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Why, in 2019, are women still ridiculously underrepresented in top animation roles?

Posted by
Christobel Hastings
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We all love Moana, Elsa and Judy Hopps, but a new study has highlighted the woeful lack of female fictional characters on screen - as well as the filmmakers crafting their stories behind the camera. 

When it comes to gender equality in the film industry, it’s no secret that women are radically underrepresented. Even as conversations around diversity have dominated headlines over the past year in light of the #TimesUp movement, the progress in ensuring that on-screen representation matches up to our diverse audiences has been painfully slow. So much so, that a recent study found despite global attention on the issue, the number of female directors in the top 250 domestic grossing films in 2018 actually fell to 8%. 

One organisation committed to tracking the gains of women in Hollywood is the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California, who have just released new research showing women are chronically underrepresented in big-screen animation roles.

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The new report, titled “Increasing Inclusion in Animation: Investing Opportunities, Challenges, and the Classroom to the C-Suite Pipeline,” focusses on 1200 movies released between 2007 and 2018, finding that a pitiful 3% of women directors in the animation industry were women, compared to only 13% of TV episode directors.

Worst yet, one one woman of colour, Korean director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who directed the second instalment of Kung Fu Panda, was among the female directors in the animation industry.

Frustratingly, the dire lack of diversity translates onto the big screen, too. Though we’ve all bonded with beloved fictional characters like Moana, Elsa (“Frozen”) and Judy Hopps (“Zootopia”), the study indicated that a meagre 17% of characters in the top 120 animated movies had a female lead or co-lead, while only 3% depicted a character of colour. When it came to broader representation, only 39% of 100 recent animated TV series featured a majority female cast.

“This study validates what we have known all along, that women are a hugely untapped creative resource in the animation industry,” said Marge Dean, president of Women in Animation, of the findings.

“Now that we have a greater understanding of how the numbers fall into place and what solutions may help rectify this deficiency, we can take bigger strides towards our goal of 50-50 by 2025.”

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There is one small glimmer of hope to be found in the research, however, and it concerns senior animation roles outside of directing. Of the top 120 animated films in the past 12 years, 37% of producing roles were filled by women, which is double the number of women producers in live-action feature films during that time. Elsewhere, 5% of those women in animated films were women of colour, compared to just 1% in live action.

And when it came to animated TV series, women fared marginally better too, with women making up 34% of producing roles and 20% of executive producing roles, although disappointingly, women of colour only represented 8% of producers and 6% of executive producers.

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It’s not hard to see that the woeful lack of female representation behind the camera would have a knock-on effect on the protagonists we watch on the big screen. Even as we approach the halfway mark in 2019, there has yet to be a major animated film directed by a woman, although the much-anticipated Abominable (directed by Jill Culton) and Frozen 2 (co-directed by Jennifer Lee) await fans on the horizon.

Interestingly, the report noted that 60% of animated short films shown at festivals recently were helmed by women directors, including Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca, the New York Film Festival and Telluride, which indicates a new generation of female filmmakers waiting in the wings to challenge the status quo.

As Dean points out, the dearth of women directors in animation is not down to a short supply of female creativity. Only through a passionate and prolonged commitment to promoting diverse talent in all areas of the film industry, from talent agencies to major studios, can we begin to see the representation we deserve. 

Images; Getty