Op Ed

Mittens and the Myth of Madame Deficit

So a few weeks ago, during the Democratic National Convention (which I didn’t watch because I was being a good little author and working on one of my novels –I’m not telling much, only it’s a Victorian historical thriller that takes place in London), I ran across this little gem of a picture.
Mitt Romney's face photoshopped onto a picture of Marie Antoinette, with the White House in the background and captions reading "Let them eat cake" and "Romney's America."

Which was taken from this birthday card.

outside of birthday card with a picture of Marie Antoinette and text reading "All I said was 'Let's have cake' or 'Let's eat cake' or something like that, and suddenly everyone got all pissy!"

inside of birthday card, text reads "Don't party with peasants. They ruin everything."

Which was”“in my opinion”“inspired by this painting.

Closeup from Portrait of Marie-Antoinette of Austria by Jean-Baptiste Gautier Dagoty
Portrait of Marie-Antoinette of Austria by Jean-Baptiste Gautier Dagoty

While Mittens looks great in a powdered wig and eighteenth century makeup – particularly the circles of blush that were so popular at the French court during Marie Antoinette’s first years as queen – there’s something seriously wrong with this. “What?” the uninformed viewer might ask. “What’s so wrong with it?”

I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it: Marie Antoinette never said, “Let them eat cake.”

The phrase has been mistakenly attributed to Marie Antoinette, but the story behind it shows up in one of Rousseau’s writings published when Marie Antoinette was still a child in Austria. As Dame Antonia Fraser describes: “This was the tender-hearted Marie Antoinette who, alone among the French royal family, refused to ruin the peasants’ cornfields by riding over them, because she was well aware of the minutiae of the lives of the poor.” How would this Queen, then, so easily dismiss the poor when they were starving?

The story has been credited to many women. Marie Thérèse, the wife of Louis XIV, supposedly said “if there was no bread, let the people eat the crust of the pâté.” It was also credited to either one Louis XVI’s royal aunts, Madame Sophie or Madame Victoire, “when reacting to the news that her brother the Dauphin Louis Ferdinand had been pestered with cries of, “˜Bread, bread,’* on a visit to Paris. But Fraser concludes that the best person to have discredited the story is the Comte de Provence, who wrote about this in his memoirs. He wasn’t a Marie Antoinette fan, but “˜he remarked that eating pâté du croûte always reminded him of the saying of his own ancestress, Queen Marie Thérèse.”

While we can acquit Marie Antoinette herself of this, the common myth of her indifference to the poor people of France must also be debunked as well. We often see her portrayed in pop culture as a frivolous, thoughtless young woman who drinks too much champagne, gambles and dances until dawn, and spends money as though she grew it in the Orangerie at Versailles. Of course, while many recent movies, books, and documentaries try to change our misconceptions and paint the doomed French queen in a different light, the myth still remains engrained in our minds. In a letter to her mother, “a piece of reflection on the duties of royalty,” young Marie Antoinette writes:

It is quite certain that seeing the people who treat us so well despite their own misfortune, we are more obliged than ever to work hard for their happiness. The King seems to understand this; as for myself, I know that my whole life (even if I live for a hundred years) I shall never forget the day of coronation.

Of course we’ll never hear words like that from Mitt Romney, nor do we even see any consideration for the plight of the poor from him or even the Republican party while he is campaigning to be elected as president. He’s a man who perhaps can’t understand or even feel compassionate for the less fortunate around him, despite all of his glib jokes and pretty speeches. And yet strangely enough, he’s being compared to a queen who was merely the victim of history as it progressed and of those who wanted someone to blame for the effects of two hundred years of problematic rule. But unlike Mr. Romney, who has proven to care nothing for the poor and suffering in the United States, at least Marie Antoinette is proven to understand and feel compassion for the poor and suffering in France, and to do what she could as queen to alleviate their plight, though things were too far gone at that point.

So while we shouldn’t put Marie Antoinette on a pedestal, for she was as human and flawed as the rest of us, let’s not compare her to Mittens, because in my mind, there is no comparison at all.

Source used:

Fraser, Antonia. Marie Antoinette: The Journey.

*Author’s Note: According to Fraser, “the staple food of the French peasantry and the working class was bread, absorbing 50 percent of their income, as opposed to 5 percent spent on fuel; the whole topic of bread was therefore the result of obsessional national interest.”

5 replies on “Mittens and the Myth of Madame Deficit”

That Mitt Antoinette picture freaks me the fuck out.

Also, something totally off-topic that I just remembered that you’ll appreciate. At the bookstore I worked at we alphabetized biographies by subject rather than author. I was constantly having to pull her bios out of the As and move them to the Ms. Antoinette isn’t her last name! She’s royalty; shelve her under Marie! /rant

Now that’s crazy interesting. That said, I think the Let The Eat Cake line is less about what she actually said and the general idea of the indifference of the haves to the have-nots. It’s a rather effective symbol for that conflict, and tying it to Romney serves to emphasize how out of touch he is.

Other things famous people never said: Charles Darwin never used the phrase survival of the fittest, that was another writer writing about him.

I think some of these phrases just distill the larger idea in politically useful ways.

I understand where you’re coming from on this.  There had been a general indifference to the have-nots for a very long time, and by the time reforms were passed in Louis XVI’s time, it was way too late.  People were sick of things sucking and wanted change and wanted it now.

But yes, Romney is extremely out of touch with the plight of the poor and even the middle class in this country. He doesn’t understand that when there’s a great disparity in wealth between the haves and the have-nots, there has to be some redistribution of it on some level, be it through taxation or whatever. To have a viable economy, there has to be a thriving middle-class who can both produce and consume goods created. If not, then things start to implode, like they did in Revolutionary France.

But I love Marie Antoinette’s quote, even though she was quite young. It gives you hope that there are still some politicians who feel this way. I’m sure President Obama and others do to an extent, but it would be nice to see more action with this sentiment in mind!

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