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Pixar Accused of Sexism and Harassment: Graphic Designer Reveals ‘Vulgar’ Behavior Inside the Studio

Cassandra Smolcic worked at Pixar from 2009 to 2014 and says she experienced sexism and harassment firsthand from the company's male executives.

John Lasseter

John Lasseter Leaves Disney and Pixar

When John Lasseter was hit with multiple allegations of workplace sexual misconduct and forced to step down in 2018 as the head of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, a seismic shift occurred at the two animation powerhouses. Directors Pete Docter (“Inside Out,” “Up”) and Jennifer Lee (“Frozen 2” and “Frozen”) were promoted as the new chief creative officers of Pixar and Disney. Then Pixar co-founder and tech guru, Ed Catmull, retired after Lasseter’s departure, truly ending an era.

Docter and Lee have already started changing the cultures at their studios, expanding inclusion and diversity from the top down in all creative areas. The Oscar-winning Docter (“Inside Out,” “Up”), one of Pixar’s first employees, is beloved and has been an essential leader of the Braintrust  He’s a warm, sensitive, bold director. Lee, a funny, sharp-eyed, and compassionate writer and director, has been a godsend to Disney. As co-writer of “Wreck-It Ralph,” she provided a fresh, hip, female voice. And her reward was being elevated to co-director of the Oscar-winning “Frozen,” helping create a phenomenon with the tender sibling story that resonated worldwide. Lee subsequently played a crucial role as a member of the Story Trust on the Oscar-winning “Zootopia,” and is currently finishing “Frozen 2.”

Both Docter and Lee immediately began emphasizing originals over sequels, with Docter determined to make his next movie, the cosmic “Soul” (June 19, 2020), while adjusting to his new leadership role. He also greenlit the initial feature by story artist Domee Shi (the Oscar-winning “Bao” short), the first sign of inclusion and diversity under his watch. Lee has reportedly put into development an Asian-themed, fantasy-adventure with a female hero, scripted by Adele Lim (“Crazy Rich Asians”), produced by Osnat Shurer (“Moana”), and directed by story artists Paul Briggs (“Frozen”) and Dean Wellins (“Zootopia”).

There have been departures: Oscar-winning director Lee Unkrich and producer Darla K. Anderson (“Coco,” “Toy Story 3”), and Oscar-winning director Rich Moore (“Zootopia”). Anderson went to Netflix and Moore will produce, direct, and advise on all projects at Sony Pictures Animation.

Meanwhile, Lasseter resurfaced as head of upstart Skydance Animation in 2019, which shocked and outraged the industry. Despite pressure to oust the fallen animation giant, Paramount Pictures’ refusal to work directly with Lasseter as part of its pact with Skydance, and actress Emma Thompson quitting the Skydance movie, “Luck,” in protest, Lasseter has begun an effort to forestall retirement through redemption and reinvention, returning to his roots of creative independence.—BD


John Lasseter is set to leave Pixar at the end of the year following sexual-harassment allegations made in November 2017, but he’s not the studio’s only problem. Cassandra Smolcic, a graphic designer who worked at the animation studio from 2009 to 2014, has written a personal essay for Variety, titled “How Pixar’s Open Sexism Ruined My Dream Job,” in which she accuses Pixar of allowing rampant sexism and sexual harassment.

“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,” Smolcic writes at the start of the essay. “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.”

Smolcic writes that soon after joining the company as an intern she received “a flood of warnings about Lasseter’s touchy-feely, boundary-crossing tendencies with female employees.” She says Lasseter was not the only one, and that she was warned “to steer clear of a particularly chauvinistic male lead” in her department. Smolcic does not name this department head.

“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,” Smolcic writes.

During an encounter with the department head in the Pixar company kitchen just two weeks into her internship, Smolcic says he cornered her and made “sexual comments” while “openly leering” at her 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,” she writes.

One particularly heartbreaking moment for Smolcic was when she was told she could no longer attend the weekly art-department meeting for “Cars 2” because Lasseter “has a hard time controlling himself” around young women. The graphic designer writes that she was “crushed” to have the course of her career changed because she was female and Lasseter couldn’t be around her. “It was clear that the institution was working hard to protect him,” she writes, “at the expense of women like me.”

According to Smolcic, the former chief creative officer would give her and many other female employees “lecherous up-and-down looks (or unwanted hugs and touches) almost every time we crossed his path on campus.” Smolcic says Lasseter’s behavior made it clear women were “sex objects” to him. During the Pixar Halloween bash, for instance, Lasseter would allegedly bring attractive women to the stage and ask them to spin around while he made suggestive comments.

“Lasseter’s open sexism set the tone from the top, emboldening others to act like frat boys in just about any campus setting,” Smolcic writes. “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.”

Smolcic left Pixar after being “physically and mentally burnt out after years of bumping up against the glass ceiling.” The graphic designer says the decision to replace Lasseter with Jennifer Lee at Disney and Pete Doctor at Pixar “provides hope for meaningful change moving forward,” but she says “deeply ingrained biases” are still a major part of the studio.

“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,” Smolcic concludes. “Female narratives are worthy of world-class storytellers, and women deserve to be treated as respected equals in any creative community.”

Read Smolcic’s essay in its entirety at Variety. IndieWire has reached out to comment from Disney/Pixar.

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