Last night I went to a Purim party. Purim – for those of you unfamiliar – celebrates a story from the Book of Esther where the Jews in Persia narrowly escape extermination. Here’s how it goes (from a distinctly non-expert gentile raconteur, it must be disclaimed):
There’s this Persian King Ahasuerus and he’s having a massive boozy party. When he and his mates have been drinking for a week and his “heart is merry with wine” he calls for his wife, Vashti, to come dance for them wearing nothing but her crown. Vashti says no, and the king is angry. So he gets rid of Vashti and chooses a new queen from all the hottest hotties in the land. The new queen is called Esther and Ahasuerus thinks she’s the business. Esther is Jewish, but keeps this a secret, because her cousin Mordecai tells her it might be wise to keep the old minority status on the downlow.
Ahasuerus has a royal vizier called Haman who is much like Jafar in Aladdin, which is to say evil. Haman hates Mordecai because of some macho competitive bullshit and he plots to kill not just Mordy but also all his people. Toxic masculinity run wild. So Haman asks Ahasuerus if it’s okay to kill the Jews and the king is like “What? Jews? Yeah grand, I don’t care – by my royal decree you can do whatever the fuck you like to the Jews.” So Haman starts excitedly planning his wee massacre.
But then Esther reveals she’s Jewish and that she doesn’t think it’s, like, super cool that Haman wants to kill her and all her people. The King’s like “Woah babe – that sucks! What the fuck! I never would have told Haman it was okay to kill all the Jews if I thought YOU were Jewish.” So he has Haman hanged, and, though he can’t reverse his former decree, he creates a new decree that the Jews can kill anyone they think might be trying to kill them. It might not be the most elegant solution, but it’s a solution. The blood of thousands flows through Persia. Yay!
Nowadays, Purim is less about slaughtering one’s enemies and more about dressing up and having excellent parties. So who was I going to be? Esther is the obvious choice, all sexy and persuasive and, you know, the saviour of her people. But what about Vashti? If she hadn’t told the king where to shove it when he tried to drunkenly objectify her to impress all his mates, then Esther would never have risen to the position of the Queen of Persia in the first place. It might be a happy accident that Vashti was a proto-feminist refusnik, but I think it deserves recognition all the same.
And it made me think about the feminist sex wars of the 70s and 80s that so much divided the women’s movement, and created rifts that still haven’t been reconciled today. On one side were anti-porn feminists who insisted that violently misogynistic and objectifying porn based on the fetishization of female submission was theory to the praxis of rape; on the other side were the sex positive feminists who weren’t going to be told what to do with their bodies by priest, pastor, nor feminist sister. For the sex pozzy feminists, it was taboo, guilt, shame and judgement around sexuality that were the problem, not sexual pleasure or porn.
Compelling arguments on either side, no? Because the things we do in the bedroom obviously mirror and potentially reinforce the power relations in our society: it’s not like sex is in a special part of the pool of life where we can pee to our heart’s content without it affecting the water that everyone’s swimming in. But it’s also the case that – especially when female desire has been repressed and pathologised for so long – there’s empowerment in taking unapologetic ownership of our coochies and all the nasty things they like.
Vashti is the anti-porn feminist of the 5th century BCE. She says no to male domination of her body. She’s not getting her tits out for the lads, even if that means she loses power under patriarchy. For Vashti, the power to be gained from using her sexuality to please men (and that power exists – it did then, it does now) is worthless. Her body, her self.
Esther is our sex positive gal. If the King was like “dance a naked crown dance for me and all my drunken mates” you just know Esther would get down and do the mashed potato. But maybe that’s because Esther – as a minority – has a sense of the precarity of her position, and can see that the power that exists in her sexuality is an essential asset, not just to her survival, but ultimately to the survival of her people. Because if we agree that female sexuality gives us a limited type of power under patriarchy, then perhaps, instead of merely using that power to benefit ourselves, we can use it to try to make the world a better place.
But what would Esther’s submission to the King’s will mean without Vashti’s refusal? If all women submitted, there’d be no pleasure for men in finding those who do. The two energies work alongside one another – Vashti furnishing Esther with the power that comes from being able to distinguish oneself from angry, hairy-legged, man-hating, castrating feminists; Esther, the replacement wife, proving the continued need for anger at patriarchy but, vitally, the need to respect women who operate altruistically within its confines.
