How Pixar’s Open Sexism Ruined My Dream Job (Guest Column)

After years of exploiting his position of power at Pixar and Disney, pressure from the Me Too movement recently ousted John Lasseter from his post as chief creative officer. But Pixar has yet to address how John’s sexist attitudes permeated its culture for decades, giving men license to mistreat women and sideline their careers.

I was a graphic designer at Pixar during the second half of my 20s. I know people are saying that the climate there wasn’t “that bad.” I’m here to tell you that it was, and more than likely still is.

At Pixar, my female-ness was an undeniable impediment to my value, professional mobility, and sense of security within the company. The stress of working amidst such a blatantly sexist atmosphere took its toll, and was a major factor in forcing me out of the industry.

When I started at Pixar as an intern, I thought I’d landed my dream job. But my excitement was quickly tempered by a flood of warnings about Lasseter’s touchy-feely, boundary-crossing tendencies with female employees. It was devastating to learn, right from the start, that women were open targets for disrespect and harassment –– even at a world-renowned workplace in the most liberal-leaning city in the country. I was likewise told to steer clear of a particularly chauvinistic male lead in my department. Much like John, this man’s female targets had been reporting his vulgar, unprofessional behaviors for years, but his position and demeanor remained much the same.

I had my first uncomfortable encounter with this department head in a company kitchen, just two weeks into my internship. He cornered me with sexual comments while openly leering at my body. Over the next five years, I white-knuckled my way through many unwelcome, objectifying interactions with him, with Lasseter, and with other men; was physically groped by another male coworker; and was sidelined from projects by the unofficial boys’ club casting system.

Just after starting on “Cars 2,” I was told by a superior that I would be uninvited from all our weekly art department meetings because Lasseter “has a hard time controlling himself” around young women. I was crushed to have my participation in the filmmaking process –– and subsequently my career trajectory –– thwarted simply because I was female. It was clear that the institution was working hard to protect him, at the expense of women like me.

But Lasseter didn’t need an intimate setting to make female employees uncomfortable. He would give me, and countless other women, lecherous up-and-down looks (or unwanted hugs and touches) almost every time we crossed his path on campus. These tactless encounters made it clear that we were sex objects to him. The entire Pixar workforce witnessed the sleazy spin that John brought to Pixar’s Halloween bash. If he found a woman attractive when she got on stage, he’d ask her to spin around while he made suggestive comments, turning the event into yet another lewd spectacle.

Lasseter’s open sexism set the tone from the top, emboldening others to act like frat boys in just about any campus setting. I’ll never forget the day a director compared his latest film to “a big-titted blond who was difficult to nail down” in front of the whole company, a joke that received gasps of disapproval.

I eventually found much-needed support and unity with my fellow female co-workers. I realized that others had also been inappropriately touched or demeaned by men in the company. We knew what it was like to be regularly talked over in meetings or passed over for assignments, while guys in our departments were often given more than they could handle. We joked about the clammy and uncomfortable interactions we had with our socially awkward, “manolescent” peers in Hawaiian shirts and graphic tees.

We each formed our own strategies for facing a system designed to protect male leads at all costs; men who often treated us like outsiders or objects. Determined to remain part of one of the world’s most visionary companies, many of us kept silent about these disheartening experiences, because we understood that the price for speaking out was high. We’d witnessed the fallout for women who questioned male leads –– who were branded “difficult,” had a hard time getting cast on subsequent projects, and were even laid off or demoted.

Management teams across the studio were well known for cleaning up the messes of powerful male superiors, regardless of their poor behavior or challenging leadership styles. Meanwhile, the company’s few female leads lacked backing and basic respect from the institution and the masses. Female leads were often caught in no-win situations, forced to either suppress their abilities –– in order to make men feel more comfortable –– or take charge and risking being labeled “difficult” or “unlikable.”

In 2010, Brenda Chapman was fired as director of “Brave” and her film was given to a man, a move that some employees perceived as proof of the studio’s deeply ingrained gender bias. This double-standard reality was later echoed in my own experience with several articulate, impressive female leads whom the Pixar whisper network vilified as “bitches.”

A female lead in my department once begged her male bosses to support her with a team to complete a challenging production project. Her male superiors repeatedly ignored her requests, until the stress of the job led her into a state of psychological and physical breakdown. When she went into sabbatical to recover, her male replacement was given a team of half a dozen artists to help him complete the same task.

When I received a perplexing performance review after finishing my fourth production, it felt I’d never be equally recognized as a valuable asset by the company. The lengthy negative column listed things like, “designs too many options; seems like she’s trying too hard; asks too many questions.” When I shared the document with my candid male mentor, who openly acknowledged the culture of sexism at Pixar, he said, “If you were a man, every one of those negatives would be in the positive column.” Physically and mentally burnt out after years of bumping up against the glass ceiling, I left Pixar at age 30, hoping to find a workplace where I could genuinely thrive.

Lasseter set the bar shamefully low for the overall treatment of women in his empire, which also signals troubling themes in the films he’s directed, produced, and overseen throughout the years. These projects, which reach millions of children and adults worldwide, have consistently failed to give women equal voice on screen and behind the scenes.

The decision to replace Lasseter with Jennifer Lee at Disney and Pete Docter at Pixar provides hope for meaningful change moving forward. But dismantling John’s legacy will take more than just replacing a single executive, because such deeply ingrained biases require deliberate, conscientious effort to identify and dismantle.

Disney and Pixar must recognize that women and underrepresented minorities are just as capable, talented, complex, and dimensional as the white fraternity of men who have monopolized animation thus far. Female narratives are worthy of world-class storytellers, and women deserve to be treated as respected equals in any creative community.

Cassandra Smolcic is a freelance graphic designer, photographer, and writer. She worked at Pixar from 2009 to 2014. This is adapted from a longer essay.

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