Every year, I read the story of Purim and then hear it filtered through various people's perspectives. Most interpretations I hear fall into two main categories:
1) Vashti is an evil and dangerous woman who defies Hashem's rules for how women should behave. Because she dared to refuse to dance in front of her husband and his friends, one can only assume that she must have been covered with some unsightly rash or perhaps had suddenly sprouted a tail. She deserved every bit of the punishment she got. Esther, on the other hand, is pure, virtuous, and beautiful. She was chosen to be queen for her grace and obedience. Not only does she save the Jewish people, but she represents the quintessential Jewish woman.
2) Vashti is a strong, independent woman who refuses to let any man dictate what she should do. She was a victim of the sexist culture of her time and had she lived today, she probably would have been a valiant feminist. She was wrongly punished and she deserves to be admired by women everywhere for her fierce self-determination. Esther, however, is simple and vain. She plays on her good looks and depends on her sexuality to get what she wants. Unlike Vashti, she is not particularly independent-minded and doesn't model positive assertiveness for girls and women today.
I don't agree with either one of these stories.
That said, I do find them both interesting, mostly because it is striking to me how each of these interpretations relies so heavily on the "good girl/bad girl" dichotomy. If Esther is going to be the heroine, then Vashti must be the villain. On the other hand, if Vashti is the admirable and charismatic one, then Esther must be contemptible and bland. It's almost as if these women gain validity in their respective roles only by being compared to each other. The danger here is that we end up pigeonholing both Vashti and Esther, and we don't allow either of them to be the dynamic women that they probably actually were. Looking beyond the Purim story, how often do we do this to people in our own lives? How often do people do this to us? I think we can probably agree that no one is a completely monochromatic character. Contrary to popular belief, the female species is not divided into "good girls" and "bad girls." We should give ourselves credit for being far more complex than that. We each make thousands of choices in our lives; some will be positive and some will not. Sometimes we will conform with the majority, and sometimes we won't. Our nuances are what make us interesting. Although forcing everyone into the "good girl/bad girl" binary might make life less complicated, when we do this we squeeze the life out of all of us.
My teacher in Israel helped me tease out the "real" women underneath the simplistic images depicted in both of the above versions of the Purim story. Vashti, it seems, is neither the dangerous vixen of the first story nor the radical feminist of the second. Instead, she is a woman who preserved her morality by refusing to attend a party full of drinking men and dancing girls--and, incidentally, it was considered inappropriate in ancient Persia for wives of rulers to be present at such parties. Vashti deserves credit for standing her ground even in the face of harsh consequences. However, she isn't really a feminist because she doesn't demand equality--she just wants to be treated in the manner befitting the wife of a ruler in her society. Because Esther enters the picture only as a result of Vashti's departure, one can only assume that she is aware of the circumstances surrounding the fall of her predecessor. She understands that blatant defiance of the king leads to disaster, so she knows she needs to take a more subtle approach. Yes, Esther is more demure than Vashti, and although this can be considered a virtue it is also the trait that nearly led her to pass up the opportunity to save her people. Some people profess that Esther's beauty and docility are what made her the ideal queen; I would argue that these characteristics merely make her the ideal ornament for a powerful king. When Esther truly becomes a queen is when she taps into the fire in her spirit and steps up to be a leader.
I don't think it's a stretch to see that both Esther and Vashti are admirable women who are also flawed, and that neither one of them exemplifies the "ideal woman"--instead, we need a little bit of both of them inside ourselves. A virtuous woman is not necessarily someone who is submissive, dainty, and conformist; nor is she necessarily a bold, fearless rebel. A woman can possess all of these qualities in varying proportions and still be just as worthy of respect and belonging as the woman standing next to her. Girls do not need to strive to be like Esther and scorn Vashti; nor do they need to emulate Vashti at the expense of Esther. Rather, they should be encouraged to evaluate honestly the choices of both women and to find ways in which they can identify with both Esther and Vashti. Perhaps, if we can respect these two characters of long ago, we will begin to be more compassionate with our own complex, multifaceted selves.