Trigger warning: This article includes a discussion of sexual violence and abuse, so contains material that some might find upsetting.
By the end of the Book of Esther, Queen Esther is a national heroine – and ex-Queen Vashti has been discarded like yesterday’s leftovers. Esther and Vashti live in a man’s world: and their different fates can be explained by their polar-opposite strategies for confronting their oppression. Vashti refuses to play along with the patriarchy, and is punished; but Esther plays that system to her advantage, and is rewarded. The two queens, in essence, disagree on the ethics of exploiting ‘erotic capital’ – and in so doing, dramatise one of the major debates in contemporary feminist thought.
Men and women exercise influence over each other by leveraging their capital, which may be economic (wealth), human (intelligence) or social (status). According to feminist philosopher Catherine Hakim, this list includes a fourth resource: erotic capital – “a mixture of beauty, social skills, good dress sense, physical fitness, liveliness, sex appeal and sexual competence“. Since women, Hakim says, tend to take more care than men in their own appearance, it is women who have the most erotic capital; but if as Hakim postulates, men desire sex more than women do, then men’s demand for women always outstrips supply. Women, therefore, can exploit their erotic capital to gain influence over men: they can use access to a scarce resource that men lust after, to influence men to serve the interests of women. For women suffering the worst oppression, this may be their only source of power over men.
Modern feminists, however, disagree on whether women should capitalise on this comparative advantage as a means of self-advancement. Some argue that women should be free to improve their own lives by any means within their power (including by engaging in sex work, should they wish). But others argue that it is wrong for a woman to profit from collusion with the patriarchy: helping to perpetuate the survival of an oppressive system constitutes complicity in the commission of future injustice against other women.
Vashti and Esther differ on which strategy to adopt: erotic capital is their only source of influence. Vashti chooses to spurn this unjust social order, rejecting its unreasonable demands; she ends up on the streets. Esther, meanwhile, plays along with an unjust system – and manages to avert a genocide. Each is a feminist response of a woman taking responsibility for her own fate: and the Book of Esther illustrates the stark choices that women are forced to make in oppressive societies, each somehow coerced and each bearing terrible consequences.
Purim: a Feminist Focus
The Book of Esther begins with King Ahasuerus, steaming drunk after seven days of heavy drinking, demanding that Queen Vashti arrive at his booze-up “wearing the royal crown, to show… her beauty”: naked, as traditionally understood. The queen is normally shielded from public gaze; but now the king is off his face with Shiraz, and rowdily orders his wife to “get ’em out for the lads!” Vashti refuses to give her husband’s inebriated friends a striptease and snaps back, “Kish mir in tuches.”
This act of defiance puzzles the rabbis, who wonder whether Vashti has suddenly developed leprosy or sprouted a tail, but this is not in the original book. Vashti simply refuses to allow herself to be exploited as the sexual plaything of an abusive drunkard. The queen says “no”, and insists that “no” means “no”. She knows that she will be punished for refusing to act as expected, but certain values are non-negotiable.
The king’s courtiers are outraged: Vashti’s insolence could set a dangerous precedent for wives to defy their husbands. Vashti’s defiance is subversive: her statement that a woman owns her own body, if left unpunished, could shake the foundations of the Persian patriarchy. The king, therefore, is persuaded to divorce his wife in order to protect the fundamentals of the social order; and he sends out a royal edict, confirming that men are to be obeyed in their own houses. Vashti’s downfall is intended as a powerful reminder: you can’t beat the system.
Hakim reasons that sexual access is often the “principal bargaining asset” of a woman against her husband when she is the weaker partner: she may withhold sex to punish her husband, or offer it to induce him to give her what she wants. This is the premise of Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata, in which the women of Greece go on a sex strike to force their husbands to make peace with Sparta. “This strategy works,” Hakim argues with one of her more controversial premises, “because husbands almost invariably want more sex than their wives”.
Ahasuerus, however, can get sex from any woman in the empire – so Vashti is stripped of all bargaining power and rendered disposable. Vashti has no influence over the king: she cannot pay him off; she is not too important to be divorced; and she has no skills that cannot be replaced at court. The queen has erotic capital, but the king has easy access to such capital: she can expend her erotic capital to retain the throne, but she cannot leverage it for much else. Vashti, therefore, puts her foot down: she does not want to remain queen at any price. She refuses to play the game, and suffers for it: her defiance is so subversive that she could not possibly hope to get away with it.
