Guilty as charged – I binged Bridgerton. The first Netflix-Shonda Rhimes production is essentially a Jane Austen-meets-Gossip Girl-meets-softcore-porn soap opera. Was this the best television I’ve watched in a while? I mean, no. But it’s certainly given us a lot to talk about.
Spoilers follow for Bridgerton Season 1
By far the most talked about aspect of this show is its inclusion of Black characters. Let’s be clear – this show is set in Regency London’s high society i.e. the ton, which includes Black members of its elite and middle classes. The makers of the show defend this decision (Julia Quinn’s books upon which the series is based makes no mention of Black of characters) by calling it a re-imagined world and fantasy. What immediately comes to mind is how proper fantasy shows like Game of Thrones or The Witcher hardly ever feature Black characters – Night Kings and immortal witches are more realistic than Black people ever rising beyond the role of slave or servant.
But what does this actually all mean? Aside from irritating literary purists, lovers of ‘traditional’ period dramas and/or racists – is the inclusion of Black characters in a show like Bridgerton radical, important or even that significant? While it’s tempting to say “YES!”, the answer to this question is more of a “Well, kind of yes, but also no” because of the way this show deals with race.
First up, we have the blatant colorism. Of the show’s three Black leads, both Marina Thompson (Ruby Barker) and the Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page) are light-skinned and Bridgerton feeds directly into notions that BIPOCs who have more caucasian features are more desirable. The chief villain in the series (the Duke’s father played by Richard Pepple) also happens to be a dark-skinned Black man and is the stereotypical image of the Black father who abandons his son.
But it isn’t just Hastings Senior who is a Black character at odds with his white counterparts -pretty much every Black character is portrayed somewhat negatively. Marina is the loose woman who gets pregnant out of wedlock and then hatches a plot to get the ultimate nice guy, Colin Bridgerton (Luke Newton) to marry her. The Duke of Hastings wants to exact revenge on his father by not continuing the family line. He tells his prospective bride Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) that he cannot have children and leaves her feeling betrayed when she finds out the truth. Madame Delacroix (Kathryn Drysdale) is the deceitful dressmaker who pretends that she is French to secure more clients. Then there is the boxer Will, (Martins Imhangbe) who fixes a boxing match for money resulting in the death of Lord Featherington (Ben Miller). Even Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) is mean, cold and constantly asking whether her husband has finally kicked the bucket.
The only saving grace is the real queen Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh), a formidable aristocrat who mentors the Duke, throws fabulous parties and is the only character who is secure in her own authenticity. I feel like we need an entire series dedicated to her as she is by far the most interesting…
Other criticisms include why there are main characters who are Black but no other truly visible non-Black people of color. While this is true – and it was mega-cringy that the conductor of the opera’s orchestra was Asian and the doctor who delivered the Duke was Indian – I don’t believe we can or should expect Shonda Rhimes, a Black woman, to carry the burden of representation in its totality.
The main problem with regard to race is that race is in fact mostly ignored. Aside from a fleeting comment by Lady Danbury in Episode 4, there are no discussions, observations or contextual explanations for a society that is quite diverse. The Bridgerton-world clearly has issues around class and socio-economic standing, but apparently race is just not a thing. Are we to believe that all races and ethnicities co-exist peacefully with not so much as a racial slur or subtle prejudice emerging from either the white or Black characters? One such blindspot is the way we are expected to believe that Daphne’s brother, Viscount Anthony Bridgerton (Johnathan Bailey) takes issue with Hastings courting Daphne simply because he sleeps around (and is what they call a “rake”). It’s quite unbelievable that race has nothing to do with it, especially given what we know of Anthony already. His approval or lack thereof with regard to Daphne’s suitors brings us to the next part of this review – mahrams.
Now while there is variation on this point based on cultural and familial background – Muslims of varying religiosity all giggled or rolled their eyes at the presence of Bridgerton’s version of a mahram. In Islam, a mahram is a type of protector because he is a man a woman cannot marry for the following reasons:
- he is a blood relative
- he is a relative through marriage
- he is her milk-brother
Typically a mahram acts as a chaperone when two people are courting, and as we learn in Bridgerton, chaperones are kind of crucial. The unmarried women of the ton are dependent on their version of mahram for money, permission to accept invitations, even arriving and leaving social engagements. While it is not the case that one’s mahram is automatically one’s wali (legal guardian entrusted to facilitate the marriage contract), in Bridgerton Anthony certainly is. The trouble is that he is so clearly unable to secure a good match for his sister, nor does he understand what finding a prospective spouse for her might look like. The parallels between this and the marriage process of many Muslims are numerous, and if one doesn’t have a clueless go-between like Anthony, one may also have a wali who is simply not interested, like Lord Featherington.
