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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive The Bible-Shaped Mirror: Biblical Women and Contemporary Culture in Recent Film

Donna Bowman

Popular culture frequently mines the rich vein of ancient stories, folktales, and legends. Such material has the advantage not only of being in the public domain, but also, like the myths retold in Greek theater, of being familiar to the audience. What is lost in suspense is gained in dramatic irony. Even more significantly, these evergreen stories can be updated and reinterpreted for the rapidly changing concerns of every succeeding generation. The Renaissance painters dressed biblical characters in the fashions of their own nobility. In our more scientifically-minded time, those who dramatize biblical stories take great care with historical accuracies of dress and custom. But we furnish the characters with inner lives, attitudes, problems, and solutions that more closely reflect our own concerns than those of the characters' time and place. This process of contemporizing the narratives and their principals is necessitated by the attempt to make these antique tales from foreign cultures relevant to the intended audience. It often reveals more about that audience, and about those trying to speak to them, than it does about the story that purportedly is being conveyed.

I will examine two movies from 2006 about biblical women, One Night with the King, which is an adaptation of the book of Esther, and The Nativity Story, which is a harmonization of the infancy gospels of Matthew and Luke. Both films are lavish affairs produced by the newly powerful Christian film industry and distributed by branches of traditional studios created to cater to the faithful. Their portrayals of womanhood involve projections of twenty-first century issues, stereotypes, and problems onto central female characters in familiar stories, but they also uncover tensions and difficulties encountered in this contemporizing effort, resulting in intriguing portraits of ourselves and our times in biblical dress. Four themes in particular demand our attention: the coming-of-age narrative, women's role as carriers of culture, proto-feminist elements, and the transforming effect exerted upon the men with whom the women have relationships.

I. Coming-of-Age Narratives

Children occupy a central position in the twenty-first century American value system, as evidenced by the recent potency of the phrase "family values," by the huge educational apparatus enacted by the No Child Left Behind Act, and by the satirical bite of Simpsons character Mrs. Lovejoy's all-purpose catchphrase, "Won't somebody please think of the children?" Yet it is still surprising that One Night with the King manages to tie the legend of Esther, the Jewish queen of Persia who saves her people from genocide and inaugurates the feast of Purim, so closely to the notion of childhood innocence. The drama of Esther is mapped onto a coming-of-age narrative, in which the innocent and childlike qualities of the protagonist are tested and then supplemented by mature qualities of courage and romantic attachment. Happy Jewish girls are shown in the opening of the film dancing in a circle in soft-focus photography, the very picture of innocent joy, while a voiceover intones a monologue about being chosen for a special destiny. In this, of course, the film also positions itself as a fantasy heroic adventure of the type made popular by the Star Wars prequels and Lord of the Rings. But One Night with the King has other models in mind as well. Hadassah, the original name of our presumably teenage protagonist (although the actress was 25 at the time of filming), is a playful girl who teases and wheedles her father and dreams starry-eyed dreams of being a princess. In other words, she is a typical Disney heroine in the mode of Belle or Ariel, a characterization familiar to the twenty-first century family audience.


In order to fulfill her destiny to save the Jewish people from Haman's evil schemes, One Night with the King postulates that she will need to grow up without losing the child-like purity that sustains her. Despite her professed desire to live in royal splendor, therefore, she does not want to become a candidate to replace Queen Vashti in King Xerxes' fairy tale competition. She refuses to dress up in exotic clothes and jewels and rebels against the "protocol" of the court—a key thematic point in establishing her proto-feminist and American bona fides (but more on that later). The filmmakers signal approval of her lack of competitiveness by ridiculing her vain fellow candidates, so tightly poured into their fancy couture and laden down with gold that they can't mount their horses to accompany the king to his tents. When Hadassah faces the disapproving chief eunuch for skipping out on her protocol lessons, she challenges him: "You think I'm a child? Well, you're wrong—I am much younger than that." In other words, she is the familiar film character known as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl,[1] the free-spirited innocent who will redeem the repressed and over-civilized man and teach him how to live authentically.

