Irene Bedard and Pocahontas

irene-bedard (Rezinate)
Credit: Rezinate

Irene Bedard is one of the most famous and respected Native Americans working in Hollywood today. Her career spans nearly twenty-five years and ranges from acting to producing credits. She is probably best known as the voice behind the title character of Disney’s 1995 animation Pocahontas. The movie broke new ground for the studio but was also not received well for its representation of Native Americans and its historical inaccuracies. Bedard also heads a production company dedicated to “bringing positive, inspirational stories from Indian Country to the world”.

Born in Anchorage, Alaska, on July 22nd, 1967, Bedard had her film acting debut in the mid-1990s. Besides Pocahontas, she has featured in Lakota Woman: Siege at Wounded Knee (1994), Into the West (2005) and small parts in other films and television series. Bedard regularly plays Native American characters. She received a Golden Globe nomination in 1995. She reprised her Disney Princess in its direct-to-video sequel, Pocahontas 2: Journey to the New World (1998), and the character’s mother in The New World (2005). She was also the physical model for Pocahontas. In the early 2010s, she started the company Sleeping Lady Films Waking Giant Productions. It’s based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Grant, Michael Giaimo and Gabriel (Mike Gabriel Art)
Grant, Production Designer Michael Giaimo and Gabriel Credit: Mike Gabriel Art

Coming off The Rescuers Down Under (1990), director Mike Gabriel was looking for something completely different for his next film. He teamed up with legendary Disney story artist and character designer Joe Grant. Grant is responsible for a lot of the work on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940) and many other Disney classics. The duo worked on an outline to adapt Swan Lake for the big screen. It was rejected by Disney executives as they felt it had no story. Gabriel and Grant went looking for inspiration in old cowboy films and American folklore. At the next meeting, they produced a picture of the Peter Pan character Tiger Lily with the title ‘Walt Disney’s Pocahontas’ and the pitch ‘an Indian princess who is torn between her father’s wishes to destroy the English settlers and her wishes to help them—a girl caught between her father and her people, and her love for the enemy’ written on it. Executives were enthusiastic about the concept and Pocahontas was greenlit.

Tiger Lily (Disney Wiki)
Tiger Lily from Peter Pan (1953) Credit: Disney Wiki

Beauty and the Beast was nominated for Best Picture at the 1992 Academy Awards but lost to The Silence of the Lambs. Disney decided to take another shot for the award. Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King (1994) were too close to completion, but Pocahontas had everything they needed: an epic romance story. To make it Oscar worthy and more serious, the secondary animal characters were changed to non-speaking roles. Tom Sito was the film’s story supervisor. He decided to loosely base the story on past events and embrace myth. He felt this approach wouldn’t hinder creativity. Though this was the direction Pocahontas headed in, Disney wanted to keep everything as authentic as possible and hired Native American voice actors and elders. Once learning the film wasn’t following true history, Shirley “Little Dove” Custalow-McGowan—a decedent from the real Pocahontas’s tribe—left the project. She had served as a consultant.

Bedard learnt she was cast as Pocahontas while on the set of Lakota Woman.

irene_bedard_pochahontas (Sac-Con)
Pocahontas and Bedard Credit: Sac-Con

Pocahontas was in production for five years. It was the first Disney film to have an interracial relationship and the only Disney Princess, to date, based on a historical figure. It had a budget of $55 million (no figures in this article have been adjusted for inflation) and was released on the real Pocahontas’s 400th birthday. It debuted in Central Park, New York, on four 80-foot high screens to 100,000 people, making it the biggest premiere turnout of all time. It was also the first Disney movie censored. Its racial slurs were removed in post-production. The film wasn’t nominated for Best Picture but won the Academy Awards for Best Original Score and Best Original Song, for ‘Colors of the Wind’.

Pocahontas and Tattoo (CinemaBlend)
Pocahontas singing ‘Colors of the Wind’ Credit: CinemaBlend

It had an average box office run and is noted as the beginning of the Disney Renaissance decline. The studio’s popularity wouldn’t return until the Revival era with Tangled (2010) and Frozen (2013). Pocahontas was heavily criticised by activists and scholars for its Native American representation and stereotyping.

