Does the Purim story pass the Bechdel test?

Esther is regarded as one of the greatest heroines in the Jewish canon. The Megillah tells the story of how, through her beauty and bravery, she is able to save her people from Haman’s evil plan to destroy them. But through a feminist lens, the story is a bit more complicated.

By Valerie Brown

Image via bechdeltestfest.com/

Image via bechdeltestfest.com/

The other night, my roommate and I were bingeing a show* on Amazon , and it dawned on me to ask,

“Wait a second… Does this show pass the Bechdel Test?”

The Bechdel Test, the eponymous creation of American cartoonist Allison Bechdel, questions if a movie, TV show, or other fiction story has  two women who speak to each other and, if so, do these women speak about something other than a man. Basically, the point is: Do women function in the story as real characters, with ideas and motives of their own, or do they only exist to move the plot forward for male characters?

We were on episode four or five, and while the show wasn’t bereft of female characters -- grandmother, cousins, ex-girlfriends of the main character -- we hadn’t yet seen any of them speak meaningfully to each other.

And, naturally, I started thinking about Purim.

Esther is regarded as one of the greatest heroines in the Jewish canon. The Megillah tells the story of how, through her beauty and bravery, she is able to save her people from Haman’s evil plan to destroy them. But through a feminist lens, the story is a bit more complicated.

You might have seen JWI’s “I Am Vashti” series, which questioned one of the plot points: why do we accept Vashti as a villainous queen deserving of her fate, when she simply attempts to exercise control over her own body? Vashti and Esther use their voices in different ways, but that shouldn’t necessarily mean they get different results. This year, I’m considering a different question: Why does it feel like Vashti and Esther are just being used by men as tools?

Let’s break it down.

Scene 1: Achashverosh wants to show off Vashti’s beauty and commands her to dance naked before his court. She says no, and he has her killed.

In the king’s mind, all Vashti brings to the table is her beauty. I’m just saying -- maybe if he had asked her to dance because she’s an amazing dancer, he would have gotten a different reaction. Also, always interesting to draw a parallel to modern times, since I can think of some men who have had public tantrums when a woman says “no”. Sorry (not sorry) that it’s no longer this easy to dispense with a woman’s agency.

Scene 2: Achashverosh has a beauty contest to pick the new queen.

Again, the same issue.  Is being gorgeous the only thing a woman brings to the table?  Next.

Scene 3: Mordechai encourages Esther to try to become queen and hide that she is Jewish.

What’s that? Hide something essential about myself so that a man will like me more? Seems about right.

Scene 4: Esther hires seven maids, one for each day of the week, so she can still be observant of Shabbat.

Finally, women interacting with other women! Presumably, Esther gets to talk to these maids about things that don’t involve the king or her uncle, but it’s not important enough to the story for us to hear about their conversations.

Scenes 5: Mordechai saves the king’s life by informing Esther of a plot to kill the king.

Interesting how Mordechai gets the credit for saving the king’s life, when it’s Esther who delivers the message to the proper authorities?

Scene 6-7: Mordechai won’t bow to Haman. Haman gets so mad that he convinces the king that all Jews should die.

Male nonsense.

Scene 8: Mordechai goes to Esther and tells her she has to save the Jews, although it involves going to the king without an invitation, which isn’t allowed.

Look, I don’t want to victim-blame Mordechai, but it seems to me that the issue is really a battle of male egos. And conveniently, Mordechai has placed Esther as a pawn in a position where she’s the only one that can save the day.  (PS -- She can’t go see her husband without an invitation?!)

Scene 9: Esther goes to the king, isn’t killed, and invites him to dinner.

This is where we get to see Esther being a badass and making some cunning psychological moves. Asking someone for a small favor means they’ll be more willing to do another. It’s often referred to as the Ben Franklin Effect, though Esther used it effectively centuries earlier. I’ll personally be calling it the Esther Effect from now on.

Scene 10: The king realizes Mordechai never got a reward for saving his life, and then asks Haman for a suggestion on how to reward someone. Thinking the king is referring to himself, Haman suggests getting to wear the royal robes, ride through the city, etc. and is enraged when the king bestows these favors on Mordechai.

More male nonsense.

Scene 11: Esther invites the king to another dinner, and finally tells him about Haman’s plot to kill the Jews, reveals herself to be Jewish, and begs Achashverosh to save her people.

So there we have it: the Purim story does not pass the Bechdel test. Esther is used primarily as a go-between for Mordechai, Haman, and Achashverosh. Purim isn’t really the story of Vashti and Esther so much as it is the story of Mordechai and Haman. And while Jewish text study allows us to zoom in and derive meaning wherever we find it -- Vashti’s strength to say no, Esther’s ability to make the best of a bad situation, comparing and contrasting Vashti and Esther as characters, in reality, these women are still peripheral to a man’s story.

 I guess when it comes to female heroines in biblical texts, we have to take what we can get, but the Purim story is leaving me a little wanting this year.

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*PS: The show in question is Sneaky Pete, now streaming on Amazon Prime, and it does eventually pass the Bechdel Test. If you’re interested in my hot take: it’s decent if you’re into the con artist/heist genre, and gets bonus points for having multiple seasons streaming. However, for a similar feel with more complex female characters, I would really recommend Good Girls (season one on Netflix) and Ocean’s 8. Both of these also have more diversity than Sneaky Pete, but that’s a rant for another time.

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Valerie has been in DC for 3 years, and questions the decision every time the humidity acts up. She is an unapologetic avocado toast consumer, subscribes to too many podcasts, collects sweatshirts, befriends cats, and manages Marketing and Communications for JWI in her spare time.