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Meryl Streep Takes Walt Disney To Task In Emma Thompson Speech

“Some of his associates reported that Walt Disney didn’t really like women,” she began. “There is a piece of received wisdom that says that the most creative people are often odd or irritating, eccentric, damaged, difficult; that along with enormous creativity comes certain deficits in humanity or decency. We are familiar with this trope in our business: Mozart, Van GoghTarantino, Eminem. Ezra Pound said, ‘I have not anyone worth a damn who was not irascible.’ Well I have: Emma Thompson. Not only is she not irascible, she’s practically a saint…Streep then couldn’t resist returning to Disney the man: “Disney, who brought joy arguably to billions of people was, perhaps, or had some racist proclivities. He formed and supported an anti-Semitic industry lobbying group and he was certainly, on the evidence of his company’s policies, a gender bigot,” she said, before reading an actual 1938 letter from Disney rejecting a female applicant to the animation trainee program. “When I saw the film, I could just imagine Walt Disney’s chagrin at having to cultivate P.L. Travers’ favor for the 20 years that it took to secure the rights to her work. It must have killed him to encounter in a woman an equally disdainful and superior creature, a person dismissive of his own considerable gifts and prodigious output and imagination.”Entertainment Weekly reporting on Meryl Streep’s speech on Emma Thompson at the National Board of Review dinner.

Variety cited a line from that letter, “Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that task is performed entirely by young men.” They also mention she was once up for the role of Travers. Wonder if she would have taken it considering. But in case you’re worried she made her speech all about Disney instead of Thompson, apparently she included a poem she wrote titled, “An Ode to Emma, Or What Emma is Owed.”

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  • Anonymous

    J’accuse Monsieur Disney! J’accuse!

  • Laura Truxillo

    Was Disney really anti-Semitic? Because I’ve heard both things, but it sounds like it was more a case of “at the time” which is…well, it doesn’t excuse everything, but it seems like something that changed very much over the course of his lifetime. I mean, it seems like he was good friends with the Sherman brothers, for one. I swear I remember reading reports from Jewish people who worked at Disney that refuted it as well. Could be wrong.

    As to the “no women in the creative field.” Yeah, that really sucked. A lot. But it was also 1938, for pity’s sake. That’s pre-US involvement in WWII. Women in the workforce wasn’t really a thing most big companies went for. Not that it doesn’t suck that they weren’t trained for animation, but heck, watch “The Reluctant Dragon”–they still got to do some cool stuff, especially for the time period. The Rainbow Room looks like a magical mad scientist lab, and it seems like women were also involved in creating macquettes too. I’d really like to know at what point in Disney history they did start hiring women for creative work.

    Which isn’t to say that Disney was a saint of a businessman. He was shrewd and manipulative, and could be a bully to his staff sometimes (at least, from animator Bill Peet), and he relentlessly pursued what he wanted, which is as much a character flaw as a virtue. And I’m sure most of his values towards race and gender were in keeping with his times (though IIRC, he took the Academy to task for their treatment of James Baskett, which was unusual). But holding up something from 1938 as evidence of him being a misogynist when the man had another twenty-some-odd years to go just always seems a bit myopic. I mean, hell, I held some stupid, wrong-headed ideas about social issues when I was ten or fifteen years younger myself. And that’s without growing up in the early half of the twentieth century.

    Emma Thompson, though. She is flawless.

  • Anonymous

    I love that she’s willing to lay it all out there without any “It was the time period, it couldn’t be helped” excuses. I love a great many things that came out out Disney, but that doesn’t change that he had glaring problems.

  • Anonymous

    Walt Disney’s anti-semitism was the basis of “Nazi Supermen Are Our Superiors” joke on The Simpsons.

  • Laura Truxillo


  • locuas

    except yes, it was the time period. he had problems, yes, even for the time period, but those problems weren’t as serious as they would nowadays be. Was he a nice person? no, was he a complete racist? no. did he have plenty of predjudice and bigotry that he could be called of for? yes. was he a gender bigot? yes. was that because the time period? yes. does that make it ok? no. does that make him the same as present time gender bigots? no.

