Every Rose Has Its Thorns: Vilifying female ambition in The Rose of Versailles

By: Marion Bea June 21, 20190 Comments
A red-wash image of a woman looking evilly triumphant overlayed on top of another woman crying

The Rose of Versailles is a shojo classic with a reputation as an LGBTQ+ work, mostly thanks to Oscar’s character and their relationships with women like Marie Antoinette and Rosalie. While that’s one of the show’s main draws and much can be said about it, this time I’m looking into a less-discussed side of the show: its portrayal of female anger, ambition and power, and how they exist within considerable limitations.

The show—which takes place in France in the years leading to the French Revolution—blends fantasy with history, keeping major historical events and figures while taking liberties in the way they fit in the story. Historical accuracy doesn’t matter much beyond following key events that culminate in the revolution and eventual execution of Marie Antoinette. The layers of fantasy give the story flexibility not only in the relationships it creates and the subplots it follows, but in the way the characters are portrayed.

As a main character, Oscar is an all-encompassing figure who struggles with gender roles and love, duty and upbringing, loyalty to the Queen and a growing empathy to the people. But with Marie Antoinette and the women who act as villains, we see a more traditional exploration of female power, ambition, and anger. Meanwhile, Rosalie is a sympathetic character who offers a combination of kindness with anger that, notably, lacks the ambition associated with the female villains.

GIF of a woman laughing evilly as a black rose blooms and the petals are blown away

Evil in The Rose of Versailles

Greed and abuse of power are perfectly logical villains for a show of this kind. The series places a considerable focus on female characters and their relationship with power (we barely even see King Louis XVI), but it’s still an anomaly in a system where male power is the norm.

To an extent, we need to consider history and the way it binds certain characters. However, there’s still the freedom provided by fantasy and the choices writers make when crafting their fiction. In a female-targeted show where female power is so present while their ambition is antagonized, Rose of Versailles leaves the impression that women with power are kicked down harder than men in power, even when the men are just as despicable (if not more).

The show certainly shows men abusing their power in various instances. Nefarious nobles get away with crimes as horrible as murdering children and pressuring a girl into marriage with a pedophile. There’s a sense that the main male villain, the Duke of Orléans, is above the female villains as well. Once they’re “running out of tricks,” he uses them to his own political interests, just to abandon them when they cease to be useful.

A woman's shocked expression as the screen cracks like a mirror

Charlotte’s case is perhaps the most haunting example of men abusing their power and hurting others in the process, which is unfortunately not exclusive to The Rose of Versailles’ world. In his short appearance, the man little Charlotte is betrothed to is indisputably presented as a despicable villain.

In one way or another, terror never leaves her, and she eventually succumbs to it. Since her mother the Duchess of Polignac is the one who arranged the engagement, it’s also another example of the duchess valuing position and riches above everything else.

While it could be argued that moments like these exists to add strength to the upcoming revolution, it doesn’t make it any less unsettling to see “comeuppance” arrive so clearly for the female antagonists while these kinds of men leave the story without really being held accountable. In comparison, there’s no memorable downfall for these nobles; just the assumption that the revolution will eventually “take care of them.”  

Marie leaning against her own reflection. subtitle: And yet, what is this feeling in my heart, as if I were missing something?

A Sympathetic Marie Antoinette

The real-life Marie Antoinette is a figure strongly linked to vanity, frivolity, and extravagance; she certainly indulged in luxuries only a queen could have afforded. While far from faultless, she was more complicated than her infamous reputation made her out to be—a depiction rooted in what she came to represent in the eyes of the people, partly due to her own behavior and partly due to gossip and misunderstanding.

There are some contradictions that put little cracks into the simplified image of unwavering extravagance. She never said the infamously indifferent “let them eat cake,” and can be credited with designing along with her seamstress a surprisingly “casual” dress (by the era standards) that would later be adopted by revolutionary women. Still, the nicknamed “Madame Déficit” (among other far less flattering names) became a scapegoat during a time of great economic crisis.

It would have been easy to borrow from that to portray Marie Antoinette and frame her in a more antagonistic light, but The Rose of Versailles chooses to present her as a sweet and sympathetic figure. She’s as outgoing as she is sheltered, and her shortcomings are attributed to being, in the words of her own mother Empress Maria Theresa: “capricious, playful to no end, and a shallow thinker.”

Marie dancing among sparkles while Oscar looks on from a distance

In the show, Marie Antoinette’s most questionable activities are the result of loneliness and naivete. Her escapades, romantic affair, and neglect of her duties are presented (often with considerable glows and sparkles) as forgetting her duty to the people in her search for personal happiness. While this is understandable to a certain extent, the emphasis can be so heavy on said search that it occasionally feels like the show itself has forgotten about the people too.

To add to this, Marie Antoinette’s close friend the Duchess of Polignac is portrayed as selfish and manipulative. This allows the story to shift at least part of the blame away from things that could compromise Marie as a sympathetic figure, like gambling while her people suffer the full blow of the unforgiving times.

Empress Maria Theresa’s brief appearances show her as perhaps Marie’s harshest judge, but it notably comes from a place of love and from a powerful woman who can understand Marie Antoinette’s position. The people’s frustration and hatred played a considerable role in shaping the real Queen’s image. While Rose of Versailles directs that anger towards the nobility, the criticisms against the Queen doesn’t always go unchallenged. Even when the show takes their struggle seriously, it still makes the effort to defend the goodness in Marie’s character.