The connection between childhood and The Nativity Story is much more organic, since it is the story of a child's birth. Yet the filmmakers once again choose to highlight the vulnerability and innocence of children by beginning with Herod's slaughter of the innocents, then flashing back one year to the annunciation to Zechariah. Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes, much closer to her character's age at 15) is introduced giggling with her girlfriends, then sulks when she is pulled away from her play to work for her struggling family. Her conflict, as it is introduced in these early scenes, is a reluctance to leave childhood behind to enter the world of adulthood. She is angry at her father's betrothal agreement with Joseph not because she doesn't like him, but because she is not ready to grow up. Yet even the joyful play portrayed here is connected to fertility; the giggles are because of pubescent flirting, they occur during the hoeing of fields, and the mark of innocence is less asexuality and purity than a kind of unrestricted mixing of the sexes without regard to their appropriate cultural roles, a freedom that Mary and her playmates are loath to give up. In other words, The Nativity Story exhibits a more nuanced and less schematic application of our current notions of childhood than One Night with the King, a pattern we shall see repeated in other themes, allowing for less unresolved dissonance and more creative tension in the image of womanhood in the former film.

II. Women as Transmitters of Culture

Strikingly, both films feature passing scenes in which a woman holds an audience of children rapt by telling a story from the Hebrew Bible. In The Nativity Story, the scene occurs early, in Nazareth, as Mary visits a house on her delivery rounds. A motherly figure narrates the story of Elijah's theophany to an assemblage of children: "There came a strong wind . . . but the Lord was not in the wind. There came an earthquake . . . but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And then finally, there came a still, small voice." Here the Hebrew Scripture is presented as oral tradition, but nonetheless exact for that; Mary's family recites the same phrases together, word for word, in a later scene. The connection with the nativity narratives, with their frequent deus-ex-machinae in the form of angelic messengers, is obvious, as is the message—listen for God's voice in the humblest of occurrences—but we are interested here in the scene itself: a woman teaching the narratives that shape their shared culture to a new generation.

The theme is even more elaborate in One Night with the King. Here Hadassah is shown telling the story of David and Goliath to a group of delighted children. But this is not pure oral tradition, as it will be in Nazareth centuries later. Hadassah can read, and she later adopts her fellow candidates for the king's affection as her pupils; in a montage, we see her teaching them on the palace steps, their numbers growing over time. Hadassah's transmission of culture is not even limited to her Jewish heritage; she boasts to the chief eunuch that she has read the Epic of Gilgamesh in the original language. The implication is that she is providing a multicultural education to the other women. Here the Jewish culture out of which Hadassah comes assigns the role of cultural transmission (if not that of learned, literate scribe) to her naturally, in the course of her relationship to younger children, but the Persian culture into which she has been thrust stifles that role by segregating women and teaching them only how to be properly decorative.

A particular story from Scripture, that of Jacob working seven years for Rachel and Laban's trickery in substituting Leah, becomes a thematic framework on which the filmmakers hang the whole tale. When the girl now known as Esther is taken to read to the sleepless king, she leaves off the boring court chronicle and begins to tell that story, intriguing Xerxes. Its presentation of romantic love overcoming obstacles and lovers discovering each other provides metaphors by which Esther and Xerxes understand their own relationship. But the film contends that Esther betrays the story by making it into merely entertainment. Although Xerxes begs to be told all about Esther as he falls in love with her, she does not mention the cultural meaning of the story that would reveal her Jewishness. In other words, she truncates her role as transmitter of culture, leading to an omission that will have to be corrected later for her to fulfill her true destiny.

III. Proto-Feminism

Perhaps the most noticeable way in which ancient female characters can be reinterpreted as relevant to contemporary sensibilities is to make them into our feminist sisters. Depictions of biblical women that emphasize their independence, educational accomplishments, strength, leadership capacities, ambition, and positions of honor send comforting messages to present-day audiences that these traits are and have always been praiseworthy. Because proto-feminist qualities are written into the films' female protagonists from their conception as characters, examples of their proto-feminist behavior can be easily multiplied; indeed, both films function quite simply as apologia for female empowerment, though of a pious and never masculine variety, of course.

