approach is to ignore all gender and use a single pronoun for everyone.

    Remco: If the comments at ComicsBeat.com were evenly divided between male/female, you might have a point. As it is, um… no. You don’t.

  17. Congratulations, Mike: Granting women “honorary boy” status by using male pronouns for them is perhaps the loopiest progessive-only-in-the-mind-of-a-male nonsense I’ve read on the internet this week. You go, girl!

  18. P.S. Yes, Walt Disney was a jerk. Not just because he thought women were non-creative and un-funny. Not just because he plundered the public domain and wrapped the results in copyrights and trademarks. Not just because he turned P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins into a movie that he knew she would despise, and didn’t even invite her to the premiere. But also because he – like so many people who build corporate empires – was generally … a jerk.

  19. I for one don’t think it’s pointless to make such posts. It’s healthy to discuss the issues, even if it’s likely that everyone’s made up their minds already.

    I also think that a thorough survey of gender roles in Disney products would be valuable, but keep in mind that Jeet Heer did not provide one. He didn’t exactly claim that he would, though some of his sweeping statements might imply as much. I’d like to see a thorough look at all Disney products, not just the best-known ones. F’r instance, does the mother in SONG OF THE SOUTH have “agency?” She makes a conservative decision for her kids, one that the film’s thematic stance disagrees with, but she’s certainly not a villain because of that.

  20. “to everyone else in this thread, if you can show me how sexism (and racism and anti-semitism and other kinds of prejudice) have been removed in the present day, I’ll stop quoting historical examples that show the pernicious effects of prejudice. ”

    Anti-antisemitism was never a serious issue Jewish creators have been.Besides, no one knew if an artist was Jewish unless they wore something that identified them as being Jewish. Minorities and ,women couldn’t hide what they were, for the most part.
    Heidi, you’ve done several of these posts.By now, you should be showing some maturity and would realize that prejudice is not a product of Western civilization, of straight, white men, but is a product of human socialization. Everyone is prejudiced against something without a rational explanation.

    I’m sure that there’s a female creator out there that is prejudiced against someone who is African American–not because of the skin color but because of assumptions that person has about African Americans as a group–that they hold different values and have different norms than what she is accustomed to. So, it’s not just race, nowadays.
    So, in effect, that person might not racist but might be classist or might be culturist.

    As far as we’ve come, it’s currently for employers to discriminate against socioeconomic status, and culture (companies can cite a clash of values between an individual’s behavior and their image) . Somehow, punishing someone for supporting gay marriage or not supporting it is not a form of prejudice itself. It is. Oh, but you’re RIGHT and they’re WRONG. Yeah, that’s what everyone thinks and it leads to a tug of war situation, as each side tries to re-assert itself.

    It’s easier when people just associate with people who are just like them. It’s not right, but that’s how humans organized socially prior to urbanization and that how the typical human brain is wired. I just saw an article about how there’s a pent-up demand for female cab drivers because many women are uncomfortable being driven by a man at evening hours. The article did not mention specific incidents of sexual assault or intoxication on the part of women, but the assumption that men are dangerous at night and women were more comfortable about being driven by women and how a cab service was rising to meet that demand.

    I’m prejudiced, you’re prejudiced. Just because you can hide yours, doesn’t mean you’re not.
    To not be prejudiced is to not be human.
    I’m not saying this is right, but I’m just stating the facts.

  21. “To not be prejudiced is to not be human.”
    Well, if that’s the be-all and end-all of it, God have mercy on us all, and send another flood!

  22. Saber Tooth Tiger Mike, you can live in your imaginary cave and ignore the actual progress humans have made to improve society and create more equality for ALL members of a society, We have good days and bad days, but we don’t give up just because greedy, selfish people want to maintain the status quo that benefits them.

  23. Heidi wrote: “Like stopping women from working at Walt Disney in any capacity other than colorist.”

    According to http://www.cartoonbrew.com/disney/walt-disney-was-no-gender-bigot-94682.html (again): “Shortly after he made the speech, in May 1941, Glamour published a two-page spread entitled ‘Girls at Work for Disney,’ that featured photos of some of the women who were ‘holding important posts in story and character development, backgrounds, layouts, and cutting.’ Walt’s forward-thinking initiative resulted in dozens of women being promoted into inbetweening and assistant animation throughout the 1940s.”

  24. “Stop the presses! American men in the 1940s were sexist!”

    Congratulations, Heidi. The Beat is ON it!

