“By the end of the century, not only were the rumors about Marie Antoinette’s homosexuality still alive, she had become for certain of her female admirers a kind of secret heroine—an underground symbol of passionate love between women” (Castle 126).
These pamphlets served as a manifestation of public sentiment toward the queen, very similar to how popular culture representations work today. The pamphlets over-exaggerated the queen’s characteristics in a very negative way. While our representations of her today tend to be more positive, the same trend of exaggerating some of her characteristics for a certain purpose exists now. For example, Marie Antoinette has been used in modern times as a symbol of lesbian love, although those allegations have never been proven one way or another.
The most consistent people the queen was accused of having homosexual relations with were the Princesse de Lamballe and the Comtesse de Polignac. While Louis XV was still reigning, Marie Antoinette met and became good friends with Marie Therese de Savoie-Carignan, the Princesse de Lamballe (Lever 78).
Later, in the summer of 1775 at Fontainebleu, she met the Comtesse Jules de Polignac, who she saw as a “friend after her own heart” (Lever 84). After returning to Court, Marie Antoinette treated her new friend as a favorite and showered her in gifts and favors (Lever 85).
Her treatment of the comtesse did not go unnoticed by the court, and soon became public knowledge as the pamphleteers heard of it and exaggerated their relationship in print. Although the pamphlets also accused her of having affairs with several men at court, including the king’s brother the Comte d’Artois, the accusation of lesbianism was probably the most damaging to her reputation (Castle 128).
The allegations about her relationship with the Princesse de Lamballe likely contributed to Lamballe’s horrible death. A mob murdered the Princesse de Lamballe during the September Massacres of 1792 and carried her head on a pike, demanding that the queen “kiss the lips of her intimate” (Castle 131). The pamphlet’s audience clearly believed the rumors about the queen to be true.
While antiroyalists portrayed her female friendships as lesbian love affairs, her supporters tried to emphasize the platonic nature of these relationships (Castle 126). This, though, only served to keep her sexuality open for public discussion and kept it an issue that retained a lot of public attention (Castle 126). Even after her death, debates about the queen’s sexuality remained.
Generally, all the stories and biographies printed about Marie Antoinette in the nineteenth century paint her relationship with her female companions as a “sisterly” friendship to affirm Marie Antoinette’s “sexual purity” (Castle 133-134).
“Though ostensibly concerned with laying the rumor of her homosexuality to rest, Marie Antoinette’s late nineteenth-biographers found themselves…ineluctably haunted by it, unable to let it go—unable to keep themselves from embellishing obsessively and ambiguously upon it. By idealizing Marie Antoinette’s friendships with women, they sought, obviously, to exorcize the specter of her putative lesbianism once and for all. Yet precisely by dilating so ardently on the exalted nature of her same-sex friendships, they succeeded in transforming her into a symbol of homoerotic romance. In the very act if supposedly “delesbianizing” Marie Antoinette they made her over—paradoxically—into a subject for cryptolesbian reverie” (Castle 139).
In summary, nineteenth-century biographers tried so hard to suppress the rumors of her homosexuality and spent so much effort trying to prove them incorrect that they only managed to keep Marie Antoinette’s sexuality a charged topic and continual subject of debate.
Twentieth-century biographers seem to take a similar stance in trying to defend the queen’s character by explaining or denying the rumors of her homosexuality. For example, Stefan Zweig, in his biography of Marie Antoinette from 1933 (Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman), asserts that she did have lesbian relationships with the Princesse de Lamballe and the Comtesse de Polignac, but only “by default,” due to the “impotence” of Louis XVI (Castle 127). Once the couple finally consummated their marriage, though, Zweig notes that she “turned her sexual interests back in a more conventional direction” (Castle 127). Other biographers, like Dorothy Moulton Mayer and Joan Haslip, who wrote biographies in 1968 and 1987, respectively, denied all the rumors of the queen’s homosexual relations (Castle 127).
