Bridgerton (Season 1): Representation and Romanticising Race

Dearest Reader,

In the high-society debutant balls of entertainment, it is certainly no secret that the first season of Bridgerton (2020) caught the eyes of everyone when it crossed our Netflix screens this holiday season adorned in decadent set pieces, exquisite costumes and wigs, spicy romance, and the fresh promise of re-envisaged racial history of 1813’s Regency Era in Britain. Since its ostentatious and ambitious debut, Bridgerton has undoubtedly been among the most talked about series hanging on everybody’s lips and burning through our minds and Netflix recommendation lists.

Created by Mister Chris Van Dusen and produced by Miss Shonda Rhimes based on the novels by Miss Julia Quinn, Bridgerton is a historical period drama of a delicate young woman by the name of Lady Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) as she embarks on a new social season of the marriage market when she crosses paths with the ravishing Lord Simon Basset (Regé-Jean Page), the Duke of Hastings and the most attractive bachelor in all the land. Meanwhile, a tabloid tycoon and master pot-stirrer by the name of Lady Whistledown (voiced by Julie Andrews) operates incognito and circulates a scintillating society newsletter documenting the scandalous events of the social season.

There is much aflutter with the characters and narratives of Bridgerton from the fiery and at times morally questionable scenes of lascivious desire to the conspicuous social commentary on gender roles. The time now, my dear reader, is for this author to disseminate his own analysis on the debutant series by choosing to focus on the blatant romanticising of race, although a smorgasbord of other juicy topics could have just as easily been broached. The thrust of this author’s argument is that Mister Van Dusen failed in delivering a racially transformative piece, despite all professed intentions, and instead reified the romanticism of race and colourism throughout Bridgerton while suggesting that the power of love can conquer apartheid.

Netflix

It seems fitting to open this conversation with Bridgerton’s intentions pertaining to its unique racial spin on the period piece. Mister Van Dusen rather candidly confirmed that he wished for Bridgerton to be a marriage between history and fantasy. After historical analysis of the Regency Era in Britain, the showrunner discovered that a real-life Queen Charlotte was England’s first queen of mixed race heritage and that society was far more racially diverse than one may have assumed. These historical nudges prompted his novel racial conception of Bridgerton where a mixed race queen married a white king and thus empowered people of colour to take an equal place in society, a strong departure from Miss Quinn’s novels. How romantic, especially for Mister Van Dusen as a white man.

Historical fictionalisation, used aptly, is indeed a wildly imaginative narrative technique, often used to explore how history would have unfolded differently had the fictionalised past been reality. Mister Van Dusen wanted race, colour, gender and sexuality to take centre stage in his sweeping tale of love and romance. It is of course admirable for a series to explore these complex and multifaceted issues; this author would readily encourage and applaud the intention behind the exciting excavation of social identity. But, my dear reader, how did Mister Van Dusen’s noble intentions translate to our screens, pray tell? Is Bridgerton a game changer in the period drama genre for its inclusive casting? Or is its crusade of racial representation a flimsy sham?

In the first few episodes, this author perused the colourful tapestry of characters and extras and noticed that black and white characters seemingly occupied equivalent positions in society. Butlers and servants, ladies and lords, dukes and duchesses were all black and white; the population of Bridgerton was ostensibly diverse and racially eclectic. Unsurprisingly, race had not yet been tackled as a topic amongst Bridgerton’s ladies and bachelors; it was merely a stitch in the tapestry of romance and evening balls, contrary to what Mister Van Dusen had promised.

That is, until a fateful moment in Episode 4. Hopes of racial revitalisation were rekindled in this author’s critical mind when the sharp-witted and silver-tongued Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh) pow-wowed with the Duke of Hastings about the power of love and revealed that the society in Bridgerton had experienced a South African-esque apartheid!

“…have you any idea those very things [love and devotion, affection and attachment] are precisely what have allowed a new day to begin to dawn in this society? Look at our queen. Look at our king. Look at their marriage. Look at everything it is doing for us, allowing us to become. We were two separate societies, divided by color, until a king fell in love with one of us. Love, Your Grace, conquers all.”

Netflix

Lady Danbury’s candor was most refreshing and delivered on Mister Van Dusen’s promise, or so it seemed… Alas, this comment stood as a solemn island in the series where racialised plot points were few and far between, and if they existed, they were buried under the sticky gulps of lingering romance and erotic enthusiasm.

