The Hollywood Reporter released their animation roundtable yesterday, which sounds thrilling, I know. The panel includes directors Byron Howard (Zootopia), Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings), Garth Jennings (Sing), John Musker (Moana), Mark Osborne (The Little Prince), Mike Mitchell (Trolls), and Seth Rogen, because they have to get you to care about this somehow. (Rogen was there repping Sausage Party.) Maybe the problem has already become apparent to you, reading that list of names, but just in case it hasn’t, they’re all men. White men, to be exact. And they spent a lot of time talking about cartoon princess culture and representing minorities.
Few things rile up the internet like mansplaining, so of course everyone is type-yelling about this roundtable and the irony of a group of white men talking about feminism and representation. Seth Rogen gets it, and is cracking jokes about it, but that doesn’t change the fact that THR couldn’t scrounge up even one woman or person of color to join their roundtable. For the record, there is only one female and/or minority animation director of a mainstream animated film this year: Jennifer Yuh Nelson, co-director of Kung Fu Panda 3. That’s not a strong Oscar contender, but why not have her voice in the room?
What’s most infuriating, though, is that during the roundtable, no one points out the disparity. They talk about doing more research to better represent the cultures they’re animating, and of the brave decision to not make Moana wear shoes, but no one ever says, “Look around, there’s OBVIOUSLY a representation problem.” As a reader named Kim pointed out, there is an enormous lack of diversity behind the scenes in the animation world, and this roundtable that spends a fair chunk of its time discussing representation totally fails to acknowledge the elephant in the room.
On the other hand, Buzzfeed published an excellent and in-depth look at how women have influenced the evolution of the Disney princess from the obedient naïf of the Nine Old Men to rebellious, headstrong princesses like Belle, Mulan, and Moana. Obviously, there’s still work to be done in the animation sphere. Even Moana, widely hailed as a progressive cartoon heroine, has an exchange with Maui confirming her place as a “princess”. (When Moana insists she isn’t a princess, Maui says, “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.” I think that’s meant to strip the “Disney princess” label down to its core meaning of “female protagonist”, but in context of the scene it just reinforces Moana’s place as a “princess”.) But there has been progress, and Ariane Lange’s piece connects the opportunities of women to create animated films with the improved representation of women on screen.
But none of the male directors on the roundtable even mention the women they work with, even when they have done so in the past. John Musker, in an interview with Buzzfeed about Moana, cited the influence of women working with him on the film in designing Moana’s more athletic body type: “And certainly some of the women involved in the film […] were very supportive and more involved in that as well — pushing, ‘Let’s not have her be a wasp-thin woman. Let’s have her be a more realistic body shape…’”
Last year THR got raked over the coals for the actresses’ roundtable that was also a solidly white group. They actually had to publish an explanation, blaming it on the lack of quality roles for minority women overall. Undoubtedly this is their reasoning for the makeup of this year’s animators’ roundtable, too. Jennifer Yuh Nelson is the only female director eligible, but Kung Fu Panda 3 isn’t really a contender, so sorry, but it’s not really our fault. Well, I can tell you, Trolls isn’t really a contender, either. So sorry, but if you’re going to deem Trolls worthy of inclusion here, you could just as easily justify Kung Fu Panda 3, and Yuh Nelson by extension.
THR wanted to talk representation during a roundtable with animators, and didn’t think it was important to actually seek out a non-white/male opinion on the topic. And they blame the state of the industry for the oversight, when there are people they could talk to. Yes, the studios—and animation houses—need to do a better job of providing opportunities for a more inclusive workforce, but THR and publications like it—Variety is guilty of this, too—can do a better job of highlighting the ones that are already there, clearing the way for the next generation of women and minorities to help shape contemporary animation, or any area of film, really. We’ve had enough of men discussing women. It’s time to invite some women to speak for themselves.