I went as Vashti. I spiked my hair, made a tin-foil crown, and wore black jeans, shitloads of eyeliner and my REPEAL shirt. Because if Vashti were around today, you just know she’d be shouting about abortion rights.
A band played jaunty jewish rhythms and we told the story of Purim and drank and danced, all dressed up in our symbolic approximations of shit we wanted to say.
Towards the end of the night a hot Israeli guy introduced himself. He’d been watching me dance – he thought it was sexy. We danced together a bit and I told him I was an Irish feminist Vashti. He said “I bet you have a friend who gets naked every time they get drunk. All Irish people have a friend who gets naked every time they get drunk.” And I laughed – because it’s true! I do have a friend who gets naked every time they get drunk. Then he said “you’re so little, I bet you weigh 118 pounds,” which was weirdly specific and also quite wrong. I told him what I actually weigh and he said “you must do a lot of exercise.” I told him I do yoga and am very strong so he better watch out. He looked me in the eye with a certain intent and said: “I’m still stronger.” I’m not going to pretend nothing flickered. So I laughed and we danced, because I’m allowed to flirt with hot dickheads who objectify me sometimes, right sex positive feminist sisters?
He went out for a smoke and told me not to leave before giving him my number. I went to wait in line for the jacks. When he came back he made a beeline for me just as the bathroom freed up, but I excused myself because needs must.
When I came out again hot Israeli guy was pawing at a beautiful blonde lycra clad twenty-nothing-year-old by the pool table. They looked like they were having a good time, so I slipped on by, smiling. Oh Esther, darling, I’m sure you know how to handle him.
Very excited to read that you went as Vashti, one of my favourite ladies, who I’ve dressed up as at almost every purim party I can remember going to.
Except I’ve dressed up as her in various forms of dragon/ lizard/ generally reptilian regalia. Let me explain: Every year there are so many conversations that go on in left-leaning circles, about feminist interpretations of Vashti and Esther. These conversations, which now include your blog post, definitely played a huge and important role in shaping my own understandings of sexual politics and power dynamics among other things.
However, there is also a missing piece of interpretation I thought you might find interesting and wanted to tell you about. When I was younger, maybe 10, my family went to visit my uncle, a conservative Rabbi, for Purim. One morning my aunt put on a tape of the Purim story. The tape talked about Vashti like this: Vashti was a rare beauty who loved admiring herself in the mirror above all else, even above her husband, the king. One day, the king had a party and asked her to share her beauty with guests. Her refusal, described as selfish unwillingness and an act of “extreme vanity” was punished by whatever holy forces were at work and she was turned into a giant scaly monster who was killed by brave warriors.
So something in that story rubbed off on me and I thought she was the coolest (because who wouldn’t want to be a part time woman and part time dragon?) and that all men were basically evil for killing her. I told my aunt who told my mom that I clearly didn’t understand the story and was in need of “a discussion.”
But anyways, I think this telling of the story, which really reminds me of that John Berger quote in Ways of Seeing (about painting “vanity,” and morally condemning women whose nakedness you painted for your own pleasure), says a lot about the character of Vashti that is, I think, really interesting to think about. To me, dressing as snake/lizard/ dragon Vashti, and then later when Game of Thrones came out, dressing as the Vashti-est Vashti you could have in the mother of dragons herself, was my outlet of addressing the demonization of women before I had the language to express the thought. This story was confirmation that men were not only discrediting women by calling them “vain” and “selfish” but also using the words to transform women into ugly, cold-blooded animals. Inevitably, death followed as the only humane way out for a woman no man could love. It was hard to believe that people around me weren’t just listening, but falling for every word. That vanity, which I later heard leveraged against my cousin when her sister told her not to look in the mirror too long “you shouldn’t be like Vashti remember? Bad things happen to evil people,” could so convincingly become a moral of the story for girls seemed like a bigger trick was being played on us than the one Mordechai and Esther played on Ahasuerus.
I’m still mad about it so I still dress up as reptile Vashti, I guess it’s my symbolic approximation of really wanting to say “fuck you to every dude who has ever demanded a woman’s body, telling her that ‘no’ was an attack of cold-blooded venom; that tried to turn women into monsters for other men to destroy. When we turn up with gleaming scales we are not here for you, but in spite of you, and you cannot touch us.”
All this is to say that in addition to talking about the individual agency and potential sex negativity of Vashti, I think there is also a really worthwhile conversation about male gaze-y things and the demonization of women especially in so far as the story and its morals are taught to children.
Thanks for this blog post, loved reading it!
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