Your Humble Blogger didn’t watch the Oscars. I didn’t have a bet on it, and there wasn’t anybody I was particularly rooting for or against, and my Best Reader and I are working our way through the Tenth Doctor episodes. Plus, I’m old. I am not the demographic they are looking for.
This was particularly driven home to me when I heard about the “We Saw Your Boobs” song. Evidently—y’all can correct me on this—as part of a segment that was more-or-less terrible things that Seth MacFarlane ought not do as host of the Oscars (which of course gives him an out) Mr. MacFarlane sang a ditty about all the Oscar-nominated actresses who have appeared topless in movies. It was, in fact, a terrible thing to do, and Mr. McFarlane did it. If you want to read commentary, Amy Davidson’s Seth MacFarlane and the Oscars’ Hostile, Ugly, Sexist Night is a good one, as are Allison Wright’s These Things Are Not Okay and Margaret Lyons’ Why Seth MacFarlane’s Misogyny Matters.
Anyway, I didn’t see the thing. So why am I writing about it? After all, it’s not like I’m going to add anything useful to the commentary that’s out there. Well, except that none of the commentary I have seen mentions that the tune for the song was the we figured it out portion of “Seven and a Half Cents” which (as Mr. MacFarlane knows) is from The Pajama Game, a show in which workplace harassment plays no small part. Worth pointing out, I think. But other than that, why would I write about it?
The answer, Gentle Reader, is that I am not writing about it. I’m writing about Queen Vashti.
The Oscars began on Purim local time, you know. And I was at a purimspiel the night before, hearing the annual travesty of the book of Esther when something occurred to me about Vashti. Purim morning, reading the internet, I learned a midrash about Vashti that I hadn’t known before. And I was kinda sorta thinking about writing those two things up, and I had decided that I wouldn’t bother. And then Seth MacFarlane sang about Scarlett Johansson’s boobs, and… well, I feel I should write about Vashti.
Hm. I don’t know whether non-Jews know about Vashti at all. I know the Esther story comes up a lot in some Fundamentalist circles, but I assume that there’s a good deal of editing involved… anyway, the story starts with King Ahasuerus (gesundheit) at a feast, his heart being merry with wine, asking his chamberlains
(1:11) To bring Vashti the queen before the king with the crown royal, to shew the people and the princes her beauty: for she [was] fair to look on. (1:12) But the queen Vashti refused to come at the king's commandment by [his] chamberlains: therefore was the king very wroth, and his anger burned in him.
He seeks advice from the kings and princes:
(1:16 )And Memucan answered before the king and the princes, Vashti the queen hath not done wrong to the king only, but also to all the princes, and to all the people that [are] in all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus. (1:17)For [this] deed of the queen shall come abroad unto all women, so that they shall despise their husbands in their eyes, when it shall be reported, The king Ahasuerus commanded Vashti the queen to be brought in before him, but she came not. (1:18) [Likewise] shall the ladies of Persia and Media say this day unto all the king's princes, which have heard of the deed of the queen. Thus [shall there arise] too much contempt and wrath. (1:19) If it please the king, let there go a royal commandment from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes, that it be not altered, That Vashti come no more before king Ahasuerus; and let the king give her royal estate unto another that is better than she. (1:20) And when the king's decree which he shall make shall be published throughout all his empire, (for it is great,) all the wives shall give to their husbands honour, both to great and small. (1:21) And the saying pleased the king and the princes; and the king did according to the word of Memucan: (1:22) For he sent letters into all the king's provinces, into every province according to the writing thereof, and to every people after their language, that every man should bear rule in his own house, and that [it] should be published according to the language of every people.
So. Vashti is commanded to show her beauty. She refuses and is banished, which leaves a vacancy for Esther to step into, and then the story begins. Vashti disappears from the story and is never heard from again. That’s all we actually know about her from the Scripture.
