The Queens of Animation is the fascinating history of women animators and storytellers who worked at Disney at a time when most women were relegated to inking and colouring men’s work. Nathalia Holt has a vibrant and engaging narrative style, which delves right into the minds and hearts of the women she writes about, and makes their experiences come to life.
As a lifelong Disney fan, it was troubling to see how sexist Walt Disney and his company were. Holt shares the story of Brenda, a talented artist and animator who went to school with Walt, and whose soft-spoken demeanour made it especially challenging to survive as the sole woman in a story department filled with loud and sometimes obnoxious men. For example, story development meetings were designed for extroverted staff members, where ideas are shared and everyone shouts down everyone else to give their unfiltered opinions on the idea.
Once, during a particularly intense meeting where co-workers critiqued Brenda’s idea, she ran to her office to escape — and instead of giving her the space she clearly needed, her male co-workers, including Walt, actually ran after her to demand she return to the meeting. It’s a horrifying experience, and it’s a sign of Brenda’s strength that she made it all the way to her office before breaking down. Worse, Walt is then quoted as saying that this display of emotion (read: weakness) was a prime example of why he didn’t like hiring women. Not because his other staff were unable to adjust their approach to Brenda’s gentler personality, but because Brenda (and presumably other women) ‘couldn’t handle it.’ Even worse, years later for reasons that I don’t think we ever learn, Brenda comes back from a holiday to find someone else in her office, and that’s how she learns she’s been fired. As Holt points out, her old schoolmate Walt didn’t even have the decency to fire her to her face.
Even more extroverted women found the work environment challenging. One, who was young, often had to fend off unwanted advances from co-workers, and coped by sketching herself running away from an oversized, leering Mickey Mouse. When the second woman (after Brenda) was hired to join the story department, the guard refused to let her in, and even after she entered, her co-workers refused to sit with her. When she looked for Brenda, hoping to find a friend in the only other woman in the department, Brenda was nowhere in sight — because she’d come to hate story meetings and did her best to avoid them. And later, even as more and more women came to work in Disney animation, their efforts were often unacknowledged, so that each new generation of women came to think they were among the first.
Holt also shares the story of Mary, a talented artist known for her watercolour style work. She managed to get a job at Disney because her husband worked there, but her talent made her a favourite of Walt’s, which then led to jealousy and resentment from her co-workers, including her husband. At one point, Walt personally invites her to a highly coveted work trip, and her husband practically throws a tantrum because his wife got to go and he didn’t. Mary’s one of the few women in this book where we get a much deeper sense of her life beyond her work at Disney, and Holt paints us a heartbreaking portrait of Mary’s unhappy marriage.
I love how Holt highlights how important female friendships were for the women who worked at Disney, and how challenging it was sometimes when broader issues challenged those friendships. One example is the animators’ strike in the mid-20th century, where a pair of animators who were close friends found themselves on opposite sides on the strike. They also happened to be roommates, and so went in to work together every morning, with one of them joining the picket line and the other crossing it. Holt does a good job in showing how even those who didn’t strike were likely aware of the injustices the strikers were fighting against, but they were too scared of losing their jobs to join the picket line.
It’s a troubling, at times rage-inducing, history, and I’m just happy that this book finally turns a well-deserved spotlight on these women’s work. Thankfully, the book ends on a happy note, with the story of Frozen, which was the first Disney animated feature film written, directed and led by women. I loved reading about the sister summit that the film’s team organized, where women throughout the company came together to share stories about sisterhood and their loving-and-complicated relationships with their sisters. I remember watching Frozen with my sister, and how much we both related to Elsa and Anna’s relationship. Thanks to this book, I know now that that’s largely because of the women of Disney sharing their own experiences of sisterhood, and more importantly, because of the team of Frozen listening to these experiences, and bringing them to life in Elsa and Anna.
There’s likely a long way to go for Disney — and to be fair, lots of other companies — to be truly inclusive for women. Hopefully, books like this help begin to bridge that divide, and raise awareness of how much women have been doing for years, and how much their accomplishments have been minimized in favour of their male colleagues.
Thank you to the publisher for an e-galley in exchange for an honest review.