In The Nativity Story, Mary is portrayed throughout as a girl who is wise and courageous beyond her years. She shows no sign of fear when confronted by an angel at the Annunciation; indeed, her question about virginal conception comes off as a rather bold riposte rather than a perplexed inquiry. She undertakes a journey to see her elderly cousin Elizabeth against the initial wishes of her family, talking them into allowing her to go with logic and assertiveness rather than girlish wheedling or emotion. There is some question about whether she should travel with Joseph to Bethlehem in an advanced state of pregnancy, but the matter is finally settled on her personal insistence. She often speaks in wisdom aphorisms, poetic sayings with an air of mystery or the transcendent, giving her something of the manner of a prophetess. Her mounting strength throughout the film comes from her election by God, but it is clear that God has poured his spirit into a vessel chosen for its strength. And when the Magi come to adore the Christ Child, the first two give their gifts of gold and frankincense to the babe, but the last gives his gift of myrrh to Mary with the words: "Myrrh, for your sacrifice." Thus she is honored for the special role she will continue to play in enabling the redemptive plan to be fulfilled.

Once again, the proto-feminist elements in One Night with the King present a mixed picture. Esther is a independent spirit with definite ideas for her life—she wants to leave Persia and go to Jerusalem. The implication is that only there can she be fully herself, a Jewish woman worshiping her people's God in a kind of overflowing of unproblematic emotional ecstasy. Her taste for adventure and embrace of learning, along with her rejection of the womanly arts of seduction, cast her as a kind of tomboy—again, exactly the kind of feminism that Disney heroines have been exhibiting for the last few decades. Once she is inside the court and preparing to be presented to the king, however, those dreams give way to a sense of mission: she hopes that she will be able to use her position to benefit her people. And so she refuses to escape when her childhood sweetheart Jesse (now conveniently transformed into a eunuch, creating the ancient equivalent of the heroine's gay best friend) offers her the chance to hop a caravan to Jerusalem. Her ambition is no longer for herself alone, but for her people. Esther demonstrates her proto-feminism by rejecting "protocol"—social roles that define the place of women and men—and violating court taboos for a higher purpose. Her strength, like Mary's, comes from God, an implication quite natural for a film marketed to the Christian community but quite alien to the biblical story.

The proto-feminist themes in each character diverge most sharply in the realm of identity. Mary's story is a tale of identity transformed; a girl is changed from an ordinary human being into the mother of God's redeemer. She quickly accepts this reality and comes to behave in a way befitting her new identity, leaving her old one behind forever. But Esther's story is a tale of identity confirmed; a girl rejects the compromises and secrecy that mask her Jewishness in order to discover, and express fully for the first time, who she really has been all along. It's the latter story that hews most closely to the dominant strains in popular culture surrounding female identity: we urge girls to be themselves, embrace who they are, find their true selves. Indeed, it is the very meaning of self-esteem.

IV. Transformation of Men

In both films, the female protagonists are defined against two major male foils: their fathers and their romantic partners. Both Mary and Esther are given the job of transforming and redeeming men, and this is expressed most fully in their relationships with their husbands. Their relationships with their fathers are presented somewhat more schematically in both cases, and it is implied that there is less transforming work to be done here on these elderly figures, who in some senses represent the past or the problem to be solved. Mary's father is portrayed as a struggling dairy farmer who lives in fear of Herod's tax collectors. He is remote, wracked with anxiety, and seemingly conflicted; his responses to Mary's entreaties to be released from her betrothal or to go see her cousin are authoritarian without conviction, as if he doesn't understand the motivation behind the role he's been assigned. The film implies that the pressures imposed by the foreign government ruling Palestine have undermined the traditional family structure, but it also points toward a different role of manhood than patriarchy as the emerging, optimal new way, as we shall see. Mordecai, Hadassah's father, is a more familiar figure: an indulgent daddy whose pride in his daughter is tempered by his protective impulses toward her. He too is fearful, but not of social change or of the foreign government under which his family lives; after all, he is a high official in that government. No, he is afraid for the safety of his precious girl; throughout the film, this matters more to him than any communal concern. When he helps her with her audacious plan to save the Jews from the malicious revenge of Haman—portrayed here as in Jewish tradition as a descendant of King Agag, whom Saul failed to kill when ordered to wipe out the Amalekites—he comes to accept her sense of mission not because he agrees with its justice, but because it is personally important to his beloved daughter.

