Lauren Castro, Helen Argo and Isabel Barfod discuss the underrepresentation of women in the animation field and its problem with diversity.
As part of their annual festival, the Glasgow Film Festival also hosts a parallel series of events under the title of Industry Focus – a curated series of panels, workshops, screenings, and networking events that help grow the participants’ knowledge of the film industry as well as increase their contacts. One such event was the Women in Animation panel which I had the chance to attend. Hosted by author Hannah Flint, the event featured Lauren Castro (Netflix), Helen Argo (Aardman), and Isabel Barfod (freelancer) as they discussed their journey into the animation industry as well as its lack of diversity and gender imbalance.
The event was held at the Double Hill Hotel in Glasgow city centre, a welcoming environment with ample space for the attendees to wait comfortably and talk amongst each other before the event started. At the designated time, we were directed to the room where the panellists were waiting to start. The three women on the stage represented three very different backgrounds, ages, and roles in the animation field which gave the talk a real sense of perspective and diversity, not limiting itself to one ideal way of being a woman in animation but several equally respected alternatives. Argo, the eldest of the group, studied a degree in Arts at university, focusing on ceramics. Soon after, she became a secretary for the animation company Aardman, where she seized the opportunity to foster connections across the company and establish herself as a valuable asset. She is now the Executive Producer of Aardman’s commercials and short form animated content. Castro had studied a business degree before she broke into the animation world as an assistant at the Creative Artists Agency, later moving to DreamWorks, and now Netflix, where she holds the position of manager of Adult Animation Comedy. Finally, Barfod represented the independent side of the industry. The youngest of the three, Barfod studied illustration in her undergraduate, followed by a masters in animation after which she has been creating her art thanks to grants and has most recently been the recipient of the 2023 Margaret Tait Commission.
Following their introductions and some lively discussion on favourite animated films and personal achievements, the host directed the conversation toward the gender dynamics of the animation industry. All three women discussed the pervasiveness of Impostor Syndrome and the fear of being viewed as token females in their field, chosen for their gender rather than their skills. “Most of my bosses were female”, Argos states while discussing Aardman; however, she also concedes that she found the fact that she and her male colleague were always promoted at the same time a bit suspicious. Castro further describes a time when she experienced direct discrimination because of her gender, when discussing the gender pay gap. After being promoted, she realised that a male colleague that had received the same promotion a bit later was earning a lot more. This led to her confronting her supervisor about it. She concluded her story by encouraging the audience to speak out about injustice, and to make sure their voices are heard: “We are still having these conversations”, she said. Having worked in the industry for over a decade, Castro is still one of the only female execs. While the animation industry is changing, with more women achieving positions of power in prominent companies, as seen with Castro and Argo, women still face discrimination in the workplace, and these women must be heard in order to promote fuller equality and respect between the genders.
When asked about her work, Barfod described it as a practice of frustration surrounding the representation of bodies, especially black queer bodies. She argued that in the process of animating people there is an unconscious bias that can enforce racial stereotypes. More work must be done when attempting to capture the essence of a person – universities should push students to learn outside of the standard, fostering illustration skills that are conscious of diversity – artists that are aware of the history behind each face, rather than limited to caricatured mediations of people. This need for inclusivity and diversity also extends to the large animation corporations, however this representation often is cut in favour of shows that will capture the largest audience. Castro expressed her frustration about this when asked about the cost of animation. “Animation is not cheap”. With a single episode costing around 1.5 million dollars, “you need to know the show is going to be a hit”, Castro says. For this reason, many unique, creative, and diverse shows are cut.
While the cost of production is actively forcing the animation industries to keep their shows under approved formulas and tropes, the freelance work of artists like Barfod is pushing for a change. And while change might be slow due to the large investment required to create art in animated form, it is most definitely coming.