“An Inner Revolution Of The Japanese Women”: The Rose of Versailles as feminist historical fiction

By: Mehitabel Glenhaber September 1, 20230 Comments
Oscar urging a batallion of troops onward to the Bastille

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Ikeda Riyoko’s The Rose of Versailles is one of the most influential shoujo manga of all time. The 18 volume historical fiction retells the story of the French Revolution through the eyes of a number of female protagonists, including Marie Antoinette and the fictionalized character, Lady Oscar. Many shoujo manga historians consider it to be a foundational text in the medium and Ikeda is often credited for popularizing  the sumptuous linework and stylistic expressions which shoujo manga is best known for today.  

Unfortunately, shoujo manga—like most media targeted towards women and girls—is often dismissed as frivolous and apolitical, which means that Rose of Versailles is often overlooked as a work of feminist historical fiction. However, Rose of Versailles is actually remarkably well-researched and it’s clear that Ikeda was dedicated to educating her readers about the history of the French Revolution by centering women in her story. Similarly to English-language commercial successes like Titanic and Hamilton, the Rose of Versailles uses the framing of genre fiction to allow modern audiences to connect with history. The Rose of Versailles makes the argument that women’s lives and the romance genre can be radical and revolutionary—and, in fact, they were always central to revolutionary movements.  

Lady Oscar wearing both men and women's clothing

Ikeda Riyoko’s Life and Politics

Ikeda has always described herself as a socialist and feminist,  and throughout her entire manga career was engaged in leftist political movements. When she was a young university student she majored in philosophy and primarily studied Marx and Lenin. In the 1960s, she joined the Democratic Youth League of Japan and participated in major student protests that eventually became known as the “New Left.”  Manga historian and translator Rachel Thorn has noted that, as a result of Ikeda’s personal experiences with leftist movements, themes of class consciousness, revolution and anti-authoritarianism feature prominently in her work. In addition, Ikeda’s portrayal of lesbians and gender non-conforming characters helped pave the way for diverse gender expression in the shoujo genre. It cannot be understated how impactful Ikeda’s work has been in discussing class, queerness, and women’s liberation in a medium that’s easily accessible to women and girls.  

During her life in leftist politics, Ikeda sometimes recalled her frustration with the harsh judgment women faced within Japan’s communist movements. In one interview, she recalls “When I attended a meeting [of the Democratic Youth League of Japan] in a bright-red suit, they said I was like a bourgeoisie or an aristocrat, and they almost tried to punish me by dismissal from membership.” In light of this anecdote of Ikeda’s political life, we can interpret that perhaps her work in shoujo manga is a reaction to what she saw as prevalent misogyny and gatekeeping against women, even in leftist movements.  

A manga drawing of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and a description of who he was

Ikeda’s decision to set this romance story during the French Revolution is certainly far from an apolitical choice. In Ikeda’s own words, she intended the Rose of Versailles to not only be about the history of the French Revolution, but “the inner revolution of Japanese women.”  That is to say, she didn’t necessarily intend readers of her manga to start getting out their guillotines, but rather she wanted her readers to find something personally liberating in this historical story of revolution—and for the manga to help women and girls understand that they too have a place in radical movements. 

Queens, Commoners, Con Artists, and Revolutionaries: Female Characters in the Rose of Versailles

In the popular history of the French Revolution period, there’s typically an emphasis on male intellectuals and revolutionaries such as Maximilien Robespierre and Marquis de Lafayette.  Sadly, women’s contributions to the French Revolution—as intellectuals, as fighters, as everyday people involved in revolutionary politics—are often overlooked and ignored.

However, in Ikeda’s manga, all of the major characters of the French Revolution are women from different social classes. Men usually appear as background characters and major male figures of the French Revolution, like Napoleon Bonaparte, are often reduced to a two-bit cameo. 

In fact, Ikeda created Lady Oscar to fill in areas where women were historically excluded— like the royal guard—so that the manga could cover all areas of the revolution from women’s perspectives.  The Rose of Versailles rejects the erasure of women from history and attempts to recenter them by examining their multifaceted experiences as they lived public and domestic lives, made heroic sacrifices, fell in love, and debated politics. 

