Disney has some new heroines: Female directors

For the first time the film giant is allowing women to take major credits

As the animated princess stars of its fantasy worlds, girls have long been critical to Disney's global renown. But that's been despite rather than because of the media giant's track record when it comes to its own female employees.

For nine decades, not one of Disney's hit animations has had a woman sitting in the director's chair – until now. When Frozen, its latest cartoon feature film, opens in the UK later this month, it will make Disney history as Jennifer Lee, a screenwriter, shares a directing credit with the animator Chris Buck.

What's more, Get a Horse!, the retro-style Mickey Mouse short that precedes Frozen, is directed by The Simpsons' Lauren MacMullan, who will make company history by being the first woman ever to have a solo directing credit on any feature-length Disney cartoon.

Given that Frozen, which is loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale The Snow Queen, has two princess protagonists: a young Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) and her older sibling Elsa (Idina Menzel), Lee's involvement was timely. Parents sick of the negative influence that generations of Disney's perfect princesses have had on their own daughters can only hope that Lee's input will help to turn the tide.

Lee has already told the Los Angeles Times that she helped to humanise young Anna, making her pass wind – thought to be a first for a Disney royal. Early reviews for the film in the US, where it opened last week, have been positive, with critics noting that Frozen avoids the usual clichés of princess movies.

John Lasseter, Disney Animation's chief creative officer, told the US paper that it was pure coincidence that both films had a woman at the creative helm. He said that women were slowly making their names in what has been a "male-dominated industry for a long time". He added: "Not that it's been an old boys' club. There have been real superstars that were women. But now you're seeing more women in supervisory and leadership roles, in story, in layout, in animation. In the production side, there's a lot of very strong women. It's been growing."

Animation isn't the only area where Hollywood has given women the cold shoulder. The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University found that women accounted for 9 per cent of the directors on the top 250 US films in 2012. The actress Geena Davis campaigns on the issue, and research by her institute on gender bias has found that 4.8 males work behind the scenes in the movie industry to every one female.

Brenda Chapman set her own record when she became the first director of an animated movie at rival studio DreamWorks with The Prince of Egypt in 1998. She went on to direct Brave at Pixar, becoming that studio's first female director.

Disney, based in Burbank, was founded by two brothers, Walt and Roy, as the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio. Its first feature-length film, which premiered in 1937, was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

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