Photo courtesy of Netflix.
When I first heard that Shonda Rhimes would make her Netflix debut with Bridgerton, a sweeping period drama about scandal and class taking place during Regency-era London’s debutante season, I was sold. My hopes were high for what sounded like some sort of 19th century Gossip Girl, until I watched it. After a few episodes, I found some elements of the series to be irksome. But there was one prevailing problem with which I took issue. The rules that the world of Bridgerton asks its viewers to accept—namely, it being a historically accurate reflection of high society from that era—are flimsy, and transferring contemporary American politics to characters from 19th century London has implications in the current moment that cannot be taken lightly.
The cartoonish fantasy and romance in Bridgerton aren’t the problem—people, living isolated in their homes while a virus ravages the planet, need both of those things acutely right now. Why else do you think Emily in Paris was such a success, despite being ridiculed by critics at every turn? Escapism is a necessity at the moment, and while we’re choosing our own adventures at home, there are legions of viewers who would prefer to go full Shondaland fantasy (Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal fans know what this means) than dive into something like The Mandalorian.
So, no, it’s not quite the genre itself that poses a problem. It’s the inconsistent racial politics, queer baiting (in 2020!), and generally awkward, cringeworthy sex that make Bridgerton a misfire for me.
When I watched, I could not stop rolling my eyes (and though I am a fan of her work generally, the string quartet version of Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next” did not help). It is not so far-fetched that some Black elites in the Regency era did exist. The issue is that the world of Bridgerton, adapted for the screen by Chris Van Dusen from Julia Quinn’s eight-novel series of the same name, is set up as race blind, and the interracial romance between Simon Bassett, Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page), who is Black, and Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor), who is white and in need of more status and money (hence the eagerness to marry), mostly ignores any semblance of the violent history of colonialism in that period. That is, until Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh), the Duke’s surrogate mother figure, reveals that these characters actually do see race. “Love conquers all,” she says, while suggesting that when the white King George III married Charlotte (who, historically, has been the subject of inquiry with regards to her African ancestry, but televisually has been cast on Bridgerton as the show’s Black queen), racism was solved.
Again, Scandal fans may have already clocked this—but this moment calls to mind the scene in which Olivia Pope’s father reminds her why Black people have to be “twice as good” at everything to get half the respect that white folks receive. For Scandal, a contemporary show made during the Obama era about a political fixer, that sort of speech worked. Trying to retrofit those same contemporary racial politics onto Bridgerton does not.
That is not at all to say the diverse, race-blind casting in Bridgerton is unnecessary. It is significant, and some critics like Salamisha Tillet at The New York Times would go so far as to say it is revolutionary, especially after decades of racially homogenous period dramas like Downton Abbey. The Duke doesn’t want to continue his family’s line, and there’s something racialized about his reasoning (shame, perhaps?) for ending the line with himself. He even disagrees with Lady Danbury, telling her that their success as Black people in the time period is dependent upon whomever is in power (which, in this early 19th-century period, is a white king). University of North Carolina professor Tressie McMillan Cottom conjectures that the brilliance of Bridgerton (and of Rhimes) lies in the fact that the broader issue of race in the time period and location (and of the way it is typically addressed within the romance genre) is “solved” by turning it into a singular love story. But as a viewer of the show, this dynamic, which cherry-picks between historical accuracy and pure fantasy, can be confusing, and it is unfair that the white characters never mention race. It begs the question, is race really an issue to be tackled adeptly in this show, or can it be ignored?
I also could not get over the fact that, at its core, this whole series was about a girl who wanted a baby more than anything—but because a naive young woman like Daphne wasn’t permitted to have knowledge of how sex works, she had no idea that semen needed to enter the equation (does the earlier comment about the show’s “awkward” sex make sense now?). She then proceeds to make that her mission before the season’s end.
That being said, no one can deny the show is wildly successful, with a massive and captivated audience. It is projected to have reached 63 million households in the weeks since its Christmas Day debut, making it Netflix’s fifth most-watched original series. I would screen a second season (mostly out of boredom and obligation to the discourse) now that they’ve revealed the identity of Lady Whistledown and little miss Daphne isn’t so innocent anymore. But I am far more curious about Daphne’s raspy-voiced sister Eloise (Claudia Jessie) and her refusal to join the debutante rigamarole, seeking instead—gasp!—a career. Or, her brother Benedict (Luke Thompson), whom the show teased as possibly being queer, only to take it back in what seemed like an instant. I’ll watch the ambitious Featheringtons connive their way into obtaining more money and status, too. (A disservice was done to their biracial cousin, Marina, possibly the most interesting character in the series and of whom I hope we have not seen the last.)
“I don’t really know what ‘right’ looks like for Black characters in an England that in 1813 had abolished the slave trade but not slavery,” Patricia A. Matthew wrote of Bridgerton and its literary source material in the Los Angeles Review of Books last month. “The act to abolish slavery was passed in 1833. But emancipation was not freedom, freedom is not equality, and the presence of Black people among aristocrats and as monarchs is not my idea of equity.” I think Matthew is right. I am not sure Bridgerton is making the grand declarative statement about race that it thinks it’s making, but I am enthused enough that it has some people debating its merits and pitfalls. If we take it as pure romance and as faithful to the nature of that genre, rather than as historical fiction or actual literature, then maybe Bridgerton could work.