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How Marie Antoinette Went From The Most Hated Queen Of France To A Pop-Culture Icon

By Meghan Dillon··  11 min read
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How Marie Antoinette Went From The Most Hated Queen Of France To A Pop-Culture Icon

Marie Antoinette was the last Queen of France, but she’s remembered today for vicious rumors that originated in her lifetime and for her ascension from a hated monarch to a pop-culture icon.

Marie Antoinette started off as an Austrian archduchess and ended her life as the beheaded former Queen of France, but how is Marie Antoinette so famous over two centuries after her execution? From the halls of the Palace of Versailles to several Hollywood movies, she’s everywhere, and her life (and afterlife) was eventful.

Here’s how she became a pop-culture icon over the past few centuries, and why most of the rumors you’ve heard about her probably aren’t true.

Early Life and Marriage to Louis XVI

Marie Antoinette was born on November 2, 1755, in Vienna, Austria. She was the youngest daughter of Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor, and Empress Maria Theresa. She spent her childhood in Vienna, where she was educated in subjects traditionally meant for aristocratic women like religion, music, and dance. One of her tutors described her as "more intelligent than has been generally supposed," but she was also “rather lazy and extremely frivolous, she is hard to teach."

marie antoinette young
Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria by Joseph Ducreux, 1769. Via Wikimedia Commons

In 1770, 14-year-old Marie left Vienna for France to marry 15-year-old Louis-Auguste, heir to the French throne. Upon her arrival at Versailles, Marie was forced to give up her Austrian way of life to embrace her new life as a French aristocrat, which led to intense homesickness that made it difficult to adjust to life at Versailles. The two wed on May 16, 1770, and like most royal marriages, hers was one of political convenience rather than love, as the marriage symbolized an alliance between France and Austria after the Seven Years’ War ended in 1763. 

As if marrying a complete stranger wasn’t stressful enough, Marie and Louis couldn’t have been more different. Marie was an extrovert who liked to socialize with fellow courtiers, while Louis kept to himself. They lived a quiet life for the first few years of marriage, but everything changed when King Louis XV died in 1774. Louis was crowned King Louis XVI of France on May 10, 1774, and Marie was crowned Marie Antoinette, Queen of France.

Louise Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun - Marie-Antoinette de Lorraine-Habsbourg, reine de France et ses enfants - Google Art Project
Marie-Antoinette de Lorraine-Habsbourg, Queen of France, and her children by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1787. Via Wikimedia Commons

Though Louis and Marie Antoinette weren’t madly in love, Marie doted on her four children: Marie Therese, Louis Joseph, Louis Charles, and Sophie. Louis Joseph and Sophie both died of tuberculosis as children (Louis Joseph was 7 and Sophie was only 11 months old) before the French Revolution broke out, leaving both Antoinette and Louis heartbroken.

While the royal family lived a lavish life at Versailles, and the queen indulged in the most extravagant fashions of her day, the French people were struggling. Due to her extravagant lifestyle and Austrian birth, Marie Antoinette was seen as a scapegoat for everything wrong with the nobility. The hatred of her was especially prominent in Parisian peasant women, as evidenced by the thousands of women who marched from Paris to Versailles shortly after the Revolution began in 1789.

Buste Marie-Antoinette
Via Wikimedia Commons.

Louis XVI was beheaded by a guillotine on January 21, 1793, forcing Marie Antoinette and her remaining two children to wait to learn their fate in prison. After several months of torture, Louis Charles, age 8, confessed to experiencing sexual abuse at the hands of his mother, sealing her fate to die at the guillotine. Marie Antoinette was beheaded on October 16, 1793, in Paris, at age 37.

From Beheaded Queen to Pop-Culture Queen 

Though Marie Antoinette was one of the most privileged women of her time, it’s hard to deny that she lived a tragic life and was falsely blamed for things she had no control over, like the flaws in the French economy. Popular culture has transformed Marie Antoinette from a hated queen to a beloved icon through film, the most popular films being the 1938 biopic starring Norma Shearer and the iconic 2006 Sofia Coppola film starring Kirsten Dunst.

Though neither film is historically accurate (more on that later), one thing they both get right is that Marie Antoinette was forced to leave her home as a young teenager and marry a man she didn’t know. Despite the idea of becoming the Queen of France being both romantic and exciting, it didn’t solve the problems she had in her marriage or make her miss her family in Austria any less. Her devotion to her family is at the heart of her struggle, and family is a universal theme. Anyone around the world can relate to being homesick and missing their family, making her struggle both sympathetic and relatable.

History is fascinating for many reasons, but it’s truly fascinating how the perception of historical figures changes with time. Through popular media, historical figures evolve as culture changes. It’s hard to view Marie Antoinette as a villain in the 21st century because enough time has passed since her death for people to realize that she was treated unfairly. This same phenomenon happens with modern celebrities, as the age of social media has made the public realize how cruel the paparazzi were to Britney Spears in the 2000s.

Marie Antoinette’s transformation into a pop-culture icon is celebrated everywhere. In 2019, the exhibit Marie Antoinette: Metamorphosis of an Image was held at the Concierge in Paris. Now a museum, the Concierge was the prison where she spent the final weeks of her life before her execution. (Click here for a brief look into the exhibit.)

From historical documents to modern pop-culture depictions, the exhibit explored how the story of Marie Antoinette has changed over the years. With her well-known transformation from one of the most hated women in the world to a pop-culture icon, one can’t help but wonder what she was really like.