Jokes aside, it must be said that while the nuptials set-up of Bridgerton does look vaguely Muzlamic, there are important differences that should be noted.
Firstly, marriage is not based on some ‘coming-out’ season, where virginal girls are presented for marriage. In Islam, marriage is fair-game for widows, divorcées – you name it, in spite of the stigma attached these and other categories of women.
Secondly, while certain toxic culture reinforces the notion that men can “sow their oats” and women must remain chaste – the Qur’an commands both believing men and women to keep sexual activity within the confines of a marriage.
Thirdly, while no one would disagree that marriage has fiduciary implications, we need to discuss the matter of dowery. In Bridgerton much is made of the dowery i.e. wealth transferred from the bride’s family to the groom or his family.
A huge mess of things has been made by translating the Islamic mahr as a dowery. No, people. Get it right – a mahr is better translated as being a dower, that is to say wealth that is given to the bride herself by the groom at the time of the marriage, which will forever remain under her control. The mahr (also called mohr, mehir or mahriyeh) is an essential condition for the legality of marriage in Islam, but by throwing around the word “dowry” we blur what this condition actually stipulates.
What is not so different, however, is the way we continue to attach value to a woman based on whether or not she is married. We all like to pretend it isn’t so, but ask any of your single, Muslim female friends over the age of 25 – and you’ll get some insight.
“You have no idea what it is to be a woman. What it might be like to have ones entire life reduced to a single moment,” says Daphne to her brother in a way that rings true today. Similarly, many of the quips made to and about the unmarried women of the ton are the very same things we are told by family and the mainstream media when it comes to securing a man. Things like:
“What she is is two stone heavier than she ought to be.”
“She’s rather dowdy, is she not?”
“Where one suitor goes, the rest will surely follow.”
“What others should ever want such damaged goods now?”
“You managed to scare every worthy suitor away.”
These off-side comments are counterbalanced with proto-feminist (and often dull) declarations primarily delivered by Eloise Bridgerton (Claudia Jessie). It is her friendship with Penelope Featherington (Nicola Coughlan) that provides some of the more sweeter parts of this show and as Pen has been presented to society and Eloise has not, we see the often difficult part of early female friendships where one friend is still a girl and the other is on the cusp of womanhood. In Episode 2, Pen asks:
“Mama, might I go and play with Eloise?”
Her overbearing mother (Polly Walker) replies, “A lady does not play, Penelope” to which Pen responds,
“Forgive me, Mama. Might I go promenade for suitors with Eloise?”
In the same episode Eloise and Pen go on a quest to find out how babies are made so that they can avoid getting pregnant before marriage. The best answer they get is that women get pregnant because of love. With Google at our fingertips, it’s hard to imagine a world where even the most basic sex ed is unavailable to women, yet we often forget that even today, many women live in ignorance with regard to menstruation, sex, consent and reproduction. My friend Saira, an American of Pakistani descent who does advocacy work across the Indian subcontinent tells me, “For those of us who have grown up in Western society, it can be difficult to believe that some women are just as ignorant as the women in Bridgerton. It’s like the Duke says, he cannot believe how little mothers teach their daughters. My most recent work has been in Pakistan, where there is no sex education and the topic remains frighteningly taboo. The common narrative goes as follows ‘Our children do not indulge in premarital sex, so why teach them about it?’ or ‘Our generation was fine without it’ or ‘This is a plot to westernize our society and undermine our culture and values’.”
While I absolutely appreciate Bridgerton for reminding us of this, the show is not without its faults on this front either. I refer to Episode 6 which is mostly made up of various montages of Daphne and the Duke having sex, but it’s one scene towards the end of the episode that has incited furious debate on the internet. Does Daphne assault her husband? The show never really deals with what many are calling rape. It is for this and other reasons that Elizabeth Bennett will always be far more of a feminist heroine than Daphne Bridgerton – her actions are questionable and even without that particular scene, I simply do not buy into her.
Aesthetics and Escapism
Clearly, I’ve thought a lot about this show since watching it and I must say that on the entertainment front, Netflix and showrunner Chris Van Dusen have clearly delivered. It’s been a long time since I’ve been mesmerized by lavish sets, plentiful buffet tables and gorgeous costumes. While some of the dresses are firmly in Reign territory, that is to say not really era appropriate at all in terms of fabric and cut, costume designer Ellen Mirojnick has done a superb job. Similarly, the music is terrific – the string quartet versions of Ariana Grande’s thank u, next and rest of the soundtrack is now my go-to on Spotify.
In many ways, this show could not have come at a better time – lockdowns, winter and general feelings of gloom make Bridgerton something of a delight to indulge in, notwithstanding it’s more cringeworthy and problematic aspects. And like the majority of the 63 million households that watched the show, I am (embarrassingly enough) waiting for Season 2.