This week, in response to Meryl Streep's insensitive and inaccurate comments made at the National Board of Review award ceremony in January about Walt Disney, I will do my best to give some valid bullet points about why Walt was not racist and why he did not hate women (last week's column about how Walt was not Anti-Semetic can be found here).
It seems very discriminatory to pull Walt Disney out of the timeline of the United States and hold him accountable for now politically incorrect behavior and not acknowledge that it was accepted culture and practice by everyone else at that time.
For instance, when Walt Disney was alive, women were marginalized in terms of the types of jobs they could get and it was the accepted standard of the day.
However, Walt was definitely less sexist than his contemporaries, often going out of his way to hire women into roles that were denied them at every other animation studio.
Walt Disney did NOT dislike women
"He [Walt Disney] lived surrounded by women. Besides Lilly and the two daughters and the cook, there was often a female relative living with the Disneys. Walt complained wryly that even the family pets were female. But his grumblings seemed half-hearted. He appreciated femininity," wrote Bob Thomas in Walt Disney: An American Original.
As his daughter Diane Disney Miller remembered: "He was very easy around women, and liked and respected them, with the exception of those who were pretentious or domineering, and I am aware of a few of those sorts that he complained about ... none family members!"
"This should seem obvious, because of his well-documented close relationship with his sister, his mother, his Aunt Margaret, his sisters-in-law Louise and Edna, my mother's sister Hazel, her daughter Marjorie, his secretaries Dolores Voght, Tommie Willke and Lucille Martin," she said. "The letters he received from old girlfriends, and his responses, and Ruth's interview with Dave Smith are documentary proof of his genuine, natural, healthy appreciation of the women in his life."
Walt actively supported the women who worked at the Disney Studio, including Helen Hennesy, who was in charge of the Disney Research Library from its beginnings in 1935 to Phyllis Hurrell who ran the television commercial studio to Alice Davis who was in charge of costuming Audio-Animatronics characters to studio nurse Hazel George.
"I felt that Walt's greatest talent was recognizing the potential in others," said George in an interview shortly before her death. "He encouraged me to get into writing lyrics for music at the Studio, as he knew that I wasn't really using my college degree in literature as a nurse. So I did, and he loved my writing. Walt was a special man. Even today, I have a lot to thank him for."
Under the pseudonym "Gil George," she co-wrote more than 90 songs for Disney including music for both films and television.
To support her contention that Walt was a "gender bigot," Streep read from a standard form letter from 1938 sent to women interested in becoming an animator.
It was standard practice at every animation studio in the world in from 1930-1950 that men joining the studio in an artistic capacity would start out as in-betweeners and women would be assigned to the ink and paint department. That's why there was a standard form letter. It was very similar to letters from the other studios.
While this was the company stated policy, more women by percentage worked in non-ink and paint artistic positions at the Disney Studios while Walt was alive than any other animation studio in the world.
For the record, here are some specific names of just some of the women who worked in creative animation positions:
- Animators: Retta Scott (Scott was the first Disney woman animator to ever receive a screen credit for her work. It was on Bambi. She joined the story department in 1938, the same year as that standard form letter, and was made an animator when Bambi went into production), Mildred Rossi
- Art Direction: Mary Blair
- Visual Development: Sylvia Moberly-Holland
- Assistant Direction: Bea Selck
- Story: Bianca Majolie, Sterling Sturtevant
- Character Modelling: Lorna Soderstrom, Fini Rudiger
- Background Painting: Thelma Witmer, Ethel Kulsar
- Promotional Art and Advertising: Gyo Fujikawa
- Music Editing: Louisa Field
- Assistant animators and In-betweeners: Freddie Blackburn, Elinor Fallberg, Mary Schuster, Grace Stanzell, Lois Blunquist, Elizabeth Case, Retta Davidson, Eva Schneider, Dolores Apodaca, Bea Tomargo, Jane Shattuck, Sylvia Frye, Nancy Stapp, Ruth Kissane, Janice Kenworthy and Lyn Kroeger.
As an example, Retta Davidson was hired in July 1939 when she was only 17 years old. She did special-effects painting of fire, water and bubbles on animated features like Bambi and Fantasia.
