Women in the animation industry have gained a foothold as studio executives and film producers, a new study suggests – but an uphill battle awaits on other fronts, especially in elevating women of color.
“Few women participate on screen or above the line in animated storytelling. This is true for film and TV,” wrote the authors of a report by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative in partnership with the nonprofit Women in Animation. (“Above the line,” a budgeting term, refers to roles like directors, screenwriters and lead actors.)
For example, just 17% of the 120 top-grossing animated films released between 2007 and 2018 depicted a female lead or co-lead character, and only 3% depicted women of color as leads. Results for the 100 top animated TV shows of 2018, as determined by average audience ratings by Nielsen Media Research, were more equitable but still fell short of parity: While nearly four in 10 of the 1,105 credited cast members were voiced by girls and women, 12% were voiced by girls and women of color.
Women directors were particularly scarce, making up a paltry 2.5% of directors on those top 120 films, or four women who held five jobs between 2007 and 2018. Just one of them was a woman of color – “Kung Fu Panda 2” and “3” director Jennifer Yuh Nelson – and she worked twice during that period.
While female film producers’ numbers in animation have risen over time, the authors wrote, “there has been no meaningful improvement” over the past dozen years in the share of female producers on live-action movies. Thirty-seven percent of animated film producers across 1,200 live-action and animated movies between 2007 and 2018 were women, compared to just 15% of live-action producers.
The study’s findings, in part, mirror broader industry inequalities. Women comprised just 8% of directors behind 2018’s top 250 domestic releases, according to research by San Diego State University. Females made up 36% of “major characters” and 31% of protagonists in the top-grossing films of 2018.
Parity in animation matters, according to the group Women in Animation, because of the medium’s growing popularity and reach across various demographics and cultures. “As this growth continues, so does the need to ensure that animation content represents the world as it should be – a world where women are equally represented, both behind the scenes and on the screen, to move culture forward,” its mission statement says.
“BoJack Horseman” production designer Lisa Hanawalt, who went on to create her own Netflix animated comedy “Tuca and Bertie,” starring Tiffany Haddish and Ali Wong, has spoken in interviews about the dearth of opportunities for women in animation.
“It does feel like the stars needed to align just perfectly for a woman to even get a chance to get in the door,” Hanawalt told the Atlantic last month. “I know a lot of women who pitch; it’s not that women aren’t pitching, and it’s not because they don’t have great ideas.”
Below the line (meaning folks who work on a production crew), women made up only 28% of story editors on the top animated TV series, 18% of heads of editing, 16% of animation directors, 20% of lead animators, 24% of lead character designers and 11% of lead storyboard artists, with the share of women of color in most roles hovering in the single digits.
An entry-level animator makes $45,270 a year on average, according to data from PayScale.com. An animation producer’s average annual salary is $60,000.
The USC study also offered some heartening findings. More than half – 52% – of film animation executives and 39% of TV animation executives were women, though women of color had far lower numbers, according to an analysis of the top 24 film and TV companies producing animated content. (Research suggests that dynamic is flipped among studios overall, with film studios trailing most TV networks and studios. NBC Entertainment boasted 50% women executives in 2017, for example, compared to Warner Bros.’ 35% and Sony’s 45%.)
Women dominated top animation schools (for example, USC, the University of California Los Angeles and the Rhode Island School of Design) at the bachelor’s and master’s levels, the study found, making up 69% of enrolled students in 2018. What’s more, 47% of animated shorts at the top five film festivals had at least one woman director.
“Clearly, the drop off in female participation is between Festival screenings and working within animation companies,” they wrote. “Females do not have the same access and opportunity as males and do not seem to be moving up the ranks as quickly in the space.”
So why are women so poorly represented at some top echelons of animation? The researchers’ qualitative interviews and surveys pointed to three key reasons: a “boys’ club” environment that kept women from feeling like they belonged, gender stereotyping and a culture that undervalued women, and a perception that women lacked interest or ambition in animation. (In fact, nine out of 10 women interviewed said they aspired to leadership roles.)
Women of color noted additional barriers such as tokenization and feeling like their contributions were minimized.
“This study validates what we have known all along, that women are a hugely untapped creative resource in the animation industry,” Women in Animation president Marge Dean said in a statement. “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.”