Queen Vashti's Comfy Pants and The End of Men

Queen Vashti's Comfy Pants and The End of Men

Unfortunately I don’t have the time to write up a full discussion of the breezy new children’s book Queen Vashti’s Comfy Pants (see initial post and discussion here: https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=2700033273624706&id=100008541784092), so I’ll suffice with this mini-review.

Before jumping into an analysis, I’ll start by saying that the book is smart, creative, well-written and exquisitely illustrated. It tackles a timely topic and seeks to send a poignant message to young women about their ability to make strong, good decisions that protect themselves from objectification and worse, and draws on a long line of works that see Vashti’s as a hero, not a villain, even in doing so, it sidesteps the midrashic tradition of portraying Vashti as a villain.

That said, a few points on the question of peshat and Midrash in portrayals of Vashti, and then some comments on how the book portrays not just Vashti but also the king, and what that says about our current cultural moment. First, I don’t think that one is obligated to follow the midrashic view instead of considering peshat on its own, though I do think that it would be a travesty not to at least teach our children about midrashic views that have captured the imaginations of Jews for well over a thousand years. I think there’s plenty of room for creative readings and bibliodramas that look to fill in the peshat of the story, though this particular narrative, which has Vashti (and her friends!) leave the palace of their own accord, instead of being sent out (or worse) by the king in consultation with his advisors, does on its face contradict peshuto shel mikra.

But the purpose of this particular book - like so many contemporary retellings of Megillat Esther and other books in Tanakh - is not so much an attempt to reconstruct the narrative, but to convey the educational message that young women need not give in to others’ concept of fun, particularly when it is sexually demeaning to women. The author doesn’t think that in a Persian court Vashti had a rumpus room or played gin rummy any more than she thinks Vashti and her friends wore “comfy pants,” or that Vashti’s party was actually an opportunity for her to “chill” with a small group of friends. This book has an educational aim in holding up Vashti as an independent-minded heroine, and it is on its educational merits that the book should be primarily judged.

Seen from that vantage point, there are certainly educational benefits to this approach to telling Vashti's story, particularly because Vashti's story is well-known, colorful and memorable, offers an annual opportunity to teach important lessons, and offers a natural opening for discussion about sensitive, important topics.

But there are also dangers, especially in a book for children, many of whom might be just learning about the story, and most of whom have almost certainly not closely read the first perek of the Megilla. Will children know that there is an alternative, midrashic reading to Vashti’s character? Will they be able to differentiate which parts actually appear in the text of the Megilla, and which don’t? Will they realize that even if we see Vashti as a hero, the Megilla as a literary document clearly sees Esther and Mordechai as far more central to the plot? When and if they do later learn about the midrashic reading of Vashti, will they instinctively dismiss it as misogynistic, even though Chazal’s reading seems to have nothing to do with Vashti’s sex, and much more to do with their sense that divine justice must be meted out fairly throughout the Megilla? Will they walk away with the sense that asking women to wear dresses instead of pants can only be understood as rooted in men’s desire to exploit women? Whether or not these misimpressions are conveyed depends on the reader/educator using the book. My strong suspicion, though, is that a number of these misimpressions are likely to result (and not just for children, but for many adult readers too). If so, however fun the book is - and I personally found it to be a delightful read - that suggests that the book’s message, while important, likely does not not withstand the scrutiny of a careful cost-benefit analysis, but I’ll leave that to others to consider for themselves.

But there’s one more point that I think is really telling, not so much about the Megilla or even this particular book, but about the moment in which we live. Many have noted that feminist readings of Vashti’s character have been around for 150 years; in fact, the first such extant reading came as early as 1820, just over 200 years back.

Yet there is a key difference, I think, between those early readings and this new one. For comparison, take what the abolitionist Frances Harper wrote in 1857:

"Go back!" she cried, and waved her hand,
And grief was in her eye:"
Go, tell the King," she sadly said,
"That I would rather die...
"She heard again the King's command,
And left her high estate;
Strong in her earnest womanhood,
She calmly met her fate,
And left the palace of the King,
Proud of her spotless name --A woman who could bend to grief,
But would not bow to shame.

Or consider this 1878 quotation from another famed abolitionist and feminist, Harriet Beecher Stowe:"

Now, if we consider the abject condition of all men in that day before the king, we shall stand amazed that there was a woman found at the head of the Persian empire that dared to disobey the command even of a drunken monarch… Vashti was reduced to the place where a woman deliberately chooses death before dishonor."

In both these 19th century readings, not only does Vashti accept death over losing her dignity, but she stands for her morals in the face of an all-powerful monarch.

Yet in this newest version, the king and his advisors are not dangerous, powerful, or threatening at all, just plain pathetic. And it’s not just that the reader knows that he is a “melekh tipesh” with a dose of “melekh rasha” thrown in for good measure, but here even the characters in the story don’t think he has any actual power, which significantly revised the earlier feminist retellings in which Vashti was tragically compelled to make the ultimate sacrifice for her dignity.

