Pixar’s Sexist Boys Club
And My #MeToo Call For Radical Change
“The ‘old boy network’ refers to an informal system of friendships and connections through which men use their positions of influence by providing favors and information to help other men… These networks can be found all over the United States and internationally. Most important, many good ol’ boys networks are informal [and can] exist in any setting, from corporate to religious, to social and political associations.”
~Audrey Nelson PHD, Psychology Today
My American Dream
When I saw The Little Mermaid at six-years-old, my pint-sized, budding-artist soul was blown away. I started filling my school notebooks with doodles of Disney characters and quickly decided I wanted to work in animation when I grew up. So when I landed my “dream job” as an intern at Pixar at age 25, I thought for sure I’d made it in life. But it wasn’t long before I became engaged in my own mental game of tug of war about the place.
I can’t speak for all women who strive for success in the U.S., but I can tell you that my own red-hot pursuit of the American Dream had little to do with gaining power, influence or excessive wealth. Although my career goals were high reaching for a young woman from humble roots in Rust-Belt Pennsylvania, my core motivations were always pretty simple: I fiercely wanted to earn and maintain a sense of respect from others.
Greener than the Appalachians in the summertime, I thought if I proved myself as a competent professional than I’d no longer have to worry about being disregarded, degraded or oversimplified as little more than the sum of my feminine parts. That if I worked hard enough to land a seat with an admired company in a thriving part of the country, life would become kinder and more edifying to me than it had in the past.
But regardless of how proficient at hoop jumping I became –– no matter how many degrees, awards, performance bonuses or film credits I racked up –– that gracious, gratifying and more dignified version of a better life always seemed to evade me. And the disappointment of being so wrong about the world we live in cut so deep it nearly split my resolve in two.
The Whistleblower’s Conundrum
On behalf of all my sisters who must maintain anonymity to remain safe and stay gainfully employed, I’ve decided to come forward bearing my #MeToo truth with my full name attached.
But the choice to share a thorough account of my most triggering experiences with gender discrimination, sexism, harassment and sexual abuse –– both before and during my time at Pixar –– was not one I made lightly. In most of the below accounts, I’m admittedly not proud of the ways I handled things (or rather failed to handle them), and I don’t get joy in making myself a potential target for the #MeToo backlash movement of dismissers and victim-shamers. Nonetheless, I’ve decided to share an intensely personal overview of my sexual trauma history in a very public way, because I believe it provides the kind of context that men (and even some women) need to understand the true gravity of our insidious problems with sexism as a species.
I prefer to think of this article as a pro-equality manifesto instead of an anti-misogyny rant or an attack on masculinity. I have faith that my candid testimony –– as seen through an unapologetically female lens –– can serve as a cautionary tale, a symbolic case study and an emblematic catalyst. I hope this exposé will help to inspire companies and communities (big or small) to shift their cultures from places that safeguard sexist behaviors to principled spaces where men and women are honored and supported equally.
Big Picture Notes
After years of exploiting his position of power at Pixar and Disney, pressure from the #MeToo movement recently ousted Lasseter from his post as chief creative officer. But Pixar has yet to address how John’s sexist attitudes permeated its culture for decades, giving men license to mistreat women and sideline their careers.
I was a graphic designer at Pixar during the second half of my 20s. I know people are saying that the climate there wasn’t “that bad.” I’m here to tell you that it was, and more than likely still is. I’m here to remind you that silencing or brushing off any level of sexual oppression, inappropriateness, harassment or abuse — even those that may not be deemed criminal in a court of law — helps to normalize those behaviors, encouraging men with questionable integrity to push the boundaries of what is condoned in a given environment even further.
At Pixar, my female-ness was an undeniable impediment to my value, professional mobility and sense of security within the company. The stress of working amidst such a blatantly sexist atmosphere took its toll and was a major factor in forcing me out of the industry.
All that being said, I’d still like to attest to the fact that I did encounter some amazing male employees during my time with Pixar; men who truly walk the walk and live by the studio mantra of “a good idea can come from anywhere.”These kinds of guys gave equal credence to their female counterparts andtreated us like allies instead of adversaries or objects, and they deserve credit for occupying the space above the fray.
The decision to replace Lasseter with Jennifer Lee at Disney and Pete Docter at Pixar provides hope for meaningful change moving forward. Docter is known for being a gifted, inclusive filmmaker, and his gracious approach to leadership promises a vast improvement to the openly lecherous, boys club environment that Lasseter was paramount in cultivating.
A few years ago, Docter played a large part in advocating for the talent of a young story artist who has since become Pixar’s first-ever female short-film director, which is an amazing step in the right direction for lady storytellers. A recent article published in The SF Chronicle implied that opportunities and the climate has been improving for at least three featured female Pixarians, which is great news (especially if these sentiments are echoed by other women within the studio and the article represents more than just a crisis-controlling PR front).
But dismantling John’s legacy will take more than just replacing a single executive or releasing an article about the female contributions to a given film. Such deeply ingrained biases require deliberate, conscientious effort to identify and dismantle. Disney and Pixar must recognize that women and underrepresented minorities are just as capable, talented, complex and dimensional as the white fraternity of men who have monopolized animation thus far. Female narratives are worthy of world-class storytellers, and women deserve to be treated as respected equals in any creative community.
I’m well aware that the instances of indiscretion and gender bias I’m about to describe aren’t at all unique to Pixar, the animation industry or to Hollywood at large. In my 34 years of life experience and extensive travel, I’ve found that women are met with all varieties of lewd and dismissive treatment regardless of what social class, time zone or hemisphere we’re in. I also believe that a great deal of the harmful attitudes and biases against women are unintentional or unconscious at their core, like the phenomena Janet Crawford discussed in her TED Talk called “The Surprising Neuroscience of Gender Inequality.”
To my knowledge, the halls of Pixar are not filled with serial rapists or harassers of the hard-time-criminal variety, but the culture there is still far from squeaky clean or inclusive when it comes to male-female relations. In reading the latest #MeToo articles, it’s clear that lots of other well-known companies condoned much more extreme behaviors by comparison, but thatdoesn’t detract from my former employer’s legal and moral obligation to do better by the women in their ranks.
During my tenure as a young female artist at Pixar, I felt overtly targeted, harassed or physically threatened by male coworkers about a handful of times. Each of these most piercing encounters with the unhinged masculine were painful, unsettling, and effectively caste a murky blue, reality-checking tint over my rosy-colored dream job.
But it was actually those moments combined with the forces ofinstitutionalized enabling –– practices that safeguarded and propped up a whole gamut of sexist behaviors on a larger scale –– along with the consistent daily undertones of gender exclusion, that truly made me feel unwelcome and undervalued in a sea of seemingly thriving male coworkers. Although other women appeared to navigate their way around the pitfalls of the male-dominated studio, I eventually came to the conclusion that my hopes of feeling equally venerated or fulfilled in my career path there were unlikely to come to fruition.
