Queen Vashti Tweets #MeToo

When asked to write a reflection on the #MeToo movement, I couldn’t help but return to one of my favorite biblical texts for its commentary and prescience on the systemic oppression of women and toxic masculinity that infects cultures now and long past.  This book is the book of Esther.  While many people may know something about Esther herself, and how she saved the Jewish people from extermination with her very smart, subtle, and courageous political maneuverings, few, I think, know of Queen Vashti – the queen preceding Esther in the narrative—and Vashti’s terrible fate.  The story of Vashti is a troubling one, yet hers is the story of so many women; and it is Vashti’s narrative that our country is finally reckoning with after well over 2000 years.

Vashti’s story begins as a folktale, describing in detail the great power and wealth of her husband, King Ahasuerus, and their hosting of a lavish banquet.  Every little detail of the occasion is described as utter perfection, characterized by impeccable order, immense hospitality, general extravagance, and the welcoming of guests from all around the world.  On the seventh day of the banquet, however, the king orders Vashti to come before him and his guests “wearing a royal diadem” to display her beauty.  (Was Vashti supposed to wear anything else?)  Vashti refuses.  The king becomes enraged and asks his (all male) advisors:  “What shall be done with Queen Vashti?”  The advisors recommend expulsion, and Vashti is thereby dethroned and banished.

Though strong in character and power, (rabbinic commentary holds Vashti to be a descendent of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar), the story of Vashti tells the tale of this courageous woman objectified, raped of authority over her own body (not giving her body, it is discarded), and indeed voiceless.[1]  In classic Hollywood style, the males of the narrative take center-stage, and Vashti’s presence is only apparent through them.  The narrative is told and controlled by the objectifier, notably using Vashti’s resistance to harassment as a tool for further oppression:  letters are sent to all the lands far and wide “that every man dominate in his household.” (Est. 1.22)  Tragically, Vashti’s praiseworthy act of female resistance “founds” a new universal law to further subdue women.  The narrative’s deliberate ambiguity and slapstick style only makes matters worse by encouraging laughter and lightheartedness to mask the very serious act of persecution at play.

Fast forward to 2017.  I can’t help but think that not much has changed in the treatment of women since this episode written in approximately 400 BCE.  In Hollywood, we still endure the mediated female presence — only 27% of the words spoken in the biggest Hollywood films are by females, and only 4% are directors — though there has been slow and steady progress.  Women’s bodies are literally objects of male scripts, controlled by the Hollywood patriarchy.  In light of Salma Hayek’s brilliant piece and others’ accounts of the horrors of “king” Harvey Weinstein’s movie empire, one might have the mind to ask if every gratuitous sex scene featuring naked female bodies is emblematic of the male control of the gender narrative, and sustaining the exploitive and oppressive status quo.

The gender narrative is a narrative that has been in the hands of those in power, and used as reinforcement of the gender status quo for over 2000 years.  To call on one of our insightful literary theorists, René Girard:  and what if this “gender narrative” is one of Girard’s most sought-after mimetic objects?  Possession of this object is a grand prize to be sure; the narrative literally is how men and women come to be defined — and it had, I think, been invisible to the masses until now.

Finally, toward the end of 2017, Vashtis all over the world tweeted #MeToo.  On social media, 1.7 million women in over 85 countries came out through the #MeToo movement and cited their having experienced sexual harassment.  1.7 million contributed to the revelation of an alternative narrative that has, significantly, brought numerous politicians, actors, comedians, athletes, etc. into immediate retirement.  Interestingly, #MeToo sparked a response from men also, who tweeted #ItWasMe while admitting to harassing women or witnessing such.  Yes, this is a moment of cultural watershed:  men have begun to express themselves through women’s experience and, at least so far, the broader culture is following suit.

What might the book of Esther have to say about this?  In the second chapter of the book, we read that King Ahasuerus is alone– it is after the banquet, and he has fully sobered up.  A question runs through his mind about what Vashti did and what he had decreed for her.  This is a brilliant moment of reflection, and perhaps even an inkling of remorse, on an injustice.  Might the king be admitting Vashti’s innocence?  Might he ask for her story to be heard?  Unfortunately not yet, for the king’s advisors come in at that point and rush to find him virgins to blot out any memory of Vashti.  In other words, the broader culture immediately encourages the king to degrade other women to compensate for the degradation of one.