In 1941, women who worked in the Ink and Paint Department were invited to submit drawings of Donald Duck in order to be considered for jobs in the Animation Department. Retta and nine other women were chosen to be trained as in-betweeners and background artists. This opportunity never happened at any other animation studio. Retta later left the Disney Studio in 1966 (at the time of Walt's death) and did freelance work for other animation studios.
Walt considered inking and painting a craft, one that many men were incapable of doing because it required such a delicate hand.
"It definitely was a craft," recalled Phyllis Craig, who had worked as an inker for the Disney Studios for more than a decade when Walt was alive when I talked with her in 1992. "Everybody's ink lines had to match. Everybody's ink line had to have the same tapered feeling to it. It was really an art form. I had to agree with Grace Bailey (in charge of the ink and paint department) when she said, 'You don't just learn to ink, it's something you have to really work at.' It was a privilege to be working at Disney. There was never any negativity that I knew of."
The same year on the letter that Streep read from at the awards ceremony, Walt insisted that the following memo be sent out to all men working as in-betweeners (IBT). It was dated January 17, 1939.
"Departmental conduct. Attention has been called to the rather gross language that is being used by some members of the IBT Department in the presence of some of our female employees. It has always been Walt's hope that the Studio could be a place where girls can be employed without fear of embarrassment or humiliation. Your cooperation in this matter will be appreciated."
So, 75 years ago, Walt was a strong advocate that women should not be harassed in the workplace. That was definitely not something that was being done at other animation studios, let alone all the other businesses operating at that time and definitely not the action of a man who hated women.
Streep quotes Disney Legend Ward Kimball as saying 'He [Walt] didn't trust women, or cats' but even animation historian Amid Amidi, who wrote the definitive biography of Kimball, was unable to locate the context for that selective quote.
As Amid wrote on his website: "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," he said. "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."
I interviewed Kimball and he never indicated that Walt had anything but the highest respect for women. In fact, he emphasized that, unlike other movie studio heads, Walt did not have a roving eye nor was a womanizer. Quite the opposite, he felt that Walt was completely committed to his wife and respected women to the point of not even casually swearing when they were around, something he did do when it was just men around.
Kimball did joke that Walt didn't seem to like cats because, unlike dogs, they wouldn't always do what he told them to do. That didn't stop Walt from having cats in his house and, as Diane Disney Miller pointed out to me, one of them loved curling up in Walt's lap as he sat in his favorite chair at night reading scripts.
It is important to remember that while Walt personally was supportive of women in roles traditionally done by men, some of the men who worked at the Disney Studio were not as supportive and often felt competitive or that their "good old boy" network was threatened. Once Walt died, many prominent women, like Mary Blair, were no longer given assignments.
Did Walt dislike or mistrust women? No!
- Walt loved, respected and admitted to being influenced by many women in his life including his mother, wife, two daughters, housekeeper, Disney Studio nurse, his secretaries, creative personnel at his studio and more.
- Walt was an early advocate against sexual harassment in the workplace.
- While many women who worked at the Disney Studio were in the Ink and Paint department just like every other animation studio, Walt personally put women in other artistic roles from animators to art direction to costume design to other roles that were never available to women at other studios.
- Walt employed women in a variety of positions of authority, often in charge of their own departments.
- Walt personally supported individual women to utilize their skills and to grow both professionally and personally.
Walt was NOT racist
Actually, I should just direct you over to the website of my good and respected friend, Floyd Norman, who was kind enough to write an outstanding foreword for my book Who's Afraid of the Song of the South?
Floyd Norman is black. He is also multitalented, funny, a terrific writer and much, much more. He knew and worked with Walt Disney. He even worked as a storyman on the animated feature The Jungle Book (1967).
In the 1950s, a decade before the Civil Rights movement, and when Walt Disney was actively running the Disney Studio, Floyd was hired as an animator and later promoted to a prestigious position in the story department.
That's right. A decade before the Civil Rights movement exploded, Walt hired a black man to be part of the animation department, something that had never happened at any other U.S. animation studio.
