Betty Boop and the…First Woman Animator!

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Max and me in Miami, Florida
Circa 1940. Collection: V. Mahoney

MAX and Me
by Ginny Mahoney
Granddaughter of Betty Boop’s creator, Max Fleischer

It’s no coincidence that in 1933 Max Fleischer, the man who created the “liberated” Betty Boop, was also the person who hired the FIRST female animator. Max was often ahead of his time!

Although hiring a woman animator may not seem like a big deal now, it was a huge deal in the 1930s.  Studios only hired women in more lowly roles such as “inker” or “opaquer.”  If talented and very lucky, a woman might advance to the position of “inbetweener,” but never…NEVER as an animator.

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An article from a 1936 Paramount promotional booklet for Popeye

That women were not hired as animators wasn’t simply a matter of habit, it was a matter of policy. “Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen,” read a rejection letter sent to women who had applied for the position at another studio of the day, “That work is performed entirely by young men.”

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“Pudgy and the Lost Kitten” (1938) is a Fleischer Studios film in which Lillian Friedman is given on-screen credit for animation.

In 1931, at the age of nineteen, Lillian Friedman joined Fleischer Studios as an “inbetweener.” Animator Shamus Culhane recognized that Lillian was highly talented and began advocating for her advancement to animator. It was no easy task to convince the male animators to accept a woman into their ranks, but in 1933, Max officially promoted Lillian, making her the first female animator employed by a studio in the United States.

In his book Talking Animals and Other People, Shamus Culhane recounts actually having to devise tricks that would encourage the men to accept Lillian more fully into their ranks. In spite of having achieved animator status, Lillian was paid considerably less than her male counterparts; nonetheless, it was an historic first step for women in animation!