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As Ms. reporter Carolyn Elerding points out in this piece, identity politics are labor politics—because, after all, the way your labor is valued is contingent on your identity.
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“We are united in our mission to wipe out sexual harassment in the animation industry, and we will no longer be silent.”
In March 2019, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee featured a woman-produced and -animated segment about #MeToon, a campaign against sexual harassment in the animation industry.
The highly skilled, competitive and labor-intensive profession of cartoon animation supplies one of society’s most popular art forms, and the most well-known studios are influential across economic sectors. In fact, the Disney Institute (yes, same Disney) offers expensive training seminars for businesses and organizations, including universities.
Despite mainstream animation’s preeminence as light-hearted comedic family entertainment, serious issues are at stake in the making of each cartoon. Before the #MeToon movement, animation workers’ battles for social equality have often remained invisible behind the gender and racial politics of representation playing out onscreen.
Fundamentally, the catalyst driving #MeToon was the group of courageous women who empowered one another to speak out. The campaign also involved allies of all genders, including women in positions of leadership in their companies and unions.
#MeToon has not only advanced strategies for resisting the prevalence of sexual harassment in Hollywood, but also demonstrated how allies such as trade unions can actively promote social equality. Together, women and their allies drew a line—in bold—and the animation industry seems to be getting the picture.
Breaking the Silence
One of the most outstanding features of the campaign was its radical transparency. The well-intentioned protections currently offered by most policies and laws tend to involve non-disclosure practices that guard the privacy of all, yet also shield the reputations of serial abusers.
Thus, even when harassment is reported within the short time mandated by a local statute of limitation, the consequences for the abuser are often negligible while the victim experiences silencing and isolation. Pursuing channels outside of human resource departments and law enforcement, the women of #MeToon found ways to alert the animation community and demand accountability while also respecting due process and protecting victims professionally, legally, and psychologically.
#MeToon started in Fall 2017. The #MeToo movement had gained unstoppable momentum following reportage in The New York Times and The New Yorker about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s serial abuse of women.
Also during that time, two major stories impacted the animation world in particular. In response, a group of women animators created a private Facebook group for the purpose of discussing sexual harassment in the industry. From the beginning, the administrators of the group took great care to maximize the safety and privacy of the members, quickly earning a reputation for high integrity and conscientious behavior.
Feminism or Trade Unionism? Yes!
It may seem obvious that feminist ideas and practices played a role in #MeToon, yet interviews with those involved reveal that one of the benefits of participation was a deepened engagement with feminism. Every #MeToon member interviewed for this article identifies as a feminist—“of course!” replied one animator—and each says that their commitment to feminism has been reaffirmed by their #MeToon experience.
In the words of Ashlyn Anstee, one of the administrators of the Facebook group, “There was absolutely no political agenda except making sure the victims felt safe.” However, as feminists have declared for generations, the personal is political.
Art director Paula Spence defines feminism as the recognition “that women are equal to men and that all people are equal.”
For Katie Rice, what led her to identify as a feminist was the realization that she carried trauma from being a woman in animation. Rice had endured gender bias, discrimination and sexual harassment as a teenage fan as well as during her first several years working in animation.
At that time, about twenty years ago, animation studios routinely fostered an atmosphere in which women were so rare that they were often the only ones in their workplaces. Young women in particular experienced great pressure to “just be a dumb girl.” As Rice says, though the gender balance and related behavior has greatly improved since then, there is still much work to be done.
Some women also shared that #MeToon expanded their perspective on the practical side of feminism. Few had participated in organized resistance or public activism before the campaign. Aside from voting, most had little or no experience with feminist politics, except for the very important contribution of consistent allyship.
For example, some had been a resource to other women by discreetly tipping off newcomers about harmful individuals. In the case of #MeToon, their newness to activism was no obstacle. Indeed, it may partially explain #MeToon’s creativity—which might also have to do with its members being top-notch artists! Certainly, the victory won through #MeToon’s fresh approach shows that there is more than one way to organize and win.
It began with the creation of a secure whisper-network. Not long after the formation of the private Facebook group, a member shared a meticulously anonymized experience. Despite her precautions, the story was all too familiar to several women in the group. They knew precisely who she was referring to, because they too had faced his trademark sexual predation and inappropriate remarks.
