A new television series portrays the French queen as a feminist, drawing criticism from historians
Associate Editor, History
Approximately 230 years after Marie Antoinette’s execution by guillotine at the hands of revolutionaries, the French queen remains one of history’s most recognizable royals. Depicted alternatively as a materialistic, self-absorbed young woman who ignored her people’s suffering; a more benign figure who was simply out of her depth; and a feminist scapegoat for men’s mistakes, she continues to captivate in large part because of her tragic fate.
“[Marie Antoinette] has no official power. She’s just the wife of the king of France, and yet she’s put to death,” says Catriona Seth, a historian and literary scholar at the University of Oxford. “It seems like an almost gratuitous action on the part of the revolutionaries. … [If] they had sent her back to Austria or put her in a convent,” she would be far less famous.
Marie Antoinette’s exploits at the glittering court of Versailles, coupled with her dramatic fall from grace during the French Revolution, have inspired numerous silver screen adaptations, from a 1938 film starring Norma Shearer to Sofia Coppola’s sympathetic 2006 biopic. But “Marie Antoinette,” a new series premiering in the United States on March 19, is the first major English-language television show to tell the queen’s story. Much like Marie Antoinette herself, it’s proving controversial, with biographer Évelyne Lever deeming the production a “grotesque caricature” and a “litany of historic aberrations.”
Here’s what you need to know ahead of the series’ debut on all PBS platforms, including PBS Masterpiece Prime Video.Is “Marie Antoinette” based on a true story?
Yes, but with extensive dramatic license. Created by British screenwriter Deborah Davis, who co-wrote the 2018 period drama The Favourite, “Marie Antoinette” originally premiered in Europe in 2022. Featuring Emilia Schüle as the queen and Louis Cunningham as her hapless husband, Louis XVI, the show’s first season (one of three planned installments) covers roughly 1770 to 1781, beginning with Marie Antoinette’s journey to France and ending with the birth of her first son. In between these milestones, she struggles to win the affection of both her husband and her subjects, all while navigating the competing interests of her birth kingdom of Austria and her new home.
In keeping with the recent period drama trend of presenting historical figures and settings through a thoroughly modern lens (see “Bridgerton,” “The Great” and “The Serpent Queen”), “Marie Antoinette” offers a feminist take on the queen’s life. As Schüle told Variety last October, Marie Antoinette was a “rebel” who was “modern, emancipated, and fought for equality and for her personal freedom.”
In truth, says Melanie Clegg, author of Marie Antoinette: An Intimate History, the queen “absolutely wouldn’t have regarded herself” as a feminist, despite the fact that “she came from a place where a woman”—her mother, the Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa—“was in charge.” Seth calls the label “anachronistic” and points out that it “doesn’t correspond to [Marie Antoinette’s] way of viewing things at all.”
The historian continues, “People have a tendency to try and make Marie Antoinette seem less complex than she actually was,” ignoring the changes in character she underwent over the course of her reign.
“Marie Antoinette” has sparked intense criticism in France, even leading Le Figaro to suggest that British and American filmmakers “should be banned from Versailles.” By portraying the queen as a “sort of militant feminist before her time” and including “an avalanche of scenes that are often vulgar, totally out of context and sometimes plain obscene,” the show insults her memory, the French newspaper argued. Lever, author of a 2000 biography of Marie Antoinette, told the publication that “as a historian, I am embarrassed that viewers believe that this series accurately reflects the times.”What events does “Marie Antoinette” dramatize?
One of 16 children born to Maria Theresa, a Habsburg empress whose domain spanned modern-day Austria, Hungary, Italy and Croatia, Marie Antoinette was raised in Vienna. As a child, she crossed paths with a young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, struggled with her academic studies, and excelled at dancing and music. Then known as Archduchess Maria Antonia, she was betrothed to the French dauphin, the future Louis XVI, to cement an alliance between their two countries. Wed to the 15-year-old Louis by proxy in April 1770, the 14-year-old Marie Antoinette arrived in France the following month.
“She was at once welcomed and made to feel unwelcome, since her husband wasn’t particularly excited about having a young wife,” says Seth, “[and] Austria was still considered by a number of people at court to be an enemy nation.”
Marie Antoinette found herself at the center of a decadent, lascivious court presided over by the dauphin’s paternal grandfather, Louis XV, and his mistress Madame du Barry. Given the comparatively “prudish nature of her … upbringing,” in the words of biographer Antonia Fraser, she was in many ways ill prepared for life in France, failing to immediately grasp the nature of du Barry’s role at Versailles, where the chief royal mistress was a formal title. Told that the sex worker-turned-mistress was there to pleasure the king, Fraser writes, Marie Antoinette cheerfully replied, “Oh, then I shall be her rival, because I too wish to give pleasure to the king.”
