If you’ve been on the Internet in the past week, you’ve likely seen someone post a link to Rejected Princesses. It’s the creation of Jason Porath who draws an amazing picture of a “princess” that Disney would be unlikely to do a movie about, along with a great story about her history. Some are fictional. Some are real women in history. Some are ancient and some are modern. They’re all absolutely fascinating! I was drawn in, like many of you, by the story of Pasiphaë, who, um, really really likes bulls. Ahem. Check out my interview with Jason below and head over to the site, like the Facebook page and follow him on Tumblr! He likes suggestions for new princesses, so let him know who you’d like to see!
Legion of Leia: Jason, I saw these online on Friday and they blew me away. I’m a huge history fan, especially of women we might not have heard of. Let’s begin by hearing how this all got started. What got you interested in these women?
Jason Porath: The origin of this came from a lunchtime conversation at my old workplace. There was an article going around about how the Frozen princesses weren’t good role models, and I asked, “well, we can SURELY do worse than them — who is the least likely candidate for an animated princess you can think of?” I asked it on my Facebook shortly thereafter, and got around 150 replies from my friends. I hastily sketched a couple as jokes — Elizabeth Bathory, an early version of Lolita, and weirdly enough, Charybdis — but kept in my head that I wanted to do more full-fledged pieces when I got the time.
In quick order, as suggestions flooded in, it grew from being a list of hysterically poor fits (like Lolita and Beloved) to being fascinating women from history and mythology. I am a huge lover of the obscure, rare, and weird – I’m also a feminist, so the two interests collide with this series. Lastly, I’m a total information junkie, one of those people who gets lost in Wikipedia very easily. This is a rabbit hole I’ve tumbled down and have yet to see the bottom.
Legion of Leia: How do you find these women and their stories? I recognize a few names from research I’ve done, but not all of them. I remember a book called Uppity Women of the Ancient World that talked about a few, but I’m dying to know your sources.
Jason Porath: The first couple, I knew just from years of daily life. But when this all started, I got a started set of around 150 from Facebook — many of whom were jokey suggestions like Sarah Palin, and others pretty stellar ideas. From there, it ballooned out mostly from further research on my friends’ recommendations. I’d be googling for information on Mai Bhago and end up on pages with tons of information on other notable historical women.
It’s worth noting that my brother Jeremy was one of the biggest contributors to this list, often dumping a dozen Wikipedia entries in my lap at a time. He’s a tremendous researcher in his own right — far better than me — and has a vast and deep knowledge of history based on his own interests.
From there, whenever I was determined to illustrate someone, I’d go to books.google.com, JSTOR, and the public library to look up primary sources.
Getting things right is very important to me. It’s also extremely difficult, it turns out.
Legion of Leia: Tell me about your art history! These illustrations are so cool, and I love the art notes at the end of the pieces! How long do they take to do?
Jason Porath: Each one takes 2-3 days — in large part because I need to let it sit and come back to it, and see if the ideas and composition work.
I am not a formally trained artist. I have had a handful of drawing classes, but my degree is in film criticism. My work at DreamWorks was intensely technical animation — again, self-taught — that often was closer to programming and physics simulation than 2d animation. My illustration work at this point is, to my mind, barely passable. It’s not stellar, but I’m learning a lot, and improving quickly. That said, I can’t lock myself in a room until I’m amazing. I hope people will enjoy seeing me grow as an artist over the course of the series.
That said, I’m not posting the super-early ones of Bathory and Lolita, as they’re too embarrassing. Maybe Charybdis.
Legion of Leia: I know you have a FAQ on your site and you ask people to not only suggest women, but to send corrections. How difficult is it to fact check this stuff since women were largely chronicled for the children they produced and the dowery they brought instead of their life stories.
Jason Porath: Intensely, painfully difficult. I think every single one of my entries has had corrections sent in at this point, and it’s been up for four days. I’m not a historian. I enjoy this stuff and I work hard to get it right, but there are a lot of details to wrangle. Moreover, people have very deeply held opinions and emotions around many of the women represented.
Thankfully, the lion’s share of the correspondence has been kind and helpful. People largely understand the irreverent tone is meant to be humorous. That said, the consistent bits of hate mail are tough to handle, although I’m getting better at it. Been having some intense dreams, mostly about letting people down, since this started blowing up. I take it pretty seriously.
I’ll give you an example. Many people have suggested I should do Hypatia of Alexandria – she’s easily in the top ten most requested. But she’s a very problematic example. Most people think of her as an ancient female mathematician killed by religious zealots, but there’s a strong argument to made by historians that she was more the victim of the politics of the day.
Even putting aside the problem of religious implications with Hypatia, there’s a much deeper issue at play here. If the “it was politics” camp of historians are correct in their assessment (and it seems to me like they are), Hypatia’s name was basically used posthumously in someone else’s agenda years later. That’s robbing her of agency and it’s not okay.
This sort of thing happens constantly. Catherine the Great never slept with a horse. Nzinga Mbande never drank her enemies’ blood or slit her servant’s throat. The entire story or Pasiphaë sleeping with a bull was almost certainly a psyops campaign from the conquering Greeks. There’s a lot of propaganda going on in many of these stories – sometimes hundreds of years after the fact. I personally find it all incredibly interesting, and appreciate these truth-twistings as an integral part of their histories. However, there’s a duty here to get to the truth of the matter, and that can be quite difficult.
I still get it wrong a lot, and I am thankful to the readers who help me get it right for posterity. As of this writing, the Nzinga Mbande entry has some majorly incorrect rumors presented as factually correct, and I need to do more research before I make corrections. Fredegund’s entry also has minor inaccuracies, which need to be fixed.
Legion of Leia: Do you have a favorite? Is there one you’d really like to see as a film?
Jason Porath: It is incredibly hard to choose. I think all of these would make amazing movies — some of them already have been! Beloved and Lolita obviously have live action adaptations, but even Sita — putting aside Indian-produced movies, of which there are many — has an extremely charming independently-animated movie called Sita Sings the Blues. It’s available for free online and I highly recommend it.
That said, if I had to pick just one of the twelve I’ve done so far, it’d be a buddy movie about Sergeant Mariya Oktyabrskaya and her tank, Fighting Girlfriend.
Then again, ask again tomorrow and I may have a new favorite.
Legion of Leia: Can you tease any of the upcoming ladies?
Jason Porath: I’ll give hints for a four different women I want to do soon, although unsure as to the schedule:
* 10,000 horses.
* 71 years before Rosa Parks.
* The most daring ransom I’ve ever heard of.
* Fight for Pedro
Legion of Leia: Have you thought of putting these into a book? Please tell me you have!
I am trying very hard to make this happen. If you’re interested in keeping up with news on that front, I just started a mailing list (and spent an hour customizing all the text to be as amusing to me as possible). If you are interested, sign up: http://eepurl.com/Xtq2z. It may take a bit, but I’d really like to get a book going.
Legion of Leia: What other projects do you have going on?
Jason Porath: This was originally just a side project, but the outpouring of reaction has bumped it up to priority one. The now-secondary projects are:
– My first novel, about a lawyer that handles deals with devils, genies, leprechauns, and the like.
– A sci-fi comedy screenplay which I submitted to the Sundance Writers Workshop (don’t find out if I get in for a bit, so my fingers are crossed!)
– A singing tesla coil I’m helping build with a couple friends. (There is a Kickstarter! Click on the link to check it out.)
(One of these things is not like the others…!)
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jasonporath