Is Esther our Heroine?

During the summer holidays, I spent a week at Frontier Camp. This year’s theme was “I’m a Celebrity … Get me out of Here!” Among the bush-tucker trials, jungle party and other activities, we looked at stories of people in the bible who, for one reason or another, might have called to God, “Get me out of here!”

I was leading the staff morning quiet times. As I started thinking about stories and themes in the bible that related to ‘celebrity’ and a desire to escape, my mind fell on the story of Esther. Every major character in that story has some relationship with celebrity – Xerxes values his reputation highly and takes drastic action to protect it; 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 suspect that they might have all wanted to get out of their situations at one point or another. Esther ultimately manages to save a great many people. The book is named after her. But is she the heroine?

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. On advice, 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.

Why was there an opening for a queen in the first place? What was Vashti’s 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), she says ‘no’. Vashti 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.

A few months ago, “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”.

I understand Esther’s actions. 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.

Debbie Garden is FYT’s Youth Work Development Advisor