The Bell-Jar Effect
In order for the #MeToo movement to accomplish its core goals of un-marginalizing the marginalized and dismantling sexist behaviors, we need to collectively expose a much fuller, nuanced picture of what sexism really looks like; of the breadth and frequency that ordinary girls and women face gender-loaded trauma throughout their lives.
To the average man –– or even a woman who has been less affected by gender-issues in her life –– it may be challenging to understand why non-violent forms of sexism and harassment are still in critical need of our attention. Not every woman develops the dramatic cognitive changes seen in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but many of us are considerably impacted (both consciously and unconsciously) by all-too-common subtle sexual traumas we experience in both childhood and adulthood. When left unexamined, these festering sexual wounds can actually alter a woman’s brain and body chemistry on a neurological, psychological and physiological level; deep below the surface of her own awareness.
An amalgamation of negative encounters with the opposite sex can turn what might be outwardly perceived as an innocuous act –– like an unwanted sexual advance, a sexist joke or remark, an extra long hug or a hand placed on a thigh –– into a serious disturbance to a woman’s sense of value, comfort, safety and well-being. When these smaller acts of inappropriateness mount up in a given week, month, year (or the length of a career), they have a tendency to reverberate off one another. Magnify the intensity of all these “minor” workplace incidents by the weight each individual woman carries from a potential lifetime of sexually-loaded stressors, then companies that placate lewd and questionable behaviors can manifest a deep, compounding and unbearable sense of disappointment, overwhelm and rage in the depths of a woman’s subconscious.
As female empowerment coach Lillie Claire Love wrote, in order to recalibrate the inherent harmonies between the masculine and the feminine, it’s necessary for men to first understand and “recognize the wounds that have been inflicted by his gender.” When we speak to a girl or a woman, in any environment, we should be conscious of the fact that we cannot conceivablypredict or perceive the depths of her past traumas or negative experiences with the opposite sex, Love explained.
While no two women respond to incidents of harassment, gender bias or exclusion the same, all women deserve to be treated with the same, upmost levels of dignity and respect. Period.
My Sexual Trauma History
When I walked under Pixar’s grandiose steel-beam gate on the first day of my graphic design internship at age 25, I was no stranger to unwanted sexual attention or behaviors that were harmful to women.
Growing up in an economically depressed, rural part of Western Pennsylvania, I’d witnessed numerous acts of abuse and violence towards women before graduating from elementary school. A social outcast during most of my childhood for being an awkward, ugly-duckling-type tomboy in a community that operated by strictly defined gender roles, my own unpleasant run-ins with the opposite sex started relatively young.
At 12, a boy I liked put his hand down my pants and tried to finger me on an amusement park ride. A common reaction for a confused child who was being molested, I froze, making my first sexual encounter a traumatic, non-consensual incident that would quickly come to haunt me. Just moments after violating me, he walked over to a group of boys from our grade to brag about it, sentencing me to years of taunting and bullying from the adolescent-boy hive-mind at my middle school. While I’d only ever willingly consented to an innocent kiss with a boy, I was nonetheless branded with the unshakable reputation as a “slut.”
Around the time I transitioned into puberty a few years later at 14, several other events shook me to my core.
One summer night I happened upon an adult male relative at a family picnic while the rest of the party guests congregated down the hill at a faraway bonfire. Stumbling and clearly intoxicated, he went in for a long hug but then refused to let me go. He proceeded to grope me in the dark yard until I was finally able to break free, but the incestuous sexual encounter would scar me for decades.
That same summer, I got drunk for my first time at a graduation party and naively followed a groups of older boys — who promised to show me a cool tree fort — into a nearby patch of woods. My adult self shudders to think of what might have happened to me if I hadn’t puked all over their shoes. From the patchy memories I have from that night, I can tell you that their intentions were shaping up to be far from pure.
In line with the statistics, a good many of my first harassers and abusers were people I knew. But then there were also the perfect strangers. In just a single year, a grown man living in the apartment across the street, who was literally twice my age (28 to my 14), regularly hounded me when I came and went for the school bus; another man attempted to sexually assault me on an Amtrak train; and a boy one grade ahead of me in school (who was later institutionalized for schizophrenia) stalked me for months on end. Facing this barrage of sexual aggression left me in state of continuous anxiety and fear, overwhelmed by threats that seemed to come from all sides.
Towards the end of middle school, I got an idea while taking a bath that would drastically change my day-to-day existence. I remember looking down at my newly formed breasts and hips; symbols of womanhood that I’d been pining to possess for years. When I thought about all the unwanted and abrasive attention those curves were attracting I started to feel sick to my stomach. Thinking that I would be better off if my curves just disappeared — if I were skinny and flat-chested again like I’d been before puberty — I decided to stop eating for the rest of the day. By the end of the week I’d consumed nothing more than a few cups of coffee, a lot of water and a few baby carrots. For the next two years, my life was consumed by the gruesome binging and purging cycles of a dedicated anorexic-bulimic and I refused to allow my weight to go over 95 pounds.
Subconsciously overwhelmed by an already sizable list of unresolved sexual traumas, starving myself became a source of release and self-preservation. Looking back on it, I don’t know how effective this strategy was in deterring the attention of the boys and men who looked at me with predatory volition, but I have immense compassion for the young, overwhelmed young woman I was at that time; grasping for a sense of control in an atmosphere that had become unbearable.
Before I’d reached the legal age for consent, I’d been confronted by formidable behaviors from boys at school, from men in my neighborhood and even at family events. Next would come the workplace.
During the four year span that I was employed by a local Italian restaurant as a hostess, I would be grabbed, taunted and harassed by the adult patrons, my coworkers and even the owner of the establishment where I landed my first after-school job. The man whose name was on the restaurant awning was my father’s age and a good friend of my grandparents, but that didn’t stop him from regularly putting his arm around me (so he could look down my shirt) or pretending to accidentally drop things in the kitchen (so he could order me, insistently, to bend over and pick it up in front of a kitchen full of snickering line cooks) when I was as young as 15. Male patrons would regularly jeer and leer at me when I walked through the dining hall. A female coworker once yelled for attention then pulled up my skirt in front of a fully staffed kitchen so everyone could have a good look at my exposed lower half. One particularly wealthy and well-respected older man told me I couldn’t have the very large tip he was offering unless I let him stuff it down my shirt. After waiting on a large party of his business associates all afternoon, the man left me nothing and complained to my boss that I was “uptight” when I refused to humor him.
After at least a year of consistent harassment, humiliation and tongue-biting, I finally mustered up the courage to report what I was experiencing to my female manager. A few days later, I came in to work to hear that she had confronted the restaurant owner, gotten into an explosive argument with him and had subsequently been fired. I started applying for a lottery of other jobs but got no call backs. Needing the income, I forced myself to return to the morally-bankrupt work environment for several more years, until I finally left home for college, despite the anxiety I felt before every shift.
