John Lasseter and Disney’s “Women in Animation” Issue

(photo courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter)

Don’t you hate it when the guy who revitalized and, arguably, saved Walt Disney Animation Studios from complete and utter ruin is also a super gross sexual harasser? Ugh, the worst. Yet, that is what Disney has had to deal with John Lasseter and his creepy ways.

In November of last year, The Hollywood Reporter unveiled an expose on John’s behavior at Walt Disney Animation (WDAS) and Pixar, where he was the head of both. The article mentioned how he was known for “grabbing, kissing, making comments about physical attributes.” The sources used for the piece, all wanting to stay anonymous as to not hurt their careers, stated he was known for heavy drinking and these actions at company functions, but the were never isolated incidents. Women at WDAS and Pixar were known to have created moves, coined “The Lasseter,” to avoid unwarranted kisses or his hand placed on their thighs.

In a later article posted by Deadline, details emerged about Lasseter’s obsession with the character performers who were “friends with” Tinkerbell and her fairy friends. The characters were sent to a media event in New York City where Lasseter was also attending. A Pixar employee was sent as a “designated chaperone,” according to the article, to make sure Lasseter wasn’t getting too creepy with the Fairies. He took all the fairies out for drinks one night and continued his obsession, leading to long and extended hugs and other inappropriate behavior.

Lasseter apologized, was placed on a 6-month sabbatical, but has since been fired from the Walt Disney Company, leaving at the end of the year. As far as his apology goes, one co-worker stated that they were disappointed, as it trivialized his own actions. Lasseter said in his memo to staff that “I have always wanted our animation studios to be places where creators can explore their vision with the support and collaboration of other gifted animators and storytellers. This kind of creative culture takes constant vigilance to maintain. It’s built on trust and respect, and it becomes fragile if any members of the team don’t feel valued. As a leader, it’s my responsibility to ensure that doesn’t happen; and I now believe I have been falling short in this regard.”

He continues, “I’ve recently had a number of difficult conversations that have been very painful for me. It’s never easy to face your missteps, but it’s the only way to learn from them. As a result, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the leader I am today compared to the mentor, advocate and champion I want to be. It’s been brought to my attention that I have made some of you feel disrespected or uncomfortable. That was never my intent. Collectively, you mean the world to me, and I deeply apologize if I have let you down. I especially want to apologize to anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of an unwanted hug or any other gesture they felt crossed the line in any way, shape, or form. No matter how benign my intent, everyone has the right to set their own boundaries and have them respected.”

Now, part of the expose included the claim that Rashida Jones, originally working on the script for Toy Story 4, had received an unwanted advance from Lasseter, making her leave the project in its early stages. However, in a later statement, Jones denies the unwanted advance, but brings up the problems within Pixar.

Jones said “We parted ways because of creative and, more importantly, philosophical differences. There is so much talent at Pixar, and we remain enormous fans of their films. However, it is also a culture where women and people of color do not have an equal creative voice. We encourage Pixar to be leaders in bolstering, hiring and promoting more diverse and female storytellers and leaders. We hope we can encourage all those who have felt like their voices could not be heard in the past to feel empowered.”

There is a real women and race problem within WDAS and Pixar. It has been going on for years and because of the Lasseter downfall, we are finally starting to see these discussions come to the forefront. For too long, WDAS and Pixar have been a straight white male party.

For WDAS, only one movie has been co-directed by a woman, and that is Frozen. That is over 50 films and one single female director. For Pixar, Brave is the only film with a co-director credit. They are now 20 films deep with only one female director. These are awful statistics. Along with that, one female co-director, Brenda Chapman, had a tumultuous time with Pixar during her time.

Brave was released in 2012 and was a big moment for Pixar. Not only did the film have its first female director attached, but it was the first time the lead of the film was a woman. Brave was the FIRST time. Crazy, I know. On top of that, Brave was the brainchild of Chapman. The story, which at its core, was about a mother and daughter relationship and was based on Chapman’s relationship with her own daughter. Pixar removed her from the film, but still gave her a co-directing credit, allowing her to still be awarded an Oscar when Brave won for Best Animated Feature.

Chapman called the experience “devastating” in an essay she wrote for the New York Times about the experience. She also discusses how animation directors don’t get nearly the number of workplace protections and live-action film directors receive. “We are replaced on a regular basis — and that was a real issue for me. This was a story that I created, which came from a very personal place, as a woman and a mother. To have it taken away and given to someone else, and a man at that, was truly distressing on so many levels,” said Chapman. While she did say she was proud of the final outcome and mentioned how her vision was still intact, she did leave with an important message to the entertainment industry at large. “Sometimes women express an idea and are shot down, only to have a man express essentially the same idea and have it broadly embraced. Until there is a sufficient number of women executives in high places, this will continue to happen.”

This is not great. This, actually, is horrifying. The idea that has been a key part of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements is the idea that a man can do the same exact thing as a woman and get higher compensation and respect is presented through the Brenda Chapman/Pixar situation in full force. What’s even more striking from this is how since 2012 and Brave, Pixar has yet to release a movie directed by a woman, or for that matter, announce one. The closest we’ve gotten was this year’s brilliant Bao, a short film directed by Domee Shi, becoming the first woman to direct a short for Pixar. The film draws on Shi’s firsthand experiences living in a Chinese-Canadian home with an overprotective mother.

Bao shows the power of different voices being highlighted to give us different stories. When you have all straight white men in power positions in animation, you’re going to get the same stories. This was evident with Pixar’s The Blue Umbrella, directed by Saschka Unseld. The story follows a blue umbrella falling in love with a red umbrella. When I saw it, I was so struck with its familiarity, but then it hit me. It is almost identical to Johnny Fedora, a 1950s short from WDAS. Bao gave us something so new and different and culturally relevant. The Blue Umbrella…did not. Giving women voices in animation is so vital to new and fresh stories.