For Bridgerton to be racially conscious, the characters of colour (or black characters, as this author may use interchangeably) in the Regency Era should be given depth, nuance and multifaceted personalities equivalent to the level of depth devoted to white characters during similar period pieces. Regrettably, with the exceptions of the Duke of Hastings and perhaps Miss Marina Thompson, the black characters in Bridgerton are character-enhancing devices at best and background props at worst. For point of illustration, this author will cordially introduce each character of colour and dig as deep as he possible can.

  • Lord Simon Basset is the character of colour with whom we grow most acquainted. His past of neglect and emotional abuse is explored and appropriately related to the character we know and love in the series. The reverence and seriousness with which the character is treated is commendable, heightened by the emotional depth and charm harnessed by the talented Regé-Jean Page. This author is rather fond of him as a character.
  • Miss Marina Thompson, while portrayed adequately by Ruby Barker, was terribly limited and mostly used as a cautionary tale for pregnancy out of wedlock, circulating a stereotype of black women being promiscuous. Miss Thompson was defined by her relationship to a mysterious paramour and her desperate search for a husband to wed before her pregnancy swells to undeniable conspicuousness. Needless to say, her character was a disappointment on a racial and gendered level as she was scripted to being entirely dependent on her white family and white male suitors to achieve personal fulfilment.
  • Lady Danbury is an amusing and witty character, strong willed and supportive of her mentee Simon. Adjoa Andoh plays her perfectly with exquisite poise and elegance; however, this character is largely unknown to us. We never quite explore Lady Danbury’s character, feelings and motivations beyond her support of Simon – so much so, that this author is not even confident of her first name!
  • Her Majesty Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel), to this author, was more of a forced thematic symbol in Bridgerton than a real character. Beyond her ceremonial presence at royal events and her impressive array of wigs, she was interpersonally aloof and disconnected from the plethora of sprawling plot lines. Fleeting moments of humanising the Queen through the anguish of her marriage to the Mad King are simply not sufficient to turn a figurehead into a real person.
  • Miss Genevieve Delacroix (Kathryn Drysdale) drew this author’s interest during the speculation that she may very well be Lady Whistledown, but beyond this air of mystery and the double identity she seems to live as a working class woman who brushes the cuffs (literally) of the upper class, Miss Delacroix was not a particularly deep character whose potential was routinely underutilised.
  • Mister Will Mondrich (Martins Imhangbe), legendary boxer, primarily served as a sounding board, sparing partner, therapist, confidant, and best friend to Simon. Most scenes featuring Mister Mondrich were designed to enhance and enrich Simon’s character. Mister Mondrich loves his family and will do anything to safeguard their financial stability, but beyond this, he was a forgettable mystery.
  • Miss Alice Mondrich (Emma Naomi) is Mister Mondrich’s wife who loves her family. This author quite literally is unable to comment further.
  • The former Duke of Hastings and Simon’s father (Richard Pepple) appears briefly as a brute, bully and emotionally unavailable father to young Simon, but even with all the anger and racially charged perfectionism this character possesses, his presence was only used as a device to serve Simon’s character development. This is also an insidious circulation of the ‘absent or abusive black father’ stereotype. Hurrah for racial representation?
  • As for the former Duchess of Hastings and Simon’s mother (Daphne Di Cinto), this author had to make doubly sure that he had even seen this character on screen.
  • The main narrative person of Jeffries (Jason Barnett), the butler of Hastings, was to serve Simon. This author estimates he spoke for approximately 45 seconds during the duration of Bridgerton.
Netflix

Compare this to the motley courtyard of white characters whom the series practically swoons over. Daphne’s transformation from delicate debutant fairy to the assertive and sexually empowered Duchess of Hastings is the show’s central pillar. (Although, there has been an enormous air of abhorrence for her sexual misdeeds in Episode 6 against Lord Simon, which we shall return to in good time). Lest we forget, dear reader, the title of the series tells us all we need to know about who is most important. The Bridgerton family from Dowager Viscountess Violet Bridgerton (Ruth Gemmell), and her motherly quest to guide her blossoming daughter to Viscount Anthony Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey) and his complex character arc and tension between following his heart and fulfilling his duty to his family, we learn a great deal about the titular family.

