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After premiering to acclaim, Bridgerton is facing scrutiny for its handling of race and consent

  • Vox

    The Shondaland period drama was widely praised ahead of its Christmas Day premiere. "Many of the TV critics who liked Bridgerton framed it as silly, raunchy, overheated escapism, and seemed to be operating within the assumption that romance fiction is frothy and unserious by default — never something that can have serious artistic merit, capable of delivering profound views of society," says Aja Romano. "Yet Bridgerton has seen something of a reappraisal post-release. Since the show’s premiere, the response has transformed into something more considered. Some have begun to question the show’s approach to one nonconsensual sex scene, while most zeroed in on the show’s tricky handling of race. Bridgerton is almost — but not quite — an alternate historical universe, one where a colorblind view of society prevails. But it doesn’t always stick to this conceit, and that inconsistency has clearly complicated interpretations of the show. Particularly, early rounds of praise for the show’s diversity have given way to arguments that the show handles race clumsily." Romano adds: "Most of the characters of color in Bridgerton’s main ensemble suffer from a lack of both interiority and context outside of their relationships to white characters. Among them, only Simon (Regé-Jean Page) and his mentor Lady Danbury (Adoja Andoh) seem to have fully settled into society. But even here, Bridgerton is conspicuously light on details. Lady Danbury’s entire character motivation is essentially packed into one speech about her determination to rise through society — and while it’s a great speech, it’s hardly enough to contextualize her role, or how she manages to maneuver so effortlessly among a social circle full of manipulative white people. Our hero Simon gets plenty of screen time, but his characterization is patchy. Other characters make reference to his mysterious years of travel abroad, vague experiences from which he seems to have returned fully formed and in command of his fate. But apart from glimpsing his formative childhood trauma, we see nothing of the turning points in his life. Simon’s best friend Will, a boxer, is essentially just there as a device to fuel one white family’s narrative and to remind Simon of his (mysterious) ties to the working-class Black community. Another Black character, Marina, has a major storyline, but she, too, is ultimately placed in the story solely to further the narrative of white characters...If you’re wondering how well a storyline about white privilege works in a supposedly escapist colorblind fantasy AU, you’ve arrived at the crux of the debate surrounding Bridgerton: Is it effective to have a superficial acknowledgment of systemic racism in historical fiction that’s otherwise setting itself up as a fantasy? It is, in a nutshell, the Hamilton question — does historicity matter if the lack of historical accuracy is part of the point? — but this time applied to a story that is much less clear about what it wants to be."