In speaking up about these uncomfortable truths to my manager, I had effectively accomplished next to nothing for myself and had cost a conscientious and hard-working single mother — who I considered an ally — her job. This experience informed how I would come to feel about reporting disturbing behaviors in the workplace in the future; with serious trepidation and skepticism.
I eventually recovered from my eating disorder with the help of my sister and counseling, but drugs and alcohol became my next, more culturally acceptable method for numbing out and escaping reality. After a few years as a constantly intoxicated teenager, a series of events forced me to wake up from my chemically altered headspace long enough to shift my focus to my schoolwork (and my small-town exit strategy) around junior year of high school.
Despite all the naysayers who challenged my dreams of becoming an artist or a writer, I put all my stock into my tough-as-nails grandmother’s advice, who told me that if I worked hard enough I could accomplish just about anything. She encouraged me to think bigger than what “all these fuddy-duddies” have to say about a woman’s place in the world. “In my day, us girls had one choice: get married, become a housewife, raise the kids. But you can be so much more than that — so go get it,” she said.
I desperately wanted to prove that I wasn’t inferior, weak, incapable or unintelligent. More than anything, I hoped that if I somehow pulled off my own version of the American Dream, then I could finally earn the consideration and respect that I believed — somewhere deep within myself — I’d always been deserving of.
By high school graduation I’d changed a lot of diapers, led hundreds of camp songs, and seated and waited on countless tables to pad my bank account for my big dreams. When I applied for student loans and blew all my hard-earned savings on my first tuition bill at an expensive private college, people in my town said I’d be in debt to my eyeballs for the rest of my natural life. My decision to attend a “yuppy school” drove a wedge between me and members of my family, because some of them believed I was naive, that the world was going to chew me up and spit me out and I was likely making a very expensive mistake.
Letting their pessimism fuel my determination, I did everything in my power to prove my skeptics wrong. I worked feverishly hard in college to earn top-tier grades and stay financially afloat, juggling several work-study jobs and mailing out a constant stream of scholarship essay submissions, while simultaneously blowing off steam and self-medicating my anxiety with alcohol and an active party life. While I earned the respect of my professors, my attempts to fit in with the affluent student population at my college were largely a bust. In many ways it felt like they were from some bizarre foreign country, not nearby upstate New York and New Jersey.
In college, I quickly discovered that working-class men weren’t the only ones capable of barbaric behavior towards women. During that four-year period, I was sexually assaulted numerous times, date raped by an upperclassman (who was later revealed to be a serial rapist), and was bullied and harassed by an entire hall of male freshman dorm residents (who I’d been tasked with managing as one of the university’s Resident Assistants).
As for my love life, throughout my late-teens into my mid-twenties I struggled through not just one, but two, long-term relationships with young men who eventually became verbally and physically abusive towards me, typically under the influence of alcohol. Given the fact that addiction problems were rampant in my hometown and many of the relationships I’d witnessed growing up were marked by inebriated violence, I didn’t know how to expect or demand much more for myself.
After graduating college with a bachelor’s degree, I entered the so-called real world, working for a year as a graphic designer at a marketing firm in Pittsburgh (about an hour’s drive from where I grew up). I faced gendered hostility from yet another male boss who constantly belittled and demeaned me. Fed up with him, the company and the culture of sexism that seemed to saturate home, I decided to take on even more student debt to get my MFA in graphic design, far away in Savannah, Georgia.
During that intense, two-year academic period, I finally felt massively venerated and joyful in my work. I was, at long last, recognized and rewarded for the quality of my ideas and my diligence on high-scoring, award-winning design projects. I thrived socially, making friends with a large international group of fellow graduate students who all took their studies and professional achievements just as seriously as I did.
Things were looking up in my world, but even during this more gratifying time, sex once again cast a shadow on my path. Just before graduation, a competitive classmate spread rumors that I was trading sexual favors for good grades. Though this was baseless gossip that thankfully went unacknowledged by the university, it stung deep to have my hard work dismissed in lieu of my sexuality, effectively tarnishing my reputation and calling everything I’d worked so hard to accomplish into question to anyone who caught wind of the tall-tale.
The Pixar Chapter
Just four days after receiving my master’s diploma, I found myself walking the sparkly halls of Pixar on the faraway planet of San Francisco, California — a city, state and studio I’d only ever witnessed on screen. Elated to gain access to the famed animation campus as one of two graphic design interns, our morning orientation felt like some otherworldly dream. But before I even had the chance to sit down in the fancy swivel chair in my new office, a seasoned employee waved a red flag about the kind of behavior (or misbehavior) I could expect in the studio.
“Oh, John’s gonna LOVE you,” he remarked about one of Pixar’s highest ranking executives, teasing and warning me at the same time. During the next few days, male and female employees alike told me that the company’s Creative Chief Officer, John Lasseter, could be touchy-feely with members of the opposite sex; that he had a tendency to make sexually charged comments to and about women; that interactions with him were often uncomfortable or even mortifying for female Pixarians. The women who endured this unwanted attention often had a less flippant take on it, but on a broader level there was a collective attitude of, “Oh, ha ha; that’s just our John.”
But John wasn’t the only prominent male personality in the company to have his own whisper network. I was likewise told to steer clear of a particularly chauvinistic male lead in my department.
“He goes on rants all the time about how he thinks American women are revolting, unattractive and sloppy in comparison to the beautiful creatures from his part of the world,” said one of the female artists who’d worked under the production designer (the chief artist who directs and manages all the visual aspects of a film). “But trust me, that won’t stop him from hitting on you.” Much like John, this man’s female targets had been reporting his vulgar, unprofessional behaviors for years, but his position and demeanor remained much the same. She instructed me to avoid him and do my best not to land a spot on his team.
Between the lines of my coworker’s warnings, she clued me in to several things about the Pixar culture that I found deeply disturbing: 1) this was a company that not only continued to employ but allowed known harassers to maintain positions of power; 2) such men felt emboldened enough to regularly express sexist, disrespectful thoughts about women in both private and public settings; 3) the burden of managing these kinds of lewd behaviors fell squarely on the shoulders of the company’s female employees, with little to no support from management.
To say I expected more from the men and women calling the shots at Pixar would be a gross understatement. I wasn’t fully aware of it at the time, but on a subconscious level it was devastating to learn — right from the start — that women were open targets for disrespect and abuse, even at a world-renowned workplace in the most liberal-leaning city in the country.
And the flood of reality-checking blows continued to roll in.
During week two of my internship, I was making tea in one of the company kitchens when the production designer I’d been warned about approached me to introduce himself. When I told him my name, he said, “I already know who you are,” with a sideways grin while he looked me up and down with predatory volition, insinuating that my reputation preceded me. When he said he recognized my surname and my look from his part of the world, the hair all over my body stood up on high alert. He told me he was excited to finally have a beautiful face from his motherland in the studio.
