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The Rise and Fall of the Funny, Sexy Cartoon Woman

Cartoon women are inherently difficult subjects for the animator for the reason that animation demands caricature and comedy, which are concepts inconsistent with femininity, grace and sensuality. The result is that when animators create female leads, they tend to de-emphasize cartoon qualities and accentuate realistic mannerisms and behaviors.

There was a brief moment in animation history when funny and sexy female characters were encouraged though, and that era coincided roughly with World War II. Some historians, like John Costello, have argued that the war represented the true beginnings of the sexual revolution in the United States. During the early-1940s, sexual imagery gained new visibility and cultural acceptance. Young soldiers lusted after Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth pin-ups, while reading Milton Caniff’s comic Male Call and decorating their bombers with provocative nose art. Within this liberal environment, Hollywood directors and animators took advantage of the opportunity to explore creative new ways of portraying the female character in animation.

A handful of animators, notably Pat Matthews, Preston Blair, Rod Scribner, Fred Moore, and Milt Kahl, became known for their ability to handle women characters that were true cartoon creations. Still, there were limited opportunities to animate such characters, and it wasn’t uncommon for animators to use male characters in drag as a substitute for the female, such as Daffy Duck’s striptease in The Wise Quacking Duck (1943), animated by Art Babbitt.

The sexy cartoon female occasionally appeared in animation after the war, but by and large, the industry began to favor a blander and less cartoon-influenced style. By the early-1960s, the average cartoon female in Hollywood animation had become so unappealing that Rocky and Bullwinkle co-creator Bill Scott quipped, “The way women are drawn in our business today, one would assume all the artists are fags.”

The following selection of animated films illustrate some of the various approaches to the animated female character during the World War II period:

“Eatin’ on the Cuff” or The Moth who Came to Dinner (Warner Bros, Bob Clampett, 1942)

Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs (Warner Bros, Bob Clampett 1943)

Red Hot Riding Hood (MGM, Tex Avery, 1943)

Abou Ben Boogie (Walter Lantz Prod, Shamus Culhane, 1944)

Plane Daffy (Warner Bros, Frank Tashlin, 1944)

Duck Pimples (Disney, Jack Kinney, 1945)

  • Royce

    Sexy cartoon women never left, they just moved over from comedy shorts to adventure shows. Off the top of my head there’s Jade (Jonny Quest), Lady Jane and Cover Girl (GI Joe, Real American Heroes), Cheetara (Thundercats), Elisa Maza and Demona (Gargoyles), and pretty much any female hero from the DCAU. Perhaps less funny and more kickass, but no less sexy.

    • AmidAmidi

      The post is titled “the rise and fall of the funny, sexy cartoon woman.” There is nothing remotely funny or visually creative about the animation of any of the characters you listed above.

  • Just wondering… were there any funny, sexy MALE characters in that period? I can’t think of any…

    • Lessee… The centaurs in “Fantasia”? Do half-humans count? Hmmm…sexy but not funny.

      The Fleischer Superman/Clark Kent? Also not funny and technically not human.

      It’s hard to think of even any live-action funny/sexy men outside of Cary Grant or possibly Bogart.

  • William Ansley

    What about John Kricfalusi’s women? Cartoony and sexy, or at least that’s his aim. Ever since I first saw “Coal Black”, I’ve felt that John K’s sexy gals owe a lot to So White.

  • JodyMorgan

    That’s quite an entertaining survey of ’40s cartoon sirens, though I admit I was hoping you’d mention any noteworthy post-1960 examples, such as perhaps Natasha Fatale, Ralph Bakshi’s work, Jessica Rabbit, Minerva Mink, and Rainbow Dash. (OK, yes, I’m joking about that last one.)

    Also, there’s the fact that, except for her large feet, Olive Oyl is pretty much the prototype of today’s supermodels.

  • AC

    Well I’m trying my damndest to bring her back/keep her alive-it’s just my reach doesn’t go far beyond YouTube right now. :-P

  • AC

    And gee, missed the homophobic comment by Bill Scott as I just scrolled through. Tsk, tsk, shameful thing to say.

    • Funkybat

      I think it’s hard for some people today to imagine just how pervasive and completely socially acceptable such comments were at that time. There were plenty of otherwise decent, kind, humane individuals who in the next breath would say things about black folks, gays, and Jewish people that would be called “hate crimes” today. It all comes from societal messages that told these people, practically from birth, that people who were in those groups were in some way sub-human or “broken.”

      What’s happening today is that a good amount of the population is raised to see others as equals and to afford them dignity and respect, even if they might seem “odd” in some way or another to them. The rest of the population just hides their feelings to varying degrees because the current social messages are that these kinds of biases are unacceptable. That change is recent, I mean like the last 30-40 years at most. It’ll take a couple of generations for the old views to (mostly) die out.

      • Actually, it’s not hard for many, seeing as how sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, anti-semitism, classim and ableism is very rampant to this day.

        This behavior is still very acceptable. In fact, in this article, the homophobic slur wasn’t called out or even noted by the author.


