I did not know who Louise Linton was until people started comparing her to Marie Antoinette, which is probably one of the main reasons that the comparison works so poorly. You’d think that, in order to make a historic queen-of-France comparison, you should at least hypothetically be as famous as a queen of France.
For clarity, Louise Linton is a former actress and the wife of Steve Mnuchin. Steve Mnuchin is the current treasury secretary of the United States. Linton recently received a lot of heat after Instagramming a photograph of herself leaving an Air Force jet, dressed all in white. The caption tagged every designer she was sporting: #hermes #tomford #valentinorockstudheels. There’s only one word for the post and it’s a word that is gradually coming back into use again since the Trump administration became filled with ex-CEOs: it was tacky.
Tagging designers, whoever you are, is tacky. Tagging them using hashtags, which is an inappropriate way to tag them – there’s a tagging function right there, Louise! – is also tacky. Tagging designers when you are leaving a jet – a jet that was paid for by the tax dollars of the American people – is majorly fucking tacky.
It quickly got grosser, when Instagram user and non-tacky person @Emily.e.dickey commented that the post was distasteful. And, well, Louise kind of went off on one.
Yeah, no. No, Louise. Just… just no.
Louise Linton has since apologised profusely for acting gross, but the Marie Antoinette comparisons continue to roll in. Vanity Fair proclaimed she went “full Marie Antoinette”. The Washington Post called it her “Let them eat cake” moment.
This is neither the first nor the last time we’ve heard a rich, famous and beautiful woman be compared to the ultimate cautionary tale of what it is to be too publicly rich, famous and beautiful. Melania Trump’s heels-at-Houston moment garnered similar press. Tragically, Kanye West proudly called his own wife “our modern day Marie Antoinette” mere months before she was assaulted and robbed in Paris. This, too, was seen as a Marie Antoinette fate – for Kim Kardashian, like Antoinette, was depicted by the press as being instrumental in her own robbery, for being too ostentatious about her wealth on Instagram. There are frequently comparisons drawn between Antoinette and Lady Diana, which is perhaps an even more uncomfortable discussion when you consider their biggest similarity is that they were both killed in Paris, both victims of the public’s fascination with them.
(“Honestly,” says Melanie Clegg, one of Antoinette’s biographers. “You could write a whole book on terrible things that happen to women in Paris.”)
My question: why do we go to Marie Antoinette so quickly? The pub-quiz version of events goes like this: Marie Antoinette was a spoilt Austrian princess who spent an astronomical amount of money on dresses and shoes. She alienated the public and enraged them with her laissez-faire attitude to the poor, thus becoming a living symbol for the wastefulness of the rich. The people had enough, then murdered her. Vive la France.
The Romanovs were executed for similar reasons, yet we’re more inclined to be sympathetic to them, possibly because the Anastasia myth is so tantalising. King Louis XV’s mistress, Madame du Barry – also executed – is almost never referred to. In fact, the idea that Marie Antoinette’s notorious spending is the thing that got her into trouble is largely a fabricated one. Speaking to Melanie Clegg, author of Marie Antoinette: An Intimate History, it becomes clear that the queen’s spending, in relation to her predecessors, was fairly ordinary.
When we tell women that they are pulling a Marie Antoinette, we phrase it like a caution, but we mean it as a threat
“It’s implied that Marie Antoinette was this horrible person who was terrible to poor people and caused the French Revolution by wild overspending. She overspent her budget, but she wasn’t actually given that much money to start off with, not compared with the mistresses of Louis XV – Madame du Pompadour and Madame du Barry; they spent vast fortunes on jewels, dresses, houses, chateaux. And when Marie Antoinette was told she had to economise, she did. She started re-wearing old outfits – and like the Duchess of Cambridge, whenever she re-wears something, there was an attitude of ‘Why don’t you have something new on? You can afford it.’ So she could never win.”
Even after the Revolution, Empress Joséphine still outspent Marie Antoinette – so the idea that her spending was particularly outlandish (I mean, relevant to 18th-century royalty, that is) is a fictional one.
Greg Jenner, author of A Million Years In A Day, is currently writing a book about the history of celebrity, so the unfortunate queen is always front of mind. The problem, according to Jenner, was not that she overspent, but that she was one of the first royals who strayed into the world of celebrity.
“Actresses were starting to play queens on stage and, at the very same time, the queen was behaving like an actress. She commissioned a portrait of herself wearing what is essentially a slip, with absolutely no allusions to the king or the royal family. And by straying into celebrity territory, she delegitimised the royalty that made her untouchable. Celebrities are, by their very nature, fallible. They rise; they fall. They’re shared raw materials we use to bond with one another. They’re human piñatas.”
Misogynist cartoons and salacious rumour about the queen were rife. Rumours that she masturbated furiously for hours a day, that she was a lesbian, that she had sex with virtually every man she met, became commonplace. And with every new piece of bad press, the royal family became a little less immovable. She became a joke and then she became the enemy.
The reality of Marie Antoinette is that she was a young Austrian girl in a court that was famously rigid, and did everything she could – and here’s where the Lady Diana comparisons become relevant again – to escape that rigidity. She was sold as a brooding mare and a peacemaking chip between Austria and France, and the sadness of that rippled through her. Even her kindest biographers admit that she wasn't very smart – her escape to Paris after the Revolution ended up with her getting lost – but she wasn’t an unfeeling toad, either. She was charitable and, according to Clegg, “had a soft heart for anyone with a sad story”.
When we tell women that they are pulling a Marie Antoinette, we phrase it like a caution, but we mean it as a threat. We are not talking about the joys of her life, or the struggles of her existence – we are talking about how spending too much and living too much as a woman are transgressions that are punishable by death. It’s a rap on the knuckles, a Grimm’s fairytale we tell to girls and then keep telling to grown women. And that, perhaps, is why Marie Antoinette works so well. Her powdered hair, her opulent gowns, her excessively cartoon-able image, make it seem that she was born a cautionary tale and was never really a human at all.