One of the key drivers of dramatic conflict in shoujo anime tends to be the clash between the privileged and underprivileged; in Aim for the Ace you have the school’s “elite” versus the perceived talentless interloper (picked up in Gunbuster and mixed with the macho world of robot piloting), in Dear Brother these themes are further explored with its setting of a very exclusive school with its own student inner circle, membership of which encourages disdain for non-members. Even something like Glass Mask, set in the world of theatre, still builds core conflicts around two things – rebellion against, and then acceptance of, an apparently unreasonable authority figure and the distinction between the right sort and wrong sort of people. The protagonist of such stories is generally one of the out-group for some reason beyond their control – a lack of money, unsupportive parents, etcetera, and the story is about their overcoming adversity to earn the respect of the in-group. It is not always this simple – Dear Brother begins in this fashion and then questions whether the “in-group” should really exist by portraying it as destructive and unpleasant – but I feel it fair to say questions of class and privilege sit centrally within a number of popular shoujo anime.
Rose of Versailles is simultaneously no exception and a total inversion of the concept. It has, arguably, two central characters whose lives are closely followed – the actual protagonist, Oscar (a woman in the man’s role of military officer) and her mistress, Marie Antoinette. Oscar is depicted, in the early episodes, as someone with tremendous responsibility but no real power in the circles she has to move in; indeed, even when Marie wishes to talk to her that is a breach of etiquette since a princess preferring to talk to a soldier than other members of the nobility is unusual. Yet despite her lack of actual status within the social ladder, Oscar has great agency; she is the character who fights duels, fends off assassins and endeavours to make the most of her limited ability to sway opinion to try and do the right thing for those around her. It would be easy to see her as the archetypal shoujo outsider, someone significant in the wrong ways for the social circle she moves in. Yet in the first five episodes the real meat of the story is about Marie and her position in the French court. Oscar is the viewpoint figure, but her inherently subservient role means she has to be the silent background actor. Marie, on the other hand, has immense privilege and status and means to use it; being crown princess means she even has some ability to influence the king’s opinions.
As a result, when she sets out to impose her morals and strict beliefs on the court, a tension exists between doing the right thing – snubbing villains (for Du Barry, the antagonist of this arc, is visually, and in mannerisms and absurd escalation of slights, the archetypal shoujo villain), demanding moral propriety among the nobility and so on – and fulfilling the duties a princess should which, it is made clear, include not rocking the social boat too much. Being a foreign visitor to court, married to an ineffectual prince quite clearly for the purposes of a peace treaty between France and Austria, she technically has the power but should not, in the eyes of those around her, be using it. The first main story arc, in fact, shows this well; it focuses on a disagreement between Marie and Du Barry which rapidly escalates. In a school shoujo story there would be a similar escalation; one is reminded of the much later Dear Brother‘s extreme plots to humiliate the protagonist for social “mistakes” – in Rose of Versailles, the historical court drama, the escalation has no limits and quickly comes to encompass assassination attempts on the crown prince of France and ambassadors from Austria worried that war will break out over two women disliking each other socially. Marie is shown to be well-advised in how to use her privilege and rank to slight others and impose her will – demanding contradictory orders to Du Barry’s be carried out, refusing to talk to people she dislikes so they are not permitted to address her – yet completely ignorant of their potential consequences. She wants to punish Du Barry for being “immoral” – a former prostitute now the mistress of the king, and someone who thinks nothing of assassination to gain power – but fails to consider the gulf between her theoretical influence and her actual status. She is, by definition (as an emissary from a formerly hostile nation, and the figurehead of a peace-treaty), only an honourary member of the “in-group” (in this case the in-group is those with political power, rather than being on the student council or tennis team) but is acting above her “station.”
It even becomes difficult – despite Du Barry’s violence, manipulation and general villainy – to quite countenance Marie’s justifications for disliking her. Her one-woman moral crusade to clean up the French court seems to start and end with one woman whose moral turpitude she learns of via rumours. Du Barry, when she tries to kill the prince, seems deserving of hatred – but Marie’s continued justification of this hatred as part of some noble intent to promote goodness and justice rings increasingly hollow. This is what makes this story of Rose of Versailles fascinating – and what sets up the series as so good. It is set in a decadent world of social climbing and the endless pursuit of higher status, and it seems to be introducing characters in Oscar and Marie who see through this and want to change it. Oscar begins as the more principled still iconoclast, refusing orders, actively calling out society, and is browbeaten into shape out of a sense of duty to protecting a young girl and standing up for those parts of society she does believe in.
Marie comes, and while she is initially portrayed as someone who wants real change and has the power to bring it about, it is real change only insofar as slighting one person she has heard bad rumours about. Du Barry may be a villain, but Marie’s singling her out (as an outsider) under the guise of a moral crusade to call out villains feels very much like an abuse of power, picking an apparently easy target. This is not quite so simple as making a murderous, duplicitous noblewoman seem sympathetic – it is questioning whether what with hindsight are the shoujo staple methods of humiliation and ostracism are effective ways of “punishing” someone, and if anything making the viewer want to be complicit in them. It feels satisfying to see raw social status used by the “heroine” to snub the bully – until one sees the wider picture than two women having a spat over one not talking to the other.