Bridgerton: an alternate universe of Regency-era London where racism never existed and historical sexism is romanticised?
Bridgerton is one of the most popular Netflix shows, with its second season, which premiered last month on the streaming platform, having broken the record for most-viewed English-language show in a week on Netflix.
The show, which takes place in Regency-era London, depicts London’s high society, known as the ton, during the social season, when debutantes are presented at court, also known as the Queen Charlotte’s Ball, in order for the aristocratic and upper-class young women to be introduced to society and find a husband to marry.
The period drama focuses on the Bridgerton siblings on their journeys of finding love and getting married, with the first season focusing on the eldest sister, Daphne, and the second season focusing on the eldest brother, Anthony. The steamy show is quite entertaining to watch and binge-watchable, with slow-burn romances, love triangles, family dramas, and a secret author who is publishing a leaflet with all the gossip about the ton happening during the social season.
The show is colour-blind, almost set in an alternate universe of 19th century England, where racism doesn’t exist. People of colour are part of aristocratic families. The Queen of Britain and Ireland, Queen Charlotte, is a Black woman – although some historians argue that the real Queen Charlotte (who was queen between 1761 and 1818) which the character is based on, also had a Black heritage. The first season’s male lead Simon, the Duke of Hastings, and his mentor Lady Danbury are Black, and the second season’s female lead and her sister, Kate and Edwina Sharma are Indian.
Racism is never addressed or shown in the second season, while in the first, the existence of slavery is acknowledged, which means that racism exists in this alternate universe, and yet race seems to not matter at the same time, certainly not in the lives of the characters. This creates a paradox because it gives the message that even when racism exists, it does not affect the lives of people of colour, which diminishes their struggles with these power structures and social norms.
On one hand, the colour-blindness ignores the realities and actual struggles people of colour went through. Colour-blindness can also erase important parts of the identities of characters of colour. Although the Indian heritage and culture of Kate are referenced several times, and even there is a Haldi ceremony before the wedding of Edwina and Anthony, which is a traditional Indian pre-wedding event, the wedding itself contains no traces of Indian culture. The show could have portrayed the Sharmas’ local cultural practices from Mumbai, which would have reflected the diversity within Indian culture.
On the other hand, with the colour-blind casting, people of colour can have their own storylines and can become very developed characters without their storylines always relating to their race. Regé-Jean Page, who played Simon in the first season, expressed in an interview that, “with colour-conscious casting, I get to exist as a Black person in the world. It doesn’t mean I’m a slave. It doesn’t mean we have to focus on trauma. It just means we get to focus on Black joy and humanity.” This space for positive POC experiences is really significant as it humanises characters of colour and depicts their personalities and emotions in a wide range of ways, without just focusing on pain and trauma.
Similarly, the casting of Kate and Edwina, who are played by dark-skinned brown actresses, is very significant, as it is rare to find well-developed brown characters in Hollywood and popular culture, especially as main characters, and particularly those that are dark-skinned, who are inadequately represented even in Bollywood.
Kate is caring in a strong way, is not fixated on getting married, is one of the only people who calls out Anthony for his behaviour, and truly feels like equal with Anthony throughout their relationship, with her strong personality always shining. For the audience, it is really meaningful to see people who look like them be important parts of meaningful storylines, especially in the historical drama genre, where they have generally been excluded from.
If the story replicated actual 19th century England, they would not have been parts of the story in this way, and they would not have been able to be the main characters in this story. However, the reason for this is that people of colour would not be allowed in high positions in society or upper classes, which illuminates the fact that class difference has an important role in the show.
The portrayal of class does not really criticise these power structures but romanticises aristocracy and upper classes. The story not only romanticises being in the ton and the social seasons of the ton but relies on it – the whole story is based on the romanticisation of these historical processes of these classes.
There have only been a few scenes in Season 2 where Eloise hangs out with someone from the working class and through this storyline, the show has started to criticise issues surrounding class and the perceptions of the people from lower classes. Although this storyline has not been developed deeply, hopefully, this issue will be explored further in the next seasons.
Sexism still exists in this universe. Although misogyny and patriarchy are not at the real level it actually was in that era, women in Bridgerton still have an inferior position in society. They cannot own a property – when Penelope’s father dies, none of the daughters or the mother can own the house they have lived in for years and a male relative that they have never met takes ownership of all their belongings and has to come to become the ‘man of the house’.
