“They have To have agency”

Former Dreamworks animator Jason Po­rath re­veals how he picks the fas­ci­nat­ing women for his hit se­ries

All About History - - DON’T CALL ME PRINCESS -

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.

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