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Esther: Hero or Heroine?  May 30, 2005

Miranda PJ — May 30 @ 2:45pm

Esther’s is a story of a woman who faced a truly epic challenge, and in the process of meeting this challenge blossomed into a major political figure at a time when women were savagely belittled and mistreated just to keep them in their place. But in spite of her femininity, Esther was more hero than heroine. Her actions were revolutionary, but they remained sadly defined within the narrow constraints of traditional masculine ideals.

For those needing a refresher, here’s Esther’s sordid tale in a nutshell:

King Ahasuerus of Persia summons one of his wives, Queen Vashti, and she does not come. Fearing for the stability of an empire which tolerates unruly women, the king exiles the disobedient queen and announces a competition to find her replacement. Esther, a comely young Jewish maiden, wins this competition with help from her shrewd cousin Mordacai, all the while concealing her religion.

In the meantime, Esther’s cousin Mordacai has valiantly saved the king’s life by uncovering a sinister plot to assassinate him, and a conniving man named Haman has managed to gain the king’s favor. The king decrees that everyone must bow to Haman, and Mordacai boldly dares to refuse. This refusal is an insult too large for proud Haman to bear. Infuriated, Haman plots a twofold revenge. He plans to execute Mordacai by impaling him, and he bribes the king into allowing a decree to destroy the Persian Jewry. This last deed earns him the epithet “the enemy of the Jews.”

Mordacai escapes execution when the king realizes that it was Mordacai who saved his life by uncovering the assassination plot. But not even Mordacai has enough influence to persuade the king to reverse a decree issued in the king’s noble name. Esther has the inside track, and she must act to save the Jews from certain elimination. To do so, Esther twice approaches the king without having been summoned, both times committing a crime much worse than the previous Queen’s defiance—one that can even trigger the death penalty. Esther must also reveal her Jewishness and thereby risk her own destruction under the very decree she is plotting to overturn.

In the end, Esther’s gambit succeeds. She persuades the king to order Haman’s death by impalement, reverse the previous decree, and decree that the Jews may slay their enemies. Jews everywhere gleefully slaughter their enemies while scrupulously taking no plunder. Everyone left standing lives happily ever after.

The Book of Esther is notoriously the sole book of the Bible that makes no mention of God. It’s characters struggled to fulfill divine wishes, though the divine was never immediately evident in the their lives. There was no theophany or voice from the whirlwind. Like us, Mordacai and Esther were adrift in an ocean of moral ambiguity and had to chart their uncertain course using the word of God and discernment.

Esther represents for us all of the Jews of the Persian diaspora. Though a female, she is their Adam or Everyman. But Esther is also the prototypal women. She is a Persian Jew. This alien and alienated ethnicity underscores the separateness she shares with all women.

Esther’s dramatic elevation began in the most demeaning manner imaginable. The king selected Esther for her looks and her ability to please him for a night. Once she obtained her high place in the Persian court, Esther enjoyed a lavish lifestyle, but she was little more than a chief sex toy. Aside from her lavish lifestyle, Esther held the same low position held by every other woman in the empire. This reflects a deeper tragedy, one that is never touched upon within the story: Esther was born and bred in a culture of systematic oppression. It was all that she or anyone else ever knew.

But when Esther assumed her mantle, she filled the role of the traditional hero type, fusing feminine nurturing traits with the masculine tendency to aggressively exercise power. The traditional hero seeks to nurture or protect good people and to harm bad people. The feminine hero can protect people who are in danger while eschewing unnecessary aggression and avoiding the separatist view of those who put them in danger. The feminine drive to nurture will strive to avoid unnecessarily polarizing labels such as good or bad, words historically bandied about by the masculine to justify the aggressive exercise of power that so often accompanied their protection of others.

I find it sad that Esther had to conform to the masculine prejudices. She was surrounded by men and became a hero on their terms. Neither her story nor her heroism are complete until she secures a gratuitous vengeance for the Jews against their enemies. In a less paternal society, Esther would have been able to save the Jews without requiring the slaughter of so many others, making Esther a true heroine capable of more perfectly feminine heroism.

2,600 years later, we appear to have more opportunities to succeed than ever. But when we succeed, are we heroines or merely heros? Are we doomed to embrace the masculine heroic ideal embodied by Margaret Thatcher or The Bride in Kill Bill or Condoleezza Rice? How should we respond to the fact that heroines such as Hillary Clinton must behave in gratuitously masculine ways in order to gain credibility and appeal to mainstream Americans? Does the notion of aggressive use of power relate to our ideals of heroism within the Church? To what degree is the dominant priesthood culture analogous to the masculine culture of ancient Babylon? Is there a proper place within Mormonism for us as heroines? Are we being true to ourselves if we settle for being heros?

11 Comments

  1. Miranda, this is a troublesome post for many reasons. I think that little is really known of Esther and her time, and I hesitate to draw too many parallels over so many generations and so many cultural gaps.

    Putting such issues aside, I don’t think that the Church precludes women from being heroines — quite the contrary. I think the history of the Church is the history of heroic women.

