Marie Antoinette and the Politics of Gender

Elisabeth-Louis-Vigee-Le Brun, Marie-Antoinette, reine de France, 1755-1793, courtesy of Château de Versailles.

by Avalon Welch

From her ascension to the French court in 1770 to her execution in 1793, Marie Antoinette was the subject of increasing hostility from the French people. Today, she occupies a fascinating place in popular memory, with some scholars going so far as to describe her as a “cult object”. This precisely represents the myths and sensationalism that surrounds her and her peculiar place in the French Revolutionary ideology. A significant amount of the criticism against Marie Antoinette reflects the social anxieties of the era surrounding women’s role, but this is not a simple matter of a patriarchal society. They were the outcome of unique social circumstances surrounding the French Revolution and the King’s absence from the public realm – spurned on by pornographic images of Antoinette. The increasing hostility against Marie Antoinette that resulted in her execution cannot be reduced to a simple explanation, but rather is the outcome of multiple complex circumstances and phenomena.  

Political criticism of Marie Antoinette frequently centred on her support for Austria and her frivolous spending which provided a ready explanation for the financial crisis and chronic discontent of the French people. However, less than 10% of anti-Marie Antoinette pamphlets were published before 1789, which supports the contention that the political influence (real or imagined) of an individual is more likely to be subject to criticism in times of political crisis. It is therefore necessary to consider the hostility towards Marie Antoinette within the context of the Revolution – growing discontent among the people – rather than treating it as criticism received by a Queen in a patriarchal system. We must also consider that the Queen’s influence on the political body may have been overemphasised, as both Gruder and Lanser posit. The difficulty here, as Lanser goes on to discuss, is that the volume of discourse surrounding Marie Antoinette far outweighs that produced by the woman herself, with the actual person having now been buried in representation. This is apparent in the fact that she is best remembered for words that she never spoke. It is therefore necessary to treat any iteration of the Queen’s history as suspect and potentially sensationalised. Regardless of Antoinette’s actual political influence, her apparent influence undoubtedly refracted through her already damaged public image, spurring hostility. I shall consider the fundamental question of whether her failings merited the criticism that was received and whether her gender is divisible from this.

Many modern scholars read the growing hostility against Antionette as reflecting fundamental anxieties about the female place in society and a feared loss of sexual differentiation. Historian Saint Amand goes so far as to label this social condition “Marie Antoinette Syndrome” and applies it broadly as a fear of women in power. However, this modern reading of gender politics accepts exaggerations about the extent to which she was actually “in power”. I would instead argue that a fear of women gaining power is more relevant here than women in power. Through Louis XVI taking a somewhat passive role and being absent from the public realm, Marie Antoinette was given the appearance of elevated visibility by comparison, allowing this underlying anxiety to manifest in the form of criticism against her. Thus, where Saint Amand argues that Marie Antoinette usurped the King’s role as spectacle, it should be considered that the King conceded his public role which, by default, falls to Marie Antoinette. The criticism therefore was the outcome of fears over a loss of sexual differentiation, and the apparent rise of active females, although this may not have been the intention of the Queen. We see these anxieties over the active female/passive male dichotomy illustrated in the various animals that each are compared to in caricatures: while the King is frequently depicted as a donkey or a pig, the Queen is compared to vipers, tarantulas, and tigresses which are significantly more threatening.

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Figures i and ii demonstrate the above where the King has the body of a pig (although useless, he is not particularly harmful), the Queen is projected with the image of a livestock-devouring, mythological beast with the caption titled Description of this Unique Monster. This depiction is further complemented by devil horns, a negative religious symbol, and long flowing hair which was widely recognised as a sign of moral looseness. The stark distinction between the above images demonstrates broader anxieties surrounding the rise of an active female/passive male dichotomy and a loss of sexual differentiation that informed hostility towards Marie Antoinette.

A common theme throughout pamphlets criticising Marie Antoinette are her alleged amorous exploits that charge her primarily with engaging in countless orgies involving a veritable smorgasbord of political figures. Cameron argues that pornographic depictions of the body relate to multiple discourses on morality in politics and economics. This is relevant given that the Revolution saw initially satirical pamphlets being taken more seriously as sexual degeneration was coupled with corruption. The escalation in the degree to which such material was read (in earnest) is evident in her trial, which heavily referenced the sexual crimes of the queen:

“the widow Capet, immoral in every way, new Agrippina, is so perverse and so familiar with all crimes that, forgetting her quality of mother and the demarcation prescribed by the laws of nature, she has not stopped short of indulging herself with Louis-Charles Capet, her son.”

