Aliki Theofilopoulos: a Greek-American female voice in animation
In honor of International (Greek) Women’s Day here at www.greekamericangirl.com we have the pleasure of sharing our interview with our own Greek American girl, Aliki Theofilopoulos. In her intimate interview, she spoke the truth about the struggles of making female characters heard in a highly male-dominated industry but also the triumphs and breakthroughs she has experienced in her life as a story boarder and animator. But mostly she inspired us with the theme that has coursed throughout her life—to live authentically, to be true to your deepest self.
Of course we know her claim to fame as one of the creative geniuses behind the antics of “Phineas and Ferb,” but she was the also the voice of Mandy in “Thaddeus and Thor” and co-wrote a number of songs for the series, including “Come Home Perry,” for which she was nominated for an Emmy award. She has also worked on animation hits such as Hercules, Tarzan, Fantasia 2000, and Treasure Planet as an animation intern out of high school at Walt Disney Feature Animation. She voiced for the character “Zero” on the series SD Gundam Force (as well as Dr. Bellwood) which used to be on Cartoon Network. One of only two female directors currently at Disney Television Animation, Theofilopoulos helms the studio’s new short-form series, Descendants: Wicked World, which is based on Disney’s 2015 made-for-TV film, Descendants. Besides her creativity in the major studios, she has created and produced several independent projects, most notably, “Yaki and Yumi” and “Girls on the GO!””Girls on the Go!” in fact, featured a Greek American girl named Kat Metropoulos loosely based on herself when she was a teen. She is currently in the throes of birthing a new series project for DreamWorks TV Animation.
Aliki identifies with the scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding when the young protagonist is sitting in the lunchroom with a bunch of American friends who are grilling her about her “moose kaka.” Like many Greek immigrants, she grew up with the push-pull of staying true to her roots and fitting into a larger culture.
AT: Our household was very different from those I grew up with. My parents spoke with a Greek accent, My mom cooked the traditional Greek meals. They weren’t as extreme of course. My dad is a research doctor; mom left Athens very young. My household was very different from the friends I would visit, the food, the temperament, the customs.
The people I went to school with had names such as Jenny Pendleton, Ondrea Woodburn, and Stephanie Smith and there I was Aliki Theofilopoulos. I felt very weird and very different from my earliest days.
G-Am Girl: How did your Hellenic upbringing inform your life for better or for worse? How did you bridge that cultural difference? Did you bring any cultural baggage with you into adulthood?
AT: It definitely was something I didn’t figure out for a long time. For a large part of my life I was searching for where my identity fit between these two different worlds. There’s was a part of me that was proud of my Greek heritage and that my house was so fun. It was fun sharing that with friends. BUT then there was a part that came with the nature of being a teenager, that I wanted to fit in and be like everybody else especially at that time, in the 80’s. Now we celebrate other cultures a lot more in America but back then Christy Brinkley was the icon. I was bleaching my hair blonde.
I even felt weird for being Greek Orthodox. They’d say, “What church do you go to?” and ‘Id say Greek Orthodox and they’d say , “Whaaaat?”
Where I went to school, you were so weird if you were different from that one standard. Out of my own insecurities I was somewhat embarrassed by my Greek identity. But at the same time when my friends came over my house, and would be excited to try my mom’s baklava and there was singing into the night and it was fun and so lively by seeing things from my friend’s eyes, I saw things differently “Look at how cool this world is.”
I also felt as a misfit in the Greek world too. Because my parents didn’t teach us Greek, I felt like a weirdo with them too.
The theme of not fitting in and the cultural dissonance she grew up in have fueled the material for her work. “I’ve been putting these themes in my work throughout my life,” she explains.
LIFE’S WORK AND THE FEMALE VOICE IN ANIMATION
While we look up to her as one of the few women animators to make it into the high ranks of Disney glitterati, she talked to us candidly about what it is like to be a woman in animation—“challenging.” She talked honestly about her disappointments that there were not enough female characters that truly drive a story in cartoon animation.
Greek-Am Girl: How did you find your calling?
AT: Desire to get into world of animation and cartoons came very early. Since I was a kid, I loved cartoons and I loved drawing. I knew I wanted to be a part of it somehow. . . I really didn’t realize until much later that the thing I loved most about animation was not the performances but actually storytelling. When I made the move from animating into story boarding and writing, that is where I really I found my calling.
Greek-Am Girl: Did you have to overcome obstacles as a woman in the animation industry?
AT: Absolutely. Very much so. I and another female director in animation have said to each other that, perhaps she and I may not achieve the things we hoped to achieve as women in animation but at least we can pave the way for the next generation. Our main animation school in LA, CalArts, currently has 50% women studying animation. So I really believe that it’s going to get better.
I was reading an article about a certain channel that is so much geared to boys, etc. And I have to stop and say: “When are we going to be done with that?” I understand that we will have shows that will appeal to boys and shows that appeal to girls. But our society is a 50/50 society and we need to connect with everybody and we need to have the female voice behind these stories and female characters to carry them.