  • Aila

    I understand that society at the time was sexist and with that Disney – the company and the man, but it’s obvious to me they made some exceptions to women on their creative teams: Mary Blair was apparently one woman whose work Walt adored

  • Anonymous

    But people know that “it was the time period” already. I feel like people use that a lot to justify liking someone who was problematic. There’s nothing wring with enjoying the art of a person who was problematic (or enjoying the people themselves) so long as you realize the problems and respect that others may not enjoy or even actively dislike them because of those problems.
    But sticking “well it was the time period” on there feels like glossing over the problems which in turn glosses over the people that suffered because of those problems (for example, the woman who could have been an animator is Disney hadn’t turned her away).
    I applaud Ms. Streep for being bold enough to “this guy had problems” and not qualifying it.

  • Octochan

    Everyone’s heard that argument. “I’m not ___ist! Some of my best friends are (members of marginalized group)!” Doesn’t make them any less ___ist.

  • Laura Truxillo

    But it also presents a crystalized moment in time as the most accurate representation of who he was.

    In 1938, women weren’t hired specifically as animators. Anywhere. At all.
    But at Disney, they were hired as inkers and painters. After Snow White, the women who were already working there were offered night classes in animation. In fact, in 1938 (same year that the letter, which is one from the studio, not Disney himself, was sent), Disney hired Retta Scott, who was assigned to the Story Department, and worked as an animator on Bambi, Fantasia, Dumbo, and some of the Disney shorts. Likewise, Retta Davidson, initially hired as an inker and a painter, worked as an animator at Disney from the 40′s through the 60′s.

    The letter is a single moment in time. Disney, as a person and a company evolved. It’s still not perfect today. But holding up the letter and saying, “This is indicative of Disney’s sexism” seems just as false as saying “Disney had no problem with women at all!” It was indicative of the cultural tone of 1938, a time during which women had difficulty finding employment as artists (or as anything outside of “women’s work”), when it was far more unfair than it is these days.

    It’s easy to say “This guy had problems” about pretty much any significant historical person. Or, well, any person in general. It’s easy to say that about most people today. Somebody very progressive in one way may be awful in another way. You qualify it with the time period because the time period matters. Nothing exists in a vacuum. If anything, keeping in mind the time period should make us look at the way our own time period has and hasn’t progressed, and remember that back then, people probably thought they were being pretty progressive and that ___ism wasn’t an issue anymore, to keep us from falling into that same trap.

    Plus, it just seems so very simple to go “Disney was a misogynistic Nazi-sympathizer” for the sake of sensationalism and smugly clashing with the “Disney is cheerful family fun” veneer. Everyone wants to take the mouse down a peg or three, as if most adults aren’t fully aware that it is a corporation rather than a magical fairy castle, with all the historical and current issues that implies.

  • Jamie Durnan

    Except that it was the time period is a partly valid excuse. He was a huge champion of Mary Blair, and in 1941 said that women have the same right to advance as an artist, and that if they were equally skilled it shouldn’t matter.

    Sure, his attitude today is pretty standard bordering on the wrong side of the fence. But he’s not in today’s world. He was in 1941, and in 1941 he was saying pretty progressive things. You can’t apply modern day attitudes and cultural advancement to people outside of modern day. We have been raised and taught with a greater understanding of gender disparity, gender norms, etc.; he was not.

  • Anonymous

    We may run in different circles then, because I don’t have much experience with people wanting to “take the mouse down a peg or three” and a lot of experience of people bending over backwards to defend him (and other artists/historical personalities) using the “it’s the time period” defense. I think you’re right that every historical person (and every person for that matter) has problems. I just think as a culture we tend to gloss over them so long we like the other things they did.

    As for Streep’s interpretation of Disney’s character and his relationship with Travers, well she may be right and she may be wrong. I think it’s rather clear that it’s her imagination at work in that scenario (most likely colored by the movie she just watched) and not something she considers factual.

