I couldn’t read all the Esther and Vashti talk around the Web, without chiming in myself. Like Elissa Strauss, I dressed up as one of the two queens every year at my Jewish day school’s Purim carnival — at least until 3rd or 4th grade when we started getting more creative with our costumes. Whether I was Esther or Vashti depended on the statement I wanted to make any given year. I remember feeling quite torn between being the perfect princess and being the bad-ass one (not that I knew what such a term meant, but I knew they were different).
The way I was told the story of Esther and Vashti makes me realize how early we’re indoctrinated with certain conceptions of gender — the good, obedient, selfless girl vs. the rebel. These two are our very own Jewish version of the Madonna-Eve, or Virgin-Whore dichotomy. Many feminists this week have talked about the way Esther and Vashti represent two ways of dealing with the patriarchy — either using beauty and patience to get your way, or standing up outright and facing the consequences. It’s the kind of debate we have in feminist circles all the time: Do we concede rhetoric to get change accomplished (the Esther way) or do we stand up for our principles at any cost (the Vashti way)?
I do wish that my teachers who first told me this story had been a bit kinder to Vashti, when they relayed the tale of the megillah to us. The principal feeling Vashti’s tale brought out in me as a child was utter confusion as to why we weren’t supposed to like this woman. Wasn’t it unfair of the king to make her dance in front of his pals? And then, we were told, he had her ride out of town backwards on a horse. The older I got, the more my confusion solidified into protest, and the more I identified with Vashti.
Nowadays, I appreciate them both as human characters, and I think that Esther, who was caught in an unenviable situation and ended up doing the right thing, stands up fine as an example of someone who made a brave, just and potentially self-sacrificing moral decision than as some sort of pioneer for her gender. We’ll leave that to Vashti who proudly said, “my body, my choice,” even while being drummed out of court.