I have been dwelling on female agency in pop culture.
What do I mean by female agency? It is simple. Agency is when a character takes an active part in their story. I don’t mean that they control everything that happens; just that they make decisions and take action; they aren’t just swept up into whatever the fates or the other characters have in store. And obviously by female, I mean characters who are women.
I was going to do a single post where I covered a bunch of things we watch, with and without Zoe. (Who am I kidding? We watch nothing without Zoe because she never sleeps!) But there was too much. So I’m going to do a series of things, which may never end because we keep watching movies and TV around here.
And I’m going to start with Prince of Egypt, because it’s Passover, and because I love what this movie, and what the Exodus story, does with female agency.
It’s complicated because I feel compelled to address both the movie and the Biblical text, and while I think this movie does one helluva job representing the Biblical text authentically, that doesn’t mean every detail transfers.
So let’s take them separately, and let’s start with the Biblical text.
There’s a story in the beginning of the Exodus story that rarely gets a mention (something my awesome friend Leah is trying to correct). Before Pharaoh orders his soldiers to go in to Goshen, the Hebrew slave area, and kill all the male babies, he orders the midwives Shifrah and Puah, who are either Hebrew themselves or simply serve the Hebrew population, to kill the male babies as they come out and then just tell the mothers they were stillborn or whatever. Shifrah and Puah do not do this thing. When the Pharaoh notices they are not doing this thing, they play on his prejudices, claiming the women give birth so fast, like animals in the field, they don’t even have time to get there in order to kill the babies. The Pharaoh is apparently too stupid to wonder why Shifrah and Puah have jobs in the first place.
This story is about two powerless people defying Pharaoh as best they can in the circumstances, and it sets up a longer story about how to have agency as a person when you have little political, military, or social power. That’s the story of Exodus, and it’s really the story of the whole of the Torah. Think about Jacob stealing a birthright, about Joseph climbing out of slavery to help rule Egypt. About some random shepherd named Abraham fathering three religions. And Shifrah and Puah, and Yocheved and Miriam and even Tzipporah, and of course Moses, all finding agency where power is limited. Seriously, guys, believe in God, don’t believe in God, do whatever you want – but the Bible has some awesome stuff in it.
The next time women act with agency despite lack of power, pulling the wool over Pharaoh’s eyes, is also usually sort of glided over, if not omitted like the midwives. Here’s what the Bible claims happens: Yocheved, in defiance of Pharaoh, puts her baby in a basket and sends it down the Nile, and sends her daughter Miriam to watch over the basket. Miriam sees the Pharaoh’s daughter (who is usually his wife in movie depictions) pick up the baby and offers her mother up as wet nurse, to which the Pharaoh’s daughter agrees.
Can I get a “Yeah, right?” Yeah, right, the princess bought that the little Hebrew girl hanging around the little Hebrew baby boy she just picked up – at the time when her father has ordered his soldiers to kill Hebrew baby boys – just happened to have a mother who could serve as wet nurse right now, and that all this was a coincidence? Do we think maybe it went down more like this? “Hey, princess, who I happen to work for – can you take in my baby brother your dad doesn’t kill him? And use my mom as his nurse so that she doesn’t have to leave her baby?” “Yeah, sure.” “Okay, but how will you explain the new baby to your dad?” “Oh, you know. It’s one more baby in his harem. He’s not even going to notice. If he does, I’ll say I pulled him from the river and he was a gift from the gods.” “Cool.”
Even if it did happen more or less the way the Bible says it did, there would still be the knowledge between all three of them that the baby was really Yocheved’s and the princess was helping hide a Hebrew baby boy from her murderous father. A little conspiracy, know what I’m saying?
In the Biblical text, there is also this weird thing with Tzipporah and circumcision that I don’t really understand but it seems like she’s taking charge of something?
And then Miriam grows up to be instrumental in leading the Israelites through the desert. She’s part of the leadership, she’s a prophetess, all that stuff.
So women in the Biblical story of Exodus have all kinds of agency.
What about Prince of Egypt?
Yup. By the bucket.
They gloss over some stuff. Like, we never get to the desert, so instead of Miriam having a leadership role there, we see how instrumental she is in telling Moses who he is, in pushing him to be the leader of the Hebrew people, in shoring up and supporting his position once he comes back, and, in the wake of the death toll among Egyptian children, which crushes Moses because it kills a kid he’d have liked to consider his nephew (The most brilliant thing PoE does is the relationship between Moses and his adoptive brother Ramses. I’d write more about it but it’s off topic and also I’ll start crying, no joke.), it’s Miriam who turns it into a hopeful and happy movement with song and guidance.
And obviously we don’t get the Tzipporah/circumcision story because it’s one of the ones in the Hebrew Bible where you get the feeling that, when people sat down to write down the oral traditions, they stuck some stuff in there that even they didn’t understand, but which had been passed down enough that they felt compelled to stick it in there. It really makes no sense and I don’t know that any movie tries to deal with it. But Tzipporah is very much the sassy pants in the mold of late-’90s animated heroines (think Esmeralda in Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame and Megara in Disney’s Hercules). We first meet her as a ‘gift’ for the princes. She spits at them, fights them, and escapes them (though Moses helps her out at the end there, a little). Then we run into her again in Midian and she pushes Moses in a well and sasses at him and dances with the sexy hips and argues with her father and all the rest. And she’s by his side the whole time in Egypt, supporting and pushing and helping.
And of course Yocheved starts the whole thing by sending Moses down the river. In PoE, she is very specific (and tuneful) about her hope that this action will lead to Moses delivering the Hebrew slaves from bondage in Egypt.
The princess who pulls him out of the water knows he’s Hebrew, although the movie is subtle about it. She just sends quelling glances to her servants. There’s no conversation with Miriam and no Yocheved as nurse, so there’s no conspiracy. She’s more your typical mom character in any movie. Still, she knows what her husband ordered, and she knows she’s defying that order by raising a Hebrew slave under his nose, as his own son.
So, yes, Moses is the titular character. But it’s very clear in this movie that his leadership is supported, even created, by women. Lots of agency. Happy Ricki.
Sometimes it feels to me that the late ’90s was the golden age of sassy and likable female characters with agency. I’m sure we’ll explore that more as this series goes on.