I smiled and nodded, said nice to meet you and scampered off down the hall so fast I burnt my hand with hot tea. Even though his intended compliment creeped me out, in some ways I felt relieved that I was “his type” and might dodge the insults and bullying that he was known to dish out to women he didn’t find attractive. When I turned the corner to my office I peeked back down the hall. Sure enough, he was still standing exactly where I’d left him, watching me walk away with wolf-like intensity.
Over the years, I white-knuckled my way through many unwelcome, objectifying interactions with him, with Lasseter and other men. A big part of me is disappointed in the ways I didn’t handle those encounters. There were opportunities there — for me to push back on men who were flexing and asserting their sexual dominance over me; to establish healthy boundaries and demand that they speak to me with respect and not treat me like a sex object; to ask my supervisors (or the HR department) to help me in holding them accountable for their loose tongues and poor behaviors, and to give the man in question a chance to course-correct. More importantly, I had opportunities to protect other women from being belittled and objectified like that in the future, but I didn’t take them.
My fierce desire to land and keep a coveted job with the one of the world’s most exclusive animation studios — and the fact that I’d been well trained in the not-so-admirable art form of stomaching and absorbing moments of sexual harassment throughout my lifetime — held me back from speaking out.I also recalled how my pleas for help had backfired on me when I reported harassment at my high-school restaurant job, so I decided to follow suit with many other female Pixarians, who would privately warn one another which men to avoid, but otherwise kept their discomfort to themselves.
Pushing back on or reporting this man would have been the more dignified and principled response, but I cannot say with confidence that either path would have been the most beneficial for my budding career in animation. During my five years there, I’d witnessed several women fall from grace after failed attempts to stand up to or question the behavior of a male lead. These women often had a hard time getting cast on subsequent projects after being branded “difficult” by leadership (a sentiment that was usually then echoed by her peers), and were later even laid off or demoted by the company.
Even though I had countless uncomfortable encounters with the chauvinist production designer, I wasn’t getting the worst of his behavior. As one of the fortunate female artists who was never assigned to his team, I wasn’t subjected to his crass and inappropriate nature on a daily basis. But a friend and former coworker of mine wasn’t so lucky. The ex-employee gave me permission to anonymously share her testimony about her experiences with the department lead:
“He knew from early interactions with me that I wasn’t going to play along with his antics. Instead he would make demeaning or sexist comments about women around me, even during meetings with the rest of the team. He would complain that what people thought of as his bad behavior was normal conduct in his ‘home country’ and that Americans were too sensitive. I would challenge him on these comments which only increased his anger towards me.
I began to feel very uncomfortable around this individual because he would often try to antagonize me during meetings and give me dirty glares in the hallways. I asked to be moved onto a different project. I found out that he has a long history of bad behavior, and that many people refused to work with him. Most everyone on my team was a new hire, and I believe he was in charge of our team because we weren’t aware of his history and less likely to make a fuss. When he found out that I had reached out to complain about his behavior he would no longer speak to me and wouldn’t come to my office to review my work.
When it came time for me to have a performance review, I was warned that the review from him was going to be negative. I asked that the other two production designers that I had worked with also review me, and I was told that they would not be asked. One of them told me that he had tried to talk on my behalf but that it wouldn’t be used as a formal performance review.
When I had my official performance review, this production designer used it as an opportunity to unload his anger on me. He said that my behavior was disruptive, and that it had caused us to no longer be able to have group discussions because I wouldn’t talk to him with the authority he deserved.
When I had my exit interview with the studio I told them about his inappropriate behavior. They told me that they were aware of the situation and that he would be talked to. A few months later he was promoted, and I have heard from other people that his bad behavior continues.”
It’s hard not to wonder if the friction my friend experienced with this man, and the negative performance review she received from him, may have played a role in the company’s decision to lay her off with a group of 190 other employees in 2012.
But my tactic of “going along with the program” wasn’t the most fruitful for my career path either. In 2010, shortly after I’d started working on my third feature film, Cars 2, my female art department manager approached me to relay some unsettling news.
“We’ve decided it’s best if you don’t attend art reviews on this production,” she announced, looking over the wall of my cubicle. “John has a hard time controlling himself around young pretty girls, so it will be better for everyone if we just keep you out of sight,” she said with a shoulder shrug, referring to our film’s director and the company’s CCO. Before I had a chance to respond, her floating head disappeared.
My face flushed red hot with shock, then disappointment, then rage. At the time, I’d never formally been introduced to the animation demigod. But true to his reputation, just about every time I passed the well-known director on campus — who was always being whisked from point A to B by an entourage of eager assistants, sidekicks and wranglers — he would look me up and down with the cheek-to-cheek grin of a Cheshire Cat and the jovial, carefree strut of a powerful man who knew he pretty much owned the place.
Reeling from the news that the I was being thrown out of our weekly art reviews because of the big boss’s lasciviousness, I wasn’t even sure who to direct my anger towards — knowing the problem was so much bigger than John. The legendary filmmaker presumably had no idea his entourage of yes-men were going around preemptively removing young women from his path, and I’m sure my manager wasn’t the primary brain behind this conflict-avoiding strategy. My gut told me that this exclusion tactic came from mid-level managers who were shielding John (and the company at large) from a potential lawsuit, and that it had little to do with protecting me. It was clear that the institution was working hard to protect Lasseter, at the expense of women like me.
I was crushed to have my participation in the filmmaking process — and quite possibly my career trajectory — thwarted simply because I was female. Missing weekly art review meetings meant I wouldn’t be able to pitch, articulate my ideas or discuss my work with the director one-on-one like everyone else on the team. It meant I wouldn’t be present for important conversation about his vision for the film, or to listen to the feedback and thoughts of a man who’s known around the world for his creative genius.
The fact that management would hold me back from that art room and deny me my hard-earned place at the table — rather than confronting the most important and high-ranking man in the company about the ways in which he regularly targeted and mortified the women in his presence –– was deeply demoralizing to me. I was 26-years-old at the time and didn’t want to be branded as one of the “difficult” women who put up a fuss, so I blinked away the tears, took a deep breath and did what I knew how to do best: I put my head back down and kept working.
When the day of our next art review arrived I watched in stone silence as the big man himself walked past my cubicle with his entourage in tow, the rest of the art department already waiting inside for his arrival. As the door, which was just three feet in front of my desk, slammed shut behind them, it felt like a proverbial door was closing on my career.
But Lasseter didn’t need an intimate setting to make female employees uncomfortable. He gave out countless lecherous looks (or unwanted hugs and touches) to women he passed every day on campus. He was known for kissing on and groping women at studio events and wrap parties, even the wives and girlfriends of his subordinates.
