Are Shows like Bridgerton Really That Progressive?

March, 2021
Lilly Stewart, Blog Correspondent


Queen Charlotte was only 17 when she left her home country of Germany and moved to England to marry the British King George III. Charlotte’s ancestry has been debated by historians, with some evidence suggesting that Charlotte had ancestral ties to the Black branch of the Portuguese royal family, the de Sousas. Some historians are adamant that Charlotte was England’s first Black queen, citing descriptions of her features such as thick lips, a wide nose, and a “mulatto face.” In the hit Netflix show Bridgerton, a reimagining of Julia Quinn’s novels, the showrunners take this idea further, and Charlotte is cast as a Black woman. This casting is set up as the basis for a historical alternate universe where, due to the Queen’s race, Black brits occupy places in high society in 19th century England. The show employed ‘colorblind casting,’ with the aim of representing Regency era England with a modern eye and allowing young viewers of color to feel represented. 

Showrunners Shonda Rhimes, known for Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, and Chris Van Dusen wanted Bridgerton to be an escapist, fun, sexy show with brilliant costumes, witty dialogue and a fast-paced plot. The show isn’t supposed to be historically accurate. It doesn’t give any real attention to the transatlantic slave trade, which is the reason why there could have been a Black queen or a Black duke in the first place, and puts no emphasis on racism or any other structural barriers that the show’s Black characters would have faced. Van Dusen remarks of his vision behind the series: “there’s a lot of evidence to the idea that Queen Charlotte was England’s first queen of mixed race, and that idea really resonated with me because it made me wonder what that could have looked like and what would have happened. What could she have done? Could she have elevated other people of color in society?”

I’m on board with this idea, and I do have an appreciation for glittery, period-piece escapism just as much as the next girl, but something about the presentation of race in the show feels like it’s lacking. For one thing, Bridgerton is supposed to be an escapist series where Black characters are present in a way that is not contingent on race or racism, giving an illusion of equal ground between the characters, so they can simply exist side by side without characters of color having to justify their presence on screen. So, why was race mentioned in a conversation between two Black characters, Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh) and the Duke of Hastings, Simon Bassett (Rege-Jean Page)  wherein Lady Danbury cites the marriage of Charlotte and George as the beginning of a new era in England where “love conquers all” and racism no longer exists? Why not simply commit to the fantasy and ignore race altogether?

Blogger Ruth Terry points out, “Mentioning racism undercut the show’s blissfully colorblind approach, and I shuddered to think what White viewers would take away from [Lady Danbury’s] simplistic message.”

It seems like the showrunners wanted to create this fantasy, but were worried what would happen if race wasn’t mentioned at all, so they employed the oldest trick in the book: love as a thematic device to solve all problems. Interestingly, the main heartthrob in the show, Simon, responds to Lady Danbury by saying that the power they have gained in society is flimsy because it is based on one man’s (King George’s) decision. This topic is never revisited, and the series continues on with its bodice-ripping sumptuous balls. 

So, the only time race is mentioned, it’s mentioned by Black characters to ‘explain’ why they are there…but I thought the whole point was creating an atmosphere where Black characters don’t have to explain their presence? White characters never mention or acknowledge this apparently culture-changing monarchical shift. In and of itself, Queen Charlotte’s marriage feels more flimsy than viable as an explanation for the presence of Black characters in the wealthy, aristocratic spheres of British society. In her article about the show, Michele Thiel remarks, “a public and privileged interracial relationship doesn’t solve racism. It’s not something people can choose to “unthink” just because a Black person enters into the upper echelons of society…The way the show handles race is akin to sweeping it under the rug and pretending it doesn’t exist – an idea people of colour still have to deal with today as we fight for our rights.”

If Bridgerton had explored an alternate history where Queen Charlotte uses her power to give Black people lands and titles, while paying close attention to race and power discrepancies, then maybe that would have made it too gritty, and not fitting with the humorous, sexy atmosphere it attempts to create. After watching the episode where Simon calls out the unequal power dynamics, I became intrigued, and thought maybe they could pull off a healthy balance between acknowledging racism and keeping up the light-hearted Gossip Girl-esque tone it started out with. 

But by abandoning any further mention of race, and by playing into more subtle racist stereotypes, the show loses its momentum.

The most off-color plot point in the show is the fact that Simon doesn’t want to have children, so he tells Daphne that he ‘can’t.’ Due to Daphne’s lack of sex education—a result of being a woman at this time, and thus being ‘sheltered’ from learning the most basic birds-and-the-bees knowledge—Daphne doesn’t realize that Simon’s pull-out method is what is keeping her from getting pregnant, not his infertility. When she discovers the truth in episode 6, she asks to get on top while they are having sex, and refuses to get off of him when he tells her to, knowingly ignoring his retraction of consent. Some have argued that this is scene depicts a sexual assault, or in the very least, presents a complicated issue surrounding consent. 

