July 12, 2021

Bridgerton: Groundbreaking or Same Old Stereotypes?

Janis prince innissBy Janis Prince Inniss

You’ve probably seen Bridgerton, the sexy Shondaland Netflix standout. If you haven’t, the first eight episodes of the series premiered in December 2020 on Netflix. The series is based on eight books written by Julia Quinn, featuring stories of romance in the Regency era.

This first season focuses on the “market launch” of the eldest daughter of the white Bridgerton family: Daphne is 21 years old and therefore ready to occupy her most important functions and only possible roles as wife and mother. Set in London in 1813, the show centers on Daphne as she and other young women vie for the affections and proposals of men, young and old.

Before viewing, I wasn’t sure what the series was about, but given its consistent and prominent placement in the thumbnails Netflix was showing me and with Shonda Rhimes’ name attached to it, I decided to look at one episode. Instantly, I was blown away by the colors in the show! The colors of the costumes, jewelry, and the cast are incredible. (I enjoyed Downton Abbey as much as the next person when I finally watched it last year as part of my pandemic escape plan, but that was almost as white as Friends. And the fact that the lone Black character was a musician didn’t provide much racial/ethnic diversity.)

My first viewing of Bridgerton was on an iPad, and within the first few minutes I knew that I would rewatch the episode on a much larger screen. The colors were just so eye-popping: the costumes, and sets were divine! And the string arrangements of pop music were pleasing so I wanted to hear them in stereo.

It was teased in the thumbnails, but seeing so many Black people central to the story was surprising and exciting. The series includes Black people with little comment—as though they are simply part of this mainly upper crust set. The most desirable bachelor (apart from the Prince who is an ancillary character) is Simon, Duke of Hastings. And he is a Black man! I’ll return to the Duke momentarily, but must first state how refreshing it was to see a multi-hued cast!

Now, you don’t have to be a historian to recognize that during the Regency Era, there were no/few Black people occupying the higher classes in Britain. Poetic license and fantasy brought us this cast and the images are breathtaking: Black women among the Queen’s handmaidens, Black men in top hats, Black servants, Black “ladies” and “gentlemen” dancing at fancy balls. And a Black Queen!! When have you ever seen a Black Queen? And in this case, this is not just fancy, as there really was a Queen Charlotte, the so-called Black queen. The queen’s power is clear: she is a monarch, albeit married to a lunatic king. She is wealthy and one word from her carries a lot of punch; her pronouncement of Daphne Bridgerton as “flawless” raises the young woman’s dating profile dramatically.

Simon Bassett, the much-desired Duke is played by Regé-Jean Page, who seems to self-identify as mixed race but is considered Black in the U.S.  (Why? Learn more about the “one-drop rule” and multiracial racial identity in this post.) Undoubtably, the Duke’s sexuality accounts for a lot of the heat the series has generated. In the U.S., the fear of Black male sexuality—considered animalistic—has driven many policies and behaviors. Some of the myths around Black men include that they are hypersexual and have large penises and extraordinary sexual prowess. So  Bridgerton’s portrayal of a Black Duke as sexual, is not new—although his station is unusual.

Daphne and the Duke get together out of a common goal—she serves as his foil to buttress all of the girls and the mothers chasing him down the aisle, and his pretend affections make her more alluring to men. This plot line encompasses many ideas about gender that still drive society today:

  • Women—whose primary value is as wives and mother, chase men for marriage;
  • Men, who have the benefit of sex outside of marriage do not need the institution to enjoy sexual relations—and neither do “loose” women; the sexual double standard existed a long time ago including in this time of excess, and remains with us today;
  • Men are competitive and appreciate a “hunt” so the attentions of the Duke will make Daphne more appealing in their eyes.

At first glance, Bridgerton’s cast might be seen as color-blind. However, the most central Black characters rely on tired tropes in which Blackness and badness are closely connected. This is exemplified in a character named Marina. The Featheringtons family shelter a young (light-skinned) Black woman, Miss Marina Thompson, who is pregnant. The badness of this Black person is that she:

  • Had sex out of wedlock. (I suppose this is because she could not control her sexuality; she’s a Jezebel!)
  • Got pregnant.
  • Is repugnant enough to try to marry a man who is not her baby daddy--and without disclosing her shame to him.

(By the end of this first season, I suppose we could argue that Marina has regained some of her moral standing and stature as she marries her baby daddy’s brother.)

Another bad Black person is the Duke’s (dark-skinned!) father who is plain evil—given his treatment of his son.

Arguably, of the five Black characters with the most meaty story lines, only two of them play somewhat against type and both are more ancillary characters. Queen Charlotte and Lady Danbury are powerful and wealthy—in those roles I see novelty and I look forward to more story lines like that from the white showrunner and writer Chris Van Dusen.

I ended up hoping that a Black woman, a brown woman, or some woman of color would be the one who marries the handsome and rich Duke! We have seen Black women as hyper-sexual; what would be revolutionary would be to showcase a Black or other woman of color as “worthy” of love and marriage. Let’s see a Black woman for whom the dashing male lead would die--literally! This heterosexual fairy tale at the center of this first season of Bridgerton is one on which we have supped for generations—it is predictable. Equity is having a shot at such fairytale predictability.

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