The entire Pixar workforce witnessed the sleazy spin John brought to the studio’s annual Halloween bash. Quite a few of my female friends refused, year after year, to enter the costume contest — even if they’d worked for hours on a prize-worthy outfit — because of how infamously uncomfortable the costume parade became. If Lasseter found a woman attractive when she got on stage, he’d ask her to repeatedly spin around or bombarded her with suggestive comments, turning the event into yet another lewd spectacle. These very public displays were so cringeworthy and inappropriate (to not only the women who braved the stage but also to the general audience) that the company eventually asked a lead animator to take over as the master of ceremonies.
Lasseter’s open sexism set the tone from the top, emboldening others to act like frat boys in just about any campus setting. I’ll never forget the day a director compared his latest film to “a big-titted blond who was difficult to nail down” in front of the whole company, a joke that received gasps of disapproval.
Not surprisingly, tactless behavior towards women had a way of trickling all the way down through the ranks. About halfway through my time at the studio, I had a more intimate, disturbing physical encounter with a brazen male employee from outside my department. During an after-work celebration at one of Pixar’s employee-run bars, the coworker smacked and then grabbed my ass with a considerable amount of force while I was waiting for a volunteer bartender to make me a drink. Like a deer in headlights, I froze until my violator stumbled drunkenly away from me. The bar was loud, low-lit and filled shoulder-to-shoulder with intoxicated employees. I looked around, but no one seemed to have noticed what had just happened.
A few minutes after this encounter, I left the work party to head home, equal parts infuriated, shaken-up and perplexed. I replayed the moment in my mind over and over again. I had no doubt been caught completely off-guard, but I couldn’t wrap my head around my utter lack of response to such a deeply disturbing and violating interaction. Similar to the time that a complete stranger covertly stuck his hand under my skirt and grabbed my vagina in a packed San Francisco bar before slipping away into the crowd, a wave of strange heat had come over me immediately after his unwelcome hand made contact with my body.
I have since come to understand that this phenomenon is actually an automatic chemical response to physical aggression. Formally referred to as “tonic immobility” or “playing dead mode,” a sensation of paralysis occurs when the parasympathetic nervous system is triggered; a reaction that occurs in 7 out of 10 women who experience assault. According to studies reported on by LiveScience, this involuntary response literally puts a person’s muscles in a catatonic-like state during which they cannot move, may be unable to speak or become unresponsive.
At the time I wasn’t aware of the science behind all this, and felt confusion, shame and self-blame about not reacting to the incident in real time. Focused on what I thought were my own mistakes that night, I decided not to report the experience the following Monday. I don’t doubt that many similar incidents may have gone unreported in the studio for similar reasons.
LA Times reporter, David Ng, described the atmosphere at Pixar rather bluntly in a recent article about John and the studio he was pivotal in creating:
“Now [Pixar’s] former golden boy faces accusations that he presided over a rowdy fraternity environment where female employees found themselves looking from the outside in, unable to succeed or ascend the corporate hierarchy due to what some say is a systemic bias that extends beyond Lasseter…
In interviews with The Times, nine former Pixar employees described an ingrained culture that makes it difficult for female employees to thrive, in addition to being a place where crude remarks about women and inappropriate touching occurred. They said the studio has perpetuated a system in which the company’s creative leaders, who are mainly men, are treated as royalty and are protected at all costs.”
I eventually found much-needed support and unity with other female coworkers. While I found it healing to bond with a fellowship of women who could understand and personally relate to the many hurdles I faced as a female minority in the studio, it was equally as disheartening to hear your own hardships echoed in the mouths of so many other ambitious, talented and capable women, even across generations.
I realized that others had also been inappropriately touched or demeaned by men in the company. Many of us knew how discouraging it felt to pour our hearts into every project that landed on our desks, but receive more praise and acknowledgment for our appearance or our fashion choices than our ideas and highly-skilled contributions.
Most of us knew what it was like to be excluded from lively conversations that would fall silent when we entered conference rooms or offices that were dominated by men. We’d worked for and alongside male leaders who would interrupt or talk over us, who wouldn’t acknowledge our presence in the room or repeatedly passed us over for projects and opportunities, while guys in our departments were often given more work than they could handle. We often made light of our similar experiences with men who got nervous — or just plain awkward — with us in a given workday, and sometimes laughed together about the lack of charisma and social skills that many of our “manolescent” counterparts in Hawaiian shirts and graphic tees had in common.
We each formed our own strategies for facing a system designed to protect male leads at all costs; men who often treated us like outsiders or objects. Determined to remain part of one of the world’s most visionary companies, many of us kept silent about these disheartening experiences, because we understood that the price for speaking out was high.
As I mentioned previously, those who did speak up were often let down by management, even when those managers were fellow women. One female friend had a particularly hard time getting support when a life threatening illness got in the way of her work duties. She had been hospitalized for months and was still dealing with serious health issues after returning to work, but when she attempted to communicate these challenges to her female manager, she felt dismissed and even threatened.
“You know that you’re replaceable, don’t you?” the manager said with a biting tone. My friend continued to have harsh interactions with this manager, who was known for dismissing and even bullying those who turned to her for help, especially when those subordinates were women.
Without the advocacy of her supervisor, tensions quickly rose between my friend and her two male department heads, who started to verbally accost herin her cubicle over their unmet expectations. One male art director continued to scold her even when she started to cry, then physically blocked the doorway so she couldn’t get out during the confrontation, she told me.
Feeling threatened and upset by this combative behavior, my friend scheduled a meeting with her lead department manager. Shortly after she sat down, it was clear that she wouldn’t be getting much support there either.
“What did you do to make him so angry?” the manager asked accusingly. “I was just yelled at this morning, this is how it works here — it’s normal,” she said, shaming her for not being more proficient at stomaching abuse. Even as my friend’s medical problems began to improve, things got continually worse for her at work:
“I was isolated in a remote office and my responsibilities were taken away from me. My attempts to find assignments were time and again turned down and I was cast aside without enough work to do. That daily occurrence of put-downs resulted in the feeling of being constantly rejected. You know your work environment is poisoned when you start throwing up the night before the start of your work week. After seeing two other female artists demoted and fired on that same show, I ended up being let go [from the studio] as well.”
Many female artists experienced long recurring periods of inactivity between film productions — what the studio calls “carrying cost” — that caused us to worry about our job security and dwindling professional skills. Women were not the only ones to go on carrying cost, but these dormant work periods certainly seemed more common for employees who used the restrooms marked by Bo-Peep instead of the Woody silhouette. This phenomenon had no obvious connection to merit — our busier male colleagues hadn’t distinguished themselves in any special way and yet somehow became favorites.
Despite the fact that I received uncommonly high raises and performance bonuses every year and was told I was articulate, fast and proficient at my job while on production, I was put on carrying-cost for literally the last year and a half that I was gainfully employed by the studio. During this period, I was expected to come into the studio during regular office hours, to reach out to support departments for potential side projects (like studio t-shirt designs and event posters), take or teach classes through Pixar University or devise other creative ways to kill time. But as a driven and passionate career woman, each month of passing dormancy felt like a cruel and unusual kind of torture for me. Riddled with guilt and anxiety about my job standing and future, I suffered from insomnia and spent most days submerged by feelings of depression and an overwhelming sense of purposelessness.
