Do Animated Female Characters Need to Be ‘Pretty’?

A veteran filmmaker stirred online debate after complaining about the difficulties of animating movie heroines

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Last week, Lino Disalvo, head animator for the upcoming Disney feature Frozen (in theaters Nov. 27), caused a bit of a online stir when he shared his thoughts on the difficulties of animating female characters, implying they were harder to create than male characters. DiSalvo, it should be pointed out, brings an insider’s perspective: Frozen features two female leads: Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell), a fearless princess who undertakes an epic journey to find her sister Elsa (Glee‘s Idina Menzel).

He told Fan Voice‘s Jenna Busch:

Historically speaking, animating female characters are really, really difficult, ’cause they have to go through these range of emotions, but they’re very, very — you have to keep them pretty and they’re very sensitive to — you can get them off a model very quickly. So, having a film with two hero female characters was really tough, and having them both in the scene and look very different if they’re echoing the same expression; that Elsa looking angry looks different from Anna (Kristen Bell) being angry.”

It’s hardly surprising that DiSalvo’s comments, with its overtures that ladies must be emotional and pretty, drew criticism from both the animation community and feminist blogosphere

(Some fans are also upset since Frozen cut out many of the strong female characters that appeared in Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen, the film’s inspiration, to make room for male characters.)

When Brenda Chapman, the creator and co-director of the 2012 Pixar movie  Brave first saw DiSalvo’s quote circulating, she told TIME, “My immediate reaction was that I was absolutely appalled that anyone would say that.”

While Chapman, responsible for creating Pixar’s first-ever female lead, acknowledged potential challenges of portraying two sisters with similar features, she argues that that isn’t a problem but rather,  “I think that would be a good thing,” she said. You’re acting them — of course they go through a range of emotions. And so should the guys!”

Christine Panushka, a professor of animation at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, agreed that “humans, people that are not caricatures, are difficult to animate anyway.”

But is it technically harder to animate a woman? “In terms of skeletons and muscles and how we move, they’re the same,” Panushka said.

The internet, of course, responded in GIFs to express its sentiment. MoopFlop created the following GIF (showing the leads of Tangled and Frozen) with the message: “Here’s a hint: their “femaleness” isn’t what’s making them indistinguishable.”


A Disney spokesperson told TIME that DiSalvo’s quote was widely misinterpreted:

Animation is an intricate and complex art form. These comments were recklessly taken out of context. As part of a roundtable discussion, the animator was describing some technical aspects of CG animation and not making a general comment on animating females versus males or other characters.

Intentional or not,  in or out of context, the quote has launched an important conversation about gender parity in animation — and the perhaps unfair expectations of female characters.

First, what is expected from men versus women?

Sherry Camhy, faculty at NYU who teaches drawing the human face and figure to future animators at Tisch, said that she has found that there is a standardized stereotype that often “more difficult to portray emotion in men than women because we expect women to be expressive while men are expected to be more frozen.”

As USC’s Panushka asserts that that ideology “is still working off the same gender stereotype from the 1950’s … and it’s stereotyping men because it’s saying they’re flat and unemotional.”

But as Chapman, used to translating both the male and female form to film, puts it: “Stoic is baloney in animation! … That’s what is sort of boggling my mind about this, the guys are goofballs most of the time.”

So if the issue isn’t range of emotion, then what is it?

Chapman believes that there might have been a harmful directive that while the female characters experienced a full range of facial emotions, they had to do it in a pretty manner.

“For Merida [the curly, red haired heroine of Brave], when we were designing her, I wanted her to have the mouth that gets really wide, and the grimace,” she said. “I wanted to let her have an ugly expression or real expression … even beautiful women will have a sour look on their face when they’re upset.”

But more than emotional complexities, Chapman found one of her greatest difficulties with executives on the film revolved around her female characters’ sizes.

“At one point they thought I was making the mom too big, her bum too big,” she said. “And that was frustrating for me because I wanted her to feel like a real middle aged woman.”

Chapman, who had previously directed The Prince of Egypt and had worked on classics like Beauty and the Beast, was actually taken off Brave in the beginning of 2011 when Pixar handed the reigns over to Mark Andrews.

“To have it taken away and given to someone else, and a man at that, was truly distressing on so many levels,” she wrote in the New York Times.

Chapman held on to a title as co-director and won an Academy Award for her contributions to the the film. She also continued fighting for Merida’s true — rather than stereotypically beautiful — form.  When Disney created promotional material that portrayed the character as slimmer and sexier, Chapman chose  to give CEO Bob Iger “a piece of [her] mind.” She told the Marin Independent Journal that she found the new look “atrocious” and “blatantly sexist.”

Merida Brave sexy

Merida before and after her makeover, from left to right.

How can stereotypes be broken?

“Maybe that’s a good reason why they need to hire more female animators,” Panushka says. While she sees male and female USC students getting hired at entry level positions, it’s much more difficult for the women to rise in the ranks.

Although Frozen had  women in leadership positions — Jennifer Lee co-directed, Becky Bresee was Supervising Animator for the character “Anna” — Chapman notes that animation as a whole is “run by a boys club.”