We revel in the courageous obstinacy of Miss Eloise Bridgerton (Claudia Jessie) in her crusade to not pander to the cloying societal niceties but rather assert her independence as a woman of her own destiny. We even indulge in the lives of more periphery Bridgerton offspring from Colin (Luke Newton) and his adorable infatuations to Benedict (Luke Thompson) and his artistic exploits. The whiteness does not cease there, dear reader, for we grow quite accustomed to the Featheringtons too from brief glimpses at a marriage devoid of love to Penelope Featherington (Nicole Coughlan), a shy but bubbly girl whom the world grossly misunderstands. Even more superfluous white characters are portrayed with panache and personality such as Lady Daphne’s lady in waiting Rose (Molly McGlynn), the Queen’s secretary Brimsley (Hugo Sachs) and the Queen’s dashing nephew Prince Frederick of Prussia (Freddie Stroma).

Not only do white characters outnumber their black counterparts, but they are generally given superior dramatic attention and character depth. Remember, most eager reader, the mere presence of black bodies cannot constitute meaningful representation unless their black characters are treated as holistic, deep and complex humans with accessible needs, motives and desires. With the humble exceptions of the Lord Simon, Lady Danbury and Miss Marina Thompson, the black characters of Bridgerton have certainly been dealt the shorter straw. So far, esteemed reader, Mister Van Dusen’s promise of a racially transformative narrative is crumbling like a week-old schnitzel. But let us take a closer gaze at the black characters themselves and see who rises to the top of the heap and why.

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My dear reader, this author is sure you have heard of the notorious term ‘colourism’ before – the simultaneous favouring of lighter-skinned and discrimination against darker-skinned people of the same ethnic or racial group. This author admits in panoptic resignation that Bridgerton has dutifully pandered to the cinematic trope of colourism by how it has scaffolded the depth and importance of its black characters. Even if colourism was the show’s racial rudder only inadvertently, this still points to how indoctrinated colourism is in our cinematic expanse. Lord Simon is the most prominent black character and arguably the most important male character too. Miss Marina Thompson is the most noticeable and emotionally nuanced black woman who shows the most vulnerability. Queen Charlotte is the most powerful black character holding the highest and most influential office in all the land, save for the seat warmed by the Mad King. Even Miss Delacroix plays a surprisingly recurrent role in serving as the renowned seamstress for all the ladies lining up to have their elegant ball gowns sewn.

My dear reader, pray tell, what do all these characters share in common? They are all fairly light-skinned and possess vaguely European facial features. The actors playing these characters have mixed English/African heritage which may be a case of good casting for better connecting the actors to their racially mixed characters, but nevertheless furthers the project of colourism. Only these light-skinned black characters are enabled the closest assimilation into whiteness – Lord Simon falls madly in love with Lady Daphne and grows closer to the Bridgerton family furthered by his pre-existing friendship with Lord Anthony; Miss Marina Thompson resides in the Featherington home, develops a bond with Miss Penelope, and courts several white men; Queen Charlotte, of course, is the matriarch of this period drama to which all other white characters respect and revere; and Miss Delacroix is constantly in white proximity by virtue of her trade. The other darker-skinned black characters orbit more distantly in the racial solar system. Lady Danbury is certainly a powerful and influential character, but most of her screen time is shared with Lord Simon. Mister Will Mondrich also spends most of his time with his dear friend Lord Simon whose darker-skinned parents merely occupy a footnote in the sweeping tale of Bridgerton.

Netflix

This trend of colourism sends disempowering and divisive messages to all people of colour watching. The first of which is that only light-skinned black characters who most closely resemble white people are deemed ‘worthy’ of mixing and mingling with white characters, socially or romantically. Colourism sends another message that light-skinned characters are somehow more pure, attractive, emotional or complex than dark-skinned characters who are typically portrayed as tough, emotionless and impenetrable. In Bridgerton, the aforementioned light-skinned characters definitively showcase greater emotional range and complexity with which we can identity compared to Mister Will Mondrich, the rough-and-tumble boxer type or the enigmatic and practically mystical Lady Danbury. Furthermore, Lord Simon and Miss Marina are the only black characters who find romance with a white character. Had the showrunners deliberately scaffolded this colourism to critically comment on its pernicious effects through a compelling narrative, it would have been far more acceptable and perhaps even intelligent and poignant; but, alas dear reader, this colourism seems untamed and uninhibited.

