Objectification of the Female Subject: Marie Antoinette

When l made the decision to address the subject of female objectification in my practice for my project, I realised rather quickly it would be the most challenging subject to address. Society has become complacent and detached; we have cleansed our hands of decades long objectification the female model has endured in fashion and consumer photography. We have sanitised our minds of its history and existence, we have allowed ourselves to self-objectify, normalising something that continues to hurt the fabric of our womanhood, and beyond.

Baptiste. 2017. Dress Fitting. Ana Bačić as Marie Antoinette

To promote a narrative of the female body trumping the female mind, limits the credibility of our society. It limits who we value and what we value. When the narrative of the male body is promoted, it has been generally to show strength, resilience, which is subtly linked to the male mind in terms of self-preservation. Why haven’t we addressed the female body in a similar manner? Why do we reduce and equate her to a sexual vessel to fill with sexual connotations? Why can’t she be you, me, us? Society has let down its women and now it is also letting down its men in the same way – by objectifying them, promoting narratives that have repercussions, men are now faced with similar issues women of the past and present are faced with, its unacceptable.

Society has made it challenging for the female subject to prove herself, it’s a constant battle, promoted expectations, the burden of her dual existence, who she is, and who society believes she should be, she has endured everything to reproduce, and produce. The female subject, assessed as the weaker sex both physically and mentally, has for generations fought the establishment with vigorous strength, has defied all previous schools of thought. Her enduring legacy spans the beginning of time, the female subject after overcoming an army of obstacles, ushering all of mankind into a brave new world, once again faces the ongoing threat which unwittingly hopes to silence her multi talents and cement her to the one-dimensional image of objectification. I am a tiny voice among the thousands of voices that have stood up and stand up to female objectification in our society. The one-dimensional image of the female continues to destroy progress, continues to contribute to the false narrative of the woman, her value, her worth, her rights. Feminism Unfinished is not just the title of a book, it is not a dystopian view of women, it's not a means to censor female nudity, nor a demand for censorship, it's a will to define who we are as a society, who we are as a united people. Feminism Unfinished calls for a revolution, not just for women but for every man, child, animal and plant that face a threat to their existence regardless of how small that threat might be. Every people need a revolution, will we be a people without a revolution, without a purpose to set our wrongs right?

Objectification feeds the minds of those who limit women, devalue their rights, see them as objects to use and abuse. It remains, women and children continue to be the main victims of war. Women continue to be raped during wars, continue to be exploited and abused with impunity at times. The same women who give birth to our children, women who are our mothers, sisters, friends, women who are our doctors, teachers, activists. We continue to objectify them in such a way that we have created every possible narrative of how to impose the greatest horror on a woman. To not acknowledge the enormous influence and damage objectification has done to women is holding a denialist view. Artistic expression at the expense of a tribe of individuals, who are the vessels of life, without whom we would not be able to grow and be present, should not be dismissed so lightly, so selfishly.

It is against this backdrop that my passion, reasoning, drive, determination in providing alternative narratives to women whose legacy have been tarnished because of objectification, sexism and vandalism. I selected to highlight the Voice of a Model and Narratives of Historical Women under an umbrella theme, ‘The Looking Glass’. The Looking Glass is a planned exhibition featuring conceptual photographs that provide narratives of the female subject in photography. Historical female figures such as Marie Antoinette, Biblical Eve and Hatshepshut are presented in visual narratives that are uncommon to our society.

Figure 1: Dress Fitting. 2017. Baptiste

Figure 2: Dress Fitting. 2017. Baptiste

Currently I am working on the Marie Antoinette conceptual photoshoots. I have spent almost 6 months researching and planning her narrative. Antoinette for example, is continuously used as a representation for decadence, lust and sex. In life and in death, Antoinette became the face of what was wrong in society. During Antoinette's life it became fashionable to blame her for France’s problems. Pornographic pamphleteers were fuelled by politics and the rumour mill, many depicted their queen in scalding sexual encounters with men, women, the clergy, anything and anyone. Pornography played a vital role in destroying the queen’s image and ultimately led to calls of her death. Tyler Shields and conceptual photographers like him are no different than the pamphleteers of Antoinette’s time, they depict her as a superficial woman who was obsessed with cake, sex and fashion. They continue to promote a distorted, immoral, one dimensional image of her. Marie Antoinette wrote many letters to her mother and friends, letters that give an insight, and provide a more accurate depiction of who she was. Unfortunately, our society has created a place where the decadent narrative sells better.

Figure 3: Dress Fitting. 2017. Baptiste

What I am trying to accomplish is a balance to the unbalance narratives that are out there. By giving a visual voice to Marie Antoinette, I am providing her with the opportunity to tell her story from beyond the grave. To defend herself from the past and the present. There is a serious lack of consciousness in photography and it’s up to us as photographers to address it in whatever way we can.

Figure 4: Marie Antoinette in Muslin Dress. oil.1783. Le Brun 28 year old Marie Antoinette.