In my wildest dreams, I imagine that in achieving a co-authored gender narrative, we will have learned through doing so how to mediate peacefully across other boundaries as well.  So let’s take this warning from the biblical text and resist falling back into the status quo.  I do believe transformation is possible, and it is very exciting.  As a woman, I ask:  who will I be, and women be, inside of a broad cultural narrative in which we, ourselves, have part in the narrative control?  And I wonder how men might be redefined in this process of narrative rebuilding.  To succeed in this transformational process, however, we must take decisive action to educate and to build awareness in the broader culture about the interdependence of our narratives upon each other; we must learn how to grant dignity and how to be dignified; and we must learn how to properly share authorship and power.  I take Girard’s insight about mimetic rivalry to heart here, too, and acknowledge the rivalry and backlash possible should women succeed in finally closing in on the mimetic object of narrative control.  But this risk must be taken.

 

[1] Rabbinic commentaries have myriad perspectives on the characters and happenings in the book of Esther that, to note, that are not represented here.

 

Editor’s Note:  As the #MeToo movement takes the world by storm, the Raven Foundation sought insight from Dr. Vanessa Avery, a Hebrew Bible scholar and diversity and organizational consultant. Vanessa holds degrees from the University of Exeter, Yale Divinity School, King’s College London and McGill University and uses mimetic theory to interpret the Bible and to help businesses inspire generosity, empathy, creativity, hospitality, strength and courage. She is the author of many articles, including “Atonement and the Book of Jonah,” “Jewish Vaccines Against Mimetic Desire,” “Watchmen and Mimetic Theory,” “Whither Girard and Islam” and “Engaging Difference: Exercises and tips for creating Experiential Learning Environments.” And there’s a great article about Vanessa and her organizational consulting titled “Why is scapegoating so common at Work?” You can learn more about Vanessa’s consulting workshops and you can contact her through her website, Transcendence Education.

Image: Screenshot from Youtube: “Vashti: The Forgotten Queen,” by J S.

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2 replies
  1. Antonius Block
    Antonius Block says:

    The article above mentions Rene Girard’s theory of scapegoating but misses a good opportunity to reflect on how his theory can be applied for a deeper understanding of the #metoo movement: namely, the tendency of groups to unite in order to create and expel the scapegoat, through a ritualized act of mimetic violence. The accused may be guilty or innocent of what he or she is accused of; guilt or innocence are irrelevant. Thus false allegations will violate the principle of law, the principle of natural justice — otherwise known as the presumption of innocence. The #metoo movement uses the media and social media to tear down the reputation of men who may or may not be guilty of what they’re accused. The defamation that follows is effectively the ritual act of violence. Girard said that until a counter-mimetic moment comes along, the ritual continues. We recently saw a counter-mimetic moment with Asiz Ansari’s case, which clearly went too far. This is not to dismiss the necessity to reign in sexual harassment in the workplace, if it can be proven. But before a career is ruined and a reputation defamed, our society needs to be clear about sexual harassment is and if it in fact happened. All too often, the misandric narrative of radical feminists is allowed to dictate who is accused and of what. Girard’s theory should serve as a reminder of the pattern in human history in which we unconsciously gang up on and demonize individuals in order to united the group around a shared ideology or political identity, to make us feel good about ourselves. This was done in the witch trials. We can look back now and consider the reasoning absurd, but at the time it was deadly serious and everyone was on board – much in the same way that no one dares to question allegation of sexual misconduct now. The #metoo movement is in effect a modern witch hunt, advanced under the guise of helping women. But if it were really about protecting women, why doesn’t it address the victims of actual violent rape in western Europe by refugees from North Africa and the Middle East, and try to brush them under the table out of fear of being labelled “racist”? The #metoo movement is not really about justice for women; rather, it is an acting out of ritual violence and group-think, and collectivist identity politics, in the name of women. It is a form of ritual violence. It’s rather disappointing that some Christians cannot see this and jump on the cultural Marxist bandwagon, unthinkingly.

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