The new dauphine’s main duty was to give birth to a male heir who would continue the Bourbon dynasty’s centuries-long reign. Maria Theresa had advised her daughter to “submit to [her] husband and produce children as soon as possible,” says Clegg, but this proved impossible, as young Louis was wholly uninterested in sex. Ultimately, it would take seven years for the couple to consummate their marriage. (Possible explanations for the delay include a condition called phimosis that would’ve made intercourse painful for Louis, the pair’s young age at the time of their wedding and Louis’ low sex drive.)
Marie Antoinette went to France “knowing and believing that the main focus of her life was to be a good wife and a mother,” Clegg explains. “She felt like she was failing in both [areas], so she floundered for a really long time.”
Unable to fulfill the role she’d been prepared for her whole life, Marie Antoinette sought distraction in the form of fashion, lavish balls and gambling. She chose her friends based on how much she enjoyed their company rather than their station in society, and she bristled at the court’s strict etiquette, repeatedly clashing with du Barry.
“The queen of France was always a foreign queen,” says Clegg, “and there was a general assumption that she would be quite docile. … The king would always have a French-born mistress who would lead the court, who would set the fashions, who would go to all the parties [and] who was assumed to have French interests very much at heart.”
Marie Antoinette’s rivalry with du Barry came to a close in May 1774, when Louis XV died at age 64. The king’s eldest son had died a decade prior, so it fell to his 19-year-old grandson, who took the throne as Louis XVI, to promptly banish du Barry from court. The new monarch had more pressing matters at hand than the fate of a former mistress: According to the memoirs of one of Marie Antoinette’s ladies-in-waiting, Madame Campan, he and his wife “threw themselves on their knees” upon learning of Louis XV’s death, “pouring forth a flood of tears [as they] exclaimed, ‘Oh God, guide us, protect us; we are too young to reign.’”What happened during Marie Antoinette’s reign?
Louis and Marie Antoinette inherited a kingdom on the brink of disaster. France was deeply in debt, and long-brewing tensions between different social classes were about to come to a head. Both royals believed in an absolute monarchy, but neither had the decisive, forceful personality needed to make such a system work. Adding to these troubles was the Flour War, a series of riots that took place in spring 1775 in response to rising bread prices and poor grain harvests.
Though Marie Antoinette was later purported to have said “Let them eat cake” when told of the starving peasantry’s plight (a falsehood convincingly debunked by Fraser and other historians), her correspondence suggests she was sensitive to her subjects’ suffering. After Louis’ coronation in June 1775, the queen wrote a heartfelt letter to her mother, saying, “It is quite certain that in seeing the people who treat us so well despite their own misfortune, we are more obliged than ever to work hard for their happiness.” Still, she had limited political influence, and it was her own position at court, rather than the well-being of the citizenry, that served as her main priority.
Five years in, Marie Antoinette’s marriage remained unconsummated. Both disappointed by and defensive of this state of affairs, the queen increasingly retreated into her own world, transforming the Petit Trianon, a chateau on the grounds of Versailles, into a private haven for herself and her favorites. During these escapes from court, she and her friends often dressed up as shepherdesses and pretended to be peasants—actions interpreted by some of her contemporaries as mocking the lower classes.
“She’s not always aware of the consequences of what she does and says, and sometimes what she did was open to misinterpretation,” says Seth. People saw Marie Antoinette’s time at Trianon “as a refusal to play the part of queen,” Seth adds, “[of] evidence of her having a secret life or an aspiration to have a parallel existence.”
In actuality, writes Fraser in Marie Antoinette: The Journey, “The whole point of [Trianon’s] interior was its exquisite simplicity. This desire for simplicity and retreat was in fact the key to the whole enterprise—that and the desire to have something personal to her.”
It was during these early years of Marie Antoinette’s reign that there began to be “something desperate about her enjoyment of pleasures,” according to Fraser. “The levity, the lightness of spirit, the volatility … with which [she] is so much associated in the popular mind … can be traced back to this period, when disappointment in her marriage began to be masked by enjoyment of her position.”
The long-awaited consummation only took place in August 1777, after an intervention by the queen’s oldest brother, Joseph II of Austria. Worried by reports of his sister’s extravagant spending and marital troubles, the emperor traveled to France, where he made a frank assessment of the situation, likening his brother-in-law to a recalcitrant donkey.
Joseph declared his sister and her husband “complete blunderers” and ordered the pair to fulfill their duty, offering advice that culminated in a successful coupling just before Louis’ 23rd birthday. “I am in the most essential happiness of my entire life,” Marie Antoinette wrote to her mother. “It has already been more than eight days since my marriage was perfectly consummated; the proof has been repeated and yesterday even more completely than the first time.”
The queen gave birth to her first child, Marie Thérèse Charlotte, in December 1778. Though not the son and heir Marie Antoinette had hoped for, the infant enchanted her mother, who reportedly said, “A son would have been the property of the state. You shall be mine; you shall have my undivided care; you will share all my happinesses and you will alleviate my sufferings.”
