Thursday, 10 August 2017

TLDR: I hate Esther (or, the Perils of Privilege)

In the Bible, there are two women with stories significant enough to merit their own books.  In a culture where men were the ones writing and women had quite specific roles to fulfil, any named woman in the Bible is worth paying attention to.  One is Ruth; the story of a young widow from the wrong country, the wrong religion, speaking the wrong language, who passes up re-marrying to become a benefits scrounger in order to provide for her ageing mother-in law.  And yeah it ends well, but that that lady has gumption.  I like gumption!

The other is Esther.  Whom I hated.  For years.

Held up as the model of ideal womanhood, Esther appeared to be your Actual Disney Princess, and I mean that in the most scathing way possible.  Plucked from obscurity because of her astounding good looks and apparently nothing else, Esther is made Head Queen of the Xerxes, King of Persia.  Tipped off by her uncle, a minister, she saves the king from assassination, earns a spot in his good books, and later uses this to wine and dine him into awarding the Jewish people the right to defend themselves in a society where they are outcasts and refugees.  The Jewish festival of Purim celebrates her story, being told much like a pantomime, with cheering and booing and 'he's behind you'.
Beauty Queen, actual queen, national hero, Esther was annoyingly perfect.  She was that cute, perky girl from school who managed to be captain of the netball team, head girl, and never without a boyfriend all at the same time.

For teenage me, the moral of this story was that being pretty will get you more or less anywhere.  Which is peachy... if you're pretty.  Which teen me (and sometimes adult me) was not always convinced of all.  Way to make a girl resentful, Bible.  Congrats.

Now I am a decade older, a lot more comfortable with myself, and therefore able to be a little less self-interested, I have to admit something.  I may have misjudged Esther a tiny wee bit.  But not in the way I thought...

Brief tangent.  There's a film called 'Legally Blonde'.  It is the kind of film I ought to hate, a classic 'chick flick', but to my surprise I really like it.  It took me a long time to work out why.
The story is that Elle Woods, a perky blonde-haired sorority girl who absolutely loves the colour pink, is determined to win back her ex-boyfriend by bluffing her way into Harvard where he is studying law.  In the process she discovers that he wasn't worth the trip but actually she's quite good at being a lawyer, and wins a court case that seemed hopeless.  It's a bit silly, but still a very heartwarming story.  What surprised me was that Elle was the epitome of that high school girl I resented so much, and yet I liked her.  Because she's a genuinely nice person, and that surprised me for some reason.  Yes her looks initially get her into Harvard, but at the end of the day it's her self-belief, hard work, support of others, and genuine good-heartedness that gets everyone on her side and allows her to win the case.

I watched this film recently with a friend, who sneered a bit when I explained it to them, and without thinking I responded "Hey, the pink ones have feelings too."
This film taught me something that I hadn't really considered - being pretty can come with with it's own expectations, and not all of the them are positive.  Yes Elle gets a free pass sometimes because of her looks and bubbly nature, but also people assume that she's shallow and ditzy when she isn't.  Her boyfriend and even her own parents don't believe she's smart enough to succeed - because of her looks.  People disrespect her, disregard her, make inappropriate comments and sexual advances, refuse to consider that maybe there's more to her under all that pink.

Because of my own difficulty coming to terms with myself, I'd disregarded the difficulties of another (admittedly fictional) woman because they were different than my own.  There's this thing called 'intersectionality' which in a nutshell means 'considering the struggles of people who aren't like you'.  So in feminism, for example, that might mean white, or straight, or Western women considering the struggles of non-white women, or LGBT women, or women from other cultures than their own, and all the crossovers within that.  And hey, yeah, women with different levels of attractiveness considering the struggles of each other.  I'd failed to apply that to Elle, which was unfair to her.  And I'd failed to apply it to Esther.

In the spirit of intersectionality, before I give my white British woman's perspective I would direct you to this Orthodox Jewish woman's perspective on Queen Esther, and her predecessor Queen Vashti, which is arguably a lot more valid than mine.

To start, Esther's name isn't actually Esther; it's Hadassah.  She's a Jewish immigrant living in the Persian empire after her people were exiled from their homeland of Israel.  Basically the Persians abducted them en masse, and now there's a Jewish colony living in the royal city of Susa, figuring out how to prosper and keep their identity in a culture not their own.  Hadassah's parents are dead and so she's been brought up by her uncle Mordecai, and already we see this dual aspect to her; she has two names, a Jewish one and a Persian one.

There's one other character here that's worth mentioning too, although they only appear very briefly in the story, right at the beginning.  Another named woman; Vashti, the queen Hadassah is chosen to replace.  She's basically written out of the story, but I think she's just as amazing, if not moreso.

Why does Xerxes want a new wife in the first place?  What did Vashti do wrong?
Like most stories, it started at a party, but less usually the partly was on it's 180th day.  The king was having a lovely time, and sent for Queen Vashti to appear before him wearing her crown so he could show her off to his friends.  Vashti refuses to come.
She refuses the king who could execute you for coming to visit him without an invite.
Some readings of this verse have cast her as proudly and disobediently forgetting her place, making her the first villain of the piece, but more recently another interpretation has emerged which makes a little more sense.  She's told to come wearing her crown... the unspoken implication being that it's only her crown.  This seems to make more sense than her wanting to not show her face for ten minutes, no matter how tipsy the guests.  But being naked, in a room of drunken men, paraded around like a thing?  I can see why she'd turn that down!
Disobedient or preserving her modesty, it took guts, and I've got to admire that.
The king's advisors suggest that her disobedience might inspire the other women of the kingdom to be similarly obstinate towards their husbands and have, y'know, opinions about things, so Vashti is banished from the king's sight.  Her fate clears the way for Esther to come in.  Vashti loses her power, but perhaps keeps her self-respect and sense of identity, which is a key theme in the exile of the Jewish people.