The real Pocahontas shared similarities with her Disney counterpart but lived a vastly different life in other areas. She was born Amonute and her nickname was Pocahontas, meaning ‘Little Mischief’, ‘Playful One’ and ‘Ill-Behaved Child’. She was a member of the Pamunkey tribe and was really twelve years old—not in her early twenties as depicted in the film. Pocahontas and John Smith didn’t have a romantic relationship. She befriended him while he was being held captive. The two taught each other the basics of their languages. Pocahontas was pivotal in freeing Smith. Her story has been told from one generation to the next becoming the myth it is today. In her own strong, smart and independent way she became an ambassador and translator for both nations. While in England, she became very sick and died in 1617.

To this day, Pocahontas remains the only Disney Princess to have a visible tattoo and—besides Tiana from The Princess and the Frog (2009)—is the only one to be born in America. People still have mixed feelings about the film; some see it as groundbreaking for its time whilst many others, particularly among the Native American community, see it as deeply problematic. As for Bedard, she and her production company recently bought the rights to the classic Alaskan novel Two Old Women, by Velma Wallis, and are adapting it into a film. She currently resides in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

12th Annual NAMIC Vision Awards - Show
Credit: iMDB

This article was originally posted on The Sydney Feminists Blogspot on June 20th, 2018. (


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Betty Boop Through the Years

Credit: The Cut

Cartoon character Betty Boop took the world by storm upon her debut in 1931. Her unique voice, signature “Boop-Oop-a-Doop” catchphrase and Jazz-age flapper dancer look made her standout from her Disney and Looney Tunes animation contemporaries. She was aimed at an adult audience and was considered one of the first Hollywood sex symbols. Like many other areas of American cinema at the time, when the Production Code was implemented in 1934, Boop saw drastic changes in representation and personality. She went from a carefree, sexually confident independent woman to a conservative fully dressed introvert.

Mae Questel and Max Fleischer Credit: Tech Times

Boop was the brainchild of Max Fleischer. He was born on July 18, 1883, and was also known for bringing the Popeye the Sailor Man comic strip to the silver screen. After completing a commercial art degree, Fleischer worked in various forms in the entertainment industry. He started Inkwell Studios with his brother, Dave, in 1921. Besides Betty Boop and Popeye, Inkwell Studios are also famous for creating the first Superman cartoons. Dave directed all one hundred plus Betty Boop shorts.

Changing the name in 1929, Fleischer Studios pioneered sound in animation. The first series was Song Car-Tunes in 1924. It beat Disney’s Steamboat Willie – Mickey Mouse’s debut – by almost four years. Each Song Car-Tunes entry was approximately three minutes long and also started the “follow the bouncing ball” trend. Audiences could now singalong by following a ball on the screen as it moved to music and subtitles. Talkartoons was another series of short animation films introduced in 1929. This is where Boop first appeared.

Boop as a French Poodle Credit: Fleischer Studios

Betty Boop’s first incarnation was an anthropomorphic French poodle. Within a year of her first short, Dizzy Dishes, Boop’s appearance changed to a woman. Her human form was modelled after Clara Bow, Helen Kane and “Baby” Etsher Jones. Bow was known for her supporting roles in It and Wings. Both films came out in 1927, with Wings winning Best Picture at the first Academy Awards. Kane and Jones were both 1920s Jazz singers. Kane was known as “The Boop Boop a Doop Girl”, eerily similar to the character’s famous catchphrase “Boop-Oop-a-Doop”.

Mae Questel Credit:

A handful of women have voiced Boop, but Mae Questel is by far the most recognised. Born in 1908, her original plan was to become a teacher. Questel got the role after participating in a Helen Kane impersonation contest. She won and received $100 (no figures in this article have been adjusted for inflation). The contest ran yearly from 1928 to 1938 and women aged between six and eighteen could enter. Questel was also famous for voicing Olive Oil in the Popeye cartoons.