  • Laura Truxillo

    ‘a lot of experience of people bending over backwards to defend him (and
    other artists/historical personalities) using the “it’s the time period”

    I don’t see it as a defense, just something that is important to keep in mind. You HAVE to include it, because not doing so is basically eliminating information that is just as relevant to the concept.

    You have to take into account time period with just about everything. And you can’t freeze a single moment as an accurate representation of a person or a company, especially when history demonstrates that their attitudes evolved. In 1938, Disney didn’t hire women as animators. In the 1940′s, they did. As time progressed, they became more and more likely to hire women as animators.

    I’m not sure what circles you hang out in, then, because it seems like once a year or so, some random news story runs with the,” So, Disney was Anti-Semitic!” story or “The Not-So-Happiest-Place-on-Earth!” schtick or “Old Disney Cartoons were racist!” or what-have-you. The first is inaccurate, and the latter two are obvious, but somehow treated as shocking.

  • Laura Truxillo

    I don’t think it’s quite the same argument. They’re talking about Disney’s practice of not hiring women as animators in the 1930′s. By the 1940′s Disney did hire women as animators. It might not make them “not sexist” but it does kind of make them “less sexist.”

    It’s not so much a matter of friendship, it’s a matter of hiring practices.

  • Laura Truxillo

    I didn’t say it was okay. I said it was an inaccurate
    simplification. And also that saying the hiring practices of the
    company more than ten years before Disney actually met P.L. Travers
    (which changed That Year) was indicative of his attitude toward her
    seemed like over-the-top speculation.

    Disney wasn’t anti-Semitic. That part is just flat out untrue, but it keeps getting repeated.

    statement that Disney did not hire women as animators is inaccurate
    because it needs a timeframe. Disney did not hire women as animators in

    The letter was more or less a company form letter. Of a
    policy that changed the year it was sent out. Was there a point in
    time when Disney didn’t hire female animators? Yes–it also coincided
    during that point in time when nobody hired female ANYTHING. Over time
    Disney as a person and a company began more and more to hire based on
    talent, because he always wanted the best to work with, and if the best
    animator for a scene was a woman, then she was the best animator. Which
    isn’t to say it wasn’t an uphill battle for women. Expanding into new
    territory is.

    The letter was from 1938. In 1941, Disney told his animators to expect to see more women in the studio:

    a woman can do the work as well, she is worth as much as a man. The
    girl artists have the right to expect the same chances for advancement
    as men, and I honestly
    believe they may eventually contribute something to this business that
    men never would or could.”

    statement is an incredible oversimplification. People who are racist
    and sexist now may be a “product of their times” but they’re also
    currently living in a time when those attitudes are considered Not Okay.
    You’d take geographical culture into account when judging someone’s
    attitudes–temporal culture isn’t any different. It doesn’t mean it’s
    all sunshine and roses, but you can’t judge someone from fifty years ago
    purely looking through the lends of the twenty-first century. That’s
    part of the whole reason we study history.

  • Anonymous

    #sigh Look, here’s a reply from Floyd Norman who actually worked with Walt. I love Meryl, but this is a big misstep on her part.

  • Ashe

    “You can’t apply modern day attitudes and cultural advancement to people outside of modern day.”

    Why not? There are plenty of people exercising 40′s mentalities as we speak. Some run for state or office, even!

    Which is why I’ll never accept ‘the time period’ as a valid excuse for anyone screwing up.

  • Ashe

    And that’s a hundred percent not true.

    There were people back then who STILL knew better, who didn’t agree or participate with the systemic injustices happening all around them. As for the ones that ‘didn’t know better’? It’s no misstep born of ignorance. Power is never an accident.

    So, my attitude is about as unrealistic as the belief that the modern day is that much more advanced than it was a handful of decades ago.

    Should we always be aware of the climate they were raised in? Yes, for the sake of not repeating history. But they don’t get a pass. No pass should be phrased:

    “Well, at the time they weren’t considered shitty assholes by the shitty assholes in power who wrote and enforced all the rules.”