Walt wasn't forced to do so as some type of quota. He gave Floyd no special consideration, either positive or negative. He saw that Floyd could do the work and that was enough.
"Not once did I observe a hint of the racist behavior that Walt Disney was often accused of after his death," Floyd told me. "His treatment of people—and by this I mean all people—can only be called exemplary."
“Walt would have hired more Black animators if any had applied,” Floyd continued. “The jobs were there but no other Black animators applied. In those days, there were no schools that taught animation, so that was one of the reasons. I had to go get additional art training before Disney hired me. Walt and I weren’t ‘buddies’ but that was because of the age difference between us of over 30 years. He saw the gag drawings I was doing in my spare time and he was the one who moved me from animation to story.”
OK, before you go on reading my column, take a look at Floyd's essay "Sophie's Poor Choice."
Then go out and buy Floyd's book, Animated Life for some great stories.
In the early Disney animated shorts, Walt occasionally used the standard "black face" gag where something explodes and the character's face is briefly covered in black soot looking much like a performer in a minstrel show.
In addition, cartoons set in a jungle setting often featured exaggerated black cannibals including Cannibal Capers (1930), Trader Mickey (1932) and Mickey's Man Friday (1935) for comic effect. Once again, this was also common in the cartoons of other animation studios and live action films.
One unfortunate caricature was Sunflower, a little black centaurette in the animated feature Fantasia (1940) who is a subservient character, like the cupids, whose primary purpose in life seems to be to assist the other centaurettes, who are white.
At the time, this type of stereotype was not considered racist, but merely a part of the tradition of ethnic humor and cartoon caricature that had been common for decades.
In 1963, the Pastoral Symphony segment of Fantasia was edited for Walt's weekly television show to remove Sunflower, and that is the version that has been usually rerun ever since on television. This editing was done while Walt was still alive and was in charge of approving everything that happened at his studio.
Many critics use the Disney feature Song of the South (1947) as evidence that Walt Disney was racist, misunderstanding that the film is actually set after the time of slavery during the period known as Reconstruction and the black performers in the film appear as free sharecroppers.
If it was during slavery, Uncle Remus could never decide to just pack up and leave since he would be considered property of the plantation.
No black performer who appeared in the film felt it was demeaning. Oscar winning actress Hattie McDaniel told the press, "If I had for one moment considered any part of the picture degrading or harmful to my people I would not have appeared therein".
Horace Winfred Stewart, who voiced Brer Bear, used the money he received from Disney to help found the Los Angeles Ebony Showcase Theater, a theater featuring black actors playing in parts other than maids and butlers.
The film was groundbreaking in showing white and black children playing together as equal friends, something that had never appeared in a movie previously. In fact, every black character is shown as warm and sympathetic.
James Baskett was given an honorary Oscar on March 20,1948 for his portrayal of Uncle Remus. Walt had personally written to the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to advocate such an award.
Baskett became the first African-American male to receive an Academy Award. He tragically died of heart problems and complications from diabetes at age 44 just months later on September 9,1948.
After the film, Walt stayed in contact with Baskett, even picking up a record of the singer Bert Williams for him in New York because Walt knew Baskett was a fan of Williams.
Baskett's widow, Margaret, wrote that Walt had been "a friend in deed and we have certainly been in need." Walt had privately helped the Basketts in the last years of James' life.
The black singers portraying sharecroppers were the Hall Johnson Choir. Hall Johnson was a highly regarded African American choral director and his Hall Johnson Choir received national recognition and performed in Broadway musicals and many films. They supplied the voices for the singing crows in Disney's Dumbo (1941) and the field workers in Song of the South (1946).
The proud, intelligent Johnson would not have been willing to put up with overt negative racial content and apparently found none in what he was asked to do for Song of the South or Dumbo. Unfortunately, his choir being associated with the African-American music developed under slavery may have again re-enforced the misperception for audiences that the time period of Song of the South was during the time of slavery.
Disneyland was open to all races. Unlike other entertainment venues, there were no restrictions preventing black families from visiting the park. Other entertainment venues had special "Negro Days" and often did not hire black employees to interact directly with white guests.