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    • Bridgerton was made to empower white women: "Bridgerton was made for white women who like historical romance, but are open to some diversity," says Nikki Brueggeman. It is Pride and Prejudice, with a bit of an edge. Although the show is set in 1813, it does something a bit different by allowing Black people to hold positions of social power within the world. However, it also awkwardly ignores racial dynamics, giving us a show that caters to the white woman gaze. The show tries to carefully craft a color blind world where Black people are part of the nobility. However, it falls hard on old tropes of race that elevate white women and their sexuality. It is in this way, that the show is not groundbreaking. It is a show that empowers toxic white womanhood. Bridgerton places White women on a pedestal. In the show, white women have privileged problems...Bridgerton gives the white female characters room to lead enriching lives and grow...The Black women of Bridgerton? They deal with raising someone else’s child, pregnancy, and dealing with a mentally unstable husband."
    • Bridgerton practically ignores the race of its characters, except for a few vague references: "It’s disingenuous to say their race doesn’t matter in this world, when the most prominent and numerous people are white," says Carolyn Hinds. "If race truly didn’t matter, there would be an equal number of Black, Asian, Middle Eastern, Latinx etc. and white people represented in the show. But there aren’t, and the same goes for dialogue. The majority of the speaking roles belong to the white actors. The three Black characters with the most significant screen time are the male lead Simon (Regé-Jean Page), my favorite character Lady Dansbury (Adjoa Andoh) and Marina Thompson (Ruby Barker). (The fact that two of them are light-skinned is something we’ll get into in a bit.) You can’t say race isn’t of consequence when the world these characters inhabit was created in part through racism. The money to build the show’s white row houses in Bath, the grand country estates and the palace came from the slave trade. Yes, slavery exists in this world, so how could race not matter? Having Black people strolling around in the background doesn’t erase that, and it’s not enough. It means that the topic is relevant and should be addressed accordingly. Race matters when villainous story lines are given to Black characters. Consciously or not, (Creator Chris) Van Dusen’s creative team gave almost all of the Black characters with speaking lines negative attributes and beliefs that place them at odds with the white main characters."
    • Despite its diversity, Bridgerton idealizes whiteness: "The more I binged Bridgerton, the more discomfort I felt. Lady Danbury’s weird interracial-love-conquers-racism speech in episode 4 was the first red flag," says Ruth Terry. "Mentioning racism undercut the show’s blissfully colorblind approach, and I shuddered to think what White viewers would take away from her simplistic message. While I loved seeing characters who look like (biracial) me, I recognized that anyone much darker than me would not have the same experience. That’s because in Bridgerton, the darker your skin, the less likely you are to be a well-developed character we can root for."
    • Why is Bridgerton so hard on Black women?: "The more revealing measure of Bridgerton is how it treats its Black female characters," says Alyssa Rosenberg. "The Duke of Hastings’ mother dies in childbirth. Queen Charlotte, fleetingly the object of nation-transforming romantic passion, is now mostly just bored and lonely; her husband spends most of his time in a fantasy world. Another Black female character is impregnated out of wedlock, falls prey to a cruel deception, attempts suicide, discovers her lover has died in the Napoleonic Wars and eventually agrees to a loveless match with his brother. Readers of the Quinn romance novels on which the show is based will know that the character eventually succeeds in killing herself in a subsequent book. Bridgerton could, of course, make a different choice in a future season. While Bridgerton does, in its first season, include one Black woman who is happily married and a sexually and financially independent Black dressmaker, the closest a significant Black female character comes to happiness on Bridgerton is the formidable Lady Danbury. She’s a lot of fun on screen: an independent older woman who enjoys slinging barbs at other people and encouraging the Duke of Hastings to loosen up. But she is not a romantic heroine, just one of the forces behind someone else’s union. For a show that is explicitly being sold as both a romance aimed at women and a groundbreaking exploration of race, it’s striking that Bridgerton, at least in its first season, so explicitly excludes Black women from grand stories of true love. The show is a beautiful, tempting confection. It’s a shame this particular ingredient is so stale."
    • Bridgerton has too many irksome aspects: "After a few episodes, I found some elements of the series to be irksome," says Brooke Marine. "But there was one prevailing problem with which I took issue. The rules that the world of Bridgerton asks its viewers to accept—namely, it being a historically accurate reflection of high society from that era—are flimsy, and transferring contemporary American politics to characters from 19th century London has implications in the current moment that cannot be taken lightly. The cartoonish fantasy and romance in Bridgerton aren’t the problem—people, living isolated in their homes while a virus ravages the planet, need both of those things acutely right now. Why else do you think Emily in Paris was such a success, despite being ridiculed by critics at every turn? Escapism is a necessity at the moment, and while we’re choosing our own adventures at home, there are legions of viewers who would prefer to go full Shondaland fantasy (Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal fans know what this means) than dive into something like The Mandalorian. So, no, it’s not quite the genre itself that poses a problem. It’s the inconsistent racial politics, queer baiting (in 2020!), and generally awkward, cringeworthy sex that make Bridgerton a misfire for me."
    • Bridgerton wants to explore consent while it ignores its own glaring consent issue: "In the two decades since the book’s release, much of society has become more aware of what is and isn’t consensual sex, and the show deliberately made changes to the scene to make it less explicitly nonconsensual," says Aja Romano. "That indicates to me that Van Dusen and his fellow creatives knew the problems with the scene they were adapting. But the version of this scene that ended up in the show is still nonconsensual, despite the tweaks. And although it’s framed as a serious violation of trust between consenting parties, it passes without any explicit acknowledgment on the show’s part that what just occurred was a deeply disturbing violation of consent."
    • Bridgerton's success proves that people of color do not have to be erased or exist solely as victims of racism in order for a British costume drama to flourish: "Bridgerton provides a blueprint for British period shows in which Black characters can thrive within the melodramatic story lines, extravagant costumes and bucolic beauty that make such series so appealing, without having to be servants or enslaved. This could in turn create openings for gifted performers who have avoided them in the past," says Salamishah Tillet. She adds: "For all its innovations, Bridgerton has its own blind spots. I found it strange that it is only the Black characters who speak about race, a creative decision that risks reinforcing the very white privilege it seeks to undercut by enabling its white characters to be free of racial identity."
    • The sex on Bridgerton is not good sex: "We really need to talk about those love scenes, because I regret to inform you that the sex depicted within … is bad," says Melanie McFarland. "Nobody should want to have sex like that. Ladies, you deserve better – and for that matter, so do you gentlemen.
    • Bridgerton intimacy coordinator Lizzy Talbot describes the work she did for one sex scene: "I’m cheating and saying a montage: There’s a montage at the beginning of episode six, and there’s a lot of work we did in the rain — outside, in the middle of the night, in Regency costume, which included corsets and long boots, and clothes that do not come off as easily as modern clothing does. There’s a scene outside in a stone folly, and there are two wet actors, in the middle of the night," she says. "Even though it was August, it was very cold that evening. There were so many things that had to be taken into consideration. How do you keep the actors warm? How do you re-create the fact that they’re just coming in from rain, so the hair and the makeup department has to work really hard to keep re-creating this dew."
    • Phoebe Dynevor says the intimacy coordinator made her sex scene "safe and fun": "It’s crazy to me that (an intimacy coordinator) hasn’t been there in the past," she says. "I’ve done sex scenes before that I can’t believe I did: it was only five or six years ago, but it would not be allowed now."
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    • Bridgerton has a boxing problem: "I'll cut straight to the chase," says Sam Haysom. "Why is it that whenever the characters are bare knuckle fighting — including regularly, full-on punching each other in the face — nobody comes away with even the slightest blemish?"
    • Bridgerton is the new contender for most distracting instrumental pop soundtrack: Ariana Grande's song about Pete Davidson just doesn't work in a period drama, says Brady Langmann. "In other words: You've been punted from Bridgerton's beautiful world of make-believe, back to hyperawareness of pandemic world and the kinda-busted couch your ass is about to fall through," he says. "You realize that Bridgerton, for all of its triumphs—including a hell of a performance from its leading man, Regé-Jean Page, who just might be the next James Bond, people—has one fatal flaw, one that all the townspeople of our shared Bridgerton Netflix watch party must be gossiping about. The deployment of The Misplaced Instrumental Cover. If you've watched a few episodes of Bridgerton, it's hard not to notice."
    • Bridgerton music director Alexandra Patsavas defends using modern songs from Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish: "It just seemed like a fun, cheeky way to score that scene," she says. "Of course, you hear the lyrics in your head. The lyrics are being whispered subliminally."

    TOPICS: Bridgerton, Netflix, Chris Van Dusen, Nicola Coughlan, Phoebe Dynevor, Regé-Jean Page, Shonda Rhimes, African Americans and TV, Diversity, Sex, Shondaland




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