The king’s rapacious sexual appetite, however, must be still be sated, so he orders “all the fair young virgins” in the empire to be summoned to his harem. Thousands of frightened young girls are abducted from their homes by the imperial guard, trafficked to Susa, soaked in perfumes for twelve months and then finally raped one by one by the king. Among the vulnerable girls whom the king preys on is a certain Esther, scraped from the bottom of Persian society: an orphan, a Jew in a foreign land, and a woman. The king is so “pleased” by Esther that he makes her queen: her sex appeal is the reason for her rise from rags to riches.
Esther, however, remains powerless. Indeed, the queen is so isolated, that when the evil vizier Haman persuades the king to authorise a genocide of the Jews, she is the last Jew in the empire to hear the news: she smuggles a copy of the decree only after the whole community has already gone into mourning.
It is only ever through exploiting erotic capital that Esther can escape this default condition of powerlessness. Esther fears pleading with the king on the Jews’ behalf: the penalty for entering the king’s presence uninvited is death. But when Esther summons the courage, something quite extraordinary happens: instead of punishing Esther for her insolence, the king blurts, “I’ll give you anything you want – even half the kingdom.” Esther induces the king to bend the rules for her by drawing on her abundant erotic capital for bargaining power: as the most beautiful woman in all of Persia, she cannot be replaced like every other woman in the harem.
It is perhaps a testament to the oppressiveness of Persian society that it does not occur to Esther at first that she has this power over the king: her beauty is to be admired by men, not leveraged for influence over the powerful. The penny, however, soon drops: and when Esther comes before the king, she prefaces her request with some obsequious flattery, or the words “if I found favour in the sight of the king”. Esther understands that her charms can make the king go completely gaga and overlook her illegal exercise of initiative.
Esther thereby uses her sex appeal to exercise greater political power than any consort before her. By the end of the story, she has managed to humiliate and kill the king’s vizier, reverse a royal decree, commandeer the criminal justice system and secure permission for her compatriots to form vigilante groups and hunt down every last anti-Semite in the empire. No other woman could have done it.
Esther could have refused to exploit her erotic capital, but the penalty for failing to expose Haman’s plot would have been a holocaust – and she would still have languished in Ahasuerus’ vast harem, the sex slave of a genocidal tyrant. Since Esther is condemned to have her erotic capital exploited against her will, she decides that this resource will be exploited at least on her own terms.
Both Vashti and Esther act on their principles: for Vashti, this was her pride, which meant declining to use erotic capital; but Esther prioritises survival, and will use all available resources to achieve it. Deuteronomy 30:19 must have echoed in Esther’s mind as she flirted with the king: “Therefore choose life, so that you and your descendants shall live.”
The story ends on a bitter note: Esther is the heroine, but her cousin Mordechai takes all the credit. The king bequeaths Haman’s estate to Esther; she signs it over to Mordechai. It is the “greatness of Mordechai“, not Esther, that is recorded in the chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia. And it is Mordechai, not Esther, who ends up the king’s second-in-command: Esther remains shorn of formal political power.
Esther becomes the archetypal great woman behind the great (or rather, not so great) men. She may be acting on Mordechai’s instructions, but only once persuaded by his arguments, and it is she who voluntarily bears the risk for sticking her neck out. Mordechai is Esther’s chief strategist, but the power is hers.
The Book of Esther has no sequel, but Esther’s fortunes no doubt go downhill. Esther wields huge power at her physical prime, but her position is precarious: one’s portfolio of erotic capital depreciates with age. It is difficult to imagine Ahasuerus remaining so besotted once Esther is post-menopausal but he can still import endless supplies of nubile young virgins into his harem.
Understood through this lens, the popularity of Purim as a children’s festival is most bizarre. Indeed, the children’s version of Purim relies on a deliberate distortion of the original text: Vashti’s refusal to whore herself for the king’s drunken friends is explained away as the result of an embarrassing disfigurement; and a beauty contest is written into the story, to purge the stench of the sexual violence. There is something disturbing but also oddly uplifting, therefore, about how every little Jewish girl wants to dress up as Queen Esther: she is the heroine of the story, but this is the heroism of women who struggle every day for their survival, independence and personal dignity.
This Jewish Princess does not have a happily-ever-after: and Purim, coming this year one week after International Women’s Day, is a stark reminder of the urgency of obliterating injustice in society, so that no woman is ever forced to confront the horrible choices facing Vashti and Esther – the two heroines of the Purim story.