While there were certainly a handful of women working on assorted projects, their contributions were often either largely overlooked or outright ignored by those in charge.
The fact that Hollywood, let alone any one studio in particular, has long been a boys’ club is nothing new. For virtually the entirety of the entertainment industry’s existence, it has been a male-dominated profession literally from the top down. Walt Disney’s corporation was, of course, no exception for the vast majority of the 20th century, in both the animation and live-action departments. With The Queens of Animation, Nathalia Holt looks to make a case for the women acting behind the scenes and often literally without credit to help shape Disney studios and their animation department from its earliest days after reestablishing itself in California up through the modern era. The trouble is, as with the vast majority of contemporary studio systems, while there were certainly a handful of women working on assorted projects, their contributions were often either largely overlooked or outright ignored by those in charge.
Throughout her look at the history of female animators and artists within the Disney system, Holt attempts to uncover something beyond the story of the fabled Nine Old Men who essentially ruled the animation department from the studio’s inception up through the late ‘70s. The trouble is, while there were a handful of female artists and animators who did happen to work for Disney during this time, the bulk of their work was either not used, uncredited or simply ignored. Because of this, Holt is left with the task of creating a more substantive narrative that historical fact seems to allow.
It’s a noble mission, to be sure, to give credit where credit is due. But, outside of Mary Blair, few of the artists posited as “queens of animation” ended up contributing all that much to the Disney legacy or, moreover, lasted more than a few months or years at the studio. Indeed, Blair’s contributions were primarily in the background (literally) of major features and managed through her own force of will. The other artists are presented as products of their time who failed to transcend the male-dominated studio system and wound up either burned-out entirely or struggling for years to gain any sort of traction. The only other artist who comes close to being granted as many pages as Blair (around whom the bulk of the narrative flows) is Retta Scott who, outside of her character design on Bambi, was largely relegated to the sidelines within the Disney studio system.
Given such little actual subject matter to work with, Holt instead falls back on exploring the evolution of not only the Disney animation department following the arrival of women from the more traditional ink-and-paint department to the actual animation desks only to find her subjects largely ignored in favor of their male contemporaries. Even Holt herself falls into this trap, spending pages covering the advancements in cinematic technologies as applied to the field of animation and their originators, all of whom happen to be male (though there are a handful of minorities who play marginal roles throughout, but that doesn’t really help the book’s working idea of the important role of women in the history of Disney animation).
And while Blair’s and Scott’s work did subsequently go on to influence a generation of animators, even these are primarily men. It’s not until the so-called resurgence of the Disney brand following the release of The Little Mermaid that women begin to play any sort of prominent role within the animation department or in shaping the company’s history. So while the legacy of Blair, Scott, et al. can be traced through to the female-helmed Frozen, the stories of the former are few and far between compared to the accomplishments of the latter, making for a fairly one-sided thesis statement in terms of lasting legacy and influence.
The basic idea of there having been an influx of influential female talent within the Walt Disney Studios animation department to rival that of the Nine Old Men is a fascinating concept in theory. Unfortunately, in practice it was little more than the boys’ club it had long been purported to be. The contributions of Mary Blair cannot be overlooked in terms of Disney’s post-war creative output, but they fall short of the transformative quality alluded to by the book’s subtitle. Nevertheless, The Queens of Animation offers up an interesting look at the history of animation within and without the Disney studios.