Esther: a tale of patriarchy, beauty pageants, and abuse [Guest]

A warm welcome to the brilliant and amazing Sisilia Eteuati, reflecting on the story of Esther. An earlier version of this appeared in Samoa Planet.

Facebook memories determinedly pop up reminding me of all things pre-Covid – many of which I miss.

One thing I don’t miss is how hard my eyes roll when I hear any mention of beauty pageants. And particularly when¬†well-meaning Christian participants¬†unimaginatively trot out story of Esther and try to evangelise on¬†#BeautyWithAPurpose.

(All the conventionally unattractive people please go about your business, because #UglyWithAPurpose or #GreatPersonalityWithAPurpose or #SmartWithAPurpose or #KindWithAPurpose #GreatHumanBeingWithAPurpose are not things that are recognised or discussed in beauty pageant Christianity.)

Also please note that men are never expected to use their #BeautyForAPurpose. It is implicit they have so many other qualities¬†they bring that stand independent of beauty. Apparently women lack those qualities – or maybe they just don’t count unless we are also beautiful.

I feel we need a little recap on the story of Esther to fully appreciate the irony of all this.

Early 3rd century CE Roman painting of Esther and Mordechai, Dura-Europos synagogue, Syria.

Early 3rd century CE Roman painting of Esther and Mordechai, Dura-Europos synagogue, Syria.

1. The King, “merry with wine” after drinking for seven days, commands men to fetch his wife, Queen Vashti. He wants her to show herself to the people and princes who have been also been drinking for seven days, so they can see her beauty.

2. Queen Vashti refuses. Who knows why? Maybe she was modest. Maybe she didn’t want drunk¬†men gawking at her. Maybe she didn’t want to ordered by a drunk man to parade for his friends.

It seems reasonable.

3. The King and all his male advisers are outraged and say he should replace her. This seems somewhat less reasonable. Without delay, they put out a call across the kingdom for beautiful virgins.

4. Men then scurry to place young beautiful virgins related to them and who they have power over into the harem, presumably to secure political influence and assist their own political careers.

5. Esther is one of these lucky girls. I say “girls” deliberately: she was almost certainly in her early teens.

Esther gets to become a concubine based purely on her virginity and beauty.

It’s also clear she is obedient to her uncle who tells her to hide her ethnicity and her religion.

5. Esther pleases the King.

I’ll let you think about that one.

6. Then Esther is made the wife of the King.

So far I am not seeing great role modelling #JustSaying.

7. Then comes the episode we remember her for. When the King decides to listen to an adviser who tells him to persecute Jews, Esther confesses her ethnicity and religion to convince her husband that such persecution is not a great idea. She saves the Jews.

This is her using her #BeautyForAPurpose, apparently.

I don’t judge Esther. She lived in a time and place where her age and gender meant she had little ability to make choices. The bible is clear that she acted at all times in obedience to her Uncle. The story lauds her bravery in doing so, and I do not take away from her the fact that she used what little power she had to stand up to her husband and King. She made the best of what she was stuck with.

But I want more for my son than to grow up being taught that a woman’s value is in her submissiveness and beauty and that men can treat women in this degrading way. I truly believe such a lesson would not only hurt him, but in turn, may lead him to hurt others.

I want more for my daughter than to think she should aspire to be like a girl who was traded for political favour and who had to use sex and beauty to “save” her people from a King who was an ill-advised drunk with no morals.

Oh and who liked women to parade for him… just like in… beauty pageants.


Painting by en:Edwin Long, 1878. Location of painting: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

Painting of Esther by Edwin Long, 1878. Location of painting: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

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