Helen Kane Credit: Tralfaz

In 1932, Kane sued Fleischer and his studio for using her likeness as Betty Boop without permission. She demanded $250,000 in compensation and the lawsuit dragged on for a couple of years. Kane said to Fleischer she would drop the case if he fired the other women and made her the sole voice of Boop. He only wanted Questel and the case continued. The lawsuit ended when footage of “Baby” Etsher Jones performing surfaced that proved that she was the real caricature and inspiration for Boop. Jones was unable to be located to testify. It was later believed she had died the year before.

“Baby” Etsher Jones Credit: Betty Boop Wiki

At the height of her popularity, Boop was shown in cinemas all over the world. She was especially well received in Japan. So much so that Boop sings in Japanese in A Language All My Own (1935). Fleischer wanted to make sure the cartoon was as authentic as possible and used Japanese exchange students as a test audience.

Boop in A Language All My Own (1935) Credit: Alchetron

A stricter Motion Picture Production Code was introduced in 1934. It was a way of censoring film content before distribution. It was regulated within the industry itself by the Legion of Decency, a group that had strong ties to the Catholic Church. The doctrine consisted of a list that was thought to be offensive to a film going audience. Some areas that were boycotted included homosexuality, interracial lovers, drug and alcohol use, abortion and nudity. Couples were no longer allowed to be seen in the same bed together on screen. Boop was caught in the crossfire.

Boop after the Production Code Credit: Cartoons of 1935

Her appearance changed drastically and she started wearing long dresses and cardigans. Her hoop earrings and bracelets disappeared. She slowly lost her signature curls and got a boyfriend, Freddie. Her personality changed and she became quieter and less outspoken. Over time, the stories began to focus more on Boop’s supporting cast members – Pudgy the dog, Koko the Clown and the eccentric Grampy – and less on her. The audience began to lose interest and production of new Boop cartoons came to an end in 1939. Questel retired from voice acting to start a family around the same time. Fleischer Studios had financial issues and was defunct by 1942. Boop faded into obscurity.

Betty Boop cartoons were among the first to enter television syndication in the 1970s. She found a new audience and resurgence here. Boop made a cameo in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). She appeared in her original black and white form and was, again, voiced by Mae Questel. Besides some failed TV specials over the last thirty years, no new Betty Boop comeback has occurred. Questel passed away in 1998. Boop’s creator, Max Fleischer, died in 1972. These days Boop exists only in merchandise and for her nostalgia factor.

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Boop in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) Credit: The Billford

Author’s Note: Betty Boop Through the Years is dedicated to my mum, Sherryn Mary Kernaghan, an original Boop revival fan who left this world too soon. Your love and inspiration still guide me, and I still hear your voice in my head telling me off whenever I do something stupid.

This article was originally posted on The Sydney Feminists Blogspot on July 12th, 2017. (


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The Life of a Disney Inker and Painter

Credit: Playbuzz

The alarm clock sounded and she stirred in bed. It was 4:30am and too early to get up. She felt like her head had only hit the pillow a moment ago. She couldn’t remember what day of the week it was; the days were blurring into one continuous shift. She and other women, of the Disney ink and paint departments, had been working double shifts to get the celluloid prints for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs finished in time for its premier. She reluctantly placed one foot out of bed and onto the cold surface below. She got up and raced to get ready before her mind had time to catch up, and complain about the sudden exertion. After leaving her apartment eating the last remnants of a quick breakfast, she shivered waiting for the bus. It was still early, but she fretted because anything could still happen to make her late. After hours of zigzagging on public transport, she had made it to the studio. She was just in time for the 9:00am start. Managers rhythmically walked back and forth, taking notes, of inker and painters who were not yet at their desks. Anyone late would be docked pay for every minute they were not working. She let out a sigh of relief; she had made it, again. She reached over and picked up one of her many pencils and began another very busy, but satisfactory, day.

Nearing the end of Snow White’s production in 1937, the ink and paint departments were made up of 100 hardworking and dedicated women. The last couple of months saw them sitting at their desks for an 85-hour working week. Many of them fell asleep where they sat but never complained about the long hours. Many of the inkers and painters became lifelong friends.