Fun fact: Xerxes I was the same Xerxes who ordered the
Battle of Thermopylae, which is that one with the 300 Spartans!
In the movie they made him look like this, which is inaccurate, but
a great photo of a grown man having a tantrum.
After Vashti's dismissal, King Xerxes I is advised to get a new queen, and so the command is given to collect up "all the beautiful young virgins" and "bring them into the harem" where they would receive six months of beauty treatments before being taken to the king for what was basically a sexual audition.  "In the evening she would go there and in the morning return to another part of the harem...  She would not return to the king unless he was pleased with her and summoned her by name."
This part generally gets skimmed over, but if you stop and think about it, it's pretty horrifying.  To be removed from your family, with no choice in the matter, just because you have a pretty face.  To be placed in a completely strange environment, with people you don't know and are immediately put in competition with, and then to have your entire future depend on the first sex you ever have, which is with a man you've never met and might not even like.  Notice that once that night is over, the unsuccessful women aren't let go, but moved to 'another part of the harem'.  They can never go home now, and if they did no other man would take them, since virginity was a prerequisite for marriage back then.  The king's whim defines their entire future.  A palace is a beautiful prison, but a prison nonetheless.
Despite the circumstances, Hadassah gets people on her side (like Elle Woods, perhaps!), rises to the top and is made the new Queen.

Meanwhile her uncle Mordecai is proving to be the quite the pot-stirrer.  On overhearing a plot to assassinate the king, he informs Hadassah, who informs Xerxes, and the schemers are executed.  Later he gets in trouble of his own when he refuses to bow and idolise the grand vizier, Haman.  Horrendously offended, Haman performs some racial stereotyping that would give the Daily Mail a a run for it's money, and declares the whole Jewish race (who, let me remind you, are only there because Persia abducted them and won't let them go home) to be nasty troublemakers who refused to integrate properly and therefore deserve immediate extermination.  He pays the royal treasury for the right to have every Jew in the country murdered on a particular day, and the king issues the decree.  I think he must have not read the small print or something, because he and Haman have a pleasant drink together afterwards, and he later seems not to recollect the bill at all.

Apparently the city of Susa was "bewildered".  No kidding.

The Jews, understandably, go into terrified mourning, and Mordecai goes to see his niece.  I say 'see' her but actually they have to pass notes back and forth via a eunuch, because he can't go into the palace harem and she can't come out.  He asks her to take the issue to the king, despite the fact that this would mean revealing her Jewish identity, could lose her the position as queen, and would make her subject to the cull.  On top of that, the king hasn't summoned her for over a month so she might not be in his good books any more.  If he doesn't want to see her, and doesn't extend his sceptre to her, she will be executed for merely coming into his presence.  Either way, it's a massive risk.  Mordecai's reply shows just how high the stakes are, but also his faith that the risk will be worth taking:
“Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai: “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”
This is the moment where Hadassah takes the greatest personal risk.  It's not just her freedom or position that's at stake her, it's her life, and the life of everything she cares about; her family, her culture, and the lives of thousands of people throughout the empire.  She's gotten into this position of huge privilege mostly due to her looks, and has been passive throughout the story.  She has been obedient, quiet, done everything requested of her, but now she has the choice to hide behind the palace walls or to take what she's been given and use it for something greater than herself.

And, God bless her, she steps up.

She's clever about it, inviting the king to a banquet, buttering him up, and making sure he's in a good mood with her before broaching the subject.  The king, rather drunk and unexpectedly outraged that anyone would plot against his marvellous wife's people like this, asks who is responsible and Hadassah identifies Haman.  I mean, technically the king actually signed the thing, but that might not have gone down so well as an answer.  The king storms out in a righteous fury, Haman realises that the Biblical poop is hitting the Biblical fan and is pleading with Hadassah right when the king returns to catch him pawing at her, and has him very literally hoisted on his own petard.  The day is saved!  The Jewish people are saved (and more importantly given the right to self-defence in the realm)! Mordecai gets Haman's job!  The Persians still attack, but the Jews fight back and overpower them so thoroughly that no Persian bothers them after that!  Haman's family is disgraced!  Purim is invented to commemorate it all!  Hooray!

I had always looked as Esther as some unattainable figure of perfection, but that wasn't being fair to her story or her experience.  Yes, her society placed her on a pedestal based on entirely the wrong thing, but it wasn't a pedestal she ever asked for or even necessarily wanted.  It placed a lot of restrictions, obligations, and even danger on her, through no choice of her own.  The admirable thing about Esther isn't that she was made queen, it's what she did after she was made queen.  She was put on a pedestal but used it for a soap box.  She was hidden away from the people she loved, but used that to fight on their behalf.  She was made royalty by others, but she became an activist and a hero through her own bravery and selflessness.

We all have struggles, but if you're able to read this at all, chances are you're in the wealthiest 5% of the world.  You have power and privilege too, in some form or another.  The question is, who will you use it for?

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