“They have To have agency”
Former Dreamworks animator Jason Porath reveals how he picks the fascinating women for his hit series
What inspired you to create this blog about awesome women?
When I was working at Dreamworks, an article went around talking about how the Frozen girls were bad role models. Being a bit of a scamp, I put it to my coworkers that we could come up with much worse role models and brainstormed on who the worst candidate for an animated princess could be.
While many of the suggestions were purely black humour, I also tossed out a number of historical figures, like Boudica and Nzinga Mbande, neither of whom were familiar to anyone at the table. I thought that was a shame and I wanted to see it exist, so I started drawing. It went viral, I got a book deal, and here we are.
What do you look for in a candidate?
Three things: they have to have agency, personality and conflict. If they lack agency, it’s a tragedy. If they lack personality, it’s boring. If they lack conflict, it’s a resume. Beyond that, I look for people from cultures I don’t know much about because it’s a great way to learn about other societies and periods of history, to find out about their greatest heroes (or villains). I don’t search for women worthy of emulation or derision, per se – I look for people who have interesting stories.
How do you go about doing your research?
I keep a massive spreadsheet of everyone I’ve ever considered. It has a summary of their story, ethnicity, era, what part of the world they frequented and special representations like LGBT, religion and disability. From there, I’ll often start on Wikipedia and Google Books to get as close to the original source materials as possible. Then it’s usually off to the library, JSTOR or archive.org.
I’m constantly limited by the number of languages I know and the limited scholarship available on certain areas of the world. There’s no shortage of historians covering World War II and Ancient Rome, but try getting anything on pre-colonial Africa or South America and you’re rolling the dice. Even major Korean, Chinese and Japanese historical documents are often not translated to English, or only in limited fashion. It’s maddening.
Each of your illustrations wonderfully brings the characters to life. How do you decide on what to include in your art?
I’ll do all my book research first and then often do some visual research to see what the objects in their world looked like – what type of clothes they wore, what ships they sailed, what they looked like. Then I’ll list out all the major points of their story that stood out to me, and some characteristics of their personality. From there, I try to put as many of them in one picture as possible, ideally by finding some visual metaphor for the lesson I found in their life.
How do you think these women bucked the trend of ‘great’ historical figures, typically presented as male?
If there’s a difference in how men are portrayed, I’d argue it’s that history books are more comfortable with men having flaws. Coverage of Ada Lovelace often leaves out that she was an opiate addict. Coverage of Helen Keller leaves out that she was a socialist firebrand. Coverage of Joan of Arc leaves out that she was a terrifying warlord. Somewhere along the line, Genghis Khan and Timur had their accomplishments taken in sum total, whereas the lives of Malinche and Ranavalona I are often still talked about uncritically.
Your new book, Tough Mothers, focuses on history’s incredible matriarchs. Why did you choose to highlight them specifically?
I think the social construct of motherhood is fairly limiting: about the most hurtful thing you can call a mother is to say she’s a ‘bad mum’. The pressure is suffocating. It’s the norm for them to do this enormous amount of labour, sacrificing everything, and they’re still undervalued and underestimated. I wanted to show motherhood in its many incarnations, and show just how much our mothers and grandmothers went through.
Are there any women today who you think would make great Rejected Princesses?
I try not to cover modern-day figures because the dust hasn’t settled. I look at Benazir Bhutto in all her messy, frustrating, corrupt glory in Tough Mothers but I prefer to be able to take a longer view on their life. Moreover, many admirable figures, like Malala Yousafzai, are already being lionised in their lifetimes, and I tend to focus on more obscure people.
However, I’d love to explore confederateflag-snatcher Bree Newsome, child-marriage-abolisher Theresa Kachindamoto and the late royal-turned-opium-smuggler Olive Yang down the line. I’m also hugely curious as to what the #Neveragain activists, particularly Emma Gonzalez, will do in the future. Tough Mothers: Amazing Stories of History’s Mightiest Matriarchs celebrates the women from history with fierce maternal instincts. The book is released on 17 May in the UK.