With these revelations, a powerful serial harasser’s numerous victims, whose experiences dated from the mid-2000s to 2017, were no longer isolated. A conversation took shape about holding him accountable for abusing his status, so that he could never treat anyone that way again.
Coordinating people who might be very different from one another is often Step One in creating social change. For this reason, organizational questions have long been a primary concern for feminists: How might a feminist organization differ in structure from other organizations? How much hierarchy is needed, and of what kind? How much structure is too much?
The women of #MeToon started from where they were, letting the purpose of the group, rather than preconceived notions, define its proceedings. They reflected carefully on questions such as: “What is kind? What is fair? What is our next step?”
#MeToon aimed for democratic decision-making and protecting victims legally. They also took trauma into account when distributing the labor, in order to avoid overburdening those who needed to heal.
Like animation itself, organizing involves tremendous amounts of time and energy for research, communication and showing up for one another. As Rice points out, although organizing is very rewarding, it can be like “having a second job” and most of the time “it’s not fun.”
Recognizing from the outset that pernicious stereotypes would play a role in how they were perceived, #MeToon took measures to control their public image. To sidestep the clichés, #MeToon avoided any appearance of haphazard or “emotional” decision-making. They refrained from discourse that could seem mean-spirited or unfair, and they remained logical and rational, articulating each detail as clearly as possible.
Aminder Dhaliwal explains that these high standards were not always easy to maintain:
“Decision-making in the group was mostly democratic, but chaotic since the names and stories were pouring out faster than we could react. One of the earliest and best decisions the group made was consulting a lawyer. With legal input the group had an informed strategy on reporting harassers, managing evidence and protecting victims.”
With these values and principles in mind, the group decided that Dhaliwal would reach out on their behalf to a coworker at Cartoon Network, leading to a serendipitous turn for the movement.
Paula Spence, in addition to her years of experience as woman in the industry, had a strong reputation for good allyship. Unbeknownst to Dhaliwal and the members of the Facebook group, Spence was also active in The Animation Guild, IATSE Local 839 of Los Angeles, the union animation workers must join to work in a “closed” (meaning: union) shop in Hollywood.
Spence’s contributions to the union included serving as a shop steward and board member (as well as “smartass” jokester!). She was able to offer #MeToon a commitment to gender equality combined with detailed knowledge of union benefits and resources. Most of the animators interviewed had never gotten involved in labor issues, having joined the Guild as required, after which they devoted their time and energy to the tasks of their highly demanding profession.
However, Spence had been blending identity politics with labor politics for most of her life. As a teenage grocery bagger, Spence joined the same union the other women in her family belonged to, and her inspirations include Dolores Huerta and farm worker movements.
After Spence looked into the availability of resources such as the union hall’s meeting spaces (with help from the union’s office manager, who had her own “me too” story), she informed Dhaliwal of the availability of these benefits to all Guild members, and the Facebook group began planning an event.
This period saw a flurry of simultaneous activity in all quarters. The harasser was suspended by his employer (Nickelodeon) over allegations they had received without the union’s involvement. A week later, he was fired. The growing #MeToon collective penned an open letter about sexual harassment in the industry overall, signed by more than 200 women and gender non-conforming animation professionals.
In conjunction with the press release, the letter was sent directly to more than a dozen studios, including three that the accused harasser had worked for. When the letter hit the media due to astute coverage by insightful journalists, it was picked up by a closely read news source in the industry. A few days later, the harasser attempted to apologize on Facebook for his decade of sexual misconduct. The #MeToon collective was not impressed.
Meanwhile, members of the Facebook group studied the Guild’s constitution and by-laws. They noticed that, although it contained insufficient language on harassment, it prohibited behavior “disloyal” to the local chapter or its members, and it furthermore described procedures for conducting trials. Since, according to these policies, a regular member or members could bring charges against another member or members, the Facebook group set to work composing the required affidavit detailing their grievances and the corresponding charges. Ninety-three Guild members of all genders provided sworn signatures. It took many hours over a period of days for a mobile notary to certify them all. The board voted, and a union trial date was set for March 2018.
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It would be easy to over- or underestimate the union’s contribution or blur the distinction between the union and the #MeToon collective. #MeToon, like organizations such as Time’s Up, focused primarily on creating safe gathering spaces for honest communication about sexual harassment.
