There are times when the story of a woman is just too offbeat to make it as Disney princess material. For former Dreamworks animator Jason Porath, this was no excuse for their stories not to be told. His website, Rejected Princesses, has made a name in teaching readers about some of the real and fictional female badasses throughout history. Jason Porath was gracious enough to speak with FangirlNation a second time as he releases his new book, Rejected Princesses: Tales of History’s Boldest Heroines, Hellions, and Heretics (spoiler alert: the book is as amazing as it sounds).
FangirlNation: For our readers who have not yet had the pleasure of reviewing your website, what is your definition of a “Rejected Princess”?
Jason Porath: A Rejected Princess is a woman who wouldn’t make the cut for an animated princess movie. This isn’t a judgement call – I love these stories and think they should be told – but they’re unlikely to get their big musical numbers. But hey, so was Princess Mononoke, if you think about it.
What is your research process like when discovering the stories of these fascinating women? Are there any particular sources you’d recommend for our readers to do additional own research?
I find that starting with Wikipedia to get a list of sources is always good. My next stops are usually to Google Books and JSTOR. The Ask Historians subreddit, while fairly conservative, is also a treasure trove of knowledge. And if it’s a more modern figure, the newspaper archives at chroniclingamerica.loc.gov are invaluable.
As regards visual reference, it’s a bit harder. Google Images and Pinterest are indispensable. The Osprey books, and Racinet’s costume history are also terrific resources. Beyond that, you just have be very creative with Google, and experienced enough to know how historical depictions dating from certain eras can be rife with inaccuracies. I still get plenty wrong.
How do you determine who made the cut to be included in the Rejected Princesses book?
I tried to make it as diverse as possible – to that end, I had a massive spreadsheet tracking fields like ethnicity, era, personality, sexual and gender identity, disabilities, religion, and other such representations. I tried not to have entries that were too similar to one another, and when I did, I often showed two remarkable women who were in opposition to one another – Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale, Yoshiko Kawashima and Qiu Jin, Elizabeth Bisland and Nellie Bly.
When you spoke with FangirlNation last, you referenced Julie d’Aubigny and Noor Inayat Khan as your favorite “rejected princesses.” Have you found a new favorite through your research?
Those two are hard to beat. I’ve since found some stories of women who’ve described incredible odds, notably Marguerite de la Rocque, who’s in the book. After being stranded on an abandoned island in Canada — literally called the Isle of Demons — in the 1500s, she survived for two and a half years by hunting bears and other wildlife before miraculously hitching a ride back to France with some Basque fishermen. That’s a real person. That actually happened. That blows my mind.
Your book also includes a few fictional characters like Pope Joan and Calafia? Why do you feel it’s important to highlight fictional women as well?
The fictional character I choose are counter-programming to the stories we normally get. Think about it: the stories our society repeats indicate what sort of people the society deems acceptable (or not). At various points in human history, figures like Pope Joan and Calafia were so popular that they were often thought real. That’s remarkable. We live in an age where stories are constantly remixed, reborn, resurrected. It’s fascinating, thinking how the ideas they represent resonate with today’s world.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned from your research?
Keep digging – history is never settled. A good example would be the entry on Neerja Bhanot, a flight attendant who lost her life facing down hijackers in 1986. I had consulted all information available on her in English, and had her entry all written – and a week before the edit was locked, some eyewitnesses came forward with accounts that cast some of the story details into doubt. This was thirty years after her death. This sort of thing happens all the time.
You recently wrote on your Rejected Princesses’ blog your initial reactions. In the list of your reactions you meant you needed to “not be afraid to be more of a person.” What are your first steps?
I’ve been tinkering with a blog post for a while now that talks about the effect this project has had on me, good and bad. I’m terrified of publishing it, but I’ll be pushing it out soon, and plan on having more posts like it. I’m trying to recognize where my viewpoint intercedes and own that.
A good example would be the entry on Josephine Baker – it’s harsher on her than it should be. She was a remarkable human being. But after reading 600 pages of just how many people’s lives she affected – often times really hurting them in the process – I just couldn’t side with her as strongly as I should have. That was a personal reaction. I need to own that.
Now that Rejected Princesses is a real book that readers can hold, do you have any other projects you’re turning your sights to? Will you continue to update your site on Wednesdays?
Yes, updating for the foreseeable future. I plan on launching a Patreon soon, with a ton of bonus content for backers. I’d love to do a volume two, and other media – coloring books, animated shorts, and the like – but it all depends on how volume one does.
Beyond that, I have a number of graphic novels and novels I’d like to do. But I have 1,300 more women to cover on my master list, and it’s only growing. RP could keep going for another ten years.
You can get your very own copy of Rejected Princesses: Tales of History’s Boldest Heroines, Hellions, and Heretics today.