While writers in the past have denied any lesbian relations the queen was rumored to have, modern lesbian writers have argued the truth of this and emphasized her homosexuality (Castle 141). Possibly the first modern writer to reference Marie Antoinette’s homosexuality was Rose Laure Allatini in Despised and Rejected from 1918 (Castle 141). The heroine, who is forced to recognize her homosexual feelings, is named Antoinette, and the book opens with some guests in a hotel, including Antoinette, in a performance about the French Revolution (Castle 141). Antoinette refuses the part of Marie Antoinette in the performance, although it was written for her, but “Antoinette cannot escape… from her fateful name— or from the powerful homoerotic emotion with which it is so obviously associated” (Castle 142). This reference in the beginning of the book serves as a hint to the reader of Antoinette’s emerging homosexuality (Castle 142). A more popular example is Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness from 1928. In addition to the references to Marie Antoinette throughout the book, including a visit to her Petit Trianon, on the cover of the novel, two women are wearing 18th century clothing and one wears a necklace with an image of the queen (Castle 144-147).
Modern popular culture has even more widely embraced Marie Antoinette as a symbol of lesbianism. For examples, Madonna embraces the idea of Marie Antoinette as a lesbian icon in her performance of “Vogue” at the 1990 MTV music awards. In the performance, she draws this connection between Marie Antoinette and homosexuality by dressing up herself as Marie Antoinette and the stage like an eigteenth century room at Versailles, and performing her song “Vogue.”
The dance style of “voguing” that she performs originated in the Harlem ballroom scene in the 1960s and was mainly practiced by African Americans. It consisted of striking model-like, angular poses. Now, the dance style is associated with the gay ballroom scene in major US cities, like New York. Madonna popularized this style of dance in her music video for “Vogue” and includes African American male dancers that make the reference more apparent. It is also a very sexual performance where Madonna lifts her skirt for the dancers to look under and at one point pushes two of the dancers’ faces into her breasts. The fact that she used Marie Antoinette and eighteenth century Versailles as the setting of her performance implies that the link between Marie Antoinette, sexual liberation, and homosexuality was already present and well-established.
The novel Abundance by Sera Jeter Naslund seems to teeter between hints of lesbianism and affirmations of “sisterly” love between Marie Antoinette and her friends. For example, in the scene where Marie Antoinette meets the Princesse de Lamballe, Marie Antoinette is at first stunned by her beauty:
“And suddenly, she smiles at me. The sun has come out from behind the cloud, and I am enchanted by the beauty of her wide-spaced blue eyes, and the steadiness of her gaze” (Naslund 100).
But then she seems to claim the princesse as her sister in the next paragraph:
“She continues to smile at me and clutches my hand in return, and I think of Charlotte, my sister, and how when we were girls at Schonbrunn, we would gaze into each other’s eyes and hold the gaze, till the exact thought passed from one mind to the other, without a single word spoken. So it is now, and my heart fills itself and sighs with happiness, for I have found a friend” (Naslund 101)
The novel never directly states whether or not Naslund’s Marie Antoinette had sexual relations with her female friends, and leaves it up to the reader’s interpretation.
Two popular American films about her life from 1938 and 2006 both completely ignore the issue of Marie Antoinette’s homosexuality and only mention the pamphlets in passing. But, in the French film, Farewell, My Queen, Marie Antoinette’s love for the Comtesse de Polignac is a main focus of the film. Even the cover of the DVD is a picture of Marie Antoinette and the Comtesse de Polignac in an intimate embrace, signaling the relationship’s centrality to the film. Any time the queen is in distress, she will only see the Comtesse de Polignac and embraces her like a lover. The queen also asks Sidonie, a young girl who reads to her, “have you ever been attracted by a woman? To the point that you suffer in her absence?” She is referring to her feelings for the Comtesse, which show themselves clearly when the queen is devastated by the Comtesse de Polignac’s departure from Versailles after the Revolution starts.
Modern popular culture has embraced Marie Antoinette’s supposed homosexuality and her role as a lesbian icon. Terry Castle in The Apparitional Lesbian labels this occurrence as “Marie Antoinette obsession,” defined as “her overt or covert celebration as homoerotic icon” (Castle 107, 148). Castle claims it stemmed out of the nineteenth century failed attempt to suppress rumors of Marie Antoinette’s homosexuality, and instead caused the link between her and lesbian identity to solidify. In most cases, this link is seen positively, and Marie Antoinette has become an icon for lesbian women to look to, which is a complete contrast from depictions of her homosexuality during her lifetime. But even though we see her sexuality in a more positive way today, popular culture still exaggerates and embellishes her characteristics to fit with modern values. So, the resulting image of Marie Antoinette is probably no truer than the image of her in the over-exaggerated pamphlets of her lifetime.