Why Marie Antoinette’s Reputation Changes With Each Generation

From The Smithsonian Magazine:

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 PBS.

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.”

Link to the rest at The Smithsonian Magazine