“As much as the Animation Guild tried to help,” Dhaliwal says, “the real power came from a small network of women at various studios (union and non-union) who became the unexpected leaders.”
Crucially, however, the union board responded appropriately, first by listening and then by researching how they could best support the Animation Guild’s members.
The union did what it ought to—what unions should always do, which is to prioritize the needs of its members, especially the most vulnerable.
In Dhaliwal’s words, “The purpose of the Animation Guild is to protect its workers from exploitation.” Yet it is important to recognize that even a strong and successful union like IATSE Local 839 continues to faces challenges in its efforts to promote fairness in the workplace.
For example, in addition to the underrepresentation of women and other minorities in its workforce, the animation industry has not yet transcended its history of pay inequality. In a unionized industry, the union negotiates minimum wage rates, benefits and working conditions on behalf of the employees that are its members—though individuals must negotiate their own deals beyond the baseline package.
Broadly speaking, everyone should have the same basic opportunities and see their work valued according to the same standards. However, structural inequalities have lingered, trapped within protocols that were developed without societal patterns like gender and race in mind.
According to animator Teri Hendrich Cusumano, women once outnumbered men in the animation world in general and in Local 839’s membership in particular, though it was not because their labor was equally valued.
Rather, it was due to the widespread use of feminized labor (“women’s work”). Cusumano explains that analog animation, which was the standard until 1989, required vast inking and painting personnel.
Occurring at the end of the production process rather than the more prestigious creative beginnings, these workers’ highly-skilled and irreplaceable contributions were systematically undervalued. As in so many industries then and now, wages were kept low by presenting the work of inking and painting as feminized and hiring women.
Over the decades, the introduction of new visual reproduction technologies like photocopying and computer graphics, combined with transnational outsourcing, has displaced almost all of the inkers and painters, adding the insult of layoffs to the injury of low pay.
Today, the legacy of these serious inequalities persists. In 2006, women were only 16 percent of the artists at union studios, and today women are only one-third.
As Cusumano argues, many of these women artists occupy roles haunted by the history of feminized inking and painting. Checking and color design, two specializations formerly assigned to ink and paint departments, remain female-dominated to this day, as is storyboard revision. Cusumano explains that these lower-prestige, though highly skilled, roles are classified in lower-paying tiers, and the pay ratio between tiers correlates closely with the average earning gap between men and women persisting in California overall.
According to Cusumano’s analysis, in addition to increasing the number of women in the industry, women must demand equal value for their equally skilled work.
While conditions are often worse for women and other minorities at non-union studios, even at most union shops a worker experiencing harassment has reason to hesitate about filing a complaint.
Luckily, in the case of #MeToon, as Rice points out, “The union really had our backs. Other unions in entertainment might not have done that. Usually, they say it should be taken up at the particular studio, but they will often disregard or minimize the issue.”
Spence describes how the seriousness of the problem was immediately clear to people of all genders among the Animation Guild’s leadership, including President KC Johnson, one of the three women who have most recently served in that office.
A Panorama of Allyship
Numerous supporters lent a hand as the #MeToon campaign continued to gain momentum, from women saying “me too!” at every juncture, to male allies insisting on holding abusers accountable. In many cases, these processes of allyship had started long before. In fact, one of the people who had helped Rice to start taking a stand was the male ally who later became her husband.
According to one report, members of the Facebook group decided to split the cost of hiring a lawyer who would answer their remaining questions and help them prepare for the union trial. During rehearsal sessions, the lawyer questioned them as the abuser might on the day of the trial.
However, just one day before the trial took place, a representative of the union informed the women of #MeToon that the accused had indicated that, rather than contest the charges, he would negotiate a plea agreement with the trial board (he would be suspended from the union for a year, pay a $4000 fine, perform community service, and complete mandatory counseling, while notification would be sent to all signatory studios). A separate hearing was also organized for early April so that the voices of #MeToon would be heard on their own terms.
When the day arrived, the well-prepared women of #MeToon gathered before the hearing began. They synchronized their resolve and pinned white roses to their black T-shirts before entering the room together. The audience was restricted to Guild officials and counsel, the accused and his attorney, witnesses, and any of the 93 Guild members who had signed the letter, as well as an individual transcribing the proceedings.
