I’ve read artist and animator Bill Peet’s autobiography, which offers up a fairly hairy portrait of working with Walt Disney in the early days of the company’s animation golden age. And at the National Board of Review Awards, Meryl Streep, who was presenting an award to Emma Thompson for playing P.L. Travers in Saving Mr. Banks, a Disney movie that’s at least partially about the greatness of Walt Disney, pointed out that the company he built wasn’t exactly warm and fuzzy in other ways. Specifically, it locked women out of creative work on animation.
Streep, in making that point, referenced a 1938 rejection letter Mary Ford received from the company — on Snow White stationery, no less — when she applied for an animating job. A woman whose name appears to be signed as Mary Cleane wrote to Ms. Ford that:
Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that task is performed entirely by young men. For this reason, girls are not considered for the training school.
The only work open to women consists of tracing the characters on clear celluloid sheets with India ink, and then, filling in the tracing on the reverse side with paint according to directions.
In order to apply for a position as ‘Inker’ or ‘Painter’ it is necessary that one appear at the Studio, bringing samples of pen and ink and water color work. It would not be advisable to come to Hollywood with the above specifically in view, as there are really very few openings in comparison with the number of girls who apply.
There are so many things that are amazing about the letter. There’s the fact that it’s sent by one woman to another — whether Mary Cleane agreed with Disney policy or not, it’s a reminder that men aren’t the only people responsible for shrinking the scope of women’s dreams, and then discouraging them from even pursuing those smaller ambitions. There’s the blitheness of the letter, which doesn’t even bother to come up with some gender essentialist mumbo-jumbo to justify the division of labor at the company. Disney didn’t feel defensive enough about limiting women to executing men’s work to pretend that, I don’t know, women’s childbearing function might make them too sentimental to create compelling stories for young people. They’re just demoted as if it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do that doesn’t require explanation.
But in the midst of this depressing worldview, there’s a glimpse of something else. “There are really very few openings in comparison with the number of girls who apply,” the rejection letter warns. But the girls were applying all the same, despite the obvious obstacles that faced them, trying to find creative jobs any way they could. The USC Annenberg Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative provides constant reminders that Hollywood still often operates on the assumption that women don’t do top-level creative work, given the huge underrepresentation of women in almost every aspect of the creative process in film and television. But those aspirations are still there. And Mary Ford’s rejection letter is a reminder that Hollywood’s gender disparities (not to mention its racial ones) aren’t a natural result, but the product of a history of exclusionary policies.