Pixar, Art, and the Artists

Where the #MeToo movement is concerned, John Lasseter has gotten off relatively easy. The Hawaiian-shirt-wearing, unwanted-hug-giving head of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios will officially leave his role at the end of this year after a year-plus sabbatical spurred by allegations of sexual misconduct.

In the current landscape, it's not exactly hard to understand why his case has been relatively low profile. Lasseter's indiscretions are tame relative to those of, say, Harvey Weinstein's, and from a public relations perspective, Disney seems to have handled his exit deftly.

Lasseter's departure seems destined to be quiet where most people are concerned, but, for me, it is deafeningly loud.

I can't shake the guest column, written by former Pixar designer Cassandra Smolcic, in Variety two months ago titled How Pixar’s Open Sexism Ruined My Dream Job. Smolcic's account of her time at Pixar isn't harrowing in the same way that, say, Asia Argento's is, but it is still profoundly disturbing and depressing.

It couldn't paint any clearer a picture of a toxic environment for women:

A female lead in my department once begged her male bosses to support her with a team to complete a challenging production project. Her male superiors repeatedly ignored her requests, until the stress of the job led her into a state of psychological and physical breakdown. When she went into sabbatical to recover, her male replacement was given a team of half a dozen artists to help him complete the same task.
When I received a perplexing performance review after finishing my fourth production, it felt I’d never be equally recognized as a valuable asset by the company. The lengthy negative column listed things like, “designs too many options; seems like she’s trying too hard; asks too many questions.” When I shared the document with my candid male mentor, who openly acknowledged the culture of sexism at Pixar, he said, “If you were a man, every one of those negatives would be in the positive column.” Physically and mentally burnt out after years of bumping up against the glass ceiling, I left Pixar at age 30, hoping to find a workplace where I could genuinely thrive.

I realize how cliche and mansplain-y this is going to sound, but I've been thinking about this a lot specifically because of my daughter. If I may attempt to absolve myself in the slightest, it's not because I'm imagining my little girl going through something similar a few decades from now (though let's hope she doesn't have to).

No, it's because of the subtle effect Lasseter's work might be having on her right now. My daughter is almost three years old, and, without even being exactly aware of what Pixar is (other than the jumping, hopping lamp), she loves what it has produced.

Who can blame her?

Toy Story, Ratatouille, Up, WALL-EThe Incredibles, Finding Nemo and Monsters Inc. are all wonderful stories. Whether by intentional design or not, they are also all profoundly male-driven. There are female voices to be found, for sure, but almost all of them are secondary. And here I've listed out pretty much all of the Pixar canon - the films beloved not just by her, but by fans around the world.

Things get more troubling if you watch the special features on the DVD/Blu-Ray for one of these features. A month or two ago, my wife and I found ourselves watching a piece on the making of Finding Nemo while we finished dinner, and - our antennae up already because of the Lasseter allegations - we were struck immediately by the absence of women creators in this making-of documentary. Even if Lasseter's sexism didn't obviously spill in to the films he wrote, directed, and produced, it's hard not to wonder what was lost at Pixar Studios even as it put out some of the most beloved family films ever made.

What can I say, I've got comedian Hannah Gadsby's voice ringing in my ears these days.

Gadsby, in her comedy special Nanette, praises Pablo Picasso for imagining "we could paint a better world if we learned how to see it from ... as many perspectives as we possibly could." Then, she damns Picasso completely for his failure to recognize just how many perspectives there are in the world, specifically for his blind spot when it comes to women.

Gadsby shreds the notion that art can be fully separated from the artist, a notion I've clung to far more recently than I would care to admit, but one for which I now feel foolish.

It is in this context that I say: Lasseter's works are not invalidated because of his behavior. Indeed, I'll still gladly show them to my daughter in the coming years. But, it is also in this context, and given what we know about him and the culture he fostered at Pixar, that they do all start to look just a little bit different.

I suppose that's what happens when you're able to see things from more perspectives than you previously thought possible.