Was Walt Disney a Misogynist ?

9 months ago I wrote a post about the pop culture perception that Walt Disney was anti-Semitic. Since I wrote the original post, the movie Saving Mister Banks (a biopic about Disney) was released. The movie and the promotion brought this topic back into the public eye. On the surface the antisemitic claims sounded convincing. They did not hold up to close scrutiny. Claims made by a former employee lacked supporting evidence. Most of the other evidence is circumstantial and contradictory. There is good evidence showing that Walt Disney wasn’t focally antisemitic. Other ex-employee’s have come out strongly in favor of Disney’s reputation. Disney hired a multitude of Jewish staff and actors.  Disney had more Jewish actors on staff than any other studio, including studies owned by Jewish moguls like Warner. Notably he was the first person to cast a well known Jewish actor to play Santa Claus (Ed Wynn in babes in toyland.)

In my Opinion, the Antisemitism claims about Disney are overblown, post-hoc, and lack convergence in the evidence. You can read a more thorough analysis in the original piece. Was Walt Disney an Anti-Semite?

Saving Mr. Banks is a movie about Walt Disney and the creation of the movie Mary Poppins from a female author’s book. As the movie has been promoted the attention has resurfaced. Actress Meryl Streep in a public discussion about the movie put forth a less known but equally dogmatic rumor. Namely that Walt Disney was a Misogynist. Given my experience with the Anti-Semitic charge, I decided to turn a skeptical eye to this rumor and see what the evidence is.

The recent claims by Actress Meryl Streep give a good overview of claims of misogyny by Walt Disney.

“calling the late animator a “hideous anti-Semite” who “formed and supported an anti-Semitic industry lobby”.

“And he was certainly, on the evidence of his company’s policies, a gender bigot,” she added, before quoting a letter he wrote to an aspiring female animator in 1938.

“Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that task is performed entirely by young men,” it read.

She went on to quote Disney’s colleague Walter Kimball, who apparently said that his boss “didn’t trust women or cats” Variety reports.

Streep did, however, throw a little water on the fire by adding: “There is a piece of received wisdom that says that the most creative people are often odd, or irritating, eccentric, damaged, difficult. That along with enormous creativity comes certain deficits in humanity or decency.”

Here is a copy of that letter.

The Letter

The origin of the letter is unique. It was part of the estate of Mrs Ford. Found by the family and made public after her death. I will take it on face value as genuine. It was not written by Walt personally, as was claimed by Streep.

Secondly Streep claimed that Ward Kimball, one of Disney’s original animators, was quoted as saying Disney didn’t trust women.

I will start with the second claim first. Did Ward Kimball make the statement “didn’t trust women or cats.” Yes he did. Although it took me a lot of searching to find out if it was an actual quote. I had to go to Ward’s biographer  to get the answer.

“As the family-approved biographer of Ward Kimball, I’m tickled to see Ward quoted in a public venue. But it also pains me to see Ward’s words taken out of context to serve someone else’s personal agenda. I’ve read thousands of pages of Ward’s writings, including his personal diaries, and I can say unequivocally that Ward never felt Walt Disney ‘didn’t really like women.’ In the quote, Ward claims that Walt was suspicious of women, but I don’t know the context of that statement. And guess what, Meryl doesn’t know the context either. That’s the entirety of the quote published in Neal Gabler’s biography of Walt Disney, stripped of all its original nuance and meaning. We can only assume that there was something that Kimball said that preceded and followed his soundbite-worthy statement. The fact that Kimball listed both women and cats in the same sentence suggests that he was being playful and facetious, a reflection of his personality. He would have likely cringed to see someone misappropriating his comments to attack a man whom he deeply respected and admired.”

Another Kimball Quote:”We thought we were always going to be 21 years old. We thought we would always be putting goldfish in the bottled drinking water, balancing cups of water on the light fixtures, changing the labels on cans of sauerkraut juice. We were 21 years old, Walt was 30, leading the pack. Working there was more fun than any job I could ever imagine.”

In my opinion the woman and cats quote is probably meaningless as evidence of misogyny. Given the cat reference it was probably tongue in cheek humor. A humorous comment about his boss. Someone that he had a long, productive, and playful relationship with.

The letter is fairly compelling evidence that Walt Disney’s studio had discriminatory practices related to  hiring women in the creative department. I have no reason to doubt the veracity of the letter. It is inconsequential that the letter came from a woman’s office.

Did Disney studios have misogynistic hiring practices in the 1930’s?

Answer: in my opinion, Yes. Even without the letter I would have said, yes.

Prior to WWII the country was suffering from crushing depression a large percentage of men were out of work. Women only made up about 26% of the workforce at the time. That workforce grew to 50% during WWII and immediately fell when the soldiers returned home. Fairly clear evidence of generalized sexist hiring practices in the US at that time (Misogynistic that it is). Cultural mores in the US placed women out of the workforce. Men were considered the bread winner. The letter is an indictment of Disney Studios. Evidence that Disney studios, like many companies at the time, were sexist. Culturally it fits the problems of the time. What this says about Walt Disney personally is murky. He had the power to treat women with an equal rights/equal pay agenda. It would have made him unbelievably progressive for his time. The fact that the studio sent a misogynistic letter to a female applicant does not say anything about Disney’s personal beliefs. It is emotionally provoking and suggestive, but not really good evidence of Disney’s attitude towards women? I am not ignoring the letter. There is some very good evidence to the contrary.

In 1938 Retta Scott was hired by the Story Department at Disney studios. She was assigned to the Bambi project. When Walt Disney saw her sketches he  personally assigned her to animate scenes in the movie. She was the first female animator at the studio. She was the first because Disney personally put here there. That is the same period that the letter arrived at Mrs. Fords house.

Retta Scott wasn’t the only female animator for long. Disney moved her onto other movies and he added another iconic female Disney animator, Mary Blair. Mary became a instrumental artist at Disney studio’s. She toured the world for FDR’s Good Neighbor policy. She traveled on this tour with Walt, his family, as well as several members of Disney’s staff.  After that tour she worked several package films, and on two partially animated features — Song of the South and So Dear to My Heart. The early 1950s were a busy time for the Disney studios, with an animated feature released nearly every year. She was art supervisor on several Disney films. Even after she retired from Disney studios he asked her back to do iconic art work at Disney theme parks. Tomorrowland, and it’s a small world where her designs can still be found.

Hardly the actions of a Misogynist with negative attitudes about female artists.

So very much like claims of antisemitism I see a lot of show, but no go. Little or no direct evidence to support claims of Misogyny. Facts that will not stop the misogyny claims from being circulated and certified as Disney dogma.

I always recommend getting your history from historians, not movies, and certainly not from celebrities. If you see something from either of those two sources you have good reason to be skeptical.

References:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2541292/Walt-Disney-grandniece-Meryl-Streep-right-Disney-racist-misogynistic.html

http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/was-meryl-streep-correct-calling-669589

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Blair

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Retta_Scott

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ward_Kimball

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