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let them eat historical inaccuracies: in defence of marie antoinette

let them buy petrol

‘Let them buy petrol’

The line makes little, if any, sense. The corresponding image is, sadly, a bit dumb for Greens party MP Adam Bandt. As shown below, the meme features a famous portrait of a 12 year old Marie Antoinette, which has been crudely photoshopped to have Joe Hockey’s face over it. It parodies the famous line ‘Let them eat cake’. Shared around by Bandt and many supporters of the Greens, the meme quickly gained traction as Hockey tried to backpedal on his gaffe that ‘poor people don’t drive’. The meaning of the meme is clear to me: Joe Hockey and his recent statements are something akin to a dead female monarch.

OK, maybe that’s not the intended meaning. But as a fervent history nerd, I’ve spent more time than usual reading about the ill-fated and misunderstood Marie Antoinette. And this recurring image of Marie Antoinette as the ultimate in aristocratic extravagance and corruption is not just historically inaccurate, but it’s yet another example of the insidious misogyny of modern western society.

When we look to famous historical figures of excess, aristocrats and the evil ruling classes who bought trivial items while the poor starved in their streets, the image that comes up time and time again is that of a woman – from Marie Antoinette to Madame Du Pompadour; Anne Boleyn to Elizabeth Bathory. The French aristocracy of the late 1700s is probably the most popular in this trope – no matter that the French Queens held limited power and were, frankly, there for breeding stock. Marie Antoinette’s lack of power in her courts, over her family – and even over her own body – is no matter. The importance is of the image – the image of a French Queen draped in jewelry with towering hair is far more potent than that of her unassuming, chubby and infinitely more powerful husband Louis XVI.

Understanding the use of this portrait and this historical figure in order to mudsling another political party, and why it’s shockingly ignorant, means understanding the context in which Marie Antoinette lived, as well as the rumours that distorted her short life.

Marie Antoinette was born Maria Antonia, one of sixteen children born to Maria Theresa and Francis I of the Holy Roman Empire. Her mother, Maria Theresa, an expert politician, aimed for peace in Europe through marriage rather than war. She organised allies through marrying her excess children to monarchs across Europe and was responsible for years of stability.

One of her failed endeavours was France. As illness swept through the family and killed off several of her sisters, fifteen year old Antonia ended up engaged to Louis Auguste of France. Having been neglected in her education, Antonia’s mother did not seek to rectify this for her eventual duty of Queen – instead she was restyled as Marie Antoinette and was sent to Versailles, to be married to a fellow clueless teenager.

This ill preparation for her role as Queen of France followed Marie Antoinette throughout her life – her influence over her husband was limited if non-existent. She was also kept out of ministerial and political matters; her sole purpose was to bear children.

In her early years in court, Marie Antoinette endured bullying as an Austrian outsider. This led to her trademark, youthful extravagance – from clothing, hair, pampering and gambling. As historian Antonia Fraser once summarised, ‘She couldn’t have fucking so she went shopping’. It’s almost cruel that Marie Antoinette has become symbolic of the abhorrent court that she sought to escape. Her first escape was extravagance – it was in vogue, as most courtiers indulged in it in Versailles. No matter what came later in her life, Marie Antoinette became a symbol early in her reign of this extravagance, and it had remained in currency ever since.

Most, if not all, know how this ended: the revolution came and with it, the Royals were killed. Louis XVI, arguably the man who never used his power to help his people, was put to trial and executed swiftly. Marie Antoinette outlived him long enough to endure the Reign of Terror. Witness to the violent deaths of her friends, the beating of her eight year old son and a prolonged campaign that painted her as the worst of all the royals, Marie Antoinette was finally executed. After her beheading, her head was placed between her legs in a cart and driven around Paris before being dumped in a pauper’s grave.

Such extravagance.

The recent events with Joe Hockey’s gaffe do not quite mesh with this image. Not only did Marie Antoinette never say the infamous cake-related phrase (it was in fact Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his book Confessions in 1765, when Marie Antoinette was fourteen. It was misattributed to Marie Antoinette amongst French society through propaganda and rumours), but historical accounts now understand her to have been a fairly quiet and kind woman (such as in Antonia Fraser’s biography of Marie Antoinette). She was a woman who, through rumour and propaganda, became a scapegoat for every excessive and corrupt act of the French court: never mind the very real problems in the way the King and his ministers dealt with the treasury, as the pamphlets circulated in French society at the time focused on the evil Queen herself. This isn’t unlike the way contemporary women, such as Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian, are often painted, both by the media and left wing politics, as somehow the symbol of the excessive rich person (this is even discussed on a Socialist page on facebook after they engaged in this trope).

Socialist memes use Paris Hilton frequently as an image of the powerful and unjustly rich upper-class, but do not name her father, Richard Hilton, whose net worth is three times that of his daughter. And for every media outlet that uses Kim Kardashian as a symbol of excess, there are few that mention her charity work. And very few discuss the fact that the wealth and fame connected to these two women came from them being victims of what is essentially revenge porn: they are women who had intimate footage of them released without their permission, and turned a mortifying experience into a financially beneficial one, aiding in their own business ventures. Is that really a symbol of powerful wealth that crushes the masses? Or of women doing what they can to get a leg up in a society that lets men rule and earn, while vilifying women who get anywhere near them?

Why is it that we do not see images of Louis XVI, Henry VIII, Richard Hilton, Donald Trump or even Rupert Murdoch like we see that of Marie Antoinette and Paris Hilton? Why is it that we use the images of young, often vulnerable women in cruel societies to represent the actions of rich and corrupt men? Is there a reason that in our society there’s no appropriate male equivalent for the phrase “rich bitch”? This isn’t an issue in memes or internet jokes, but how people in our society view power and in relation to gender. And the misogyny that often comes from this.

Joe Hockey’s statement was abhorrent, both in his ignorance and in his blithe disregard that we have people living in such poverty. But our representatives in government need to embrace nuanced political discussion, rather than idiotic memes that reduce complex issues to a misogynistic blame game.

Marie Antoinette, despite her faults, was a womb for hire in a society that destroyed her image and then her. To continue using a young woman to illustrate the crimes of rich and powerful men is not helping the left’s cause. It may be due to the growing popularity of three word slogans and dumbed-down jokes across the Australian political landscape that is influencing this, but it still doesn’t help. It instead continues a patriarchal narrative where female corruption and extravagance is seen as morally worse than male corruption. And it ignores where the power in this situation truly lies.

Hint: it’s not with a teenage girl.

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