Marie Antoinette meeting her husband for the first time

Most of the female characters in Rose of Versailles are well-known real life historical figures such as Madame du Barry, the Duchess de Pongliac, and of course Marie AntoinetteThe Rose of Versailles begins its story by centering Marie Antoinette and her political influence in the French royal court, and how other women worked to destabilize her position.  For instance, in an early arc of the manga Madame du Barry, the ex-mistress of the former king, plays a major role in smearing Marie Antoinette’s reputation and planting seeds of discontent about her as an Austrian foreigner. 

Madame du Barry takes these actions because she sees Marie Antoinette (the legal wife of the King’s legitimate heir, Louis XVI) as a threat to her limited power since she wasn’t legally recognized as a chief royal mistress due to her commoner background. Ikeda handles this complicated relationship with a great deal of attention to how gender politics influenced the French royal court.

Despite how often women’s ambitions are framed as villainous, Ikeda alway finds some sympathy for these women and portrays their actions with both emotional and political realism.  Madame du Barry, for instance, is not a one-note villain despite being antagonistic to Marie: she explains to Lady Oscar that she had an impoverished childhood and all she wanted was to live a decent life in spite of the economic hardships in France. Throughout the manga, Ikeda is interested in exploring how women navigated the thorny politics of Versailles, and how it was their actions—not the actions of men—which played a crucial role in the events that instigated the French Revolution. 

Jeanne de Valois-Saint Remy laughing and making money off her account of the Diamond Necklace Affair

Aside from the main events at court, Ikeda is interested in the ways that even members of the nobility, like Lady Oscar, are radicalized into revolutionary thought. Throughout Lady Oscar’s journey into class consciousness she meets several lower class women—including Rosalie Lamorliere—and witnesses their own reasons why they decided to rebel against the monarchy.  

When Rosalie is first introduced, she’s living in poverty with her adopted mother who is one day brutally run over by a nobleman’s carriage and left to die on the streets.  Rosalie swears to get vengeance for her mother’s death and sneaks into Versailles to find and assassinate the owner of the carriage.  Lady Oscar helps Rosalie along the way by teaching her swordsmanship and court etiquette so that she can fit in at the royal court. It’s through Lady Oscar’s friendship with Rosalie, a lower class woman, rather than a male revolutionary figure like Maximilien Robbespierre, that she begins to see the struggles of commoners and becomes more invested in the ideals of the French Revolution.  

The Rose of Versailles also focuses on women in the roles of criminals and con artists. Rosalie’s adopted sister, Jeanne de Valois-Saint Remy, is a real life con artist who scammed the French royal court out of 15 million dollars in what became known as the Diamond Necklace Affair. In actual history, the Diamond Necklace Affair played a major role in destabilizing the French monarchy and was a final nail in the coffin for Marie Antoinette’s reputation. Ikeda’s retelling of the Diamond Necklace Affair frames the event as an epic showdown between two powerful women, each fighting for their own survival. Even though Jeanne is portrayed as cartoonishly villainous and ultimately meets a grisly end, Ikeda clearly revels in this woman’s ability to masterfully scam both the French nobility and the Catholic Church. She celebrates how this ambitious and flawed woman became a heroic figure to the general populace who felt powerless against the nobility.  

A child gets run over by a noble's carriage

Granted, the class politics of Rose of Versailles isn’t perfect. The manga’s beautiful sparkling vistas of Versailles and loving attention to costume details can leave readers with the impression that even Ikeda can’t help but be dazzled by the glitz and glamor of the French royal court despite her anti-authority views. The manga also portrays Lady Oscar and other nobles as heroic saviors to commoners rather than harshly critiquing their own power and privileges.  Lastly, the manga takes a somewhat apologist stance on Marie Antoinette’s role in the oppression of the French people, framing her as a mostly kind-hearted but oblivious young woman; even though in reality, she and her husband were staunch conservatives, and monarchs who unapologetically exploited the people of France. Despite this, The Rose of Versailles often does a pretty impressive job balancing scenes between the French royal court and the lives of poorer women, which shows how aristocrats lived in their own isolated world in Versailles even amidst the rising tension in the country.     