Glittering eyes and a grasping hand superimposed over a running figure

The Female Antagonists

History remembers Madame du Barry and Jeanne as King Louis XV’s mistress and a key player in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, respectively. In a show that sympathizes with Marie Antoinette, this understandably puts them in antagonistic roles.

Madame Du Barry and Jeanne are women who reject their suffering. They’re resourceful and ambitious; they use their understanding of the system in which they live to manipulate it to their advantage. They’re also despicable. Their ruthless actions to secure power are manufactured to make them easy to hate, as sweet old ladies and innocent servants are unceremoniously eliminated, as if they were little more than dirt under their shoes. Even loyalty to them comes with a cost.

The show visually favors over-the-top theatrics that are as beautiful and creative as they are entertaining to watch. However, there’s certain simplification involved that pushes the execution towards stereotype: the beautiful, fair maiden against the evil, jealous madwoman. While Marie Antoinette get sweet smiles, lively flowers, and pretty sparkles, Madame Du Barry and Jeanne get evil cackling (hand gestures included), bloody red backdrops, and decaying flowers.

Two silhouetted figures illuminated by windows full of red light

It’s likewise hard to ignore that Marie Antoinette’s purity and kindness are synonymous with her physical beauty, which is even elevated into something holy as soon as Rosalie sees her. The show often brings attention to her looks, both with visual embellishments and through the reactions of other characters, like her love interest Axel Von Fersen, who rarely praises anything other than her pure beauty. This goes to another level with Rosalie, who doesn’t need anything more than seeing the Queen’s appearance to be unable to believe the people’s unfavorable opinion of her.

The visual choices greatly reinforce the threat the female antagonists present. However, it can also simplify them as just “evil women doing evil things.” Crazed expressions are common, both when they enjoy feeling in control and when they feel threatened, emphasizing the sense that they’re “deranged” in the dramatic fashion typical of the show.    

Unfortunately, these characters are the only ones representing unashamed female ambition. So, by extension, that very concept is vilified.

The source of their ambition is the goal of living in comfort and luxury, driven by self-preservation. We see Jeanne’s journey clearly as she pulls herself out of poverty and starts to “get greedy,” which eventually prompts the infamous necklace affair. Her reaction to the unfair system is not “why are things like this,” but rather “why can’t I be one of them.”

A close-up of a brunette woman. subtitle: Because I refuse to let anyone judge me, not even God himself

While Jeanne gains the sympathy of the people towards the end of her journey, her sister Rosalie is the one who stands as the avatar of the people. She climbs up the social ladder exclusively to express pain and anger at those who are more powerful than her.

Because Rosalie’s quest for power is rooted in this righteous grief and anger, it doesn’t dispute the condemnation of female ambition present in the female antagonists. Fittingly, Rosalie lets the kindness inside of her win over her negative emotions, eventually returning to the side of the common people.

On the part of the female antagonists, their dreams and desires stand in contrast with Marie Antoinette, who doesn’t even desire anything material because she was fortunate enough to be born into a position that secured her the lifestyle they covet.  

Although the revolution eventually comes, the show spends too much time committing to the fairytale-esque framing and too little connecting it to an alternative point of view to convincingly condemn the lifestyle itself. It’s perhaps too enamored of its pure Marie Antoinette as well, who literally only needed to stand before Rosalie to gain a favorable opinion, and who’s defended from in-world criticism by the righteous Oscar—a character the story often uses to represent compassion and sense of justice and who, coincidentally, deeply loves Marie Antoinette.

A young blonde woman staring into the distance. subtitle: I promise....I promise to avenge you.

The Implications of Villainy

The lasting impression is that Marie Antoinette’s comfort and luxury isn’t a marker of villainy because she’s never shown seeking or wanting it, even if she benefits from it at the expense of others. However, other women who actively seek the same things are inherently corrupt, greedy and manipulative.

The figure of the Duchess of Polignac reaffirms this, both by being an example of corruptive ambition herself, and by providing an excuse to separate the Queen from these negative qualities. It’s the deceptive Duchess who manipulates the kind, trusting, and fun-seeking Marie to her own advantage.

While the Queen’s shortcomings are often allowed sympathy, figures like Madame du Barry and Jeanne only get it at their downfall, when they’re stripped of all their power and can no longer scheme their way out of trouble.

Marie holding a white rose protectively and weeping, observed at a distance by Oscar

The Rose of Versailles is an undoubtedly beloved classic. While its main character is one of its main appeals, a big part of the entertainment comes from the female villains. As reproachable as characters like Jeanne are, in a way, it’s exciting to see her rise using her skills in a world that wants her to fail—a concept that’s more than familiar to ambitious women in the real world.

Like other antagonists, Jeanne eventually crumbles under the weight of her own wrongdoings. But what’s really hard to ignore it’s that these ambitious women are also limited by the conservative side of the show, which seems to punish them most severely.

The show’s take on Marie Antoinette isn’t without merit, and it isn’t as though everything the female antagonists’ do is right and greed is fine. But it does say a lot about which qualities receive sympathy and which ones get vilified (even if just by association) when it comes to women. “Pure” and traditionally beautiful women can receive empathy–but ambitious women? They must be evil, and so they must suffer.

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