Marie Antoinette – the extravagant French queen has long been a symbol of feminine excess

The hashtag #CarrieAntoinettewhich compares Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s wife, Carrie Johnson, to French Queen Marie-Antoinette (1755-1793), was criticized as sexist. Commentators believe it draws on gender stereotypes and distracts from ongoing political events.

These events include the recent fines imposed by the Metropolitan Police on those who attended illegal Downing Street parties during the pandemic, including Johnson and his wife. Focusing on Carrie distracts from Boris’ actions, which made him the first prime minister to break the law.

Comparisons between the 18th century queen and contemporary female figures are by no means limited to Carrie Johnson. Even in his time, the image of the Queen of France was used for political purposes and to comment on the evils or the good of women. Since then, Antoinette has become something of a pop culture icon, appearing in film, television and, more recently, on social media in works that often seek to explore the performance of gender and the power that could l ‘to accompany.

Today’s Marie-Antoinette is a pastiche. Half historical detail, half cinematic influence, the Antoinette of the popular imagination is regularly used as a shortcut for the evils of excess, for femininity and indulgence. She is a queen steeped in centuries of myth and subject to constant reinvention.

From revolution to reinvention

The social media comparison between Carrie Johnson and the ill-fated wife of King Louis XVI, executed by guillotine during the French Revolution, first emerged in 2020. This was in response to the Johnsons. controversial renovation of their Downing Street apartment. Apparently. Apparently not liking the ‘John Lewis furniture nightmare’ left behind by former Prime Minister Theresa May, the couple decided to redesign the property and install gold wallpaper at £840 a roll.

Marie Antoinette’s own extravagances have resulted in near-constant renovations to her palace Little Trianon. The easily established connections between Johnson and Antoinette prompted the satirical artist Cold War Steve share an image swapping the government apartment for the throne room at Versaillesdepicting the Prime Minister’s wife in period dress amid stacks of banknotes.

During her lifetime, the image of Marie Antoinette was coded with political significance and circulated both to assert and undermine the power of the royal family. During the French Revolution, during which the Queen was imprisoned and eventually executed, her image appeared on both sides of the Channel in sympathetic and critical renderings. Some images portray her as a greedy aristocrat and others as a noble victim. Satirical images often focused on the excessive hubris of the French court and the eventual dismantling of royal wealth.

queen of the big screen

In the centuries since her death, Marie Antoinette’s image has been constantly revisited, often providing a mirror to reflect contemporary issues. However, her status as a pop culture icon was really cemented at the end of the 20th century.

The Queen was invoked in Madonna’s famous performance at the 1990 MTV Awards of her hit song Vogue. In a wonderful camp performance, Madonna used Antoinette’s likeness to invoke the lavish ballrooms of 18th-century France to draw connections between the rich queer culture in which voguing was born. It was a highly stylized performance of femininity by male and female dancers.

Then there is Antoinette on screen. Actresses of Lise Delamare and Jane Seymour for Diane Kruger have all taken their turn to embody it in films. Perhaps the best-known iteration today is Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006) with Kirsten Dunst. Indeed, the aesthetic influences of Coppola’s playful and anachronistic depiction of the pre-revolutionary French court and the relationship between consumerism and female power can be seen everywhere, from Netflix’s Bridgerton to to glide.

It was this fictional Antoinette, with her exaggerated references to excess and luxury versus femininity and rich visuals, that most influenced our contemporary digital iteration of the queen.

The excesses of femininity

Marie-Antoinette recently seized the court on social networks. In another rendering of Carrie Johnson as Queen by Cold War Steve, we see Johnson decked out in silks and reclining in a chair, surrounded by cakes and (a recurring theme for the artist) stacks of cash. But rather than drawing inspiration from 18th-century artists such as French painter Charles Le Brun, Cold War Steve’s version of the queen is instead drawn from Coppola’s 2006 film.

In this satirical image, Johnson’s face is imposed on a cutout of actress Kirsten Dunst’s body. Interestingly, Coppola’s version of Marie Antoinette is based on a relatively sympathetic biography of the real-life queen by British historian Antonia Fraser. Certainly, the film interpretation of her focuses on her humanity rather than infamy. But despite this nuance, Coppola’s work – itself a visual amalgamation of countless pop and art-historical references – has proven to be fertile ground for social media users and creators alike. of content. The film’s bold visual elements translate easily into recognizable shorthand for contemporary issues of gender and power.

Marie Antoinette memes and cartoons like Johnson’s will only multiply online as images continue to be layered, copied and pasted, sliced ​​and filtered online to explore the supposed dangers – and pleasures – “excessive” women. But what about the behavior of excessive men? Do people remember Louis XVI of France the same way? No. His reign is over and he does not figure in our contemporary cultural consciousness. But as long as there is a fascination with glamorous, powerful or even capricious women, it is likely that Antoinette will continue to hold our attention for a long time to come.

James V. Hayes