If you sit between two worlds, are you really part of either of them? Both will make their claims on you, no matter how you resist. Such is the uncomfortable place Oscar François de Jarjayes finds herself in at the end of episode three of The Rose of Versailles. Despite her desire to remain on the sidelines, watching the tense “duel of the ladies” from a happy neutrality, the news that Lady du Barry has, through the order of the king, acquired Oscar’s mother as her handmaid shocks Oscar and will eventually force her into the realm of female court politics (or so I presume).
But there’s more to it than the implied threat to Oscar’s mother…
Oscar herself is something of a liminal figure, a fencesitter if you wished to be ungracious, in the highly gendered politics of the Versailles court. Raised from birth as a boy and having earned the masculine position of Commander of the Royal Guard, Oscar possesses a number of characteristics that would mark her as a man were her status as a woman not consistently impressed upon the viewer. This is not to say that Oscar’s identity is fluid, but rather that it is firmly entrenched as that of a woman who possess some masculine traits.
This puts Oscar in an awkward position at Versailles. Although Oscar is certainly aware that she is a woman (or a girl, really—she’s just 14!), she conceives of herself as able to sustain a masculine identity. Her initial resistance to taking up the position as Marie Antoinette’s guard (“I don’t want to babysit a girl!”), her need to protect her own honor with the first episode’s duel with Girodelle, her absolute refusal to wear a dress to protect Marie Antoinette (if she’s going to protect her charge, it will be through her masculine station), her coldness to the ladies of the court, and desire to avoid getting involved with the court politics all demonstrate that her sense of self-as-woman is entirely divorced, willfully and intentionally separated, from traditionally feminine signifiers.
It’s not by coincidence that the majority of these choice are rejections, rather than acceptances. As Oscar herself notes in the first episode, she is known for rebellion, opposition to expectations. “If you say not to wear it, rebellious Oscar will surely do the opposite,” she snarls as Andrè in the first episode. At this point in the show, Oscar’s psychology hasn’t been explored in great depth yet, but it seems as if the imposition of a masculine identity on her has also instilled in a sense of being an outsider in her. And outsiders like Oscar, whether in Versailles court politics or gendered roles, are marked by their divergences from the established system.
But, of course, systems aren’t built to handle those who don’t conform to established categories. Oscar’s cross-categorization presents a problem for the members of the court—or, at least, it would if they weren’t so quick to decide upon Oscar’s category for her. The first time we see Oscar enter the court, she’s immediately swarmed by a cluster of adoring women praising her over her exploits saving Marie Antoinette and gushing over her irresistible coldness. However, in the minds of the court ladies, Oscar’s “masculine” heroism and stoicism aren’t possible to reconcile with Oscar’s established female identity. “If only she were a man,” they pine, “I’d never leave her alone!”
Oscar is not allowed to be both heroic and stoic, uninvolved with the world of female intrigue—although the ladies swoon over her masculine traits, they ultimately count her in as a lady and demand that she, despite her status as Commander of the Royal Guard, play the ladies’s game. At the end of the third episode, Andrè queries Oscar as to which side she will take in the brewing feud between Marie Antoinette and Lady du Barry. “All the ladies of the court are dying to know,” he tells her. No one cares about who Andrè will side with; indeed, neither her nor any of the other men at the court are even allowed to play the game. Were Oscar a man, she would likewise be dismissed from siding with anyone (as she desires), but the system demands that she involve herself with the feminine aspects of the court.
And so, du Barry’s machinations pulling Oscar into the court drama not only do so through the force of Oscar’s familial loyalty, but also through the institutional pressures that demand that Oscar, as a woman, play the women’s game. Where will Oscar go from here? Is she stuck in the binary between passive male reaction in these political maneuverings and aggressive female positioning (another piece in itself) or is there a third path available to her, one that will allow her to maintain her non-conformist identity without jeopardizing her mother’s safety? I’m excited to see!