Credit: Matterhorn

Both of the departments were responsible for the celluloids, or cells, for a Disney feature. The inkers would sketch the outlines of characters and environments. Once this was done, the cells were passed onto the painters who would add colour. Walt Disney was a perfectionist and some iconic characters were quite complicated. Pinocchio’s Jiminy Cricket alone was made up of 27 different colours. A relatively new process at the time, celluloid backgrounds could be made of up to six layers before they appeared on screen. The women had to work fast. Inkers had to be accurate and make sure no lines smudged. Painters had only moments to work as the paint dried quickly. To make the process even harder, two women were left handed and had to learn everything backwards. The paint was expensive and made in house in the studio lab. One production day would, usually, add up to approximately one minute of screen time. Each woman averaged between eight and ten cells an hour. Productivity was closely monitored and the inkers and painters refrained from talking while they worked.

Walt Disney only wanted the best and many of the inkers and painters were recruited right out of elite art schools, such as the California Institute of Technology. The average age was 25. Hiring was a rigorous process. Out of an initial group of 60, only three were employed. In fact, one of the three dropped out early on as well.

The male animators joked and laughed as they didn’t consider inking and painting artistic. The women were only expanding on earlier creative content that the men had already designed and fleshed out.  In 1941, top animators made $300 a week while the average inker and painter made only $18 a week. Many of the women, such as painter June Walker Patterson, could barely pay the rent. Inkers and painters were only allowed in the animation department “with good reason”. Disney initially shyed away from having female animators.

Credit: CBR

There were a handful of women who made the transition to animation, but they were rare. The common belief was that Disney felt women would soon be leaving to get married and start families. It took ten years of study to become an animator, while only four years to become an inker or painter. Training new animators was a costly endeavour. When World War II broke out, a number of the male animators were drafted. During this period, Walt Disney gave women a chance to make the move across to the animation department. Male animators returned to their former positions when they came back from the war. The women either went back to the ink and paint departments or left Disney all together.

In May 1941, a large group of the women went on a 14-week strike to campaign for better working conditions. The event gained sympathy from other Hollywood animation studios, such as Warner Bros., with a number of them offering support. The strike resulted in an increase in pay. Some women also received screen credits, recognising their contributions to films that are now considered Disney classics.

As time went on, technology advanced. Handmade Ink and paint work began to be replaced by the photocopier and Disney downsized. Some of the women would return to animation production in the 1960s. Their families were all grown up when they went to work part time for Hanna-Barbera Productions. The studio responsible for TV cartoons such as The Flintstones, Yogi Bear, The Jetsons and Scooby-Doo. The environment was laid back and, unlike Disney, they could take their work home. Even after all these years, they were still surrounded by good friends and felt passionate about their work.

Credit: Matterhorn

This article was originally posted on The Sydney Feminists Blogspot on March 22nd, 2017. (


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The Unsung Heroine Animators of Disney’s Golden Age

In 1937 Walt Disney Animation Studios released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The film was a commercial success with ground breaking visuals. It was the world’s first feature-length animation with over 1.5 million hand drawn cells being used for its production. With a number of timeless classics following in only a few short years (Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi), the studio quickly obtained a reputation for pioneering innovation. Like Walt Disney himself, the studio’s Nine Old Men animators (as they were affectionately known in later years) had reached a level of celebrity and praise for their work. Little was publicly known about the handful of women that had made the transition from the ink and paint departments to join the male animators. They worked for less money and, in many cases, didn’t even receive a credit on the final film to acknowledge their contributions. Though the records are scarce, there are four female animators who standout: Bianca Majolie, Sylvia Moberly-Holland, Retta Scott and Mary Blair.

Bianca Majolie

Bianca Majolie
Credit: The Mary Sue

A chance encounter in 1934 would change Majolie’s life. While out for lunch, Walt Disney happened to see her work. Impressed with her artistic talent, Disney hired her on the spot. Majolie was the first female employee for the studio’s story department.

Learning of the lead, journalists from the Hollywood Citizen News approached Disney to write a feature article on Majolie. It was published without any mention of Majolie’s name. She jokingly wrote “Who is she?” on the copy of the article that was passed around the office.

