I’ve been a devoted follower of Jason Porath’s wonderful website, Rejected Princesses, which profiles historical and mythological “women to awesome, awful, or offbeat” for your standard Disney Princess narrative, for a while now, so of course I had to pre-order the long-awaited book release: REJECTED PRINCESSES: TALES OF HISTORY’S BOLDEST HEROINES, HELLIONS, & HERETICS. I’m a sucker for colorful women’s history, so I’ve been hyped for this for a long time, but this book. THIS BOOK! It surpassed even my expectations and then some!
The book covers 100 heroines, villainesses, and women in between from mythology and antiquity all the way to 20th century history, pairing outlandish and at times gruesome history with full-color Disney-style illustrations. Twenty of the entries are highlights from the original blog–including Boudicca, Wu Zetian, Ida B. Wells, Julie D’Aubigny, and three of my personal favorites, Ching Shih, Khutulun, and the truly astonishing Noor Inayat Khan–but 80% of the content is comprised of brand-new badasses.
This book is just so good. The book is chock-full of truly outrageous details, with lots of sex, violence, sex, witty comebacks, and sex–Julie D’Aubigny burning down a convent to bang a nun!–but also notes that the vagaries of history and, yes, misogyny often complicate many of the narratives around powerful women. The roster is just incredible, with a pitch-perfect balance between inspirational heroes like Ida B. Wells and Noor Inayat Khan with more complicated figures like Jezebel (yes, that one), Mata Hari, and La Malinche. I had heard of some of these women before, such as the Night Witches and Artemisia Gentileschi, but most of this was new to me.
While the focus is on ‘rejected’ princesses who haven’t received their due in history books–whether because they’re maligned (fairly or not), or because their narratives are too complex, or because they’re not white or heterosexual or either, or because their contributions have simply been forgotten or minimized–there are a few more well-known names. These entries were some of the most fascinating in the book, illustrating how even celebrated women’s narratives tend to be sanitized of their complexity: for example, everyone knows Joan of Arc but not the role of Yolande of Aragon in her rise to power, or of Florence Nightingale’s at rivalry with Mary Seacole, a mixed-race Jamaican woman who tended to Crimean troops with herbal medicine. The book is diverse and intersectional, messy and violent, wicked fun and genuinely harrowing.
Even though this coffee-table sized book clocks in at nearly 400 pages, I honestly wanted it to just keep going. Porath has said that if the book is successful, he would be open to a Volume 2, so please, BUY THIS. Buy it for the diverse girls and women in your life (it’d make a great gift for the holidays, and there are content ratings so the book would be suitable for any age group.)
I was thinking of how to best conclude this review, but then it occurred to me that Election Day is tomorrow. And if there’s a running theme in REJECTED PRINCESSES, it’s this: celebrating powerful, unorthodox, messy women while also acknowledging that history, intersections of identity, and yes, women are more complicated than we often give credit for, but rejecting that does our society no favors. Something to think about.