    Steve Evans — May 30, 2005 @ 8:16pm
  2. Steve, in Esther’s time, there would have been no way for the King of Persia to marry outside of a few select royal Persian families. The story of Esther is a fictional work analogous to the modern novella, and it relates the creation legend of the holiday Purim. There is no “story behind the story,” and so we are free to understand Esther in a variety of contexts. Besides, us Mormons are always being told to liken scriptures unto ourselves.

    As far as heroines, let me draw an important distinction. Some people look at the everyday attributes exemplified by certain women and offer them up as heroines. I think that Eliza R. Snow is held up as a heroine in this way. But history’s great figures remain the Washingtons, the Lincolns, the Churchills, the Roosevelts, the Maos, the Stalins, the Bonapartes. In our church, we have Orrin Porter Rockwell and Brigham Young and the early polygamists. I do not approach heroines the way that a boss disingenuously states that her secretary makes the office run.

    Miranda PJ — May 31, 2005 @ 8:40am
  3. I liked your post Miranda. I don’t have anything smart to say about feminism and Mormonism. But what do you think about a Mormon woman getting together with a man who isn’t Mormon. I guess the parallel would be that Esther was marrying outside of her religion. Would that be thought of as heroic today? I can’t even get a date from the Mormon girls that go to church with my roommates, let alone have them have a beauty contest to decide which one gets to marry me. I hope you all read my first post this Thursday!

    Greg Fox — May 31, 2005 @ 9:21am
  4. I think who people marry or whether they marry is their business, Greg. Some priesthood holders are more moral than most non-Mormons and others are less moral than most non-Mormons. The funny thing is that many of the women in the singles ward that you attend will still be pining away for a husband long after a fine specimen like you gets snapped up.

    And just a tip, Greg. Women have never been particularly keen on beauty contests.

    Miranda PJ — May 31, 2005 @ 10:45am
  5. Martin Luther rejected Esther as scripture, as he did Hebrews, James, and Jude (and some claim Revelation). But of course, for all intents and purposes, he was an anti-Semite, and you will notice the intensely Jewish nature of the books he chose to exclude from the canon.

    john fowles — May 31, 2005 @ 11:11am
  6. Yes, john. If I remember correctly, Luther said something to the effect that it would have been better if Esther had never been written. I hope you don’t feel that denigrates Esther as a source of wisdom. And thanks for stopping by! We hope to see you here often.

    Miranda PJ — May 31, 2005 @ 11:36am
  7. Miranda, I’m curious about the theoretical provenance of your “traditional” hero and heroine prototypes. Are you drawing on a particular school of feminist thought here, or is this your own analysis?

    It’s not quite clear to me where you’re coming from theoretically, but I think I disagree with the kinds of distinctions you’re drawing between masculine and feminine.

    Rosalynde — June 1, 2005 @ 2:40pm
  8. Uh-oh, Miranda. If I read between the lines of Rosalynde’s comment it sounds like she’s saying the bloggernacle is only big enough for one feminist.

    SeptimusH — June 1, 2005 @ 3:22pm
  9. I’m more pragmatic than that, Rosalynde. They’re vaguely Jungian, but only vaguely because I do not see a need to seek balance. But that is neither here nor there. I’m not drawing the distinctions. Our culture has drawn them for better or for worse. What we do with them is up to us, and that’s the really important question after all. Luckily, the portrayal of masculine modes of heroism by men is increasingly falling into disrepute. For example, movies like Fight Club are basically post-feminist horror films. Fight Club portrays men as monsters that are poorly equipped to deal with nurturing environments. Unable to adapt, they aggressively lash out, embodying the male aspect of heroism absent feminine nurturing. What concerns me is that the role of the heroic female is either that of a walk-on part in stories dominated by men, or just men dressed in drag.

    And SeptimusH, that is so masculine of you (but you know I love you, Sep!). Why must you read conflict into a situation where two people are just trying to understand each other?

    Miranda PJ — June 1, 2005 @ 6:39pm
  10. Who’s to say that the agressive use of power is not completely in line with feminism? Are not women just as capable of commanding slaughter as are men? For a woman to order vengeance does not seem like taking on a “male” persona, rather it seems human.

    It’s the washed-up modern “men are from mars, women are from venus” view that would attribute certain character traits to men and women simply by virtue of their gender. Are we not all humans, equally capable of power plays, and equally desirous of using them to gain an advantage? How is it not feminine to do what is human nature?

    Jordan — June 3, 2005 @ 3:43pm
  11. Jordan, you raise a very good question. As a man it must seem quite natural to you to view everyone as being aggressive by nature. Mine is not a “men are from Mars” viewpoint. Male and female societal roles have been researched extensively. Whether differences are the result of some gender essence or enculturation is a matter of debate. And yet there are enduring differences, and this is inarguable. Whether we define them according to Gilligan’s gender themes or MacKinnon’s common experience, women have different experiences from men and they assume different roles. I contend that women display a different and superior mode of moral reasoning by virtue of these experiences. This accounts for the gender disparities shown between aggressive and nurturing behaviors. When women behave like men, they forfeit this superiority.

    Miranda PJ — June 3, 2005 @ 5:09pm

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