Is Esther the Heroine?

Last night I watched the last half-hour of ‘The Change Up’ (– poor, I wouldn’t recommend it), a body-swap film about Dave and Mitch, friends who are jealous of each other’s lives. As the 2 men deal with the chaos that ensues, they both end up neglecting Dave’s wife and children. Towards the end of the film (just before the main characters each learn a valuable lesson), Dave’s wife Jamie talks about how her marriage has continually involved her reducing her expectations of Dave and voices her fear that she will keep on compromising until eventually coming last has become normal.

I was part of a young people’s summer camp, which had “I’m a celebrity, get me out of here” as its theme. I led the staff quiet times on the story of Esther. Every major character in that story has some relationship with celebrity – King Xerxes values his reputation highly and takes drastic action to protect it; Queen Vashti sacrifices her celebrity status; Esther is protected by winning fame; Mordecai does not seek renown, but finds it bestowed upon him; Haman is so desperate for distinction and public honour that he is willing to kill those who undermine him. And I’m sure that they all wanted to get out of their situations at one point or another. It’s gripping. Esther ultimately manages to save a great many people. But how far is her story to be celebrated? And how far is it a tale of compromise and coercion?

When his wife Vashti defies him, Xerxes gets rid of her. When he starts thinking about finding a replacement, his advisers suggest a contest. All the most beautiful virgins in the realm will be rounded up to add to Xerxes’ harem. Each will have a night to impress Xerxes. The one he likes most will be the new queen.

Esther, who is stunning, cannot avoid being taken to the harem. As a Jew, she may not have been considered as a candidate for royalty. If she is not made queen, her destiny is to be one of Xerxes’ concubines. Under instruction from her cousin and guardian Mordecai, Esther conceals her true identity and it pays off – she becomes queen. In order to maximise her chances of a secure, dignified future, Esther hides. She deceives. She plays the game. She goes along with Xerxes’ warped competition and the rules of his court. She uses her beauty for her own protection, but in doing so tacitly affirms Xerxes’ worldview.

Some while later, when the Jews are in danger of annihilation, Mordecai asks Esther to intercede for her people with the king. She tells him that this could lead to her execution. He responds that, if she doesn’t step up, rescue for the Jews will come another way – but not for her, finally suggesting to her that perhaps she was ‘born for such a time as this’.

As a youth worker, I can’t accept the actions of Mordecai, Esther’s trusted advisor. He asks her to allow herself to be sexually exploited in order to ensure her survival. Then later, he persuades – or even manipulates – her into risking her survival to ensure the survival of the people. He directs Esther to compromise herself, to put her well-being last, focussing on how much worse things will be if she fails to comply.

Youth work is about helping young people to critique their contexts and choose how they want to respond, but I wonder how often we encourage quiet compliance with whatever we regard as the lesser of 2 evils – even convincing ourselves we are thinking in their best interests. Equally, discipling is about helping young people to be distinctive, living prophetically and challenging the status quo, as well as becoming fully themselves and living abundantly – the complete opposite of compromising identity and integrity for a quiet life. Mordecai seemed angry with Esther, frustrated that she didn’t immediately see and jump at an opportunity to make a potentially costly intervention on behalf of others, but why on earth would her expect her to? His previous instruction had been to hide and comply. She was living out exactly what he had fostered within her character.

What do we need at such a time as this? I think the last thing we need is women being persuaded to collude with exploitation and subjugation. Or youth work which encourages young people to be submissive and compliant.

Around the time I first started thinking about Esther, the Disney character Merida was redrawn with a more sexualised look, Miley Cyrus released Wreaking Ball and hit the press with her controversial image (Female empowerment or exploitation? The debate rages on), and “Just the Women” was published. This was a report of research into the portrayal of women in eleven UK national newspapers. Key findings included: the normalisation of rape and blaming of victims; sexualisation of children, especially girls; reporting of sexual abuse of children in such a way that it could be titillating; “a persistent portrayal of women as sex objects”; women being judged on their looks alone; infantilising of younger women and mockery of older women; “and an almost visceral undermining of women in power, or those who seek publicity for their views”.

And since then, Kim Kardashian’s naked photo ‘broke the internet’, we had the Downing Street Catwalk description of new Cabinet Members and the moving tale of The Princess and her Shoes – yes, Kate was still wearing heels at her last public appearance before baby number 2.

At such a time as this, we need our young people to be looking at all they see around them and asking, ‘what is really going on here and how am I going to respond to it?’ And that means that we also need to be people who are asking those questions. As young people look at us and how we live, what are they seeing? Are we modelling critical awareness and values-driven decision-making? Who are we holding up to them as role models? Esther is one of the go-to biblical characters for work with girls. When we tell stories like hers, what are we communicating about heroism and leadership? What are we nurturing in the young people we work with?

Perhaps over the next month, try to mentally monitor your encounters with young people and keep track of:

  • Who you are drawing young people’s attention to – In conversations, in session or talk illustrations, through publicity displayed in the room, who are you endorsing and who are you criticising?
  • What qualities are you affirming? What do you praise, thank or congratulate them for? What do you give attention to? What raises a smile or a nod of recognition?
  • What are you demonstrating? How are you working towards being fully who you were created to be? How are you evaluating the world around you? How are you responding when you’re not happy with what you see?

So, is there anyone I’m inspired by in this story? Well, yes. We have to go back to the beginning of the story and look at why there was an opening for a queen in the first place. What was Queen Vashti’s terrible act of defiance?

When summoned by her drunken husband to ‘display her beauty’ to the nobles (who, in all likelihood, were also drunk after seven days of partying), Vashti says ‘no’. She takes a public stand. She sees the exploitative nature of Xerxes’ demand and she refuses to condone or collude with it. She has to make a choice. She can do as she is commanded and face humiliation (perhaps worse) or she can refuse. She decides to take a stand, that her position and even her life are not worth the sacrifice of objectification.

I understand Esther’s actions and the guidance she received. I realise she lived in a time which meant she had no freedom or power. I recognise that she made choices that kept her alive. I still wish she hadn’t used her sexuality to play on Xerxes’ weak character and oppressive values. Vashti faced the same dangers, but chose differently.  In such a time as this, my heroine is definitely Vashti, who took a stand, willing to lose her place and her life to keep her sense of self.