Bridgerton most hauntingly portrays colourism in the deep, intimate, and toxic romance between Lord Simon and Lady Daphne. The system of whiteness has always preferred to favour and invite in those who most closely resemble whiteness from light skin to economic privilege to a refined and ‘civilised’ accent. This is both out of a primal urge to keep whiteness pure and homogenous so that its accompanying privilege and political power is reserved for white people, but also out of an aeons-long culture of racism and irrational fear of blackness. In cinema, the seeds were sown long ago in silent black and white films such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) which stoked the fires of racist propaganda, particularly through a shocking scene of a white woman jumping off a cliff to her death instead of being sexually assaulted by a black man (played by a white actor in blackface). Thus, festered a fear in white woman of the ‘dangerous black man’ who could be ‘lurking around the corner’ waiting to ‘pounce’ like a ‘ravenous predator’, and inspired the masculine duty of white men to ‘protect’ their ‘delicate, white flowers’ from being ‘spoiled’ by men of a darker complexion. This in turn made white woman emotional and sexual objects of desire worthy of romance and protection while relegating black woman to undesirable and unattractive positions of society, left as the survivors of rape and abuse and the omnipresence caregivers and nannies for white women and their children.

The complicated intersectionality of race and gender is dynamic and deeply ingrained into how people perceive and interact with one another, especially in the arenas of romance and sexual desire. Bridgerton boldly portrays steamy sex scenes between Lord Simon and Lady Daphne dripping with erotic yearning and crackling with burning fire. While these scenes are truly revolutionary for a period piece and are beautifully directed, gorgeously choreographed, and shot with a holy balance of romance and lust, they capture colourism remarkably. Would these sex scenes have been shot had Regé-Jean Page been darker-skinned? Regrettably, this author thinks not, for a darker-skinned actor to mix with a white woman in the most sacred and intimate of ways would be almost unthinkable given the lingering effects of The Birth of a Nation nearly a hundred years ago. There is far too much racial and gendered complexity to simply brush aside. Similarly, it would have been peculiar for Bridgerton to have portrayed raw and intimate love between a white man and a black woman – too much racial and gendered baggage has kept this pair, with the greatest disparities in power and privileged, separated which leaves most interracial heterosexual relationships on screen to white women and black men.

Netflix

This author likes to believe he is considerably sex-positive; sex is a sacred and spiritual act of love, desire, lust, romance and belonging, although these qualities of love and romance can exist outside of sex too. But this author asks you, beloved reader, whether race is something we can leave out of the bedroom given its inescapable influence of our lives and identities? Is sex not the most intimate intersection between two people and the universe of identity and experience that synthesises their very being? Can an intimate relationship based on sex or romance between lovers truly exclude something as integral as race from the human alchemy?

The controversial scene in Episode 6, where Lady Daphne deliberately mounts Lord Simon as he is about to orgasm despite his protests for her to stop, has left a sour taste in the mouths of many Bridgerton viewers for its brazen depiction of rape and violation of consent without ever properly addressing what happened after the fact. Sexual assault aside, this scene is an apt metaphor for the perils of letting race lie dormant in an interracial relationship. After the questionable scene, the show fixates on Lady Daphne’s feelings of violation for Lord Simon’s lies about his ability to father children and devotes no attention to his feelings about having been sexually ambushed. My dear reader, this is an example of how the emotions of a newly sexually empowered white woman trump the physical and bodily integrity of a black man. This parallels the overarching racial hierarchy of the series where the white characters are more central than the black ones.

My most esteemed reader, as we approach the final act of this author’s analysis, the strongest current and most pungent undertone of Bridgerton’s historical fictionalised of racial chemistry, which underpins all the observations opined thus far, is the problematic and unrealistic central message that love conquers apartheid. Lady Danbury explained it eloquently herself – London society in the Regency Era was “divided by colour, until a king fell in love with” a black woman. Not only is it absurd to suggest that one interracial marriage suddenly and miraculously ended centuries of racism and apartheid, but it is also disempowering to laud the white king as a saviour for ‘choosing’ a black woman as his bride. This is frankly insulting to the decades-long struggle of black people to seize their own freedom and liberty from apartheid systems after much hardship, violence, disenfranchisement and brutality from white governments. In fact, Lord Simon comes closest to any semblance of critical racial consciousness in the series when he replies to Lady Danbury’s comment as such:

“The King may have chosen his queen. He may have elevated us from novelties in their eyes to now dukes and royalty, and at that same whim, he may just as easily change his mind…”

But, of course, this topic is never explored again by Lord Simon or Lady Danbury. How disappointing.

