Sean Moncrieff: In animation, it’s still all about the fabulous hair

Intelligent female characters are invariably nerdy and far less attractive; beauty and brains can’t go together in animation world

Daughter Number Four  opted for Elsa in Frozen as her favourite because she has ice powers and because she has a blue dress – and a good hairstyle.

Daughter Number Four opted for Elsa in Frozen as her favourite because she has ice powers and because she has a blue dress – and a good hairstyle.

 

Back in ye olden movie days, creating an animated film required thousands of people hours.

Apart from the design, the score, the story boarding and the script, there was the creation of animation cels: pictures of characters on transparent sheets of plastic that would be laid over backgrounds. Each one had to be inked and coloured by hand.

The first Disney full-length animated film, Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs, required the production of around 1.5 million such cels, and employed hundreds of people to do this donkey work. Most of them were women.

In the run up to the release of the film in 1937, they worked double shifts, seven days a week. They didn’t smoke or drink, for fear their hands would shake. Later on, this department in Disney became known (among the no-doubt irresistible male employees) as the Nunnery.

Thanks to the digital age, a lot of this kind of work is now defunct, but the way characters are presented – particularly female ones – hasn’t changed that much.

Around the time Frozen was released, the lead animator on the film, Lino Disalvo, said female characters are more difficult to animate than male ones: because females have to express a range of emotions, but remain pretty while doing so.

Disalvo later deployed the Out of Context defence for his comments, yet he had alluded to what is a near-universal truth about animation: women are almost always pretty.

This isn’t lost on the kids who watch these films.

I was told a story of a group of boys and girls in the cinema for their umpteenth viewing of Frozen. There’s a pivotal scene where Elsa, having fled her community, decides to embrace her powers by constructing a palace made of ice while belting out the film’s showstopper, Let It Go.

She also changes her clothes to something more ice-queen appropriate, at which point one of the little boys commented to his friend: “This is the bit where she gets really hot”.

Strong female characters are now a staple of animated films: Brave, Tangled, Moana, and are heavily marketed as providing positive role models for young girls. Which is great; except that hotness seems to be a requisite part of that positivity.

The hero-female has to have a waist so tiny that it couldn’t possibly accommodate ribs or any internal organs. Intelligent female characters are invariably nerdy and far less attractive; beauty and brains can’t go together in animation world.

And various research projects have also found the opposite to be true. Female baddies are often middle-aged or older; a stage of life that the Male Gaze has deemed to be no longer of value. They are angry and bitter because men don’t fancy them anymore.

As more women work in animation, this will change.

In the meantime, you have to wonder how much damage these kinds of tropes do – especially with a media saturated with images of women ‘showing off’ or ‘flaunting’ their ‘stunning’ body parts.

But children may not interpret the semiotics of these movies in the way adults do. So as research, I asked Daughter Number Four. She said Frozen’s Elsa and Anna were her favourite. When pressed, she opted for Elsa because she has ice powers and because she has a blue dress. She likes Anna because she has a purple dress, and because she’s a girl.

She likes the main character in Brave because she has red hair, the main character in Tangled because she has long hair. She likes Moana because Moana went out to sea on a boat.

A leading question, I know, but I asked who is the prettiest character. At first, she said all of them, but then reverted to Elsa because she has a good hairstyle. Daughter Number Four recognises some achievements and abilities, but it’s really all about the clothes and the fabulous hair.

Yep. She gets the message.

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