Long before my anxiety-inducing dry-spell had begun, I caught wind that Pixar was finally making a second film with a lead female character, and immediately knew I wanted to be a part of it. The imaginative new original, Inside Out, was about an 11-year-old tomboy who struggles with a move from the rural countryside to big city San Francisco. I was thrilled at the chance to work on a film that so closely resembled my own life story.
But it wasn’t long before that excitement was checked by a more seasoned employee. “[The Production Designer] gets all clammy and weird around women and is good friends with [The Artist], so don’t expect to get cast on that show,” said a male, mid-level department head who knew the studio politics well. Lo and behold, [The Artist] was cast as the sole designer on the film for several years, and my requests to share the workload with him (even though I had little else to do with my days) were continuously ignored, no matter how stressed out and overstretched he became.
During my five years in the art department, the production designer role was exclusively occupied by men, mostly who had been grandfathered in to the company back in their early Redwood City days. This team of male leaders were well known — in and outside the art department — for their abusive management styles: one an obsessive-compulsive neurotic type (infamous for overworking his team and over-stretching the budget to suit his perfectionism), several temperamental hot-heads (known for their frequent explosive and emotional outbursts), and a younger, boy-emperor type (infamous for his lack of professionalism and tendency to throw his subordinates under the bus when the director wasn’t pleased).
These stereotypically masculine, destructive leadership styles were well known across employees, management and HR. But the chaos caused by their counterproductive approaches fell before everyone else to navigate, and any feedback that was expressed seemingly never made it up the ladder to equally challenge the men in charge. An art department manager once told me that most of her job consisted of following around the show’s Tasmanian Devil-like production designer to “put out the many fires he started.” Feeling powerless to confront him directly, she spent much of her workday comforting and soothing the people that he upset with his brash communications.
Management and production teams across the studio were well known for cleaning up the messes of the poorly-behaving powerful men in our midst.Here’s another account from a female coworker that echoes this trend:
“During my internship I was invited to a meet-and-greet event at a bar on campus. A lead employee in the department — a grown man of 40 years old — pushed me with his two hands on my back, spilling my water everywhere. His guy-crew laughed at the situation. An assistant pulled me aside telling me, ‘It’s normal, he just likes you.’
The following week, he spotted me in the hallway at work and started yelling at me ‘Hey intern! Why so quiet?’ He was drinking on the job with his friends, and followed me to my desk to see where I was sitting. Knowing full well that the production team supported this kind of behavior, I felt like there was nothing I could do to stop his kindergarten, harassing antics so I smiled and nodded and did my best to humor him while I held my breath and waited for him to leave.”
While the male leads in the company seemed to operate above the rule of law and accountability — always to be treated with trepidation, the utmost care and respect — the few women in leadership roles lacked backing and basic respect from the institution and the masses. Female leads were often forced into no-win situations, either suppressing their abilities — in order to make men feel more comfortable — or taking charge and risking being labeled “difficult” or “unlikable.”
A female lead in my department once begged her bosses to bring on more artists to help her with a challenging, long-term production project. Her superiors repeatedly ignored her requests, until the stress of the job led her to psychological and physical breakdown. When she went on sabbatical to recover, her male replacement was given a team of half a dozen artists to help him complete the same task.
There weren’t many female leads in the studio, but the women that occupied the prestigious job title of producer were often vilified as “bitches” by the company whisper network. I admit, the rumors about one particular producer were so relentless that I found myself tightening up with tension when I passed her in the halls.
I never worked on any of the films produced by this supposedly “ball-busting” female, and for years had no personal contact with her until I was assigned to a studio-wide project that all the producers were asked to weigh in on. In the months following, I had the pleasure of regularly being in the same room as this widely-feared woman during several round table discussions. I was surprised (and quite frankly, blown away) by how consistently articulate, quick-witted, professional and effective she was as a leader. I couldn’t believe this was the same woman the gossip mill had pegged as a “difficult” person, when I found her nothing short of impressive.
Brenda Chapman’s controversial experience with Pixar provides a uniquely high-profile illustration of gender inequality in the studio. Brenda came to Pixar with a long, established career in animation under her belt. She’d worked at Disney as a story artist on The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, then was promoted to head of story on The Lion King. Despite being wildly outnumbered by men at the time, the filmmaker told BuzzFeed she wasn’t particularly aware of much bias against women during her many years with Disney. Brenda then went on to direct her own feature animation film with DreamWorks called The Prince of Egypt, which was released in 1998.
When she was brought on at Pixar in 2003, Brenda was the only woman in the studio’s story department. She’d been recruited by Braintrust member and Story Lead, Joe Ranft, who wanted her to fix the female characters in the film Cars. “Those flimsy female cars (who were all kind of secondary to their male counterparts) were too far along for my help,” Chapman said.
Soon after, Brenda began developing her own project. Released in 2012, Brave would come to be the first of Pixar’s 13 films to feature a female lead character. But as Variety Magazine put it, “that film was not an unalloyed triumph for feminism.” Halfway through production in 2010, Pixar fired Brenda — the studio’s first (and only) female director in the company’s history — and replaced her with a man.
Curious about the downfall of such an accomplished, groundbreaking woman, I began taking the company pulse soon after Brenda’s firing had been announced. To the general population of the studio — many of whom had never worked on Brave because it was not yet in full-steam production — it seemed as though Brenda’s firing was considered justifiable. Rumor had it that she had been indecisive, unconfident and ineffective as a director. But for me and others who worked closely with the second-time director, there was a palpable sense of outrage, disbelief and mourning after Brenda was removed from the film.
One artist, who’d been on the Brave story team for years, passionately told me how she didn’t find Brenda to be indecisive at all. Brenda knew exactly what film she was making and was very clear in communicating her vision, the story artist said, and the film she was making was powerful and compelling.
“From where I was sitting, the only problem with Brenda and her version ofBrave was that it was a story told about a mother and a daughter from a distinctly female lens,” she explained. It would never fit neatly into the Pixar canon of films made exclusively from and for the male perspective, she explained with audible heaviness in her throat. I would later hear these same kinds of sentiments echoed even by male crew members who lived through the director change.
During the summer of 2009, I personally worked on Brave while Brenda was still in charge. I likewise never felt that she was uncertain about the kind of film she was making, or how to go about making it. In my opinion, Brenda was a passionate and gifted filmmaker; brimming with admirable qualities that you don’t find in just any director. I found her to be humble, compassionate, attentive, trusting and inclusive with the people on her team, and I’m not the only one.
Emma Coats, a former Pixar story artist who worked on Brave, told BuzzFeedthat Brenda would advocate for those who were often talked over in meetings. “[She] would quiet the room and be like, ‘Emma, you started to say something,’” helping Coats to realize that her ideas were worthwhile and reminding others to listen. Coats eventually left Pixar, and animation all together, because of how disheartened she was about what happened to Brenda in 2010.