Of course, that’s not enough, so the everybody elaborates over the ages. First of all, it’s made clear that Vashti was commanded to appear wearing the royal crown and nothing else. In fact—and plausibly enough for Persia at the time—the Queen was being required to dance naked for the King’s royal guests, and possibly more than that. This indicates the licentiousness of the court, of course, although why we need sexual licentiousness to indicate the degeneracy of a court that has wine in golden goblets for 187 days of feasting is an interesting question in itself. Still and all, that’s the command, and it is understood, then, to be demeaning and disrespectful. Yes?
But that’s not enough. Because the Sages of blessed memory don’t like Vashti, and want (unsurprisingly, when you think about it) to set up Esther and her virtue in contrast to Vashti and her (nontextual) vice. But if Vashti is, as the Sages say, a whore, then why did she not come to service the King’s guests? And this is where the thing I had never learned comes into play: because of her tail.
Yes, her tail. Rabbi Josh Waxman of Parshablog writes in How did Vashti grow a tail? about the evidently well-known commentary in Megillah 12B
“Vashti the queen refused”—let us see [why]. She was a whore! For Master said: both of them (Vashti and Achashverosh) intended to sin. If so, for what reason did she not come? Rabbi Rossi bar Chanina said: This teaches that she developed an outbreak of leprosy. In a brayta they teach that (the angel) Gavriel came and fashioned for her a tail.
This tail serves two purposes: first, it brings into the story Divine action that is otherwise quite conspicuously absent throughout. But also, it humiliates Vashti, taking away her sexual power, which is the only power she is allowed by the Sages of blessed memory. That power is viewed wholly negatively, of course, so she receives all the blame of being a whore, and the humiliation of being a freakish failure at it. Frankly, there are times when I’m not very fond of the Sages of blessed memory.
But here’s the point: I just learned about Vashti’s tail this week. I wasn’t taught that as a kid. I was taught that Vashti was proud and haughty, but not that she was a whore with a tail. And my kids? My kids are being taught that Vashti is a role model. A secondary heroine of the story. The purimspiel every year at Temple Beth Bolshoi gives her a whole song to express how her self-respect demands that she leave the King and his contemptible demands. My kids are being taught that the proper response to Show us your boobs is not shame but self-respect, along with contempt for the jerks who demand it. I was struck, during that purimspiel, but how much our reactions to Vashti change along with the world. How much Vashti changes. How much I have changed.
Now, I still have to admit: I like boobies. I am extremely susceptible thereto. As Mr. MacFarlane brings out, even in serious movies a flash of boobies will focus my degenerate mind on the flesh rather than the substance. I watched the first episode of Game of Thrones the other night and found it unpleasant mostly because it successfully caught me in its nasty voyeuristic boobie games. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean it was bad filmmaking, or that the actresses are worthy of contempt. Given the cultural context, exposure as vulnerability can be tremendously effective.
Furthermore, in situations where the flashing of boobies is entirely voluntary and fun, I’m all for it. I don’t think changing our views to disallow Vashti the flaunting of her boobies (or her shoulders) is a solution at all. The point is that it’s Vashti’s choice. She should never feel compelled to strip at her husband’s command, even when her husband is the king. She should strip when she wants to strip, and gain whatever benefits accrue to herself, whether that is the acclaim of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences or the Super Bowl halftime show or just a fun night at home with the sweetie.
And—remember Memucan the Prince of Persia? His point was that we tend to pattern ourselves after the rich and famous. And we do. When the host of the Oscars makes dismissive boobie jokes about actresses, that's a pattern for us to match. When Ahasuerus demands that his wife show her beauty to his buddies, that's a pattern for us to match. We shouldn't do it as much as we do, but we do. And (as the estimable E.J. Graff writes in Social Climate Change) to raise our children (and ourselves) healthily, we need to swim in unpoisoned cultural water, and that ain't easy.
It means, among other things, giving Vashti her own song in the purimspiel. It means, among other things, saying that Seth MacFarlane is, like the Sages of blessed memory, trying to pin tails on women that do not have them. It means, among other things, telling actors—men and women—that they can reveal themselves and their bodies in their work as they choose, with our respect.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,