This article contains discussions of sexual assault and may be triggering to some readers.
Without holiday plans to look forward to and with the incoming frost chasing us all indoors for good, I entered a lull in November—then the Bridgerton trailer dropped. From the second Julie Andrews’ narration began, I knew this show would have me wrapped around its chastely gloved finger. Spoilers ahead.
The show, a beautifully rendered Victorian period piece told through a modern lens about the trials and tribulations of the Bridgerton family, is deeply entertaining, propelled by the same lively entropy that used to drive genuine social interaction. It has the gossipy feel of talking shit with your friends—cheerful, albeit a little far-fetched.
Based on the books by Julia Quinn, the first season of the hit show follows the eldest Bridgerton daughter, Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor), on her quest to marry for love, a journey she fulfills under somewhat dire circumstances by marrying the Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page) midway through the season.
The item that sets Bridgerton apart from its stilted predecessors is that the cast—both primary and background—is diverse. Unlike recent series like The Great, which disregard race in telling historical stories about real people, Bridgerton seems to predominantly exist in a post-racial fictional world, yet a conversation between the Duke of Hastings and Lady Danbury proves otherwise.
In an episode called “An Affair of Honor,” the two discuss the King and Queen’s interracial marriage which, as it is implied, ensured equal rights for Black people in white British society. At the end of this exchange, the Duke says the King “can just as easily change his mind” about desegregating society.
It’s an ominous way to end the conversation, especially given this remark is never revisited. Taken as a whole, the conversation seems like a rushed and ill-prepared cop-out to justify the inclusion of a diverse cast—meanwhile, it’s something that requires no justification. This flip-floppy narrative around a serious issue merely demonstrates that the show doesn’t fully commit to addressing the racial complexities it alludes to and invokes a sense of disingenuity with its audience.
For a show that has branded itself as diverse, it’s a frustrating watch. It does the bare minimum to meet the already-low industry standards for diversity—if you include a handful of Black characters, it’s already ahead of its genre contemporaries.
The “An Affair of Honor” conversation aside, when building an idealized world such as that of Bridgerton, it’s curious the creators of the show decided to dedicate the entirety of its romances to heterosexual couples. Henry Granville, an artist befriended by Benedict Bridgerton, is in love with a man and has secretly been conducting an affair with him for years. When building a world so different from reality, it seems like an odd choice to deliberately force gay characters into the closet.
Producers explicitly chose to create a story told through a modern lens, yet women are still treated like objects, Black people still live under the constant threat of their rights being taken away by a king who is mentally ill, and members of the LGBTQ+ community need to conduct affairs in secret. By picking and choosing which minority groups they want to oppress and how, the creators send a bizarre, if not sinister, message to the show’s audience. We cannot praise a show for being ‘diverse’ if this is what we get.
Long before the release of the show, much of the discussion of Bridgerton has centered around an infamously controversial scene. In the episode “Swish,” after discovering from a maid that the Duke has been lying to her about his infertility, Daphne, eager for children, sexually assaults him by forcing him to ejaculate in her without his consent. The creator, Chris Van Dusen, has discussed his decision to keep this controversial scene from the book at length, yet the problem doesn’t lie in the actual act itself.
In the following episodes, the necessary discussion about consent is not mitigated in an effective or meaningful way. Instead, Daphne rationalizes her actions to her husband by saying that she assaulted him because he lied to her about his alleged infertility. The Duke isn’t free of culpability—there’s a separate conversation to be had about how his own lies do not grant Daphne the ability to fully consent—yet giving this situation the ‘eye for an eye,’ victim-blamey treatment is counterintuitive to the nuance it’s attempting to deliver.
Starved for gossip, Bridgerton serves as an unholy substitute for the real thing as we wait to once more return to our regular lives. And like actual gossip, it’s just as messy.
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