However, the more significant transformations occur in the men to whom the female protagonists are maritally linked. That transformation occurs in three distinct modes. First, the men must be taught how to love. For Esther and Xerxes, this is a straightforwardly romantic proposition, following the standard model found in romance novels and the basic Disney princess storyline: girl captivates boy, girl gets boy, girl loses boy through entirely avoidable misunderstanding, girl gets boy back. Hunky Xerxes, who is in the habit of wearing diaphonous harem pants and no shirt, becomes intrigued by the vision of romance expressed in Esther's tale of Jacob's fourteen-year pursuit of Rachel and then becomes further intrigued by how different she is from the other candidates—unafraid, unadorned, and independent-minded. For Mary and Joseph, however, it is a far more complicated procedure. Mary is upset at the idea of being betrothed to "a man I do not love," although she knows him to be a kind man and apparently a wealthy one—he pays her father's taxes to keep him from having his land repossessed. But having been chosen by God to bear the Messiah, there is no longer any question of romantic love when they are married. Instead, fully a third of the movie follows them on their journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a journey usually skipped over briefly in a montage of donkey rides. Here it allows them time to grow intimate not physically, but spiritually. They become friends as they share the experiences of the road and enter a relationship of mutual care and respect. Joseph expresses his commitment to her by saving her from being swept away at a dangerous river crossing; Mary expresses her care for him by washing his bloody, blistered feet. There is no question of a kiss; Joseph "will make a good father," Mary muses, but his role is not that of her husband. This is not a romance; it is a partnership to carry out God's plan.

Second, the men must have their consciousnesses raised to acknowledge the equality of all humankind. Both films present political oppression as the major conflict driving the story. In The Nativity Story, class differences are layered atop the iconography of an occupation force. Wealth, symbolized by jewelry and coiffed, oiled hair, is bad; simple, rural life, symbolized by rough clothes and small, cave-like houses, is good. The tax collectors and soldiers who arrive on powerful horses bearing Roman standards and wearing uniforms, therefore, simultaneously depict the illegitimate rule of a foreign power imposed by force and the class divide between rich and poor; it's no accident that their two major activities are killing innocent people and taking their money. But while the film portrays the Messiah as the urgently-needed political solution to this crisis—nowhere are those who await their earthly deliverance disabused of that hope—it shows Mary beginning to assert that her child will have a larger role. When the shepherds come to adore the Christ Child, she asserts to them, "He is for all mankind." Bridging the difference between the wealthy Magi and the humble shepherds, she claims, "We are each given a gift." This egalitarian, universalizing message, significantly, is articulated only by Mary, not by any other character nor by narration or epigraph. It is the culmination of the equality and partnership that has developed between Joseph and Mary as they made their way to Bethlehem, witnessing the cruelty of the ruling class (in the form of crucified men along the road), the fragile existence of the poor (in the form of travelers whose donkeys are on the verge of collapse), and the comradeship of people engaged in a common enterprise (in the form of the generosity of fellow sojourners and their own reciprocal care for each other).

In One Night with the King, Xerxes' consciousness raising is more overt. We have already seen how he rejects a patriarchal, authoritarian model of marriage and kingship in order to embrace Esther as an equal. However, Esther's saving of her people is portrayed as predicated on an egalitarian political ideology. Haman incites the Persian crowds to riot by claiming that the Greeks—Persia's foreign enemy—and the Jews are united under the "evil doctrine: all men are created equal." When he complains about being humiliated by having to honor Mordecai the Jew, Esther retorts: "And how is a Jew any different from you or I?" In the end, Esther must use the equality she has inspired Xerxes to appreciate in their marriage to argue for the equality of the Jewish minority.

