As a child, I was never drawn to Disney princesses. Their ballads, their gowns, their demure presentation—it just wasn’t my thing. I found myself identifying, sometimes loosely, with the second female lead—think Ursula, the sea witch, from “The Little Mermaid” or the evil stepmother from “Cinderella.” These character roles were meatier, more complex and often got the better songs. They didn’t adhere to strict beauty rules either; they had fat and curves and weird hair. They didn’t seem to be particularly bothered by the rest of the characters. I always had a sense they could stand on their own if need be. And, most of all, they did NOT rely on men to give them power.
So it should be no surprise that even though my Hebrew name is Esther Leah, as a child in Hebrew school I attached myself to Vashti from the Purim story, and fast. As a tiny feminist I had fought teachers to read more women’s stories in school and insisted that my classmates let girls play in every sport on the playground. I remember the eye rolls and sighs. In the little skits we used to do at Beth El, I would always ask quickly to play Vashti. She was strong. She demanded respect. She took no nonsense from a man, even if that man happened to be the king.
It seems as though powerful women used to only play these supporting roles; they would appear at the beginning of a story to set up the ingénue, or they were secondary character villains set on destroying the pretty princess. Through my identification with these characters, I also felt some irritation at the fact that these were the only independent, fierce women to align myself with. Obviously, Disney has updated their princesses, not only to include women of color but also the Elsas and Mulans of the new wave, but when I was little we didn’t have these bad-ass princesses. So, when a queen was the one bucking stereotypes and fighting the patriarchy, I was naturally stoked.
Women at every level of power speaking truth to powerful men is on the rise, surely. #MeToo (started by Tarana Burke) has caught fire on social media, with very public women adopting the issue and bringing activists into the spotlight. Times Up commits funds from wealthy Hollywood donors to ensure that women with fewer resources are able to pursue action against their attackers if they so choose; it helps to protect them with both legal assistance and funds in case of job loss. We all know it’s a moment of reckoning. (Or should we call it a movement? I’m never sure.) People are being called to the carpet, and not being allowed to escape into money or power as a screen.
And all I can think of is…wow, young people have a LOT of strong, powerful female role models to look to and identify with. We can find them, yes, in Disney, but also in Hollywood, in the music industry, in the world of online gaming, in business, in politics. Our Vashtis are everywhere, battling institutionalized sexism and the systems that protect it. Our Vashtis are fighting for all women, especially those most likely to be targeted by men in power—immigrant women, workers in low-wage service jobs, farm workers, women who have previously been thought of as in the shadows and therefore unreachable. But if #MeToo is going to be a movement, not a moment, it needs to keep going, keep pushing, keep ensuring that ALL women (including trans women) have access to fight back when they are harassed. Every woman should be able to have her Vashti moment, where she says, “NO MORE.”
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