The story begins with Vashti sitting comfortably “in comfy pants and a funny hat” (her crown, which apparently doesn’t impress her, so long as she has not yet left the palace - upon which, for the first time, she ironically thinks of her headpiece as a crown instead of a silly hat). The boys are good just for making “constant noise” and forcing them to wear “itchy dresses and steer… clear of spills and messes.” The king not only appears after the opening of the narrative, but is never named at all (an ironic reversal of Simone de Beauxior’s trope of “Woman as Other”). And, it would seem, it’s not just the king: he’s representative of a whole lot of men, including his friends, and probably many more.

It is patently obvious that the king has little power to harm Vashti. His pride may be wounded, and Vashti’s friends are initially nervous, but they quickly turn into sign-waving protesters who demand their rights, knowing full-well that the king is powerless to stop them.

Even more, the women have no reason to stay. It is not just that the king is immoral, it is that he is simply boring and uninteresting:

And now his friends were bored and blue
They’d plumb run out of things to do
“We could play Wiffle Ball again,”
said all the king’s advisers then.

It was out of pure boredom that the king called for Vashti to come to his party. And it was not only because she was disrespected, but also because she really had no good reason to stay, that Vashti left. She could be comfortable, take along her crown and jewels, and conquer the world with her friends, all while wearing her comfy pants. As the illustrator has it, the king is left whimpering behind the palace windows while the women march joyfully to their freedom.

But why all the differences? Why, in this updated version, does Vashti not need to make the ultimate sacrifice for her decision to preserve her dignity, and why is she able to march out with her friends, not only physically untouched, but also without a care in the world?

Partly, this is almost certainly a product of the genre: this is a children’s book, unlike most of the other rewritings of the story, including the 19th century classics we quoted. The author doesn’t want to frighten the children, and so not only does Vashti survive - a live option among the meforshim - but she is untouched, and walks out of her own accord. The king is not all-powerful, because that would likely frighten the target audience, and because the average modern child doesn’t have a model of an all-powerful king in her head anyway. Further, is the goal of the book is to encourage young women - and possibly young men too, though that’s far from clear - to make their own decisions about how to have fun, then if staying with the king does not present a compelling alternative, it becomes all that much easier for girls to feel empowered that they can make similar decisions for themselves.

But while all that seems right, it also seems right to think that the 2021 version says something profound about our cultural moment. For the last few decades and especially in the last decade or so, a number of cultural critics have been debating whether we are beginning to see “the end of men.” This was the title of Hannah Rosin’s controversial 2010 article in The Atlantic, subsequently expanded into a book, which essentially argued that with the shift from an industrial economy to a technology and information-based economy, men are quickly falling behind their female counterparts in regard to mental health, at school, at work, and in levels of religious engagement. What if, she asks rhetorically, the 2008 recession merely “revealed - and accelerated - a profound economic shift that has been going on for thirty years, and in some respects even longer?”

Rosin’s thesis, of course, is (thankfully) grossly oversimplified in its assertion of the uselessness of modern men, which is of course far more subtle and complex than any one article or even book could summarize - and I will not even begin to try and do it justice in a post. And the claim that women are ahead of men across the board is, again, overly simplistic, and highly questionable to say the least. But, without for a moment denying the very real challenges that women did and continue to face, there is an undeniable ring of truth to the story of the decline of men. What will this mean for the mental health of men in the years to come? What will this mean for the future of women in the top positions at major companies, and in government? And what does this mean for overall levels of male and female engagement in avodat Hashem, both now and into the future? I’m not a statistician and don’t have a crystal ball, and again we need to pose these questions with far greater subtlety and sophistication than the current medium allows - but it seems to me highly unlikely that the shifts in our larger society are not impacting our religious communities in very real ways as well.

In Queen Vashti’s Comfy Pants, if unfortunately less often than in the harsh realities of life, Vashti has little to fear, and doesn’t bother so much as looking over her shoulders as she marches out of the palace: everything she wants is waiting for her and her friends on the other side of the castle walls. The story completely sidesteps the question of whether “conquering the world” is sufficient reason to live, or whether there is a higher divine calling. But it also inevitably raises the question whether the opposite extreme is good for society. We of course abhor a world in which Vashti is an object who cannot rise to her own self-defense. But I’m also not sure that we want to live in a world in which her male counterpart, especially as he seems to represent all the men she knows and wants to know, is nameless. (To be clear, I'm not suggesting that that the book's author is recommending that men remain nameless, but that this is, to a degree, reflective of a deeper reality of our current societal moment.) We can refuse to downplay the very serious and real challenges that women continue to confront, while simultaneously observing with real concern that countless boys and men across America and beyond - including in our community - are struggling in significant, fast-shifting ways that demand further analysis and close consideration.

It is important to tell the story of Vashti or, as I would prefer, other women who rise in their own self-defense against those who seek to objectify and harm them. But it is also important to tell the story of modern men, which is rapidly unfolding before our eyes. Intentionally or inadvertently, Queen Vashti’s Comfy Pants manages to tell both stories at once.