Monday, March 27, 2006

In Praise of Difficult Women... Then And Now

In praise of difficult women - then and now
Rachel Buchman is the managing editor of Dragonfire, Drexel University's online magazine for news and culture.

Vashti is the anti-heroine of the Jewish holiday Purim, which took place this year on March 14. It's a fun holiday full of costume parties and much drinking in celebration of the Jews' escape from a death plot in ancient Persia. The traditional heroine of the story is Queen Esther, who saves her people by revealing her Jewish identity to her husband, King Achashverosh, putting herself in grave personal danger. Vashti is the king's first wife, whom he tosses out of the palace when she embarrasses him by refusing to dance before his counselors.
March is also Women's History Month, a time to reflect on the status of women. One of the challenges that stirs my feminist ire is the soft sexism so ingrained in our society, hard to detect and harder to root out. Often, strong women such as Vashti get pigeonholed as pushy. But I wanted to see what would happen if Vashti were made the heroine of Purim.
Picture Vashti, rhumba hips, no deodorant. She likes her grapes, her figs, her slave boys. The King is a fool. Somebody has to run the castle. Who's going to write the edicts, schedule the cleaning, plan menus, arrange marriages, and demand those special olives his majesty likes so much?
Vashti is chillin' with her ladies while the men are out back barbecuing. The women are lying on silk pillows, being rubbed down with oils, being fanned by eunuchs - it's a pretty good party, even if they hadn't invented appletinis yet. Then in comes the king's posse, demanding Vashti come dance for the guests. She isn't having it. She refuses. She is replaced.
She is... difficult.
When I was a kid, my grandfather used to say, "Rachel don't let no one spit in her cereal." I was difficult then and I'm difficult now. "Don't be difficult," my mother would sigh as I kicked and screamed. Now I walk down the street, glorious and free in the new spring air, delighted at the breeze tickling my arm hair, the back of my exposed neck. But with the fine weather comes the bugs and the thugs. Forget whistling and off-color remarks; this one guy couldn't even form a complete sentence. "Legs!" he shouted as I walked by in my first skirt of the season. "Very good," I wanted to say. "You can correctly identify body parts." But I heard it in the back of my head: "Don't be difficult."
Well, I want to be difficult. My favorite women are difficult. Look at Rosa Parks. I can just hear her mother saying, "Just find a seat in the back of the bus, Rosa. Don't be difficult." But she was difficult - a pain, and look where it has brought us.
My mother - she of the warnings - man, was she difficult. And she got it from her mother, who came to this country on her grandmother's dime. My grandmother went to business school in secret. She got married, divorced the guy when he wouldn't let her work, and started her own nursing home. How's that for difficult?
So this is my ode to all the fat actresses, wicked witches, and sluts. For Martha Stewart and biblical Leah, who would not marry second. For my sister, who got her Ph.D. when no one thought she was smart enough.
And to all the women who won't straighten their curly hair, or dye it blonde, or diet. For all the women who won't brighten their teeth or lift their breasts. For all the women who would rather read than clean, run than shop, eat than starve. For all the women who aren't afraid to choose themselves. Thank you for being difficult!
Vashti would not dance. So she gets replaced by Barbie - I mean, Esther - and the king sends a decree to every household in the land "that every man shall be master in his home." So ushers in the era of easy Esther. We never hear from Vashti again, beautiful, beguiling bitch. I wonder what happened to her. Did she have to sell her body? Was there some home for banished queens? Or did she open up a bar someplace in Persia - best lamb kebabs and apricot nectar in town - dance when she wanted, take all the money, all the young serving boys, all the credit? I think she did. After all, she was just that difficult.

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