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Queen Vashti Tweets #MeToo

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Persisting in reflection on the #MeToo movement, I couldn’t help but return to one of my favorite biblical texts for its commentary and prescience on the systemic oppression of women and toxic masculinity that infects cultures now and long past. This book is the book of Esther. While many people may know something about Esther herself, and how she saved the Jewish people from extermination with her very smart, subtle, and courageous political maneuverings, few, I think, know of Queen Vashti – the queen preceding Esther in the narrative—and Vashti’s terrible fate. The story of Vashti is a troubling one, yet hers is the story of so many women; and it is Vashti’s narrative that our country is finally reckoning with after well over 2000 years.

Vashti’s story begins as a folktale, describing in detail the great power and wealth of her husband, King Ahasuerus, and their hosting of a lavish banquet. Every little detail of the occasion is described as utter perfection, characterized by impeccable order, immense hospitality, general extravagance, and the welcoming of guests from all around the world. On the seventh day of the banquet, however, the king orders Vashti to come before him and his guests “wearing a royal diadem” to display her beauty. (Was Vashti supposed to wear anything else?) Vashti refuses. The king becomes enraged and asks his (all male) advisors: “What shall be done with Queen Vashti?” The advisors recommend expulsion, and Vashti is thereby dethroned and banished.

Though strong in character and power, (rabbinic commentary holds Vashti to be a descendent of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar), the story of Vashti tells the tale of this courageous woman objectified, raped of authority over her own body (not giving her body, it is discarded), and indeed voiceless.[1] In classic Hollywood style, the males of the narrative take center-stage, and Vashti’s presence is only apparent through them. The narrative is told and controlled by the objectifier, notably using Vashti’s resistance to harassment as a tool for further oppression: letters are sent to all the lands far and wide “that every man dominate in his household.” (Est. 1.22) Tragically, Vashti’s praiseworthy act of female resistance “founds” a new universal law to further subdue women. The narrative’s deliberate ambiguity and slapstick style only makes matters worse by encouraging laughter and lightheartedness to mask the very serious act of persecution at play.

Fast forward to 2017. I can’t help but think that not much has changed in the treatment of women since this episode written in approximately 400 BCE. In Hollywood, we still endure the mediated female presence — only 27% of the words spoken in the biggest Hollywood films are by females, and only 4% are directors—though there has been slow and steady progress. Women’s bodies are literally objects of male scripts, controlled by the Hollywood patriarchy. In light of Salma Hayek’s brilliant piece and others’ accounts of the horrors of “king” Harvey Weinstein’s movie empire, one might have the mind to ask if every gratuitous sex scene featuring naked female bodies is emblematic of the male control of the gender narrative, and sustaining the exploitive and oppressive status quo.

The gender narrative is a narrative that has been in the hands of those in power, and used as reinforcement of the gender status quo for over 2000 years. To call on one of our insightful literary theorists, Rene Girard: and what if this “gender narrative” is one of Girard’s most sought-after mimetic objects? Possession of this object is a grand prize to be sure; the narrative literally is how men and women come to be defined—and it had, I think, been invisible to the masses until now.

Finally, toward the end of 2017, Vashtis all over the world tweeted #MeToo. On social media, 1.7 million women in over 85 countries came out through the #MeToo movement and cited their having experienced sexual harassment. 1.7 million contributed to the revelation of an alternative narrative that has, significantly, brought numerous politicians, actors, comedians, athletes, etc. into immediate retirement. Interestingly, #MeToo sparked a response from men also, who tweeted #ItWasMe while admitting to harassing women or witnessing such. Yes, this is a moment of cultural watershed: men have begun to express themselves through women’s experience and, at least so far, the broader culture is following suit.

What might the book of Esther have to say about this? In the second chapter of the book, we read that King Ahasuerus is alone– it is after the banquet, and he has fully sobered up. A question runs through his mind about what Vashti did and what he had decreed for her. This is a brilliant moment of reflection, and perhaps even an inkling of remorse, on an injustice. Might the king be admitting Vashti’s innocence? Might he ask for her story to be heard? Unfortunately not yet, for the king’s advisors come in at that point and rush to find him virgins to blot out any memory of Vashti. In other words, the broader culture immediately encourages the king to degrade other women to compensate for the degradation of one.

In my wildest dreams, I imagine that in achieving a co-authored gender narrative, we will have learned through doing so how to mediate peacefully across other boundaries as well. So let’s take this warning from the biblical text and resist falling back into the status quo. I do believe transformation is possible, and it is very exciting. As a woman, I ask: who will I be, and women be, inside of a broad cultural narrative in which we, ourselves, have part in the narrative control? And I wonder how men might be redefined in this process of narrative rebuilding. To succeed in this transformational process, however, we must take decisive action to educate and to build awareness in the broader culture about the interdependence of our narratives upon each other; we must learn how to grant dignity and how to be dignified; and we must learn how to properly share authorship and power. I take Girard’s insight about mimetic rivalry to heart here, too, and acknowledge the rivalry and backlash possible should women succeed in finally closing in on the mimetic object of narrative control. But this risk must be taken.

[1] Rabbinic commentaries have myriad perspectives on the characters and happenings in the book of Esther that, to note, that are not represented here.