Ikeda certainly takes artistic liberties in regards to her women characters, but it’s clear that she’s passionate about telling their stories because she wants to highlight the importance of women’s political agency.  French working class women were the ones that immediately felt the burdens of the financial crisis since they were in charge of domestic duties and taking care of their families.  It was due to their frustration and desperation that motivated them to march to Versailles to take down the monarchy directly. There were plenty of real life French women that contributed so much to the revolutionary struggle, but their stories are rarely ever told.  That’s why it was so meaningful to women in the 1970s (and now) that Ikeda focuses so much on the interpersonal lives of her women characters and depicts vastly different experiences, allowing her female readers to see themselves in her story in order to remind them they have always had a place in history.  

Romance as Revolution 

In addition to arguing that women’s lives are central to revolutions, The Rose of Versailles also argues that romance fiction is central to revolutionary movements. While the romance genre is often thought of as trivial and trashy, Ikeda doesn’t undermine the political power of romance, and nowhere is that on display better than Chapter 39 of the manga.  

In this chapter, which takes place on the eve of the Revolution, all of the characters are reading Rousseau’s new novel called Julie: or the New Heloise (1761): a romantic melodrama about forbidden cross-class love between a noblewoman and a lower-class man. While Rousseau is more commonly well-known for his famous political work such as the Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men or The Social Contract, Ikeda chooses to focus on his romance novels.  She points out that in its time, it was Rousseau’s romantic works that were actually his bestsellers. In fact, New Heloise had 70 print editions before  1800, making it the bestselling book of all time during its heyday. Ikeda uses the popularity of this historical romance novel to push back against the present-day notion that romance isn’t important, through the eyes of her own characters—in Lady Oscar’s words, “Good books attract people regardless of class difference. It is natural for human beings to desire to read them!” 

Victor telling Alan that the New Heloise is a silly love story

In the manga, we see a number of characters react differently to New Heloise, based on their own class and political affiliations. When Victor Clement de Girodelle, a pro-monarchist nobleman, learns about Andre’s cross-class crush on Lady Oscar, he uses the book to justify that cross-class romance can never work out and dismisses it as “just a silly love story”..  This incident makes Andre read the book for himself—and what Girodelle saw as a “just a silly love story” resonates with him so much that it moves him to tears. Just knowing that this radical romance novel became so popular in France lets Andre know he isn’t alone in feeling angry and frustrated living under France’s brutal class based hierarchy.  

Later on in the chapter, Andre ends up bonding with a fellow commoner named Alain de Souisson about the revolutionary themes of the book.  Despite their past grievances with each other, seeing Andre reading New Heloise makes Alain comfortable enough with Andre to express his opinion that “Life is ridiculous. Who decided this thing about social status? No one decides how they’re born.” Reading a romance novel allows these two lower-class men to share their mutual hatred of France’s hierarchical structure and dream about a world without class differences.   

Alan reading the New Heloise a relates to the story

Finally, Andre sees Lady Oscar reading the same book and realizes that she has been thinking about the same things that he has. The book is one of the catalysts that eventually pushes both Lady Oscar and Andre to confess their love to each other—just as the Revolution breaks out. It’s no coincidence that these two stories parallel each other since Lady Oscar and Andre tear down the class barriers that separated them while the French people were also tearing down the class barriers that denied them their liberty, equality, and brotherhood. 

By including New Heloise in the manga, Ikeda is making the claim that romance stories have both personal and political power. She argues that romance novels are read by and deeply move people of all social classes, political inclinations, and genders. Romance novels can start radical conversations and can tell oppressed people they are worthy of love and respect regardless of their social status.  If serious revolutionary philosophers like Rousseau wrote romance novels which helped provide the spark for the French Revolution, then shouldn’t we also take shoujo manga seriously as a form of political criticism as well?

Andre telling Alan who gets to decide their social status when they are born?

Rose of Versailles is a work of historical fiction which pushes back against the widespread erasure of women’s role in history and retells a story entirely around women’s lives.  The Rose of Versailles is definitely not a perfect feminist work, but it always argues that women’s actions—whether sympathetic or villainous—are important for revolutionary movements.  Ikeda makes it clear that romance stories have always been able to discuss important issues such as class and gender inequality.  She wants women and girls to not only see themselves in her characters, but to remind them that they’ll always have a place in history.  

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