Fact vs. Fiction: What Was Marie Antionette Really Like?

Hollywood isn’t famous for being historically accurate, so most of what we see of Marie Antoinette on screen isn’t entirely accurate. Luckily for us, there is plenty of historical evidence to separate fact from fiction.

Did her lavish spending habits bankrupt France?

Marie Antoinette was so infamous for her lavish spending habits that she was nicknamed “Madame Deficit” by the French people. Who could possibly forget the iconic shopping montage in the 2006 Sofia Coppola film?

Marie Antoinette indeed had expensive taste, but that was the norm for women at Versailles. Though the French people blamed her for the country’s economic problems, her spending habits didn’t make much of a difference in the fall of the French economy because it was in a bad place when she and Louis ascended the throne. For example, the taxation system in place was both clunky and unfair, with most of the wealthy not paying any taxes and some regions paying specific taxes that others didn’t (like a salt tax). Bad harvests in 1788 and 1789 also raised the price of bread dramatically and dropped wages. So, though Marie Antionette was known for her lavish beauty routine and for never wearing the same dress twice, it’s not accurate to say she single-handedly bankrupted France.

Was Marie Antionette promiscuous? 

Several rumors about Marie Antoinette’s sexuality were spread in her lifetime, from her rumored love affair with Madame de Polignac to affairs with married men. 

But in fact, she was neither a sexual deviant nor an adulteress – to her, extramarital sex was anathema, as her associates were aware. Her elder brother Joseph wrote to another brother, Leopold, “Her virtue is intact, she is even austere by nature rather than by reason.”

Even more telling are the extensive comments made by one of her friends, the Prince de Ligne, an Austrian courtier who spent much time at Versailles, and defended her as a woman of integrity and prudence. Discussing how the political factions in the French court labelled her every action as insidious and/or immoral, he noted: “She is sensible of the friendship of certain persons who are the most devoted to her; then she is declared to be ‘amorous’ of them. Sometimes she requires too much for their families; then she is ‘unreasonable.’...Her promenades in the evening on the terrace, or on horseback in the Bois de Boulogne, or sometimes on foot round the music in the Orangery ‘seem suspicious.’ Her most innocent pleasures are thought criminal; her general loving-kindness is ‘coquettish.’” 

The Prince de Ligne goes on to describe Marie Antionette’s modesty: “No one ever dared to risk too free a speech in her presence, nor too gay a tale, nor a coarse insinuation. She had taste and judgment; and as for the three Graces, she united them all in herself alone.”

But what about her marriage to Louis? From all accounts, it was a classic friends-to-lovers scenario.

The couple met as two teenagers, total strangers to one another; she was eager to please him as a wife, knowing that her sole duty was to solidify their respective countries’ alliance by giving the French throne an heir. Louis was initially wary, having seen the power women could wield over men, in the case of his grandfather, Louis XV, who was besotted with two mistresses, first Madame du Pompadour from 1745-1764, and later Madame du Barry from 1768-1774. Plus, his three aunts and his tutor constantly issued verbal warnings against letting his bride wrest control from him in any way – those influences, coupled with his naturally shy nature, made it extremely difficult for the pair to break the ice. In time, though, they began to like each other, and love soon followed.

Three years into their marriage, they were discussing his younger brother the Count d’Artois’ imminent wedding, specifically their shared concern that the new bride might become pregnant before Antoinette. Kissing her, Louis asked, “But do you love me?” She answered, “Yes, you cannot doubt it, I love you sincerely and respect you even more.”

They finally fully consummated their marriage in 1777. On the morning of August 19 at 10 a.m., Louis visited her after she’d just finished bathing, and they spent an hour and 15 minutes together. They formed a routine of morning marital trysts, and a few weeks afterwards, she wrote to her mother, “I am in the most essential happiness of my entire life.” 

In October 1789, a few weeks into the Revolution, when Augeat, the Secretary of her Commandant, suggested a plan for her to escape with her children, she declared her intention to remain, telling him, “All reflection is over; I shall not depart; my duty is to die at the feet of the King.” Their marriage was only broken by death. Her daughter Marie-Thérèse later recalled the effects of her grief: “Nothing was able to calm the anguish of my mother – we could make no hope of any sort enter her heart; she was indifferent whether she lived or died.”

To suppose that this marriage was marred by infidelity is to cruelly besmirch Antoinette yet again – such suggestions are no better than the pamphlets which vilified her during her life. Rather than assuming the worst, let’s remember her as her nearest and dearest did: a woman of faithfulness, discretion, and virtue.

Is the “let them eat cake” story true?

The most popular myth about Antoinette is that she was careless enough to say “let them eat cake” when she heard that the French people couldn’t afford bread. The original quote can be traced back to Maria Theresa of Spain, the second wife of King Louis XIV, who died nearly a century before Antoinette was born.

let them eat cake marie antionette

The “let them eat cake” story feeds the narrative that Marie Antoinette was callous and cold-hearted, which is another myth about her that can be debunked easily. Marie Antoinette regularly donated to charity, established a philanthropic organization, and opened a shelter for single mothers. Her brother, Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor, called her "honest and lovable," which shatters the myth that she was cruel. In short, rumors of her cruelty likely came from her enemies who wanted to see her fall, and they succeeded.

Closing Thoughts

Pop-culture has the power to transform the image of a historical figure, and nobody’s image has changed quite like Marie Antoinette’s. In 200 years, her image has transformed from a hated queen into a woman who was a victim of circumstance. 

Article updated 1/25/2022.

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