The oldest male of the family has all the decision-making power – when the father of the Bridgerton family dies, Anthony who is still 18 years old at this time is granted all the power for all decisions, not his mother, even to make the decision of whether to save his mother or the unborn baby during a difficult birth. The portrayal of these storylines criticises the patriarchal structures and depicts the struggles of women at the time.
It is interesting to investigate why the writers of the show decided to keep sexism but erase racism, the meaning behind the decision, and its consequences. The reality is that the show probably wouldn’t exist without sexism, just like it wouldn’t exist without classism. Most of its plotlines actually rely on the patriarchal structures and culture at the time.
Although the show does frequently address and criticise sexism and includes portrayals of strong women, such as Kate, Penelope, and Eloise, it also romanticises these patriarchal structures to a degree as the storylines rely on sexism.
The show’s main theme is the process of women having to go through social seasons in order to find a husband. Even though there are criticisms and depictions of how this process is much more difficult for women than men – how there is a lot more pressure on women to get married and how they have to put in more effort and prepare more to be considered more eligible – this process is still highly romanticised. The process is essentially the women taking part in a marriage market to get married, which is considered the most important thing in women’s lives, and which effectively objectifies women.
In the second season, Eloise’s struggles for women’s rights and her dislike of being married, and the process of getting married are depicted. It is great to have a portrayal of a woman who does not want to get married and criticises the sexist system, when almost all the other female characters seem desperate to get married.
However, she seems to be the only woman who feels this way, and her differences from the other women are used as a comic relief sometimes, such as the scene in Season 2 Episode 1 when she feels uncomfortable being dressed up for Queen Charlotte’s Ball, during which her mother wants her to be chosen as the ‘diamond of the season, and her whole family stares at her awkwardness. Hopefully, we will have more moments of Eloise fighting for women’s and working-class issues in the upcoming seasons.
An example of the romanticisation of sexism is demonstrated in the first season when Daphne and Simon are forced to get married because Anthony catches them kissing. Anthony challenges Simon to a duel to death, in order to save Daphne’s reputation, as Simon at first refuses to marry Daphne.
Anthony is really concerned with Daphne’s honour being ‘compromised’ even though he personally does not follow any social conventions and has sex outside of marriage. Daphne eventually convinces Simon to get married so that her brother and Simon do not murder each other. This event is overall portrayed positively, as it ends up being the push they needed to get together and is eventually good for them.
In addition, Bridgerton does not acknowledge how Daphne forces Simon to not pull out during sex by holding him down, and how this is non-consensual and therefore, rape. In fact, it is portrayed as Simon’s fault for lying to her about not being able to have children, when he just doesn’t want them.
Bridgerton has no real queer representation
Moreover, for a show that claims to be diverse, the show has no real queer representation with almost no LGBTQI+ characters. There is only a closeted gay artist in Season 1, who has a very minor role. The second eldest Bridgerton brother, Benedict, seems interested in him throughout the season, but it turns out he is only interested in art and culture, not in the man romantically or sexually. Benedict’s storyline in the first season appears as queerbaiting and in Season 2, he has a romantic storyline with a woman, with no trace of queerness. There is no LGBTQI+ representation in Season 2 at all.
If we can have romances between a Black duke and a white woman, between an Indian woman and a white Viscount, why can we not have queer romances? Why would that be outside the possibilities of this universe?
Overall, Bridgerton tries to create a story where historical periods and practices can be romanticised, while minimising racism as much as possible, so that (almost) everyone can take part in this universe, it can be relatable to contemporary society and mostly the story can be happy and focused on romance and the entertaining kind of dramas without having to delve deep into racism and sexism in a traumatic way.
However, Bridgerton often ends up romanticising patriarchal and classist practices, while ignoring racial identities. Perhaps, it is not possible to create a period romance without these problems appearing one way or another. Within this context, Bridgerton at least manages to do a good job of including a good racial diversity of characters. Nevertheless, we need to keep in mind its issues about race, gender, class, and sexuality, while we’re binge-watching to finally get to the kiss and steamy scenes between Kate and Anthony or Daphne and Simon.