Marie Antoinette in Popular Imagery and Imagination, 18th Century to Present

Marie Antoinette, born in 1755 as Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna of Austria to Archduchess Maria Theresa and Holy Roman Emperor Francis I, grew up in the relatively lax environment at the Court of Vienna. In 1770, at fifteen years old, her marriage to the dauphin of France, Louis Auguste, sealed an alliance between France and Austria. While initially receiving a positive welcome from the French people, public opinion did not favor her for long, especially after she became queen in 1774 with a still unconsummated marriage and no hope for an heir in the near future. By the time the French Revolution broke out in 1789, Marie Antoinette was publicly hated, putting her in a dangerous situation. The next few years were turbulent ones for the royal family. Parisians brought them forcibly back to the city in 1789, where they lived like prisoners in the Tuileries Palace. After a failed attempt at flight from Paris in 1791, the king lost the trust of his people and was shortly after put on trial, found guilty, and beheaded. After losing her husband, Marie Antoinette also had her surviving children taken away from her and was soon put on trial herself. Like her husband before her, she was quickly found guilty of treason and beheaded at the guillotine, earning Marie Antoinette her famous reputation as the headless queen. 

Both during her lifetime and today, so many stories, rumors, and ideas circulate around Marie Antoinette that her image has always been exaggerated and rarely indicative of reality. Four themes emerge from this aura surrounding her, all pertaining to the hyper-femininity associated with her, and these themes hold true during her own time period and today. These are her reputation for excessive spending and luxury, her domestic attributes, her sexuality, and her famous death at the guillotine. During her life, she was a notorious figure in France and experienced the severe consequences of public hatred, so these were most often exaggerated in a negative way, resulting in her tarnished image. Over time, though, a more sympathetic approach has been taken when evaluating her life. Though the themes have not changed, today we tend to focus on her positive attributes and praise the same traits she was criticized for during her lifetime. Instead of criticizing Marie Antoinette, popular culture today tends to celebrate her and portray her as an icon for feminine liberation, especially concerning her use of fashion and her reputation for having male and female lovers. 

Marie Antoinette’s reputation for luxury, excessive spending, and fashion while at the court of Versailles contributed to the negative public opinion the French populace formed of her, especially during times of economic hardship in France. But her use of fashion was essential to forming a personal identity and public presence for herself at the Court of Versailles, which she managed to do even as it upset the courtiers and ignored the rules of court etiquette. Traditionally, a foreign queen in France would keep a low profile and demurely adhere to the dictations of court etiquette while the king maintained the public presence, but this was not the case for Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. Louis XVI preferred to remain out of the public eye, including around the court, leaving that role open to his wife. Marie Antoinette took on a role at Versailles while rejecting the precedents set by the previous French queens. She dictated the changing fashion trends at Versailles and all the ladies of the court scrambled to keep up with them, putting her in an influential role within the court. At the same time, she snubbed aspects of court etiquette that she professed she found ridiculous, which often earned her animosity from the other courtiers. This reputation for excessive luxury also contributed to her image of heightened femininity that emerges even more clearly in the next two themes.

The image of Marie Antoinette as a threatening feminine public figure emerged from the ideas of femininity prevalent in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It was during this time period that the idea of the domestic woman became central to societal structure, and the public conceptions of Marie Antoinette did not fit with this definition of femininity and emphasis on domesticity. So, in a time when domesticity in women was necessary to social acceptance, Marie Antoinette seemed to willfully neglect her domestic duties as Queen of France. For years, her marriage remained unconsummated and she bore no children, leading to accusations of her failure as queen. Also, in the eyes of the French nation, Marie Antoinette’s public and expressive presence made her corruptive and an unfit wife and mother once her children were born. Her perceived failure as a mother and wife was extremely damaging because she was not just any mother, she was charged with bearing and raising the future heir to the French throne. But since she was seen as morally degenerate, her influence over the dauphin could only be corrupting him, and through him, the nation.

Rumors of Marie Antoinette’s uncontrolled sexuality linked directly with her perceived corruptive influence on her children. The pamphlets that circulated around France, detailing her supposed love affairs, seem to be manifestations of her threatening femininity. While clearly pornographic in content, the pamphlets were not meant for pleasure: they were warnings against the dangers of Marie Antoinette’s sexuality and portrayed her lovers as her victims. This notion of her dangerous hyper-femininity led to the common accusation that she tried to use her sexuality to maintain control over the young dauphin and impose her immorality onto him.

The rumors and accusations that swirled throughout France during Marie Antoinette’s time as queen all held relevance during her trial. Due to lack of solid evidence, her accusers brought up her spending habits, her corruption of her children, and her uncontrolled sexuality to produce her guilty verdict. The negative public opinion of her held such weight that her guilt was decided before the trial even began and Marie Antoinette was declared guilty of treason and sentenced to death by guillotine with little resistance. With the tarnished view of Marie Antoinette’s character the French populace held, it is hardly surprising most French citizens thought she deserved her guilty verdict and death sentence. At the time, there was little to no remorse or regret towards her fate, and it is only in modern times that her story has been revisited and reevaluated, moving towards much more sympathetic accounts of her life.

Starting in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, popular culture has revisited the story of Marie Antoinette and produced a new image of her that glorifies the same attributes the French people denounced during the Revolution. Where her luxurious existence and fashion sense were seen as wasteful and provocative during her lifetime, today she is praised as one of the first women to use fashion as a method of expression and has become a symbol of luxury and wealth. Her luxurious life today is also connoted in a more positive light as something to strive for, not something to disdain. Also, several modern authors and filmmakers have focused on her relationship to her children and painted her as a devoted mother in contrast to the negative view people held of her as a mother during her lifetime. Her devotion to her children has become a prevalent theme in modern popular culture and has done a lot to remedy the debauched view of her held during her time period. Similarly, while rumors of her love affairs drew criticism during her life, today she is a symbol of female sexual liberation and in some cases, as a lesbian icon as well. As these themes, which were interpreted negatively during her life, turn into positive traits, the popular reaction to her death changes as well. Today, the story of her life and death are generally received sympathetically. Contrary to the belief held during her own time period, we no longer see her as deserving her guilty sentence and execution at the guillotine.

As views on femininity and domesticity shift over time, so does society’s perception of Marie Antoinette. The image of her did not fit with the social expectation of women of her time, but today that image has been molded to fit with our own societal values and create the sympathy for her experiences and a new positive image of her that did not exist during her life. Although in many cases popular culture has only added to the false image of Marie Antoinette while trying to have her story and personality fit with modern values, the popular image of her today is glamorized and celebrated where before it was tarnished. Even though our perception of Marie Antoinette is likely not much closer to the truth than the image of her held in Revolutionary France, today she receives the sympathy denied her while she lived.

This thesis explores these four categories that emerge from popular representations of Marie Antoinette and how they have changed over time. For the theme of luxury, I describe how contemporary observers interpreted her lifestyle, how she used fashion to her own advantage, and how the perception of her luxurious lifestyle and fashion sense has developed since her lifetime. Marie Antoinette’s relationship with her husband and children was critical to her image during her lifetime when ideas about femininity and domesticity were firmly linked, and it remains a prominent defense for her today. In regards to her sexuality, I argue how it was used against her during her time as queen and was seen as corrupting, but today has turned into something to be celebrated. Finally, I discuss the events leading up to her death at the guillotine and how the image of her as the “headless queen” has survived into modern times and has become irrevocably associated with her. For each theme, I discuss how it is associated with her image in popular imagery first during the eighteenth century, then how that has evolved into the image we have of her in popular culture today.