the race to animate

Women Are Taking Over Fox’s Sunday Night Cartoons. What Took So Long?

Bless the Harts.
The women of Bless the Harts. Photo: FOX

In September, Fox revived its two-hour Sunday night Animation Domination block after a five-year hiatus. When the block debuted in 2005, it featured four classics, mainly about working-class families trying to make ends meet: American Dad!, Family Guy, King of the Hill, and The Simpsons. This new iteration of Animation Domination includes Family Guy and The Simpsons, as well as the ever-popular Bob’s Burgers, but a new promising contender has entered the fold: Bless the Harts, a series from Emily Spivey starring Maya Rudolph, Kristen Wiig, Jillian Bell, and Ike Barinholtz.

Notice a lot of women’s names? Just you wait. Next year, Fox will add two more new animated series to the block: Duncanville, premiering February 16 and created by Amy Poehler, Mike Scully, and Julie Scully; and The Great North, created by Minty Lewis and Wendy and Lizzie Molyneux. All three of these new shows are, indeed, about working-class families dealing with problems like money and everyday chores — arguably, issues that women in the household often silently shoulder the brunt of. But all three of these shows are by women and starring women, a sorely needed refresh in the male-dominated animation industry.

Earlier this week, I spoke with Emily Spivey, Julie Scully, Wendy and Lizzie Molyneux, and Minty Lewis about the state of animation in 2019, what they want to see more of, and how men in the industry can make space for women creators.

The fact that three animated shows led by women will be on the same network at once is huge, considering how male-dominated the animation industry traditionally has been. What has been the biggest barrier for women in animation, in your experience or otherwise?

Emily Spivey: It seems like comic books and animation is still perceived to be a masculine space. My first real job was King of the Hill. It was always like, “Well, we’re looking for a girl writer.” And I was always the only girl except for Garland Testa. Maybe it just wasn’t occurring to ladies that it’s a space that they could that they could thrive in. But I had such a great experience at King of the Hill. It was wonderful. So hopefully it will be changing soon.

Julie Scully: Yeah, I’m not sure whether it was agents weren’t submitting or women weren’t interested. But now, I’ve noticed a lot more women are being submitted. It’s more equal. And they grew up watching animation. King of the Hill, The Simpsons, that type of thing. We’ve got a lot more to choose from.

Wendy Molyneux: Lizzie and I started on Bob’s Burgers like ten years ago. And our staff was not 50 percent women — I think it started off about 30 to 40 percent women. We thought, Maybe we’re getting in at the beginning of the wave. Honestly, the networks didn’t see that female viewers also wanted characters that weren’t just there as the butt of a joke. We didn’t create it, so I’m not complimenting myself, but the way that Bob’s started, Linda, Tina, and Louise all had agency and all were supposed to be funny. They weren’t just there for men to stick pins in them. As we started to go to some events, we were seeing a lot of girls who came up to us and were like, “I really identify with Tina.” Hopefully, it wouldn’t enter their minds that they don’t belong in animation.

Lizzie Molyneux: I watched a lot of animation growing up, and I feel like Daria was a little bit ahead of its time with having a female character.

Wendy Molyneux: Yeah, Daria was major.

Lizzie Molyneux: She wasn’t the butt of a joke. She was the hero of the show. So I think there were little instances of it. I feel like part of it, too, is there were less women writing on shows in general.

Wendy Molyneux: A game I sometimes play is that I’ll go on IMDb for a very historical famous show and I’ll look at their list of all the writers and see how many of them were women. I don’t know why I was doing this, just to make myself mad maybe? [Laughs.] I’d see maybe 10 percent of a ten-year run back in the ’80s and ’90s. That’s just wild. Now people are being much more mindful about who you want to have on staff.

Recently, there’s been an explosion of animation. Over the course of your time in the industry, have you noticed the tides shifting for women? 

Minty Lewis: I got my start on Regular Show in the year 2010. That show had five main characters, which were all male, and nobody said anything about that being a problem. [Laughs.] I cannot imagine that happening now. I love Regular Show, but certainly there was no gender balance and nobody cared. In the kids’ space, pitching a show with a female central character would always get the note that there needed to be a strong male role for boys to be interested in it. I feel like that is happening less and less. The tables are turning slightly. It would still be tough to get away with, like, five female characters and no strong male characters.