“To me, she could’ve behaved exactly the way any of the male directors behaved, but it would have been taken differently,” Coats told reporter Ariane Lange. “Without Brenda…there’s nobody I can look up to… Imitating the guys isn’t gonna give me the same results as it gives them… When she was removed from her project, I felt kind of lost,” she said. “I can’t see why what happened to her wouldn’t happen to me,” Coats concluded.
More recently, actress and screenwriter Rashida Jones and her professional partner Will McCormack addressed their decision to leave their posts as writers on Toy Story 4. While Rashida denied the rumors that they parted ways with Pixar because of unwanted sexual advances from the studio’s creative chief, she spoke briefly to the press about the “philosophical differences” that prompted the duo to abort the project.
“There is so much talent at Pixar and we remain enormous fans of their films,” Jones told The New York Times. “But it is also a culture where women and people of color do not have an equal creative voice, as is demonstrated by their director demographics: out of the 20 films in the company’s history, only one was co-directed by a woman and only one was directed by a person of color. We encourage Pixar to be leaders in bolstering, hiring, and promoting more diverse and female storytellers and leaders. We hope we can encourage all those who have felt like their voices could not be heard in the past to feel empowered.”
Rashida joined Pixar during the tail end of my time with the company. I once asked a male coworker on the Toy Story 4 crew what she was like to work with. He said something along the lines of, “She comes to work everyday a frumpy mess with no makeup and her hair pulled back. She looks nothing like a movie star in person.”
“I didn’t ask you what she looked like at work; I asked you what she was like towork with,” I said, and walked away. I wasn’t at all surprised to hear that Jones had left the project early, and was truly inspired by her decision to speak out about what she observed within the studio to The Times.
Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, has helped me make sense of the way women were treated at Pixar. As discussed in the best-selling book, an experiment conducted at Columbia Business School in 2003 showed that our subconscious gender biases often have the effect of branding successful women, especially those in leadership roles, as dislikable while male leaders with similar qualities are seen as deserving and admirable.
The researchers presented one group of mixed gender students with a story of a successful entrepreneur named Heidi, and another mixed group with the same story about Howard. While both groups rated Heidi and Howard as competent, the majority of students who read the Heidi bio found her to be dislikable, selfish, manipulative and someone they would not want to work for. The response to Howard, whose bio was identical except for the name, was almost unanimously positive.
Deborah Gruenfeld, of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, made some poignant comments about the study:
“The more assertive a student found the female venture capitalist to be, the more they rejected her… Research has demonstrated a negative correlation for women between power and success. For men, the relationship is positive, i.e., successful men are perceived as more powerful and are revered. A fundamental challenge to women’s leadership arises from the mismatch between the qualities traditionally associated with leaders and those traditionally associated with women.”
I could relate to the feeling of being “damned if you do; damned if you don’t” as a woman in the studio. The day I received my last performance review I realized that my efforts to prove myself as a valuable asset to the company weren’t likely ever coming to fruition. The positive column was sparsely populated and the negative column listed things like, “designs too many options; seems like she’s trying too hard; asks too many questions to her superiors.” When I shared the document with my very candid male mentor, who openly acknowledged the culture of sexism at Pixar, he said “if you were a man, every single one of those negatives would be in the positive column.” From there, it was hard to see a path forward. Physically and mentally burnt out from years of bumping my head against the glass ceiling, I left Pixar at age 30, hoping to find a workplace where I could genuinely thrive.
While most people are not consciously aware of their own bias, women everywhere are still widely expected to remain communal, selfless and submissive in order to be liked and appreciated, even in the notoriously liberal city of San Francisco.
I unknowingly encountered these unconscious biases, and maybe even acted from them myself, at the very start of my time at Pixar. One day during my internship, I baked a pie and brought it in to share with my team for a morning department meeting. It wasn’t until years later, when I picked up Lean In, that I would recognize the uncanny (and kind of comical) presence of gender bias in my boss’s response.
Up until that morning — about half way into my ten-week internship — my male production designer had strangely avoided making much eye contact with me; though I doubt he was even consciously aware of it. Every time I presented to or met with him (either in the art room or at check-in meetings in my office), he would direct his thoughts and feedback on my work to one of the two male graphic designers I’d been assigned as mentors, as though I wasn’t even in the room. As a very social, outgoing guy who was warm and friendly to everyone else on the team, I found this avoidant behavior from my first boss to be both confusing and unnerving.
The morning that I brought in the pie, he finally looked me right in the eyes with a fruit-tart-filled smile on his face. He said something to the effect of, “You can be on my team any time if you bake like this!” He had no problem acknowledging me from that moment forward, perhaps because I’d finally behaved in a way that felt gender-normative and was subconsciously more appealing to him.
My mission at Pixar wasn’t to win my bosses over with pies, of course — I wanted the chance to prove myself and was determined to contribute as much as I could to a company whose work I genuinely believed in. I’ve always been the kind of employee who hatches big ideas beyond what’s asked of me; lists of them even. Though I was hired to design graphics for the films, my terminal master’s degree program included broad theoretical education in “design thinking.” According to Tim Brown, CEO of the world-famous design and consulting firm, IDEO, “design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”
Over the years, I had occasionally shared some of my bigger-picture thoughts and ideas about ways to adapt or amend our department’s processes — strategies to improve efficiency, morale and job satisfaction — to leads, and to little avail. Then I read an interesting suggestion that I’ll paraphrase from Lean In: if you have ideas that you think would improve your project or work environment — but you have a feeling those suggestions won’t be taken seriously coming from your mouth as a woman — than give credit to a man in the company to see if the idea might have a better chance of survival.
So I did just that. During my last few months on a studio production, I credited my male graphic design counterpart in the studio (who was conveniently working on another show) with a short list of my best strategies and solutions. Lo and behold, the same ideas that I had previously pitched as my own — and were blatantly ignored on other productions — were suddenly worthy of discussion and consideration by my superiors. This experiment was affirming to the decision I’d later make to leave the studio; more proof that I wasn’t likely to ever be considered a true equal to my male peers.
When I was just about to wrap from that same production, my manager and production designer scheduled a private sit down with me. “You don’t seem happy here,” my boss said, “Do you want to talk about it?” Touched by the gesture of seemingly genuine concern, I cautiously spoke some of my truth to them, giving a few examples of the kinds of hurtles that stood in the way of my ability to find satisfaction within the studio. I openly expressed that I believed my being a woman was a clear impediment to my career at Pixar, and neither one of them protested this theory.
They seemed compassionate to my plight and recognized that many of my grievances with studio politics and practices were legitimate. But instead of offering to help me change or even navigate those challenges, they both encouraged me to start looking for a new job. “Creating real change in a massive corporation like Pixar is like pushing a glacier,” my boss said. There are plenty of other companies out there that will gladly give you the kind of treatment and creative challenges you deserve, he told me in a rare moment of candor. If you stay here you’ll probably just keep bashing your head against the wall.