Nearly a dozen artists and animation professionals read statements. Some were victims, others were supporters, and all were women working in the animation industry. Their testimony lasted several hours. One woman emphasized the discouraging effect that the reputations of known harassers can have on interns and students. She urged the guild to develop more transparent policies and procedures on sexual harassment, a project now well underway. The abuser had his turn and made another clumsy and toxic attempt to apologize.
#MeToon had prepared a strategy for responding to this disrespectful eventuality. In unity, they stood and turned their backs to him. The women were joined in doing so by most of the people in the audience, demonstrating their value to the industry as well as to society.
After the hearing, #MeToon continued to grow and attract supporters. Thanks to the responsible feminist reportage of such journalists as Ariane Lange and Mercedes Milligan, #MeToon came to the attention of producer Kaitlin Fontana of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. Fontana approached the collective about a feature segment that would share their story while protecting the wellbeing of the survivors. Dhaliwal describes how much the collective appreciated Fontana’s commitment to centering “the strength and courage of the women coming forward.”
Like the #MeToon movement itself, the video was animated by women. Even the style of the animation centered the women of #MeToon, who were asked to provide self-portraits which the animation team used as their starting point.
The #MeToon collective was very happy with the final result, as were many among the union membership. According to Rice, when the animators started to self-identify as involved with the cartoon, the celebration on Twitter “was like a big love fest between people who didn’t know each other!”
The #MeToon Movement Continues
While #MeToon’s approach could be modified for other situations, it should not be viewed as a formula. #MeToon represents a situated movement that grew out of a particular time and place. What #MeToon does provide for any effort to resist sexual harassment is a great example of how creativity and commitment can yield results.
As Rice observes, the #MeToon campaign was probably a “one-off,” given that it coalesced around a particularly monstrous individual whose toxic behavior is representative of a widespread problem, but in a highly extreme form.
However, the experience gained by #MeToon offers many insights open to adaptation for other contexts. For example, by looking at the operation of stereotypes in the public response to #MeToon, feminists in other industries can better prepare and respond.
Rice discusses how the severity of the case made it easier for #MeToon’s detractors to misunderstand the nature of the campaign and dismiss its participants as hypersensitive, “hysterical” (that old patriarchal chestnut), or otherwise irrational.
“It’s not like, ‘He noticed my skirt and now we’re going to throw him into a volcano!” Rice laughs.
Rice also mentions how the continuing bias against believing women is particularly frustrating. Proving an abuser’s guilt through due process is already made onerous by the professional risk involved in reporting, and the likelihood of disbelief makes it even tougher.
What is more, Rice goes on to say, harassment often occurs very suddenly and unexpectedly while a coworker is going about their daily routine. This means that a victim is likely to be caught off-guard, rendering documentation all the more difficult.
Spence suggests that unions can mobilize digital technology to support workers when they need to report harassment. For example, the Guild’s parent union provides a mobile phone app called IATSE Safety. It allows members working on live-action sets to report time-sensitive issues such as harassment or health and safety violations, including problems such as a violation of shift length (an especially serious issue in movie-making, as explored in Haskell Wexler’s 2006 documentary, Who Needs Sleep?). As Spence points out, Guild members can use IATSE Safety if they experience harassment.
When asked what they would like to see happen next in the cartoon animation industry, the animators of #MeToon agree that, while many things are moving in a positive direction, there needs to be better representation both onscreen and in production processes. The best animation schools are now very diverse and have achieved equal enrollment of women (in some cases, women are the majority), resulting in entry-level animation workers who are freer of traditional biases.
However, much greater numbers of women, LGBTQ+ people, and people of color are needed in supervisory roles such as director and showrunner. The leaders of #MeToon furthermore point out that this campaign is only the beginning of the conversations that need to take place in the animation world, and they want their colleagues and managers to feel more comfortable asking questions.
Rice says, “For all of the good things, there are also lots of weird divides and people fearing change or saying the wrong thing. If people understood more about what’s happening around them, they would be better allies.”
Wondering what you can do to fight sexual harassment in your workplace? Taking some pages from the #MeToon playbook, here are a few suggestions:
- If you are experienced, be a resource for newcomers. If harassment occurs, the victim may need help navigating HR.