    The best one is that unfunny, dramatic, romantic female stars of pictures are a sign of sexism. Because Prince Charming is such a cut up.
    If Snow White acted like Dopey, it would be translated as a sure sign of sexism that she was disrespectfully portrayed as a clown who was the butt of every joke.

  25. The Beat Herself says: ” Saber Tooth Tiger Mike, you can live in your imaginary cave and ignore the actual progress humans have made to improve society and create more equality for ALL members of a society, ”
    I think you need to step out of you (upper?)middle class enclave and actually see how most of the people in this world live.

    “we don’t give up just because greedy, selfish people want to maintain the status quo that benefits them.” If you missed my point earlier, I’m going to state it again: Most people who participate in modern society are greedy and selfish to some degree, especially if they’ve internalized all that hogwash about how technology and perpetual economic growth (human expansion) is making the world a better place.

    But, go on, continue to act as though you’re an authority on the subject of something subjective as ” Progress” and how the world is moving towards “equality for all members of society” because the oligarchs have thrown a bone to affluent liberals in the form of gay rights or diversity initiatives . all in the meanwhile economic and social inequality continue to grow . Things are better than ever for exceptional/affluent people who happen to be female, non-white, or have a non-standard sexual orientation in the U.S. and few industrialized countries, but those people were going to have their way anyway, because they have the bulk of disposable income and therefore political power in the New Economy.

  26. i think all of Jeet’s observations are very interesting, but I would take exception to lumping together the whole Disney Princess pantheon in the critique. All but three of the 11 official princesses are active heroes of their own stories, sometimes causing the problems they have to solve, sure, but always solving them and learning something in the process. Even the three classic Walt princesses still display heroic attributes and characteristics that shine through in later stories. I think the brand as a whole gets an unnecessarily bad rap when it’s collectively one of the few female-led modern mythologies that little girls can glom onto without an adult having to clarify something horribly sexist about the world.

  27. >> When did the Beat comments section turn into an MRA rally?>>

    Every time Heidi posts something about sexism.

    kdb

  28. In my latest book, The Vault of Walt Volume 3, I have an entire chapter entitled “Walt Disney: Early Feminist”. In the 1930s and 1940s, it was a common assumption that women were either taking a job to find a husband or as a “second income” and that preference should be given to men who were the main breadwinners especially during the Depression. We now know that was not always the case.

    What we also know is that when Walt hired women for the Ink and Paint Department because it required a delicate hand and more patience then men had, he also hired women in positions of prominence at the studio in both artistic and non-artistic positions.

    The Disney Studio included female animators like Mildred Rossi and Retta Scott (who gets a screen credit for her work on BAMBI), Sylvia Moberly-Holland did visual development, Bea Selck was an assistant director, Biana Majolie and Sterling Sturtevant worked as story “men”, Lorna Soderstrom, Fini Rudiger did character modeling along with Disney Legend Joe Grant, Thelma Witmer and Ethel Kulsar did background painting, there were dozens of women who were assistant animators and in-betweeners training for assistant animator positions including Elinor Fallberg, Grace Stanzell, Lois Blunquist, Elizabeth Case, Retta Davidson (who went on to actually be a beloved and exceptional animation teacher at Disney), Bea Tomargo and many others.

    Yes the percentage of women working in these positions were significantly less then men but they got opportunities they never would have gotten at any other animation studio. Walt hired people who were Black (in fact the first two black animators in Hollywood and personally promoted one to the story department), Asian, Jewish, Catholic, etc. If a person could do the job, age, sex, race, religion or anything else did not matter to him in the least.

    In a memo sent out to all the men working as Disney in-betweeners on January 17, 1939: “Department conduct. Attention has been called to the rather gross language that is being used by some members of the department in the presence of some of our female employees. It has always been Walt’s hope that the studio could be a place where girls can be employed without fear of embarrassment or humiliation. Your cooperation is appreciated.”

    Yes, Walt stood up against sexual harassment in 1938. He also separated the Ink and Paint Department so that the “girls” wouldn’t be annoyed while they were working. They could fraternize at lunch or after work IF they so chose to do so.

    There are many, many more specific examples in my book available at Amazon. And, look, I never even mentioned Mary Blair!

    Walt loved and respected women AND their opinions. His wife made him change the name “Mortimer” to “Mickey. He put his sister-in-law in charge of the department that made Disney animated commercials in the 1950s. There is so much more.

    Did Walt sometimes make foolish statements in interviews? Yes, many times.

  29. “But also because he – like so many people who build corporate empires – was generally … a jerk.”

    Jason A Quest:

    Class envy much?

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