“Bridgerton” is a tremendously popular historical drama that debuted on Netflix on Dec. 25, 2020. It was advertised as a twist on the classic Regency style because it cast people of color in prominent roles. Chris Van Dusen, the creator and executive producer of “Bridgerton”, explained that he “wanted to escape to this lush, beautiful, cinematic world, but [he] also wanted to explore real topics like gender and class and race and sexuality — topics that are relevant and important.” Unfortunately, he failed to do so.
Note: there will be mentions of sexual assault. There will also be spoilers.
The show portrays women as prisoners of the patriarchy whose value is dependent on marriageability and eventual motherhood. Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) recognizes the issues of this social structure, but does not mind it since she desires love and domesticity, which are possible within it. By contrast, Eloise Bridgerton (Claudia Jessie), Daphne’s younger sister, hates every part of this system, including the women who participate in it. She is meant to serve as a refreshing dose of feminism, but instead recalls dated values of third-wave feminism and the “not like other girls” character trope.
Daphne and Eloise represent two extremes of living in a patriarchal society without any of the emotional nuance that can be found in reality, both in the Regency era and in the present. Eloise’s condescension suggests that the patriarchy is only the external system that oppresses women, which is as far as “Bridgerton” goes with exploring the topic of gender. Even that may be a little generous, considering that most of the discourse on gender revolves solely around marriage. If “Bridgerton” intends to speak on “real topics” it must do so by depicting a full range of emotions and issues.
We see the values of third-wave feminism not only in Eloise, but also Daphne as the arc of her sexual awakening characterizes the majority, if not all, of the episodes. At the end of season 1, episode 6, Daphne ignores Simon (Regé-Jean Page) when he makes it clear he does not want continue having sex, raping him. Despite the show’s aforementioned attempts to simplify nuanced topics, they somehow try to complicate the very clear-cut instance of rape by focusing on whether or not Simon had lied to Daphne about his ability to have children.
It is issue enough that “Bridgerton” glosses over sexual violence, but it also serves as evidence that people of color are simply props in the show. Simon is depicted less as an individual coming to terms with his childhood trauma and more as an object and catalyst for Daphne’s supposed empowerment. He is a mostly static character whose development only shifts based on Daphne’s needs. The extras in the show are diverse, providing representation for non-Black people of color, but, by the nature of extras’ roles, they too are props to the main cast.
When first watching “Bridgerton”, I assumed that the show used color-blind casting because there was no real discussion of race. I then realized that the only Black characters with speaking lines were light-skinned, so the colorist casting couldn’t have possibly been “color-blind.” Additionally, in season 1, episode 4, we hear the first explanation about the existence of Black aristocracy by Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh), Simon’s mother-figure: “We were two separate societies divided by color until a king fell in love with one of us. Look at everything it is doing for us, allowing us to become. Love, Your Grace, conquers all.” Here, we circle back around to Van Dusen’s goals for “Bridgerton”: a combination of idealized escapism and grounded conversations about race and gender. In suggesting that one marriage – that of the king to a Black woman – could cure the world of racism reveals that the show’s racism is not real world racism.
There is so much more to be said about the show’s treatment of Black women in particular. This is by no means a comprehensive critique of “Bridgerton”, but hopefully the beginning of a discussion. Overwhelming support for the show will enable executives to allow the show to continue as it has, so it is critical to have these conversations. Balancing escapism and “real topics like gender and class and race and sexuality” is undoubtedly a difficult task, but it is not impossible. Genres like Afrofuturist do it well — both in media and literature. “Bridgerton” has so much potential, and I hope that it acknowledges its failings from season 1 to change course in the upcoming seasons.