- There is a first time for everything, so don’t let a lack of previous experience prevent you from finding allies, learning more, and taking a stand.
- Know your rights! Learn the laws and policies of your location and workplace. Arm yourself with knowledge of how to find legal advice and other services.
- If you have a union, get involved! Or, start figuring out what it would take to unionize your workplace and what the benefits would be. Union-sponsored research on pay equity, for example, can make a difference at the collective bargaining table. Growing into a leadership role, within the union as much as in the workplace and profession, is a powerful way to promote and protect gender equality in your workplace.
- Currently, most women and other vulnerable workers cannot fully rely on HR, unions, or laws for protection. Starting or joining groups like Time’s Up can create a matrix of privacy and accountability to protect equal rights in the workplace.
- Speak out on multiple fronts and in numerous formats.
- If you are in a position of allyship, be willing to listen, ask questions, learn more, and change. This will prepare you to do the right thing should the need arise.
- Be creative!
As Spence sums up, “Things are changing and we just have to all keep pushing forward! Unfortunately, we still have to stand up for ourselves until everyone takes it for granted we are all equal.”
Read the letter in full:
An Open Letter to the Animation Community
We, the women and gender non-conforming people of the animation community, would like to address and highlight the pervasive problem of sexism and sexual harassment in our business. We write this letter with the hope that change is possible, and ask that you listen to our stories and then make every effort to bring a real and lasting change to the culture of animation studios.
In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, many of the women who work in animation have begun discussing more openly issues that we have dealt with quietly throughout our careers. As we came together to share our stories of sexism, sexual harassment and, in some cases, sexual assault, we were struck by the pervasiveness of the problem. Every one of us has a story to share, from tossed-off comments about our body parts that were framed as “jokes” to women being cornered in dark rooms by male colleagues to criminal assault.
Our business has always been male-dominated. Women make up only 23% of union employees, so it’s no surprise that problems with sexism and sexual harassment exist. Sexual harassment and assault are widespread issues that primarily affect women, with women of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community and other marginalized groups affected at an even greater rate.
As more women have entered the animation workforce, it seems that some men have not embraced this change. They still frequently make crass sexual remarks that make it clear women are not welcome on their crews. Some have pressed colleagues for romantic or sexual relationships, despite our clear disinterest. And some have seen the entrance of more women into the industry as an opportunity to exploit and victimize younger workers on their crews who are looking for mentorship. In addition, when sexual predators are caught at one workplace, they seem to easily find a job at another studio, sometimes even following their victims from job to job. We are tired of relying on whisper networks to know who isn’t safe to meet with alone. We want our supervisors to protect us from harassment and assault.
This abuse has got to stop.
The signatories of this letter demand that you take sexual harassment seriously. We ask that:
1. Every studio puts in place clear and enforceable sexual harassment policies and takes every report seriously. It must be clear to studio leadership, including producers, that, no matter who the abuser is, they must investigate every report or face consequences themselves.
2. The Animation Guild add language in our constitution that states that it can “censure, fine, suspend or expel any member of the guild who shall, in the opinion of the Executive Board, be found guilty of any act, omission, or conduct which is prejudicial to the welfare of the guild.” To craft and support the new language, we ask that an Anti-Harassment and Discrimination Committee be created to help educate and prevent future occurrences.
3. Our male colleagues start speaking up and standing up for us. When their co-workers make sexist remarks, or when they see sexual harassment happening, we expect them to say something. Stop making excuses for bad behavior in your friends and co-workers, and tell them what they are doing is wrong.
It has not been easy for us to share our stories with each other. Many of us were afraid because our victimizers are powerful or well-liked. Others were worried that if they came forward it would affect their careers. Some of us have come forward in the past, only to have our concerns brushed aside, or for our supervisors to tell us “he’s just from a different era.” All of us are saddened and disheartened to hear how widespread the problem of sexual harassment still is in the animation industry, and how many of our friends had been suffering in secret.
It is with this in mind that we resolve to do everything we can to prevent anyone else from being victimized. We are united in our mission to wipe out sexual harassment in the animation industry, and we will no longer be silent.
Oliver C. Haug contributed reporting to this article.
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