  • GW

    I’ve got a computer animated example from a Klik Festival leader. Be warned though, it contains nudity. I couldn’t find the censored version. It was animated by Nanda van Dijk.

  • Baby Herman

    Interestingly, during production of the last Roger Rabbit short, “Trail Mix-Up”, the directive came down from on high for us to reduced the size of Jessica Rabbits…(ahem)…attributes. This was during clean-up. We even had to erase the buttons on her chest pockets (she played a Forest Ranger).

    Oh, and who can forget the original models in Pixar’s “Knick Knack”? They were modified a bit for their DVD release.

    • AmidAmidi

      Good story. But I do want to point out this distinction: while Jessica Rabbit and the character from Knick Knack are overtly sexualized, they aren’t necesssarily funny. I want to make that clear because I think the early-1940s were a unique and specific moment in history when animators explored the creative and humorous possibilities of the cartoon through sexualized female characters. It has rarely happened since except for the odd experiment here and there.

  • No doubt the departures of Clampett (to do Beany and Cecil) and Tashlin (to do features) at WB helped accelerate the trend, Even Avery’s 50’s cartoons are kind of sexless.

  • wildeyed

    I wish that everyone would learn the difference between the words “woman/women” and “female”. Grammar Nazi out!

    • Do you find it creepy when men refer to women as ‘females’, too?

      • Everlasting Concubine

        It’s like we’re another species or something. Yes.

  • What’s frustrating about this subject, is that SOMEBODY decided that to be respected as a woman you must represent SOMEBODY’s definition of “femininity, grace and sensuality”. Basically, women must be as attractive and quiet as possible and to be anything else is something that society has no want for. Comedy and sexy can certainly go hand in hand and the only thing that has ever stopped them from co-existing is society’s own sexism and ideals.

    Women are more than capable of drawing and animating sexy women. Not one of the artist listed in this article is a woman. In fact the homophobic comment by Bill Scott indicates that a man that draws an unattractive woman couldn’t possibly be attracted to women, therefore he must be unmasculine; “a fag”. Women weren’t even allowed to animate in studios in the era you write about. I’m sure we’ve all seen the “Disney rejection letter” dated 1938, written to Miss Mary V. Ford, telling her that women were simply “not considered”. And how about the 1943 Disney Employee Handbook? ( The environment at the time was very sexist and there weren’t opportunities for women to depict their own ideals of femininity or comedy via the big screen.

    The fact the someone decided what male and female standards are and then for anyone to deviate from those standards and get labelled as “a fag” or gasp, “unfeminine”, is sickening. And to lament over the fall of sexy cartoon ladies is silly too. Us ladies are sick and tired of women needing to be sexy all the time.
    reason that animation demands caricature and comedy, which are concepts
    inconsistent with femininity, grace and sensuality.)

    • Nik

      That is such a burn that the letter written to Mary V. Ford was on Snow White stationary.

    • the other Tim

      “Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that work is performed entirely by young men.”

      Wow, well the women of that day might not have been animating at Disney, but I would disagree that they didn’t do any of the creative work, they did ink and paint Snow White after all. That letter is quite embarrassing, and they won’t even send the girls to training school like they do the guys, wow, just wow.

      At Fleischer’s they had at least one woman animator in 1933.

      Andrea thanks so much for posting the letter here, it is really fascinating, by the way, the other link you posted didn’t work for me.

      • the other Tim, thanks! You should really type “1943 Disney Employee Handbook” into a search engine. You will find it super easy. It’s fascinating and very dated.

  • Eh, I think the fall of the “funny, sexy cartoon woman” can be attributed to cartoons being treated more and more as a children’s medium. If you’re making something solely for kids, as opposed to older cartoons that had both kids and adults (or hell, sometimes just adults) in mind, there’s no point in giving sex appeal to the characters.

  • Elana Pritchard

    Olive Oyl is the funniest woman cartoon character of all time and it’s probably because she doesn’t try to conform to a generic male ideal of sexiness.

  • They’re a product of the time. These were made when the censors were at their fiercest (and most hypocritical), created during the height of the pinup’s popularity. They were also a hyper-caricatured extension of the live-action features built around garish Technicolor displays of Grable’s gams and Hayworth’s breasts made when the Hollywood cartoon’s energy was at its zaniest. No crazy mystery. If the “funny sexy cartoon woman” disappeared, it’s because culture had shifted.

    And Bill Scott was a humorist and as liberal as you could get for that era; so much so he was almost blackballed permanently for it. Too bad you guys couldn’t hear what Shamus Culhane had to say about Betty Boop and rape.

  • ““The way women are drawn in our business today, one would assume all the artists are fags.” said the guy in a business where the men were drawn with brightly-colored skin-tight costumes, large pectoral muscles and few visible female entanglements.

    Yes, it’s the way the WOMEN were drawn that made us all wonder…

    • canimal

      Are we just ignoring the fact that not every artist is male or…

    • Liberating women with diversity and equal treatment through the use of homophobia.


  • Nik

    Betty Boop was the original funny and sexy cartoon gal. Why didn’t she make the list?