Emily Spivey: That’s so true, Minty. I have to fight my internal voice, because I’m always thinking, Oh my God, I’ve got three generations of women as the stars of my show. I worry that it’s not boy enough. But Fox had been super supportive about that. So, hopefully, that is changing for the better.

Julie Scully: Wendy and Lizzie are right. When women start running things, [we get to put] in stronger female characters that aren’t just servicing the male leads. I also think, Emily, what you said is true. Women tend to be more inclusive. We want to hear everybody speak.

Minty Lewis: I don’t know if you’ve spoken to anyone at Women in Animation, but I’ve seen a presentation of theirs that says the majority of animation students are female.

That’s amazing.

Emily Spivey: I love that.

Wendy Molyneux: I don’t have hard numbers, but now we’ve grown to three shows here with Bob’s, Central Park, and The Great North. Behind the scenes, too, I feel like I’ve seen more female faces. I could be seeing what I want to see, but I do think it’s happening at all levels in animation, which is great because it’s such a great space to work. It’s so creative and so fun, and the hours are so much better than live action. I want everyone to be able to get in on this.

Lizzie Molyneux: [Networks] are giving women the opportunity to have their own shows and tell their own stories, and people are responding to that. I think we’re taking over.

[Everyone laughs.]

Minty Lewis: We’re free-bleeding. [Laughs.]

Julie Scully: It’s fun to watch the boys squeam.

How do you think men in animation can do better to make the industry a healthier place for women creators? There are a lot of men who are still at the top. What can they do to make women feel more included, to make everyone feel more included? 

Lizzie Molyneux: Hire female writers! [Laughs.] 

Wendy Molyneux: There’s a certain toxic idea that women write comedy differently than men, but each individual person writes comedy differently. Stop grouping female writers into one bucket as if we all just want to do bra jokes. There’s real space for that — I love maxipad jokes — [but] look at women the exact same way you look at men. You’ve got a pile of very different comedy styles in your stack of writers. There’s not one type of female writer. Get that out of your head.

Wendy Molyneux: [Women] want to do all kinds of different things!

Minty Lewis: Also, let the women be funny and not be props to the male characters of their own comedy.

Emily Spivey: There is an idea that women don’t know how to write hard jokes, and you got to get the dudes to write the dick jokes. I mean, some of the dirtiest writers I have in my room are the girls. So I wish that would fade away a little quicker because it’s just absolutely not true.

Julie Scully: We’re seeing evolution in animation, for sure. And it’s about time. And I do believe it’s because women are leading it. It will take time. Emily and I, we came up with one woman in a room. I’m talking three-camera, one-camera, and then animation. I’ve been in all the different rooms and it’s like [I’m] the token girl.

Emily Spivey: That’s exactly right.

Julie Scully: It’s not like that anymore, which I love. I love being part of the evolution.

Emily Spivey: It’s interesting to see that evolution, isn’t it? When I was at SNL, there were three girls: me, Paula [Pell], and Tina [Fey]. So it’s really true. It’s nice to be sitting in rooms where you look around and see that many pretty lady faces.

Julie Scully: Also, kudos to Tina Fey and Amy Poehler for showing women that you can work together and be great friends. Women are being supportive and real friends in this industry.

Wendy Molyneux: Over here, Lizzie, Minty, and I just set aside an hour each day to catfight. We’ll just rip each other’s hair and scratch each other’s faces for like an hour. We’ll slap each other’s boobs and go nuts and just get it out.

[Everyone laughs.]

Julie Scully: All right, Emily, it’s time for you and me to catfight.

Emily Spivey: Let’s do it.

What would you like to see more of in animation?

Wendy Molyneux: I just hope that we’ve left that male-dominated era behind.

Minty Lewis: I still see space in animation for stories that aren’t hard comedy or for kids. Undone is one example. It does seem like there is room to explore, still, in this medium. We haven’t gone all the way with it yet.

Lizzie Molyneux: I’d love to see more female-driven shows that are more outside the box. I think there’s a lot of women that can really push the boundaries. We just need more people to give us the opportunity to do so.

Julie Scully: We had a really young staff this year, and it was fun watching people who’ve never done animation. Watching them realize what an open space this is. That you’re not limited by set. You’re not limited by characters. You’re not limited by where you can go in the world. It’s a blank slate. Seeing the world open up to them and how limitless it was, that was inspiring. That got my juices going again.

Women Are (Finally) Taking Over Fox’s Sunday Night Cartoons