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Retta Scott probably didn’t realize the impact she would have 75 years later on the lives of women everywhere — including my daughter, Emma.
The Signature Collection Edition of the classic film Bambi has a bonus feature called “The Bambi Effect.” My daughter and I sat down to watch the feature together and were so inspired. In addition to the feature detailing the many ways Bambi impacted the entire animation industry, it highlighted the work of Retta Scott, the first female animator at The Walt Disney Company.
I was curious about Scott and found a book, They Drew As They Pleased: The Hidden Art of Disney’s Musical Years (The 1940’s – Part One). The book featured Scott’s fascinating career and the important role Walt Disney played in it.
I found out Walt had the right attitude about women.
Animation was considered a “man’s job” back in the 1940s. While women could work in the ink and paint department (where they would basically color what the men had drawn), the job of animating was reserved only for men. But Walt knew talent when he saw it, and Retta Scott was something special. Her ability to portray animals with boldness made her the perfect fit to animate the sequence in Bambi when the dogs attack Bambi’s mate, Faline. After seeing her work on the storyboards, Walt and supervising director Dave Hand thought she was the right person to do the animation.
As Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston — two of Walt’s famous “Nine Old Men” — wrote in their book about the film:
“We wondered who at the Studio could have drawn this terrifying situation so convincingly and would have guessed that such virile drawings could have been done only by some burly man, probably with a bristling beard and the look of an eagle in his eye. We were amazed to find instead that they were done by a small, delicate, wonderfully cheerful young woman with twinkling eyes and a crown of blond curls piled on top of her head.”
But not everyone was happy about a woman being given the job of animation, no matter how talented she was. Some felt so threatened, Walt felt it necessary to say something about it. In a speech he gave to the entire studio on February 10, 1941, he said:
“[An] ugly rumor is that we are trying to develop girls for animation to replace higher-priced men. This is the silliest thing I have ever heard of. We are not interested in low-priced help. We are interested in efficient help… First, I would like to qualify it with this: that if a woman can do the work as well, she is worth as much as a man… [T]he girl artists have the right to expect the same chances for advancement as men, and I honestly believe that they may eventually contribute something to this business that men never would or could.”
As the father of a young woman who loves to express herself creatively, I am so thankful for Scott and others like her who pursued their passions despite the naysayers. I want Emma to be able to chart her own course and let her talents take her to a place where she can shine for who she is and not what others expect her to be.
Hearing stories like Retta’s and others like her gives me hope for Emma’s future and the dreams she has for herself. I have to admit, I stockpile these tales of triumphant women and share them with my daughter regularly to give her the confidence that anything is possible.
Today, some of the best in the field of animation are women who proved Walt right. These talented female artists have added to the tapestry of animation in rich and innovative ways to make the industry better.
Retta proved to the men that she was worth her salt as an artist and animator, paving the way for women to follow in her footsteps. And I’m grateful for Walt’s forward-thinking, progressive vision. To say publicly that he not only believed women were worth as much as men and should be given the same opportunities for advancement was not heard often in those days.
The next time I watch Bambi I’ll be thinking about Retta, Walt, and the doors that have been opened for women and girls like my daughter.
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