Bridgerton has some questionable characterizations of Black characters. For example, the Black characters with the most screen time, Simon and Marina (Ruby Barker), are both light-skinned. Simon’s father (Richard Pepple), is a dark-skinned Black man who abused his son and was overall emotionally absent and distant. This, coupled with the subplot of Simon’s supposed infertility, which is really a ruse to mask his distaste for the possibility of being a father, creates a problematic portrayal of Black fatherhood and promotes harmful stereotypes. 

Simon’s only Black friend is a lower class boxer, who gets just enough screen time to show that Simon still has connections to an ambiguous and unexplored past, outside of high-society. Simon’s mother dies in childbirth. While the show is supposed to be romantic, it’s interesting that none of the Black women in the show have a successful (or even hopeful) love story. Marina, who gets pregnant out of wedlock, is suicidal after her love interest dies overseas, and then gets snubbed by Daphne’s brother. Lady Danbury and Queen Charlotte have a few witty one liners and a lot of gaudy ball-gowns, but not much other character development. Bridgerton’s  one redeeming character is the Black dressmaker, Genevieve Delacroix (Kathryn Dysdale), who plays a central role in the intrigue with the discovery of who Lady Whistledown is (the gossip columnist who chronicles the scandals of the lives of England’s elite members). Still, she’s a minor character. 

It seems odd to me that this is an alternate history, where there’s no racism (it was defeated by love) but where there is still sexism and patriarchal structure. In fact, the entire show is driven by the need for the main character, Daphne Bridgerton, to find a husband that her brother approves of, in order to keep the family’s reputation (and income) intact. At one point, Daphne gives an impassioned speech to Simon, her love interest, about how her position is much more precarious in society than his, due to her gender. This speech made me wince a little bit, especially when taking into account how precarious Simon’s position must be as a Black man, as he points out himself in the conversation with Lady Danbury. 

In other words, we can create a fantasy world where people of color exist in positions of power and influence, but we can’t create one where women can make their own money? Or, in the very least, where women  can be seen as more than objects and commodities in a marriage market? On the surface, seeing all of the powerful women at the forefront of the show, especially Queen Charlotte, Lady Danbury, Marina, and Genevieve, makes the series appear progressive, but as I mentioned earlier, the fleshing out of these characters is lacking. Simply having Black characters in a show to fill a diversity quota isn’t the same thing as actually promoting inclusion and representation.

At the same time, Bridgerton does include Black characters in a very normalized way, giving on-screen representation which, whatever the intentions may be, has a positive impact for younger viewers. In an interview about the show, Rege-Jean Paige said this about his role: “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.”

I agree, and I think in this respect, the show does a great job. Black characters shouldn’t have to constantly be the victims of horrific acts to earn a place in story-telling, whether it be historical or modern fiction. Of course, creating a ‘post-racial’ world in a historical setting can be tricky, especially when the plot is supposed to be about anything but the surface level intrigue. Bridgerton could be described as a sort of fantasy, rather than a reimagined historical fiction. Using this ‘fantasy’ label, I can understand the draw the show has; it’s not real, so just suspend your disbelief and enjoy the fun characters and silky, colorful costumes. 

The showrunner’s adamant approach that the show is ‘post-racial’ makes that hard to do. We can make fun shows with diverse casts without making a huge claim about being a beacon of equity and inclusion. Bridgerton’s existence isn’t proof that we are living in a post-racial world, where no one sees color. And anyways, being ‘colorblind’ ignores the problem of racism and it isn’t the solution. When it comes to consciously casting shows with people of color, being ‘colorblind,’ and simply finding the best actor for the role can serve a positive purpose; but even then, we need to be careful about how easy it is to slip into racist stereotyping. 

Golda Roshuevel, who plays Queen Charlotte, remarked that regardless of whether the real Charlotte was mixed race or had African ancestry, Bridgerton’s inclusion of Black characters: “was revolutionary, I think. Nobody can say it can’t be done now. You know what I mean? That dialogue of ‘there isn’t enough time, and there aren’t people out there that can do it, or they don’t understand,’ that’s gone out the window.”

Ultimately, this was the sentiment behind Bridgerton’s characters, and it is true that there’s no denying the ability for casting to involve people of color, no matter the setting, time period, or plot of the the show. How they are written and depicted is the more nuanced, difficult aspect that can easily tip over into problematic territory. Bridgerton is an example of a series that, in the very least, marks a shift towards a new era of TV where representation is foregrounded. 

So, the only time race is mentioned, it’s mentioned by Black characters to ‘explain’ why they are there…but I thought the whole point was creating an atmosphere where Black characters don’t have to explain their presence? White characters never mention or acknowledge this apparently culture-changing monarchical shift. 

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