Friday, September 22, 2006

The Beauty Trap

Just to show how long it's been since I abided my intial commitment to write on the daily lectionary readings... yesterday was the last day of Job. (BTW, in my so far fruitless search for a monologue for my audition THIS SUNDAY, I just discovered the Neil Simon play "God's Favorite," a contemporary re-interpretation of the book of Job! Only he doesn't kill the kids, I think).

And so today we have Esther, the beginning of which is a marvelous piggy-back on yesterday's post on the thinness of runway models/ our cultural expectations about beauty. Today's passage (Esther 1:1-4, 10-19) has King Ahasuerus summoning the beautiful Queen Vashti to appear in her crown, before his guests at a royal banquet, for the sole purpose of showing off her beauty.

On the seventh day, when the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha and Abagtha, Zethar and Carkas, the seven eunuchs who attended him, to bring Queen Vashti before the king, wearing the royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the officials her beauty; for she was fair to behold. But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king's command conveyed by the eunuchs. At this the king was enraged, and his anger burned within him.
Esther 1:10-12

Note the context: the king is drunk, and he's already been partying for seven days, the very beginning of a party that would last half a year. The queen refuses the king's command, and he is angry.

Fun Hebrew Facts! I'm taking a risk here, because my Hebrew Bible and lexicon are at present unreachable in the bottom of boxes awaiting my next office space (please God!). But in general, whenever in the Hebrew bible it says "he was angry," or "his anger burned within him," the actual Hebrew words are "his nose got big." I am not lying. This is the idiom. Do you love it??? It really conveys something that we acknowledge with our own idiom, "he got his nose out of joint" (equally incomprehensible to, say, visiting Venusians).

So the king, big nosed, nose out of joint, deccrees that, having missed out on her chance to please him with her appearance at the banquet, Queen Vashti will never get to appear before him again. Thus he commences a search for a new queen, which will shortly bring Esther into the story.

In my searching for an image (Vashti refusing to appear; isn't it lovely? It's by Gustav Dore, 19th century; see original context here) I learned something fascinating. In their attempts to explain why Queen Vashti would not appear wearing her crown, some (the rabbis?) have suggested that his order was for her to appear wearing only her crown. Personally, I think there was enough that was offensive going on to explain her refusal, but realistically, a Queen of that era would most likely not balk at a command appearance under normal (even drunken revelry) circumstances. So this may make sense.

Vashti is really a side character; her sole purpose in the story is to be booted out to make room for Esther, the heroine. But Vashti is a wonderful figure. She reminds me of the rabbinic offering Lilith, the woman of the first creation story in Genesis (read it! there are two!), who refused to submit (sexually) to Adam, or so the rabbis speculated, and so was cast out of paradise to make room for Eve. Vashti is my new hero. But she also makes me long for a day when women are not reviled for their unwillingness to be merely decorative.

There has been lots of reportage lately Katie Couric's transition from Today Show host to CBS Evening News anchor. One of the saddest, saddest things I have read about that had to do with why it has taken this long. Katie was too cute/ not beautiful enough. Katie had children. Katie was seen as "lightweight"/ too confrontational in interviews. In other words, the woman was in an unfair, irrationally constructed, damning-every-way-you-looked-at-her box. And one woman who might have been her successor on the Today Show was not chosen because she is too sexy and doesn't have kids.

As Charlie Brown would say, "AUUUUUGGGGGGGGHHHHHHH!"

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