Finally, and most strikingly, the female protagonists transform their male partners by encouraging them to develop feminine qualities and virtues. One Night with the King exaggerates this message to an almost comical degree by having Esther and Xerxes adopt the Jacob/Rachel love story as the model for their relationship—only with the genders reversed! Xerxes, in this version, is Rachel, the beloved, and Esther is Jacob, who must persevere beyond the first relationship (the Jewish community) to her ultimate love (Xerxes). This is no subtle critical insight; it is present in the script itself, causing truly head-scratching confusion when Xerxes says things like "I thought I was your Rachel, but I was only your Leah." The weirdness can be traced back to the attempt to inscribe several contemporary, and mutually-exclusive, gender relationships on this ancient story: the Disney fairy tale of the independent girl who nevertheless craves the fulfillment of a man, the romance novel plot of the powerful man captivated by the bewitching and bewildering maiden, and the feminist fable of a powerful woman exerting political influence to change history. In any case, One Night with the King shows Xerxes learning the virtues of dialogue; in order to love Esther fully, he must allow himself to be addressed just as he claims the right to address others. He is able to engage in the womanly art of mutual subordination in order to preserve and grow relationships because of Esther's inspiring example.

Joseph's transformation is far more radical. The Nativity Story quite transparently makes him into an honorary woman; his redemption is to take on the role normally played by the community of women in supporting and caring for Mary. In the script's harmonization of the Matthew and Luke nativity accounts, Luke's version takes precedence, which means Mary is portrayed as the one to whom God speaks, the decision maker, the strong one, the leader. Joseph must learn to accept and fulfill an auxiliary role in this family. Early in the film we witness the birth of John the Baptist during Mary's visit to Elizabeth. Several women gather around the laboring Elizabeth, holding her hand, encouraging her, and guiding the child into the world; men, we are shown pointedly, are banished from the room and wait nervously for word. When Mary gives birth in the Bethlehem grotto, Joseph takes the place of the midwife, kneeling between Mary's legs and birthing the baby. Both Mary and Joseph shed tears at the birth; Joseph has completed his sensitivity training and is fully transformed into the role of sister rather than husband. As the final montage shows them traveling to Egypt, instead of angelic messages enabling Joseph to guide his family to safety, we hear Mary intone the phrases of the Magnificat. In order for this strange family to function and to fulfill its destiny, Mary must show Joseph how to take on the woman's role, while she assumes the central position.

Conclusion

Popular culture based on biblical women, at least when marketed to Christian audiences, has focused on providing the female protagonists with inner lives—concerns, emotions, relationships, and dreams—that can be brought into relationship with the women who make up the product's audience. This task is perhaps easiest in the wave of novelizations inspired by biblical heroines, from The Red Tent on; prose is well suited to the portrayal of a characters' subjectivity. Other notable examples are Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, where Mary rather than Jesus is the primary figure of audience identification due to the empathetic connection that is possible to her situation (as opposed to the rather opaque subjectivity of the suffering Jesus); and Mark Lowry's popular Christmas song "Mary, Did You Know?" which encourages the singer to assume psychological sisterhood with a young Galilean girl in 4 B.C.E. The two 2006 films examined here are no exception to that rule, but they find interesting roadblocks and shortcuts in the attempt to connect their twenty-first century audiences with the lives and behaviors of their biblical protagonists. The model of womanhood held up to viewers is one that values childhood innocence along with mature strength of resolve; that sustains communities by replicating and reinvigorating culture for each generation; that celebrates the power, honor, and independence of women who retain their femininity; and that seeks to transform men from patriarchal wielders of power to partners.

Donna Bowman, University of Central Arkansas

Note

[1] "The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures" (Nathan Rabin, in reference to Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown; http://www.avclub.com/content/node/57870).

Citation: Donna Bowman, " The Bible-Shaped Mirror: Biblical Women and Contemporary Culture in Recent Film ," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited June 2008]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=778

 
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