  • young woman

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  • The Hays Code also made her tone down the sexy. The removal of “suggestive” content made the Betty Boop cartoons less adult so she kind of lost her popularity.

  • Not to the extent adults are. But also, when you’re making stuff for kids, if you have anything too risque parents will complain. So you can’t get away with an overly sexy female character.

    • Diogenes

      Do you think the women in the cartoons above are overly sexy? Do you think they’re sexier than all the anime women? I think there’s still lots of sexy women in cartoons, they’re just not funny and sexy. I suppose that says more about the people writing/approving their lines than it does about their audience.

    • Everlasting Concubine

      Oh, kids are interested in sexy women all right, even if they are unsure why. Adults, however, aren’t terribly interested in their kids watching sexy women. It might lead to … uncomfortable conversations.

  • Had to sign in just to sing with the chorus. My friends and I had quite the lady crush on Roger. Animators sometimes unintentionally hit the mark.

  • There were no decades after the 80s

  • jmahon

    yep, that’s the one. And, again, as with most girls… it isn’t about his “hidden talent” that girls are attracted to, nor his nose. If you watch the movie, he has a unique and clear personality, he plays instruments, he’s a goof, etc and that’s the attractive part.

  • Anonymoose

    And the award for most offensive and proof that Cartoon Brew has officially gone off the deep end goes to…

    No seriously what the hell Amidi? Is this what the site is about now? Is this what you think cartoons is about? I don’t mind the occasional fan service for male viewers in animation but really this is all you want to focus on? How about a post that talks about sexism in the industry? How about ask why so few series and movies have female leads? Not to mention the quote you chose and the content of the shorts themselves (and don’t try and say “Well they’re classics so that means they immune from criticism” cause that shit is bull), do you even think anymore?

    I remember back in high school I used to love going on this site, learning about the history of animation and news of new works from around the world. Now, this site is essentially a mediocre blog for you to rant. So yeah I’m done with this site and I’m tired of your bullshit. Nice to see that you only look at women, cartoon or otherwise, as potential sex appeal. That’s really reassuring. (sarcasm)

  • Funkybat

    What I like about John K.’s girls is that they are almost all both “sexy” and “freaky-looking.” He also isn’t afraid to have them do awkward and unattractive things in the name of “funny.” There are very few artists who seem to be able to make goofy, even grotesque-looking cartoon women attractive at the same time.

  • Charlie

    But he talks mainly about films/TV shows of the 80s and 90s. It’s stuff that’s nostalgic to his generation. He used to only review things within his cut-off dates, so his Top 11 list probably fell under that too.
    IIRC, the Nostalgia Chick has done a few episodes on old 1930s/1940s cartoon shorts, including a positive one of Red Hot Riding Hood.

    • The Nostalgia Critic said in his “Top 15 Comedic Influences” that Looney Tunes and Tom and Jerry (both classic cartoons need I remind you) were nostalgic to his time. He even states that the Looney Tunes were some of the first things he ever saw. Overall, there’s no excuse for him to not include these hotties in his list. Speaking of “Top 15 Comedic Influences”, why the hell isn’t Tex Avery on that list of influences? Many of the gags in Doug’s videos look like they are influenced by Tex.

  • Alex

    What does that mean?

  • Mister Twister

    Don Bluth wasn’t afraid to make his female characters attractive.

    Just saying.

  • symbolmonkey32

    I think a lot of people are missing the point of the fag quote. They see the word fag and have a Pavlovian response that makes them ignore why it was used and assume it’s gotta be because of bigotry.

    I took from this quote and article that the design standards have become this: Sexy women CANNOT also be comedy relief characters. There is a preconceived notion, in America, that a sexy woman must act like Jessica Rabbit. This is different from the rest of the world because in the real world animation is for everyone, but let’s just stick to America. where animation is kinda stuck being for kids. Overall most sexy female characters are stuck being the straight woman and that if a woman is going to be funny she has to be plain or ugly. This is bullshit, check out the show Stripperella. This is what the quote was expressing.

    Bill Scott was upset that he was being forced to draw women sexually unappealing and in his mind people would see these quasi-sexy women as an attempt to draw sexy women by someone who doesn’t understand what makes a woman sexy. Step away from your P.C. guns for a moment, be honest, and ask yourself: Does a gay man understand why a straight man finds a woman sexually attractive? No he does not. I’m not saying a gay man is not capable of drawing a sexy woman but I am saying that any character designer worth his salt will inject their own tastes into their design. I would say a woman would have an easier time designing a sexy woman then a gay man just because most women know what makes themselves sexy. Gay Women must be god-tier sexy female designers.

    Bill Scott was pissed that he was having to design his comedic female characters as if he was someone with no idea what makes a woman sexy. If you’re still mad he used the word fag then I guess you felt the issue he was addressing wasn’t as important as saying fag, you sexist jerk you.

  • Leilani26

    My mother used to draw a cartoon woman (head only) for me. I was about 7 or 8 and she could draw a profile very quickly. She was Japanese and these were white women. It was very cute and I wish I could find the same type of cartoon today.
    It was in the 50’s. She had lived in Honolulu, but we lived on the mainland.