While Disneyland had black employees, the two most popular celebrities at Disneyland in its first years were both black: Trinidad Ruiz and Aylene Lewis.
Trinidad Ruiz was a "White Wing" with a distinctively large white mustache who worked on Main Street. He was the most photographed character at Disneyland in the early years and a favorite of Walt.
Aunt Jemima's Pancake House on the edge of Frontierland was hosted by black performer Aylene Lewis, who woud interact with the guests. The live-action character of Aunt Jemima had first appeared nearly 60 years earlier at the Columbian Exposition in 1893.
The Disney restaurant was sponsored by the Quaker Oats Company, who presented Lewis with a special recognition plaque in August 1960 that stated:
"As a result of a heart of gold and a deep sincere desire to make this world a happier place to live in we acclaim her a favorite representative of The Quaker Oats Co. and one of the most lovable 'Disneylanders' to ever grace the premises of the 'Mecca' of all pleasure seekers…Disneyland U.S.A."
Walt himself would often have an early breakfast at the restaurant to talk with Lewis.
Walt welcomed all races. For instance, Tyrus Wong, who was Chinese-American, was the lead artist on the animated film Bambi.
Was Walt Disney Racist? No!
- Walt employed black people both in onstage and offstage roles at both the Disney Studio and Disneyland. In onstage roles, he encouraged black cast members to interact with all the guests, based on Walt's stated philosophy (and active participation in the People to People program) that once you get to know someone of a different culture you see more similarities than differences.
- Walt personally hired the very first back animator and storyman in the animation industry. A Chinese-American artist was the lead artist on the animated film Bambi. Other employees from a variety of different races were employed by Walt.
- Song of the South was not a film that glorified slavery. It took place after the Civil War and was meant to share an important part of American folklore.
- Song of the South had black performers who were proud to be in the film and did not feel it demeaned them or their race.
- Some early Disney cartoon shorts did feature unfortunate ethnic stereotypes just like every other major animation studio. As Walt grew older, he made every effort to correct these mistakes (pulling them from distribution) and to never repeat those mistakes.
Shortly after Streep's unfortunate comments, Walt Disney grandniece came out on Facebook to agree 100 percent with everything that Streep shared.
Abigail Disney wrote: "Anti-Semite? Check. Misogynist? OF COURSE!! Racist? C'mon he made a film (Jungle Book) about how you should stay 'with your own kind' at the height of the fight over segregation! As if the 'King of the Jungle' number wasn't proof enough!! How much more information do you need?"
Quite frankly, I need much more information before I condemn Walt. Oh, by the way, Floyd Norman was one of the storymen on The Jungle Book and never saw any racist implications, just the desire to tell a good story, even more than 45 years after the film came out.
It is important to remember that Abigail Disney was barely 6 years old when Walt Disney died and did not spend a great deal of time with her Grand Uncle during that time. Her opinions were not the result of her actual observation and interaction with Walt.
People will believe what they want to believe. Nothing I have written in this column or last week's column will convince some people. In fact, I fully expect to be told that I am naïve and wrong.
Seth MacFarlane and his animated television series Family Guy will continue to promote a false image of Walt Disney as a racist for new generations under the guise that it is funny and, unfortunately, viewers will believe that those cartoons are true.
I do believe that 50 years after Meryl Streep dies, it is possible that she will only be vaguely remembered at best, like so many other award-winning actresses who were internationally popular over the decades like Norma Shearer, Eleanor Parker (more than 80 movies and television shows plus theatrical productions), Clara Bow, and Marie Dressler (famous for the quote "You are only as good as your last picture"). For many people today, it would be difficult to name one film these actresses were in or what they looked like.
I also believe that at that same time Walt Disney will still be lauded for bringing joy, hope and a sense of wonder to the world. That is his legacy.
The real truth that will endure is that Walt was not Anti-Semitic, not misogynistic and not racist. However, some of the people who worked with him were. While he was a "man of his time", Walt struggled to rise above the standards of the time despite the objections of those he worked with who held other beliefs.
Walt deserves better than a thoughtless, cruel and false character assassination.
It is important to speak out.