Jason Porath wants to grow an audience for what he calls “rejected princess” – movie princesses who don’t fit the stereotypical Disney princess mold.
Every week, Porath posts a drawing of a new heroine in classic Disney style, and tells her tale in all of its odd, off-beat, and often gory detail. He also shows his work, pointing readers back to the primary sources for their own further reading.
He’s done almost 40 posters, and has a list of more than 750 potential princesses, all of whom fight their own battles — like Naziq al Abid’s fight for the right to vote, or Ida Wells‘ fight against racism. That’s really the only requirement Porath places on his “princesses”: that they take charge of their own destinies.
“They’re not all shiny, happy, kick-butt heroines,” he said. “Some are heroes, some are villains, some are just weird.” In a way, the movie business is rejecting these women. But Porath, who worked at DreamWorks before leaving to run his blog, says he can’t fault studio heads for playing it safe and not making animated children’s features about transgender Eskimos, brutal warrior queens, and indigenous goddesses.
“It’s been tried multiple times to do something more adult, more risky, and none of them did particularly well,” Porath told ivoh, speaking about his time at DreamWorks in its early years, when a handful of animated features in a row failed at the movies. “People say they want original movies, but they don’t go out and see them, so who’s really doing the rejecting?”
Porath, who lives in Los Angeles, began his “Rejected Princesses” project last June. At the time, Disney’s female protagonist, anti-fairy-tale-wedding-ending “Frozen” had hit the height of its popularity. Porath and some of his coworkers parsed “a lousy click-bait article” that pondered whether Elsa and Anna, the main characters in “Frozen,” were really good role models for young girls. Surely, they thought, they could come up with better heroines.
They bounced around some ideas in response, and within a few weeks, Porath had drawn up poster-style animations of 12 women he deemed “Rejected Princesses” — women the blog calls, “too awesome, awful or offbeat for kids’ movies.”
The project has started gaining widespread attention. Almost 20,000 people have like the Rejected Princesses Facebook page, and it’s been written up by E! Online, Fast Company, and public radio stations. Within a few months of his first post, Porath had multiple agents calling and now has a deal with an imprint of HarperCollins for a book that’s due out next year.
While some segments of American culture are pushing movie studios to show more nuanced depictions of women in children’s animation, it may be a long time before we see a musical cartoon starring someone like Elisabeth Bathory, a supposedly brutal countess who inspired the Dracula legends.
There’s room for improvement in the studio model of movie-making, which relies on huge international sales for profits. But it all comes back to what audiences will support, said Porath, who now works on his “Rejected Princesses” project full-time.
“You wouldn’t be able to put out Snow White today. Sleeping Beauty had almost no personality, and you can’t get away with that anymore,” he said. “I don’t want to castigate the animation studios and hold them to an impossible standard. I have tremendous sympathy for the people picking these movies, making choices five years in advance of the movies’ coming out. … The studios really have to skate to where the puck is going and hope there is an audience, and if there isn’t, you just got a lot of your coworkers fired.”
Porath deliberately keeps his operation small so that if it fails, he’s the only one hurt. The flexibility of alternative media and blogs like his mean they can keep overhead low and take risks to move the needle on what audiences accept.
“To effect change, you have to change the audience and change what they support,” Porath said. “I’m not trying to tell people what to do. What I’m doing is trying to remove as much of the ‘ivory tower’ stigma of ‘feminism’ from these stories, and instead saying, ‘this is just really cool.’”
At least one studio agrees: The life story of one Rejected Princess, Noor Inayat Khan, a British secret agent in Nazi-occupied Paris, was made into a 60-minute film broadcast on PBS stations around the country.