Women in Animation: Interview with Lauren Faust, Mary Harrington, Margaret Dean, and more!

For many of us here at the Ace of Geeks, the 80s and 90s made up the golden era of cartoon television.  These were the animations we’d catch on Saturday mornings and the shows we might be able to sneak in on a weeknight if we had completed all of our homework on time.  Courtesy of Nickelodeon, last week at San Diego Comic Con we had an amazing opportunity to speak with some phenomenal women whose work in animation has inspired a whole new wave of creators – particularly women in animation.

Each person around the table had come to animation in television in a different way, although most had an interest in drawing from the beginning.  Lauren Faust (My Little Pony, The Powerpuff Girls) had moved out to California to study animation and then “one of my teachers offered me a job as an animator on a feature film, and I thought ‘well, that’s what I want to do’ so maybe I don’t need to graduate?”  Maija Burnett (California Institute of the Arts) then pointed out jokingly that the animation program where Faust had studied and left is the program that she currently directs.  Burnett herself was originally interested in drawing and playing the piano early on, but she found that animation was a way to bring those two mediums together.  Vanessa Coffey (Rugrats, The Ren & Stimpy Show) hadn’t originally intended to pursue animation, but she did enjoy painting throughout high school.  A friend of hers was a secretary for Stan Lee, and “so I did an internship for him…and that’s how I got started”.  

On the other hand, Mary Harrington (The Ren & Stimpy Show, Rocko’s Modern Life) had set out to be a television producer but found she was stuck with certain kinds of shows.  It wasn’t until she started working on smaller animation projects that she was able to gain some traction.  Harrington said that she “did get an opportunity shortly thereafter to go back into to live action, and I stayed [in animation]”.  Margaret Dean, the co-president of Women in Animation and General Manager for Stoopid Buddy Stoodios, studied experimental film and video at first and then went to UCLA for producing.  It was at a festival that she had a chance to meet with Frank Marshall, who later offered Dean an internship for the show Family Dog.

Rikki Asbjoern (Pinky Malinky, My Friend Pancake) pointed out that everyone else around the table had started off much closer to animation comparatively.  Although she always had an interest in drawing, Rikki had grown up in the countryside in Denmark and “didn’t even know there was an animation business…you just don’t think about that when you come from a small town.”  It wasn’t until she was about twelve years old that she heard about a Danish woman who had gotten a job for Disney, and then it clicked for her that there are people who do animation for a living.

The focus of their panel, She Made That: Nickelodeon Women in Animation, was both about how they’ve built their careers and about future opportunities for women in animation.  Margaret Dean had commented that when she was getting her foot in the door that animation was (and still is) a predominantly male industry.  Dean says that at the festival where she had met Frank Marshall “it was just a room full of young men, and me it felt like, there was maybe two or three other women there.”  Asbjoern agreed, and noted that the gender balance was nearly even when she went to school in Denmark, but as soon as she moved to London she found that oftentimes she was the only female on the creative side.

There does seem to be a climate shift within the industry taking place, and it was definitely noticeable among those around the table.  Faust commented that “right now in art schools and animation programs it’s sixty percent girls, which was absolutely not the case when I went to school.  There was like one girl for every twelve guys, and there were four girls in my class, so that is a huge shift.”  Burnett agreed, saying that “in our program at CalArts that we’re seventy-three percent female, which is the exact opposite of where we were ten years ago”.  

Dean cautioned that although the numbers for women in school for animation have gone up, that it’s not necessarily indicative of the industry as a whole.  “The growth of women in creative roles has not proportionally increased,” she says.  “As of last year only twenty percent of the creative roles in town have been held by women”.

When asked about what the industry can do to support this growth of women in the industry, Faust replied “It’s really up to the executives…They have to give female creators a shot and they have to seek them out.”  Rikki added that not only to executives need to seek them out, “but they need to support them” to which everyone around the table whole-heartedly agreed.  Dean really began to drive this point home, saying that executives need to make the extra effort to find women:

“There are some wonderfully pushy women that will put themselves out there and go for it, but overall women tend to hold back and they don’t have confidence in themselves.  So they’re not the ones that are going to go after you, even if they could be phenomenally talented.  They might not feel qualified for a job, so they won’t put themselves out and make themselves visible.  And I feel like all the people who are hiring, especially women who are hiring, need to really just beat the bushes and find these women and sort of pull them out and go ‘Come on!  Apply for this job! You have talent!'”

Faust also said to not be too humble, “because when a woman is humble people believe you.  You know, don’t be arrogant, but don’t say ‘oh I’m not that good’ because then they’ll be like ‘oh well she must not be'”.  It’s also important to insist that you’re getting credit where credit is due.  “I just thought ‘I’m not helping, I’m doing this work and I want my name on it’, and you know that was a big thing”.

It seems that although women are showing their numbers in schools, there is still a long way to go before the animation industry is gender-balanced.  Executives that are already in the industry need to hire more women (even if it means really taking the time to seek artists out), women need to speak up and receive credit where credit is due, and women who are interested in the animation industry need to be confident enough to speak to their abilities and to not be afraid of asking for more opportunities.


Special thanks to Nickelodeon, and to all of the women at the roundtable.

You can listen to the full interview here:

Stephanie Cala
Stephanie is the resident event planner, Pokémon trainer, a very shy newbie cosplayer, and a horrible amateur photographer. When she’s not playing D&D or playing with her puppy (or playing D&D with her puppy?), she’s likely to be found either behind a computer at work banging her head on the keyboard because people don’t update their Flash Players, or behind a different computer at home banging her head on a keyboard because COME THE F– ON I TOTALLY MADE THAT SHOT.

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