Here, one must question whether these accusations reflect broader attitudes to women within society as many scholars argue. Gruder posits that the image of the sexually domineering woman is borrowed from a longstanding tradition of the ‘world turned upside down’. The material within this framework presents a link between the pornographic materials and the fear of women’s increased visibility in the public realm. While Gruder’s is an apt contention, Brown offers an alternate explanation: The King’s apparent impotence and resulting lack of a mistress left the aristocratic appetite for royal scandal unsated. This is supported by Barker’s statement that the criticism received was primarily of aristocratic origins and eventually disseminated into other classes. The assumption made here by the aristocracy is a natural one: if the king is a mauvais fouteur, then the Queen must be promiscuous. Pornographic pamphlets should therefore be considered as created within this context as a source of amusement for gossip mongering aristocrats.  Rather than presuming each of the above to be mutually exclusive, I would contend that each is valuable; while Brown’s contention explains the source of such hostility, Gruder’s accounts for its acceleration from myths enjoyed by the public to facts accepted by them. Nonetheless, the concern over women in power remains central to the criticism received and is demonstrated through the pervasiveness of such accounts of the Queen’s sexual exploits and their presence in the trial.

Many scholars read the growing resentment of Marie Antoinette as illustrating the exclusion of women from the public sphere of the French Revolution, however this does not occur solely as an outcome of a misogynistic society. The restructuring of France caused social instability and heightened anxieties, instigating the need to reaffirm familiar values and the place of women as politically subordinate. This is supported by findings published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin that indicate a tendency towards political conservatism following major socio-political events. Antoinette served as a negative figurehead for these efforts, an object lesson for those who may seek to usurp men’s power. Her centrality to this process is apparent in the Committee on General Security of the Convention’s discussion of the participation of women in politics only two weeks after Marie Antoinette was executed, where they stated that ‘the private functions for which women are destined by their very nature are related to the general order of society; this social order results from the differences between man and woman’. This discussion and the execution of the Queen are indivisible events, as demonstrated by their proximity. They were part of a larger process – the instability-driven exclusion of women from the public realm for which Marie Antoinette served as a negative icon.   

 In considering the material above, it is important to note that both Gruder and Hunt posit that Marie Antoinette was not the lone subject of such attacks. While material denouncing the royals may be traced back to Louis XIV, such attacks took on a political rhetoric in the twenty years preceding the revolution. Gruder further characterises such material as serving the dual purpose of personalising complex problems of government and allowing subjects to vent dissatisfaction by attacking the Queen and ministers whilst maintaining allegiance to the King. One such example is the Queen’s spending being blamed for French debt despite that the deficit came to light through the King requesting new taxes, indicating a readiness to assign blame to her. Reading the above through a feminist lens would suggest that the imbalance of criticism resulted from a patriarchal mentality, however I believe that it more accurately reflects a political climate that was not yet prepared to denounce its King. Therefore, gender alone, while important, is not a sufficient explanation for this hostility. Despite this, Marie Antoinette was undoubtedly the most criticised, with more pamphlets about her than anyone else and with such material being the most sustained in their attacks. This may reflect misogynistic attitudes or may alternatively be due to her having the closest proximity to Louis XVI.

Hostility against Marie Antoinette arose out of highly complex social, political, and economic circumstances and cannot be reduced to a simple case of misogynistic attitudes. Despite the difficulty in separating myth from fact in this case, the presence of anxieties surrounding the loss of sexual difference is undeniable, although I have demonstrated that this is partly the outcome of social instability. Such criticism also reflects the semiotic power of Marie Antoinette’s body and attempts to destroy the threats that it represented. Further, the pornographic imagery resulted from an unsated appetite for royal scandal, while its acceleration to a factual status may be accounted for by fears of female power, represented by the image of the sexually domineering woman. Finally, broad political criticism against Marie Antoinette must be considered within the political discourse as a form of expression that avoided denouncing support of the King. Therefore, while hostility against Marie Antoinette undoubtedly reflected social attitudes to women during the French Revolution, to reduce it to an expression of misogyny would over-simply this multi-faceted occurrence.

Image credit

Elisabeth-Louis-Vigee-Le Brun, Marie-Antoinette, reine de France, 1779-1788, courtesy of the Château de Versailles.

Bibliography

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Figure i. Duprat, Annie. Du Roi-Père au Roi-Cochon. In Bourderon, Roger. Le Jugement Dernier des Rois: Actes du Colloque. Place of publication: Saint-Denis, 1993.

Figure ii. Le Campion, Joseph-Alexandre. Description de ce monster unique. Ca 1784. Etching, 24 x 34.5cm.  Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris. https://catalogue.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/cb40252482m.

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