I’d like to pretend we are all the same but we are not. We do have a different perspective to add.. I don’t believe in apologizing for being a woman. “Oh I need to be like the guys,” I used to do that when I was new in the industry, and believe me, growing up with brothers, and making it this long in this industry, I can!!! But I also think that my being a woman is a plus that I have something extra to add to a production. But I am seeing certain productions and studios that seem to be taking an interest in this idea. And I’m happy about that. The group Women in Animation is also raising awareness. This equality of perspective is something I am very passionate about.
You mention Power Puff Girls…but for every PowerPuff Girls there are 10 shows geared for boys. Don’t get me wrong…I love boys! I have a son. I love boy material. I love writing and creating boy characters….. I just think there is room for both.
And furthermore, we need to have examples for our girls coming up that their voice is important, that they are important.
My own daughter tells me, “Mommy, I was watching a show and there were only two girls. Mommy, I was watching a show and there was only one girl and she only said one word.” She is noticing these things.
Let me be clear: I don’t want to sound negative. I feel very positive about the future in animation because things are changing. “Phineas and Ferb” is a breakthrough show for that reason. Even though it is about two brothers, look at Candace and Isabella. They are two completely different female characters. They have great strong personalities, they are funny, they are flawed at times. This show was really a breakthrough because it didn’t say to the world, “Were being breakthrough with these girls . . . Look–Girl Power! It wasn’t in your face. It was just because they were great characters.
While recognizing the struggles in balancing the two voices in animation, Aliki feels confident that the future unfold more possibilities for the female perspective. The key is for the characters to make the statement that “girls are cartoon people too” and not let the need to make the statement create the characters.
ON LIVING AUTHENTICALLY AND HITTING “THE SWEET SPOT”
Success and joy come from living authentically. This was the theme of her inspiring TEDTalk in Athens last month. After twenty years in the animation industry, she stresses how vital it is to be true to yourself.
Here’s how she explained it:
The thrust of my talk sprang out of a disappointment about a future project. I had to really to look at myself in a very deep way. What is your career about? Is your work being done because of an end result or is it about what you do and what you love? What are you trying to say about your work? In the end, it was important to be authentic. No matter what. To be my most authentic self. That was the story of my life. It really came down to just be Aliki. Whoever that is, just be that person. And my only obligation is to communicate that in the work that I make.
I realized that if I am my most truest self then that will resonate with everybody else. And if I have a story of how my life is supposed to go, and it doesn’t go that way, it’s time to make a new story.
If you can’t be authentic, then you have to have the courage to change . . . It’s a tough thing to condone especially when you are are young and new in your career . . . But as far as looking at choices, I had to make the one that felt right in my heart. When we do that, we are happier, our work is better, and is truer to who we are. This is what I have found in the 20 years, that this is the sweet spot.
ABOUT THE BEST AND WORST ABOUT BEING A GREEK AMERICAN WOMAN
The funny take-away to this question is that Aliki gives the same answer—the best thing about being a Greek American woman is also the worst thing: the capacity to think and feel so deeply and exude so much passion. At the same time it is wonderful to feel so deeply, it can be so intense. To live deeply and passionately is a blessing and a curse, especially when the extremes reside in the same soul.
AT: The best thing is having this innate passion and big emotions and deep feeling and deep love for life and family. I feel that that deep passion feels historical. That’s the deep part of me that is Greek. It feels deep and natural, intense and enabling. I love that about myself. At the same time it can also be the negative. When you care so deeply and put so much deep emotion and makes life intense.
When something happens I need to talk a lot and cry and draw, a way to outlet my emotions. When I was in Athens surrounded by all my friends, I felt at home as if “Oh my God! I’m around all these people who are just like me. We have this shared sisterhood of intensity.”
This is a segment of Girls on the Go! Aliki’s semi-autobiographical project featuring Kat Metropoulos, a younger version of Aliki who likes to draw and has a Greek name. In this episode, “First Date,” the feminist themes of following the script of how to get a guy: “Bat your eyelids profusely,” Laugh at all his jokes, “Agree with Everything He Says,” “Never Stop Smiling” vs. staying true to who you really are (“I’m not going to follow the rules from a stupid dating magazine, I’m going to be myself and enjoy my date.”) It’s when she commits to staying true to who she is that the “dream guy,” a cute cartoonist, walks into her life. This tends to be the mega-theme that is running not only through Aliki’s work but her entire life.
Girls (and even big ones like the writer behind this site) need to know that other women are walking into the direction of their dreams and living the life they have imagined. While it will take another generation or two before true equality emerges not only in the animation industry but in the world in general, we have trailblazers like Aliki Theofilopoulos to leave a map for success behind for us.
For more info about Aliki and links to the industry, log onto:
Aliki Theofilopoulos: a Greek-American female voice in animation:
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Aliki Theofilopoulos: a Greek-American female voice in animation:
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