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Bridgerton’s lofty sentiment claims that love is apparently so strong that it transcends the immutable differences between us with reckless disregard to colour, creed, ethnicity, or background by simply ignoring them. How romantic, Bridgerton. While the master narrative may hover on the embers of burning interracial romance between the Duke and Duchess of Hastings, it does not explore the racial aspect of their love in any meaningful way. How refreshing it would have been to have had Daphne and Simon’s relationship grapple with the intersectional complexities of their love, instead of blinking past race as if it did not matter. Their relationship is deep and complex, rest assured dear reader, this author does not deny the compelling and visceral layers of their smouldering love. However, the proverbial elephant in their boudoir was hardly glanced at even though it was promised to be the revolutionary aspect of the series.

This author thinks it naïve to suggest that love can simply conquer apartheid and erase its pervasive and pernicious stains with the wave of a magic colour-blind wand. Love is not so foolish. This author believes in true love between human beings. True and passionate love is not afraid to confront the intersecting social identities in its fortunate lovers. Real and three-dimensional love is about recognising those factors in life that divide us, being race, gender, socio-economic status, nationality, or upbringing, and through engaging with them confidently and sensitively, finding a way for these identities to fold into one another to create new patterns of love and understanding – not bashfully turning a blind eye to the bare realities of our social existence.

Love is powerful and may very well move mountains and transcend racism; however, certainly not by ignoring it as Bridgerton has suggested. To truly love someone is to see fully them and everything that makes up who they are, especially race in our contemporary society pretending to be ‘post-racial’. To not see race is to not see love. To love through race, and not in spite of it, is the long-lasting, passionate, and honouring type of love to be savoured and relished and celebrated. Love is too brave and bold to wear a blindfold – it looks life in the eyes and finds a way forward with the passion and vigour of one person truly burning for another. Love is about sharing and discovering each other’s worlds, not pretending they are immaterial.  

This author would like to bear his soul to you, trusted reader. This author has had experiences of love which have crossed racial boundaries. He appreciates the importance of a mutual and collaborative journey where both partners are able to share and discover each other completely. This author has had the privilege of witnessing the great love between his parents, white and Indian respectively, who have embarked on a twenty-five year journey of sharing and discovering each other’s worlds through truly seeing each other, race, and all. This author proudly identifies himself as mixed race which honours his heritage and acknowledges both his whiteness and his blackness as encapsulated by his double-barreled surname. This author loves to see mixed race characters on a similar journey as he – recognising, appreciating, and embracing their mixed heritage and living and loving other people with their mixedness harmoniously integrated into their being. This author is a lover of true love’s greatest superpower: acceptance in completeness. This is why this author was justifiably crestfallen when Mister Van Dusen’s pledge to explore a new racial society flowing from a racially empowering mixed race queen in a white world fizzled out.

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Bridgerton is glamorous and decadent, bursting with a talented cast and assured direction in a kaleidoscopic array of colours, costumes, wigs and set pieces that vividly bring London in 1813 to life in spectacular marvel. The series also resoundingly succeeds in its modern and sleek style through orchestral contemporary pop songs scoring its ball room scenes; its examination of celebrity, gossip and cancel culture; and its fleeting reflections on femininity and the rigidity of gender roles. And, lest we forget, narration by the remarkable Julie Andrews will always be an asset to any series.

However, my dear reader, this author hopes that it has become abundantly clear that while Bridgerton proudly claimed to be the definitive transformative period drama romance through revolutionising racial relations in the Regency Era, it inadvertently doubles down on its promise and instead reified and reinforced ingrained patterns of superficial representation, colourism and an uncritical exploration into the dynamics of an interracial couple.

This author awaits Season 2 of Bridgerton in attentive anticipation as to how Mister Van Dusen, Miss Shonda Rhimes and the creative team will follow up on their debut season and hopes they will listen to the voices of many viewers who have been vocal about their grievances with the series thus far. This author also wonders what role race will play come Season 2. Will race be romanticised, will romanticism be e-raced, or will romance and race romantically embrace? Only time will tell.

This author is sure that you, dear reader, have cultivated your own opinions on Bridgerton and would very much be inclined to hear your whispers or your shouts, whichever volume with which you are so affiliated. Please do place a comment below – perhaps Lady Whistledown will include it in the next issue of the society papers?

Yours truly,

Yuri Behari-Leak

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