Let’s jump back to John Lasseter specifically for a moment to discuss the aftermath. In June of this year, Disney officially decided to force him to leave the company, effective in December of this year to allow the transition to be smoother. After the announcement, animation fans were a little nervous. John Lasseter did save WDAS from ruin, even if we don’t want to associate him with success due to his actions. Lasseter was a key presence in making Pixar the powerhouse it has become. When Disney officially purchased Pixar in 2006, Lasseter went to work on helping WDAS out of its funk.

WDAS was known for its Renaissance period from 1989-1999. During that span WDAS released (buckle up, it’s an incredible list) The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Mulan, and Tarzan. Yeah, I know. They were on a winning streak with no end in sight…then 2000 happened. Their critical and box office mojo immediately plummeted. Dinosaur, The Emperor’s New Groove, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet, Brother Bear, Home on the Range, Chicken Little, and Meet the Robinsons all disappointed critics and brought in less-than-stellar box office receipts. That was until Lasseter came in.

He brought in the current Revival Era of WDAS, with princess films, successful musicals, risks and successes. Lasseter single-handedly brought an energy that hadn’t been in WDAS for over a decade. But now, he has tainted his revitalization. Everything must be questioned now. How many women during these new films did he make uncomfortable? How many feared for their jobs by not allowing the awkward touching or difficult comments? How many ideas by women were presented, but pushed aside for that of a man?

With Lasseter out, many also were curious to know who would take over his reigns. He was the Chief Creative Officer of both Pixar AND WDAS, so would one person head up both studios for the foreseeable future? The decision was made quickly and our TWO new Chief Creative Officers of Pixar and WDAS, respectively, are fabulous choices with a multitude of pros.

Pixar will be headed up by another straight white man, which is a big ‘ole bummer, but if it had to be any man, Pete Docter is the perfect choice. He has directed three of Pixar’s most influential films: Monster’s Inc., Up, and Inside Out. In Inside Out, he shaped Riley after his own daughter and has a strong idea for portraying love and compassion in his films. Look to the first 10 minutes of Up to see what mastery this man can bring us. He is an artist who can do great things. However, if pushing female voices into places of prominence in the studio isn’t at the top of his list, that is a problem. Docter needs to see how Lasseter left the company and see how he can swiftly change that. Support women and let their ideas flourish into big-budget films from Pixar.

Over at WDAS, their only female director, the incomparable Jennifer Lee, has become the chief creative officer at the studio. I heard this news and audibly screamed. Loudly. In public. Jennifer Lee is an exceptional choice and is going to bring such a unique and supportive voice to WDAS. Not only is she the first WDAS film director (*snaps*), but she is the first female director in history to have a film reach over $1 billion in global box office receipts (*double snaps*), and she is the first woman in to be heading the WDAS (*triple snaps, cartwheels, and shoots off a 15-minute firework spectacular*).

Jennifer Lee is best known for co-directing Frozen. Yes, that Frozen. She also wrote the script, ‘cause Jennifer is a boss. I realize that I’ve turned into a stan Twitter account, but that is okay, but that is how much I love Jennifer Lee. She also wrote the book for Frozen’s Broadway incarnation, the script for A Wrinkle In Time, has a story credit for Zootopia, and will be writing and directing Frozen 2.

What I love most about Jennifer Lee is that the stories that she has, so far, brought to the big screen and the Broadway stage have been about female empowerment and the power of love. Now, this hasn’t been in a cheesy Lifetime movie way, but in a genuine and heart-wrenching way. Her films are powerful, even if they are family Disney films. I’m excited to see what she does for WDAS, who she supports and lifts, and what she will do for Disney Animation as an art-form.

Famously, Lasseter released the last hand-drawn animated film from WDAS, Winnie the Pooh, the same day as the final Harry Potter film. The timing of the release was rumored to allow the film to fail at the box office and become a reason for hand-drawn animation to be removed from production at WDAS. Will Jennifer Lee allow the art form to receive a resurgence? Who knows, but, like previously mentioned, every decision Lasseter made now has a layer of disgust and questionability on top.

Lasseter being pushed out of the Walt Disney Company is an unequivocal victory for those fighting to prove the staying power of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. It is also a victory for all those women who felt disgusted, betrayed, and taken advantage of whilst working under Lasseter’s leadership. However, their shame and regret over how they felt in the moments he harassed them can never leave their heads.

Feeling harassed is not a fleeting feeling. One immediately gets in their head: Did I do something wrong? Am I the problem? Did I ask for it? These women who were demeaned by Lasseter have to deal with the aftershock of the events for the rest of their lives. Confidence issues, being nervous to go to work, etc. These follow you everywhere and never have a clear end in sight, because harassment attacks your psyche for the rest of your life. No amount of therapy can undo what predators and harassers do.

Harassment is a problem facing people across the globe in every aspect of life, not just in entertainment or animation. However, having such a high-profile presence removed from a company because of his disgusting ways is a huge poster child for the movement and for others to have the confidence to speak out. Personally, seeing women come forward to oust Lasseter helped me come to terms with the harassment I was receiving at my place of work.  Seeing these women come forward at WDAS and Pixar helped me have the courage to speak up.

So, a thanks to every woman at Pixar and WDAS who has come forward to say their problems with leadership. What you all have done is change the course of Disney history for the better. You have lifted each other up to force out the bad and let the light shine again. You’ve changed the narrative and showed that at Pixar and WDAS #TimesUp. Let us all look towards the future, embrace female fronted animated films, and celebrate feminism in animation. In the words of Tiana in The Princess and the Frog, “Trials and tribulations, I’ve had my share, but there ain’t nothin’ gonna stop me now ‘cause I’m almost there.”