The Fairest in the Land

From Artist Discrimination to “It Gets Better”

Today marks the anniversary of the premiere of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the Carthay Circle Theater in Los Angeles. The movie was a hit–not just among theater goers, but among artists who sought potential work. One such individual was a Miss Mary T. Ford of Arkansas, who was looking to become an animator and wondering if she could attend their training school.

She wrote Walt Disney Productions months after Snow White came out and inquired about work. A response came back inviting her to apply to be an “Inker” or a “Painter” but noting that “Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that work is performed entirely by young men.”

Nearly 75 years later, such a response seems logically sillier than Silly Symphony. But back then men often had the opportunity to study professionally more than woman, so their talents were often more sought after than their female counterparts. To some degree, Walt liked to keep the men separate from the woman at the studio so as to keep people more focused on their work and not on other attractions. Again, all this seems crazy to us today, but was really quite the expectation back then. While I’ll leave it to others to write pages and chapters about Walt and whether he was discriminatory in any way, I have found for myself after 40 years of studying the man that he was more a product of his times, that he was as fair as any employer–if not fairer, and that he spent little time focusing on such matters when what really held his attention was the art that he created.

Of interest, I spoke to Mary’s grandson, who says that her grandmother never really mentioned anything about it, and didn’t hold a grudge against Disney. Indeed, she spoke of her love of Fantasia when it came out later.

That doesn’t mean that discrimination doesn’t happen, or that in any form it becomes appropriate. But such discrimination has occurred over the years with little thought about it being otherwise. Disney was probably seen as progressive as any back then. But such discrimination has occurred over the years. At one point, only men could drive the Storybook Canal boats. At another point, only women could do the job. At one point, if you were in an onstage location and you became pregnant you had to find work back stage or you were terminated. And back stage work was not a guarantee.

Times have changed dramatically. Yesterday Disney released an “It Gets Better” video helping those who deal with bullying or being labeled as being different. It comes from an organization within Disney that now focuses on issues of diversity known as PRIDE, or People Respecting Individual Diversities From Everyone. It includes leaders and front line Cast Members from across the Walt Disney Company. That company, while by no means perfect, seeks to be fairer in its treatment of others.

Whether one sees Disney as going off the deep end, or whether you wonder why Disney hasn’t gotten the message sooner, the truth is that Disney is very much a mirror to its times. Like other organizations, it is made up of individuals trying to figure out how to work better with others. In the end, we should all ask look in the mirror and ask if we are being fair with others.

Perhaps the best analogy to all this is found in the film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The movie stands out in many ways because of the dwarfs themselves. Walt emphasized not lumping all of the dwarfs into one category, but rather in naming them individually and seeing them for their own unique personalities. It is perhaps this perspective that best works for any one in any organization. If you want to be the “Fairest in the Land,” try considering them as individuals.

Here’s the link to the video, It Gets Better – Disney

It Gets Better – Disney