Majolie is probably best remembered for the Silly Symphony’s 1936 short “Elmer Elephant”. While the rest of her male counterparts were busily coming up with the newest gag, Majolie was crafting a tender-hearted story about an elephant who was bullied about his looks. Many historians consider the animation a precursor to Dumbo. Two of the Nine Old Men, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, admired Majolie’s contributions and, in their 1987 book Too Funny for Words: Disney’s Greatest Sight Gags, wrote the following about her: “We could not have made any of the feature films without learning this important lesson: Pathos gives comedy the heart and warmth that keeps it from becoming brittle.” She also worked on early versions of Fantasia’s “Nutcracker” scene, Cinderella and Peter Pan.

Majolie was fired in 1940. Her work was passed to Sylvia Moberly-Holland.

Sylvia Moberly-Holland

Credit: The Mary Sue

Sylvia Moberly-Holland saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs during its first theatrical run and was mesmerised by what she saw. In that moment, she made up her mind that she would work for Walt Disney Studios. Her dream was realised in 1938 when she became the second woman in Disney’s history to join the story department.

Not only was she an accomplished artist, but Moberly-Holland was a talented musician. This came in handy when she began work on The Concert Feature, that would later be renamed Fantasia. Moberly-Holland contributed many story elements and character designs to Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony”, “Waltz of the Flowers” and “Nutcracker Suite” scenes in the film.

She was also assigned to story lead on the Fairy sequence. A number of male animators left the team because they couldn’t handle being subordinate to a woman or for homophobic reasons. This was due to the nature of the sequence involving fairies and the jokes that were spreading around the studio. Despite these setbacks, Moberly-Holland and her team created some of the most memorable and beautiful imagery of the entire film. This was the closest a woman would come to directing a Disney feature until 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph.

When World War II ended in 1945, Moberly-Holland was dismissed from Disney. She passed away in 1974.

Retta Scott

Retta Scott
Credit: D23

Retta Scott enjoyed art from an early age. After completing High School, she studied it at the California Institute of Technology. She regularly attended the nearby Griffith Park Zoo where she would draw and sketch animals in her spare time.

Many male animators were drafted during World War II. In 1942 Walt Disney made it possible for a woman to be trained up as an animator to fill the empty spots. Scott was Disney’s first fully fledged female animator. She worked on Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi.

Her raw skill caught the eyes of Walt Disney and Bambi director David Hand. Scott was responsible for the ferocious dogs who chased Faline through the forest. The men couldn’t believe that such a petite, bubbly woman had created something so terrifying.

In 1942 Scott moved to the Ink and Paint department. The studio was suffering financially and had to downsize. Scott stayed with Disney until 1946 when she moved across America to be with her naval officer husband (though she did continue as a freelancer with Disney for a number of years afterwards). Her most well-known work during this period was her illustration contributions to the Big Golden Book of Cinderella and Cinderella Puppet Show books.

Scott was the first ever woman to have a Disney screen credit. She passed away on August 26th, 1990, and, ten years later, was inducted as a Disney Legend.

Mary Blair

Mary Blair
Credit: The Walt Disney Family Museum

Not only an iconic Disney animator, but Mary Blair is regarded as one of the most influential artists in the history of American animation. Her unique style and attention to detail set the Disney standard for many years after her departure from the studio.

Like Retta Scott, Blair studied art at the California Institute of Art before joining Walt Disney Studios in 1940 as a concept artist. She worked on The Three Caballeros, Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland. Fellow animator, Frank Thomas, noted how she used multiple shades of red together – something you don’t do – and made it work. Walt Disney regarded her as one of his all-time favourite Disney artists.

After the production of Peter Pan wrapped in 1953, Blair resigned from Disney. Around this period, she dealt with personal demons such as alcoholism. She continued working as an artist before returning to Disney to work on the It’s a Small World attraction at Disneyworld. The majority of her concepts and illustrations would be used in the final aesthetic of the ride. It’s a Small World opened in 1966 and still runs today.

In July 1978, Blair died from a cerebral haemorrhage. She received a Disney Legend Award posthumously in 1991. Google honoured her with a caricature logo in 2011 for her birthday.

These women achieved so much in their careers. Their legacy has opened up opportunities for many women in animation. As role models, they will continue to inspire and influence generations to come.

This article was originally posted on The Sydney Feminists Blogspot on February 14th, 2017. (


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