So Purim was this weekend. Purim’s one of those holidays that always sneaks up on me (though honestly, most lunar holidays sneak up on me) and then I have to run around frantically to make sure I get enough hamentashen, because my life revolves around food.
Unlike my mother, I always liked Purim. A Jewish orphan girl goes to princess school for a year, makes a king fall in love with her, and then saves her people from destruction? AWESOME. I am on-board.
What bothered my mother – what bothers a lot of people – is the sheer amount of vengeance and violence that takes place in this story. At the end, “the Jews struck down all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering, and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those who hated them*.” And while some people love revenge fantasies – many adored Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist history of WWII – for others they are intensely uncomfortable. I watched the movie and just wanted them to start rebuilding their lives and join some nice support groups.
But I was never bothered by the Book of Esther, because I barely even noticed the violence at the end – to me, that was just a touch of well-deserved revenge, kind of like Cinderella’s stepsisters eyes being pecked out, or Snow White’s stepmother dancing to death. I was a fan of comeuppance; Edmund Dantes and I would get on well. But as a child my focus remained solely on Esther. And the very early part of Esther’s tale plays into a specific version of the Cinderella trope – the bride show:
Let beautiful young virgins be sought out for the king. And let the king appoint commissioners in all the provinces of his kingdom to gather all the beautiful young virgins to the harem in the citadel of Susa under custody of Hegai, the king’s eunuch, who is in charge of the women; let their cosmetic treatments be given them. And let the girl who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.
The turn came for each girl to go in to King Ahasuerus, after being twelve months under the regulations for the women, since this was the regular period of their cosmetic treatment, six months with oil of myrrh and six months with perfumes and cosmetics for women.
So, the first part of Esther is every make-over show ever, combined with The Bachelor.
When the girl went in to the king she was given whatever she asked for to take with her from the harem to the king’s palace. In the evening, she went in; then in the morning she came back to the second harem in custody of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch, who was in charge of the concubines; she did not go in to the king again, unless the king delighted in her and she was summoned by name.
Basically, unless she got a rose.
Anyway, then she was Queen and we leave the bride-show territory, and the story gets a lot more exciting, but completely stops paralleling The Bachelor, so. Let’s go to Constantinople. You may sing if so inclined.
A thousand years later, something very similar went on not too far away from Susa. In the Life of Philaretos (821-822) the monk Niketos describes imperial agents canvasing the empire to find beautiful young women to come for a bride-show in Constantinople. Similar bride-shows are also mentioned in Theophanes’ Chronographia and in the Funeral Oration for Basil I and the Life of Theodora.
“Between 788 and 882 bride-shows were held five times to select a bride for the heir to the empire, and even if the decision were generally made by the emperor’s mother or stepmother with a political agenda in view, there still was clearly a consideration that beauty was an essential prerequisite for an empress” (Garland).
Yet despite its multiple mentions, modern scholars aren’t all convinced they actually occurred. Much as Esther has been described as a historical novella, the Byzantine bride-shows have been referred to as a literary conceit and “a textual event rather than an actual one”. They were part of the traditional literature because they served a purpose; they were used to exploit slight connections with the royal family, to politically discredit opponents, to justify assassinations (Vinson, 118).
Skip ahead to the present. Why did a producer whip up a modern day bride-show?
I started watching The Bachelor in Paris. My friend and I would buy a pizza from the Domino’s right next to Napoleon’s tomb, and then retreat to my apartment and lie comatose on my pullout couch. We’d stream images from America of a blond dude saying rote phrases, over and over, about a house full of women and discussing whether his wife was in the room. It was fascinating. Addicting. I wondered if a notecard was propped up for the Bachelor in case he stumbled, prompting him to discuss “this journey” or “the right reasons.”
Much like Ahasuerus’ commissioners and the imperial agents, the casting directors search through the nation for beautiful young women (though not, presumably, virgins this time around) to appear on their show. They spend some time being beautified – well, at least putting on pretty clothes and make-up and doing their hair – and then they stand around competing for a man’s attention. (To be fair, there is also The Bachelorette, and I’ve never read of any historical groom shows).
And just like Esther and the Byzantine shows, this is fictional, created not to help people fall in love, but for a purpose. (Ratings? This doesn’t seem nearly as noble a purpose as to encourage an oppressed group to fight back or as interesting as Machiavellian politics, but. It’s probably the most popular). Why are we still using this trope and presenting it as reality? What is it that draws people in?
There’s the beauty aspect; right off the bat, appearance is a huge part of all these narratives. There’s the Cinderella story, where a young girl of no special background is elevated by marriage to a high social status. There’s the competition, and the tension between women wanting to win and wanting to be friends with the others. In the monk Niketos’ description, the empress “urged the ten other contestants to make a sisterly agreement among themselves so that whoever became empress would help the others. To this proposal, one of the girls haughtily replied that she was sure to be chosen because she was richer, nobler and prettier” (Vinson, 114).
As literary concepts, all these themes are fraught with tension. Friendship, class, love, power dynamics. If done right, they weave a fascinating story – one that can make it’s way into the most influential book in Western civilization (despite not once mentioning God) 0r that can garner millions of viewers, year after year. So it’s not much of a surprise that several bride-show novels have cropped up recently.
The Princess Academy by Shannon Hale. Hale has a beautiful, lyrical voice in all of her writing, and this novel won a 2006 Newbery Honor.
The Charmed Sphere by Catherine Asaro. A little more Esther than Bachelor, this is about the relationship between the woman and prince rather than about the competition.
The Selection by Kiera Cass. A dystopian take on the trope. Apparently the CW’s making a pilot episode.
I was going to end this with a bit about how bride-shows would never work in real life – just look at the results of The Bachelor or how the Byzantine marriages usually ended in disaster. And Esther’s triumph came not from winning the king’s love but rather from saving her people. But look! A new book on bride shows! A Bride for the Tsar: Bride-Shows and Marriage Politics in Early Modern Russia by Russell Martin. In any case, they seem to be popular.
Personally, I would like to see a miniseries about the Byzantine Empire bride-shows with a heavy dose of modern day snark. I strongly believe in anachronistic history. Someone please pitch that?
*Heavily quoting from the New Oxford Annotated Bible over here
A couple of great reads about Byzantine women:
Garland, Lynda. Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 526-1204 (Routledge, 2002).
Herrin, Judith. Women in Purple: Rulers of Medieval Byzantium (Princeton, 2001).