Put yourself in the mind of an artistic young woman who goes to see Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs when it first opens in 1937. Captivated by the film’s groundbreaking cel-based cinematic animation, understanding that it represents the future of the art form, you feel you should pursue a career with a studio yourself. Alas, in response to the letter of inquiry you send Disney’s way, you receive the terse rejection letter above. “Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen,” it flatly states, “as that work is performed entirely by young men. For this reason girls are not considered for the training school.” Your only remaining hope? To aim lower on the totem pole and become an “Inker” or “Painter,” but “it would not be advisable to come to Hollywood with the above specifically in view, as there are really very few openings in comparison with the number of girls who apply.”
Times have changed; women now create animation. But to catch a glimpse of the industry in decidedly pre-changed times, revisit the 1939 promotional documentary short How Walt Disney Cartoons Are Made. In it, you’ll see these very young men hard at work, as well as those “pretty girls” hired to do inking and color. Prewar Disney turned out some masterpieces, no doubt, but by today’s standards their attitudes toward gender may leave something to be desired. “This letter originally belonged to my grandmother,” writes the user who discovered the note above. “After she passed away we discovered it and were surprised at how well it was preserved for being nearly 70 years old.” Young women like her, aspiring to high places in animation, found themselves forced to find alternate routes in, although after receiving that rejection letter on that stationery — emblazoned with Snow White herself, adding insult to injury — I wouldn’t blame them for looking into other fields entirely.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.