Jason Porath is keen to tell the stories of some princesses from the Middle East as well Image Credit: Supplied

Forget Cleopatra and King Tut, says Jason Porath, Hatshepsut is the greatest pharaoh in history. A former DreamWorks animator and visual effects artist, Porath, who is now the creator of Rejected Princesses — a website dedicated to “women too awesome, awful, or offbeat” for movies, is rewriting history in his own inimitable style. His creative endeavour that his fans have come to love takes us on a fascinating tour of “interesting, lesser-known women” who have been given Disney-like makeovers.

“Animated princesses never get the chance to actually rule — they are princesses, not queens. They are always ‘next-in- line’. I try to illustrate women who take charge of their own lives,” says Porath of his edgier characters that would have a hard time receiving the green light from the big studios.

Since the release of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” more than 75 years, Disney has been famous for princess-themed animated, romantic musicals highlighting a female protagonist in distress who must be saved by a strong male character. Having mastered a particular trope — making and selling princess movies unceasingly, fervently, and with a great deal of success — the princess factory has rarely stepped away from its famous happily ever after theme.

Porath is having none of that. His type goes beyond kissing a frog. “The women of Rejected Princesses have either incredible or terrible stories but they’re all very different than the ones told by Dreamworks, Disney or Fox,” he says.

The long list includes Noor Inayat Khan, a descendent of Tipu Sultan and a British spy working for Indian independence shot dead at a concentration camp at age 30 during the Second World War; serial killer princess Fredegund; transgender native American two spirit Osh-Tisch whose name means Finds Them and Kills Them; and Sita, the central female character of the Hindu epic “Ramayana”, admired for her courage and self-sacrifice. Ida B. Wells is yet another unsung princess; an African-American journalist, newspaper editor, women’s rights activist, and her most prominent work includes documenting lynching in the United States.

That is the kind of princesses that 32-year-old Porath likes to draw, honour and resurrect online every Wednesday. Some are fictional; some are real women in history.

Not a formally trained artist, Los Angeles-based Porath has a degree in Cinema-Television Critical Studies from the University of Southern California. “I have had a handful of drawing classes. My work at DreamWorks was intensely technical animation that often was closer to programming and physics simulation than 2D animation. My illustration work at this point is not stellar, but I’m getting better. I hope people will enjoy seeing me grow as an artist over the course of the series.”

Interestingly, not all his characters are heroic; some are ruthless villains such as Elisabeth Bathory, who, he says, is possibly the most prolific female serial killer in history. He says he didn’t want to only include one type of female character. “Women can do anything. That means being hero or villain. Besides, one man’s hero is another man’s villain. Nobody is purely good or evil. Nuance is very important.”

The project was accidental, born out of a lunch conversation he had while working at DreamWorks. “There was an online article about how Disney’s “Frozen” princesses weren’t good role models, so, I posited to the lunch group who would come up with the woman least suitable to be an animated princess? I asked it on my Facebook shortly thereafter, and got around 150 replies from my friends. From there it snowballed out into a personal passion.”

The website took off soon after. A strong point of appeal: the princesses, along with a great story about their history, keep the audience engaged because it subverts expected tropes and stereotypes, over and over. “A well-rounded view of a person’s life, of different cultures and history are the most important thing I can possibly convey in my work. Making it funny or pretty are just ways to get one’s attention for me to tell a story. Each entry requires a lot of research and thought, and takes two to three days — in large part because I need to let it sit and come back to it, and see if the ideas and composition work.”

Recently Porath, who quit DreamWorks a year ago to pursue his dreams, has signed a book deal with Harper Collins. With more than 600 more princesses on his list, he is now keen to add some princesses from the Middle East as well. “My book will have some exclusive entries, and I’m trying to figure out the ones that will go in the book and the ones I’ll be free to put online. I’ve done entries on queen Tomyris, the empress who reigned over the Massagetae and was of Iranian origin, and Shajar Al Durr of Turkic origin, who became the Sultana of Egypt”.

The book is expected to come out in 2016, and now most of his time is being spent on that, he says.

Albeit big Hollywood studios are unlikely to make a movie on Porath’s creations, he has sympathy for them, as he feels they have to appeal to a huge audience, something he doesn’t necessarily need to have. “They make movies they think will sell. If thin and blonde princesses sell better than others, that’s what they make. The cost of making a movie is expensive, so they play it safe. Studios have to look after their employees and so their stories are uncontroversial. If a studio doesn’t profit, many of those employees will lose their jobs. Thankfully, I have more freedom to tell a wider range of stories. I only have to support myself.”

Porath, who worked on “Kung Fu Panda 2” and “Puss In Boots”, says, “It is time for Hollywood to get a female superhero movie into production. And many studios are definitely looking for something different, I know.”

Much like Elsa, an atypical, boundary-pushing princess in “Frozen” that everyone could interpret in a unique way and find that the arc of her story applied directly to them, Porath thinks if not all, some of his princesses warrant their own movie.

“Both Mariya Oktyabrskaya and Noor Inayat Khan really deserve their own big-budget movies. I really hope we start seeing a wider variety of female characters, of every ethnic and cultural background that can lead and govern.”

Porath says Soviet tank commander Sergeant Oktyabrskaya’s husband was killed by the Nazis, and so she sold all of her belongings in order to buy a tank and fight. She named the tank Fighting Girlfriend. The illustration shows her sitting atop her tank, anthropomorphized in Cars-like fashion, amid a battle.

A feminist and mythology nerd, Porath confesses he cried when he visualised secret agent Khan’s gritty last few months, shackled in chains by the Gestapo — the secret police of Nazi Germany, and enduring beatings daily. Just before she was executed, Khan, who worked as a radio operator in Paris, was said to have uttered the word, ‘Liberte.’

“She’s a fascinating study in contrasts. A Sufi who lied. A pacifist who fought. An Indian independence fighter who worked for the British. She gave up everything of herself to stop what she saw was the greatest evil of her time. She is probably the bravest woman I’ve ever read about.”

Porath says stories like that of Noor Inayat Khan is one of a kind.”I am constantly looking for more, but sometimes you only realise how brave someone really was after you’ve been researching them for weeks.”

His edgier illustrations come with equally interesting, reckless American prose. Describing Sita from “Ramayana”, he writes “it’s incredible... for 90 per cent of the book; it’s basically Mario/Princess/Bowser by way of Tarantino. Bad guy (Ravana) kidnaps princess (Sita), good guy (Rama) goes on bloody rampage for years in order to get her back. Kills Ravana, gets back the princess, yay for everyone.”

Porath, who enjoyed reading the “Ramayana”, is now looking forward to make time for epics such as the “Mahabharata”, “Shahnameh” (Book of King), composed by the Iranian poet Hakim Abul-Qasim Mansour, and the “Delhemma”, a popular epic of the Arabic literature regarding the Arab–Byzantine war of the Umayyad and early Abbasid period.

Undeniably, the heroines that Porath presents to us every week are not be seen as an attack on Disney, but rather as the powerful continuation of a conversation of building up stronger, more varied female role models who battled the grim conditions of the real world, and whose stories don’t always end the same. They are more vulnerable, more human; of course, within that humanity is where viewers can finally see a more poignant side of a familiar, and usually more unreachable, face. Sometimes “Snow White” and “Sleeping Beauty” just can’t cut it.