If Marie Antoinette thought motherhood would stop the scurrilous gossip that had followed her since her arrival in France, she was sorely mistaken. Pamphlets known as libelles accused the queen of seeking sexual gratification outside of her marriage, with everyone from her brother-in-law to her female favorites to her servants. These pornographic caricatures sowed the seeds for Marie Antoinette “to be criticized throughout her life and be accused … of betraying the king,” says Seth. “Implicitly, if she’s betraying the king, [she’s] betraying France.”
Much of the vitriol directed at the queen stemmed from her purported sexual appetite; her perceived allegiance to Austria over France (critics dubbed her “l’Autrichienne,” or “the Austrian bitch”); and her dual status at French court. Both Louis XIV and Louis XV had official mistresses who served as the court’s dominant female presence, holding more sway over political matters than the kings’ actual wives. But Louis XVI never took a lover, meaning his wife effectively had to occupy the roles of both queen and mistress. More visible—and naturally flamboyant—than her predecessors, Marie Antoinette attracted criticism that would normally have been reserved for the royal mistress.
Between 1781 and 1786, the queen gave birth to three more children: two sons, both named Louis, and a daughter, Sophie Hélène Béatrix. During these pregnancies, propagandists questioned the paternity of the royal children, identifying a rotating cast of courtiers—among them the Swedish Count Axel von Fersen—as their real fathers. (Of Marie Antoinette’s rumored lovers, it was Fersen she cared for most; according to Fraser, he was the only man she likely slept with outside of her marriage.)
Instead of taking the libelles seriously, the queen simply laughed them off. “She didn’t realize that people were actually reading these things and believing them,” Clegg says. “They were having a really profound [negative] effect on her reputation throughout France and beyond.”What happened after the events depicted in “Marie Antoinette”?
The first season of “Marie Antoinette” ends with the birth of the dauphin, Louis Joseph Xavier François, in 1781, eight years before the beginning of the French Revolution. Disapproval of the queen’s lavish lifestyle—coupled with an “avalanche of defamation” leveled at her between 1789 and 1793, in the words of historian Robert Darnton—helped spark the unrest, but Marie Antoinette wasn’t solely to blame for the conflict. Her husband’s indecision on key issues, new democratic ideals linked to the Enlightenment, inequitable taxation, poor harvests and countless other factors contributed to the crisis, which started with the convening of the Estates General, an assembly of France’s three social classes, in May 1789. Revolutionaries stormed the Bastille fortress and prison on July 14 and imprisoned the royal family in the Tuileries Palace that October.
While under house arrest in Paris, Marie Antoinette assumed a more active role in her family, in part out of necessity. The king had fallen into a state of depression following the 7-year-old dauphin’s death in June 1789, and he found himself “trapped between what he wanted to do and what he had to do,” such as agreeing to a new French Constitution that stripped him of much of his power, says Seth. Marie Antoinette was the one who held “discussions, set up networks and [exchanged secret] political correspondences” with supporters. Working with Fersen and other royalists, she hatched a plan to spirit her family to safety in Austria. But the June 1791 escape attempt failed, greatly damaging the royals’ reputation and casting doubt that Louis could ever be content as a constitutional rather than absolute monarch.
On September 21, 1792, the Legislative Assembly officially abolished the monarchy and established the First Republic. The revolutionaries tried Louis for treason and executed him by guillotine the following January. Nine months later, Marie Antoinette followed him to the scaffold, transported in an open cart through crowds eager for the death of the “Austrian she-wolf,” a “monster who needed to slake her thirst on the blood of the French,” as the libelles described her. Her last words were an apology to the executioner for stepping on his foot: “I did not do it on purpose.”What is Marie Antoinette’s legacy?
Marie Antoinette’s legacy varies depending on whom one asks. In his autobiography, Thomas Jefferson claimed that “had there been no queen, there would have been no revolution.” Stefan Zweig, in his 1932 biography of Marie Antoinette, argued that she was “neither fire nor ice,” but rather “the average woman of yesterday, today and tomorrow.” Fraser, whose highly sympathetic biography served as the source material for Coppola’s 2006 film, told NPR that “married to another man, a man of more guts and strength, she might have made a great queen.”
Seth says Marie Antoinette’s most enduring legacies are her strong visual identity and influence on French music. Though the queen “may have judged things wrong,” Seth believes she set out to “improve the lot of the French and the state of the French nation as she saw it.”
Clegg is more critical in her assessment of Marie Antoinette, saying, “She acted with agency,” particularly toward the end of her life, “but she didn’t actually achieve very much.”
Seth argues that the queen’s tragic death cemented her legacy. Paraphrasing a warning posed by writer Germaine de Staël ahead of Marie Antoinette’s execution, the historian says, “If you execute [Marie Antoinette], you will consecrate her. You will turn her into this martyr figure, and, in a sense, you will give her a power she doesn’t have. And that’s exactly what happened.”
Ultimately, Marie Antoinette is best understood as a cipher whose life has been continually reinterpreted—and weaponized—to fit a specific agenda, whether it be the royalist cause in 19th-century France or contemporary feminism.
The queen, biographer Lever told Le Figaro, “is a woman-mirror who reflects the fantasies of each period, from her times to today.”