Maria Antonia Josepha Joana von Habsburg-Lothringen

Maria Antonia Josepha Joana von of Austria was born on November 2, 1755 in Vienna, Austria. She was the 15th child of Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor and Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria, was Royal Princess of Hungary and Bohemia, Archduchess of Austria, Queen consort of France and Navarre (Wikipedia). On April 21, 1770, Maria Antonia was almost fourteen and a half when she left her homeland for a life at Château de Versailles, France. The young archduchess travelled from Austria in a jewelled coach that was escorted by approximately sixty other coaches, it would take two and half weeks before they arrived. Traveling with Antoinette was a team of royal assistants. When Maria arrived at an interlude, she was led into a temporary 'building' where everything from her Austrian life was removed, this was called remise, or handover. She was stripped naked of her Austrian clothing in the presence of French and Austrian diplomats and was then dressed in a French gown made of gold fabric. The young princess was forced to give up her beloved dog, Mops (Rau 2015: 2). Even her name was altered to the French variant Marie Antoinette.

Figure 5: The Queen's Hamlet. 2016. Baptiste

French royal traditions took away all that was Austrian from Marie Antoinette, but they could not take away the Austrian inside of her, the childhood memories, growing up with farm animals, something she would later duplicate that would haunt her in the creation of The Queen's Hamlet .

During the French monarchy, only males could inherit the throne. In contrast to Austria where Antoinette’s mother Marie Theresa inherited the throne from her father. Marie Theresa was a hard-working monarch, just before Antoinette was born, the empress was signing documents and tending to the affairs of Austria when her labour pains became strong and she was forced to stop working. Antoinette mother was a tactile ruler, Austria and France were at peace, she wanted to preserve that peace with a union of marriage between the Habsburg and the Bourbon royal families. She organised for Antoinette to be married to Louis XVI, the marriage was done in proxy with her brother standing in for Louis XVI, Marie was 14 years old.

Figure 6: 1787. Le Brun.

When fifteen-year-old Marie arrived at Versailles, she was welcomed by a trove of attendants bearing gifts, she was given pearls, a diamond fan and a bracelet with her initials, the gifts were from the king Louis XV, grandfather to Louis XVI. It was in this environment that Marie Antoinette was presented and encouraged to embrace and nurture – the wealth of the monarchy.

Château de Versailles, a 67,000 m2 palace with 700 rooms and 2000 windows boasted magnificent, excessive opulence with gold reeking from ceilings, walls and chairs, an outrageous contrast to the poverty felt by the people who were unable to buy bread. Marie Antoinette’s entrance into the French monarchy was filed with mirages, it was too good to be true, but keeping up appearances were the only thing that mattered to the monarchy, they seduced the young Antoinette whose fate was sealed from the very beginning. Seven years before Antoinette’s arrival, France’s economy was already haemorrhaging from decades of spending dating back to Louis XIV, and the financial support of the American Revolution which accumulated to a debt of 1.3 billion livres by 1763 only exacerbated the situation. Antoinette annual dress allowance of 150,000 livres was surpassed by 300,000 livres in 1776, this cemented her legacy for high fashion and extravagance, eventually leading to rumours of more extravagant spending and the title of Madame Deficit.

Before Antoinette arrived in Versailles, she was deemed not ready or up to standard for the French Court, her education was underdeveloped, her teeth needed straightening, her fashion updated and her ballet refined. A French dentist was dispatched as well as a ballet instructor, stylist and a French tutor to educate Marie about French culture, religion, French etiquette and politics, his name was Mathieu-Jacques de Vermond. Vermond would remain Antoinette’s loyal reader until 1789 when the royal family were overthrown.

Figure 7: Marie Antoinette.1790. Pastel on paper. Alexander Kucharsky

Figure 8. Unfinished portrait of Marie Antoinette, 1792. Pastel. Alexander Kucharsky

While in prison, Antoinette lost a considerable amount of weight and suffered from unexplained bleeding

Antoinette's rise and fall, has in it, the elements of who we are as people and the decisions we make in life and its effects on those around us. Her truth, legacy has been tainted by the abundance of imagery that promote a narrative of lust, sex and excess. Removed are her years of motherhood, her reduced spending many years before her death, the adoption and education of a non-white child, her donations of food to the poor, her love of family and people, music, her laughter, her cheerful disposition. Removed are her moments of despair, struggles, her imprisonment, loss of husband, children, freedom and fortune. We should no longer define the last queen of France by her teenage years or by the decadence narrative that was promoted by the sans-culottes. It’s time we promote a more reflective visual narrative of Marie Antoinette.


RAU, DANA MEACHEN. 2015. Who Was Marie Antoinette?. New York: Grosset & Dunlap

DELALEX, HELENE. 2015. A Day with Marie Antoinette. Paris: Flammarion

DELALEX, HELENE, MARAL, Alexandre, MILOVANOVIC, Nicolas. 2016. 'Marie-Antoinette'. Los Angeles: Getty Trust Publications.

MCCAMMON, J. (2014). The Empress Has No Clothes: The Political Pornography of Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution. [online] James McCammon. Available at: https://jamesmccammon.com/2014/04/04/the-empress-has-no-clothes-the-political-pornography-of-marie-antoinette-and-the-french-revolution/#_ftn10 [Accessed 26 November 2016]

HOLLANDER, ANNE. 2006. 'The Queen's Closet'. Slate. [online]. Available at: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/fashion/2006/11/the_queens_closet.html [accessed 04/07/17].

#MarieAntoinette #FrenchRevolution #historicalwomen #FalmouthUniversity #falmouthuniversity #LouiseÉlisabethVigéeLeBrun #MartinvanMeytens #ChâteaudeVersailles #HeleneDelalex #TylerShields #TheQueensHamlet

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