A calendar year later, on the morning of my final day at Pixar, I made one last round of edits to the exit email I’d been preparing for weeks and held my breath while I clicked the send button. For the first and last time, I sent out a message to the entire company; a goodbye letter I still stand behind despite all the difficult truths I’ve chosen to share since:
Today it’s my turn to take the leap and leave the comfort, familiarity and friendship of Pixar behind to pursue something scary and new. I know this is a common sentiment, but these brick walls house an incredibly talented, creative, intelligent and rare crop of people. I’m grateful for the time I spent working and playing alongside you and am proud of the work we’ve done together.
I started as a graphic design intern just over five years ago — a fan but total novice to the animation industry at the time. I’ve since learned a ton but my time working behind the scenes has made me no less mystified by the sorcery that takes place here. Despite how complex, messy, painful and at times dysfunctional the process may be, the final film that is projected on screen never fails to take my breath away. Behind stage we may bleed, sweat, cry, trip and fall, disagree, or decide to start all over again from scratch just before the curtain rises, but the performance will somehow still be mesmerizing and the audience is never the wiser.
I hope you keep your standards high and continue working to figure out how to wow the world without so much of a struggle to get there. Be honest with one another, keep asking hard questions, and remember the principles that made this company great in the first place and I have total faith you’ll regain your stride — and will continue to make exceptional films while doing it.
Here’s to the crazy ones…
Throughout the day I received many touching and sweet reply emails, welcome goodbye hugs and well wishes from my peers and superiors alike. A long-standing producer even pulled me aside to tell me how true my parting words read to him, asking if I would reconsider my resignation.
A few hours later, as I had just finished packing all my belongings into boxes, I suddenly felt like I wasn’t alone although my officemate had already gone for the day. I looked up to see my least favorite production designer leaning coolly against the door frame, his pose smooth and slinky like a guy trying to pick me up in a bar. As always, his presence made my body go tight and my stomach roll over with tension, but I forced a cordial smile in his direction anyway. When he wished me luck with my next job my shoulders dropped away from my ears a bit. He paused for a moment, crossed his arms over his black v-neck shirt, and shook his head.
“It’s a shame that you’re leaving us, Cassandra.” he said, surprising me with uncharacteristic sincerity. But then he spoke again: “I’m reaallllly gonna miss the view,” he said slowly, while his eyes gave me one last lecherous up and down.
I uncapped the sharpie marker that was in my hand and turned my back to him. Even if it gave him a clearer “view” of my ass, I started scribbling on a box so he couldn’t see the bright red humiliation that flushed my face. An awkward giggle slipped from my lips, because that’s what we women are expected and trained to do when men assert sexual power over us wherever and however they choose; when our minds and talents are yet again disregarded in lieu of our sexual parts. We smirk with a hint of irreverence, we force out an unnatural chuckle, we shrug and try to let it slide off our backs.
We laugh quietly so that we don’t start to cry.
After he left, I let the tense air in the room fill my lungs again. I turned to the shiny iMac screen — that would soon be wiped clean of me — to enter the password phrase that had sprung to mind about a year before when the IT department made everyone change them.
I typed “free to do anything” into the slender metal keyboard before booting down the machine for the last time, feeling that tingly body rush you get when something rings impeccably true in your soul-center. Regardless of what anyone else thinks or has to say about my place in this world, I can still chose my next adventure, open the next door, continue searching for more. Because I was and always have been exactly that: free to do anything.
The Uphill Battle Against Trickle-Down Sexism
In a phenomenon called “social contagion,” studies show that both positive and negative behaviors have a way of trickling down through the ranks of a given community, hence the concepts of “leading by example” or “hive-mind behavior patterns.” Not surprisingly, this follow-the-leader mentality is even stronger in communities where authoritative roles are occupied by a homogenous demographic; such as in companies like Pixar where the people who have the most power and influence are dominantly middle-aged, white men.
Another major study, just released this month, identifies that the strongest predictor of sexual harassment and exclusion across scientific, technical, and medical workforces is an institution’s culture; what researchers call “organizational climate.”
“It’s not about rooting out the bad apples; we need to focus on the whole barrel,” said Lilia Cortina, professor of psychology and one of the experts who authored the report. When a company shows its employees that there are real consequences for bad behavior, harassment is much less likely to trickle down to “would-be-perpetrators,” she explained.
But when a powerful corporate executive’s lascivious boundary-crossing nature is regularly on display during professional meetings and celebrations — with little to no visible consequence for decades — that executive (and those who prop him up) not only rattle the women in his immediate wake, but also set the bar shamefully low for the overall treatment of every woman in his empire.
Beyond his immediate sphere of influence within the company, John’s 2-dimensional perceptions of women no doubt trickled even further down into the fabric of the films he’s directed, produced and overseen over the years.These projects, which reach millions of children and adults worldwide, have consistently failed to give women equal voice on screen and behind the scenes.
As has been proven time and time again in studies about the effects of media to our collective psychology, animated films are particularly important because they significantly impact the ways that children think and behave.The narratives in animated movies can actually shape a child’s belief system; convictions that can follow them well into adulthood. Studios like Pixar produce international blockbusters that subliminally affect the way little boys and girls see themselves around the world, and these narratives still remain massively disproportionate and flat in terms of gender representation and characterization.
We’re in dire need of a better screening system when it comes to sexism in the entertainment field. We must be infinitely more cognizant about the values that such leaders bring to a uniquely powerful and influential industry.
Life After Pixar
In 2014, after half a decade in animation, I landed my next gig with a small but prolific branding and package design studio in downtown San Francisco, so I didn’t have to go far to find a new beginning. The pervasive gender bias I regularly experienced at Pixar seemed to be a complete non-issue in my new professional home. Although the intimate work environment was not perfect, it was staffed with a proportionate gendered mix of employees who appeared to be promoted and supported equally.
During the next year and a half, I worked within a company culture that deeply contrasted the one I’d just exited. The dynamics there were not at all uptight, people spoke and joked around with one another freely and to my pleasant surprise, it felt like my female-ness had little to no impact on how I was treated on both a social and a professional level. My time with this very co-ed design agency proved to me that a creative workplace with healthy gender balance is not only possible but is a beautiful and powerful thing to witness.
Though this kind of gender-neutral meritocracy may be difficult to reproduce inside a large corporation that has been historically dominated by men, it’s not an impossible feat with the right kind of leadership and advocacy in place. It’s due-time for boys club corporations like Pixar to start deconstructing their top-heavy, male-monopolized work hierarchies in favor of a more inclusive and inherently humane mode of operations. To conceive of an entirely new company culture and mission plan — one that allows more space for genuine, diversified communion and collaboration amongst all types of employees.