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Queen Charlotte's Women Believe in Good Sex, But They're Not Quite Free

Shonda Rhimes' feisty Bridgerton prequel can't escape colonialism.
  •  India Amarteifio and Corey Mylchreest in Queen Charlotte (Photo: Liam Daniel/Netflix)
    India Amarteifio and Corey Mylchreest in Queen Charlotte (Photo: Liam Daniel/Netflix)

    To answer burning questions first: Yes, Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story does feature good-looking, shirtless men, naked bottoms, and steamy scenes. In that way, it’s an obvious part of the Bridgerton universe. However, the new series adds texture by addressing issues that were conspicuously avoided by the original incarnation of the frothy Netflix drama. And because executive producer Shonda Rhimes actually writes these episodes — a rarity on many of her recent projects — they benefit from her flair for engrossing action and complex characters. Even when it doesn’t reach its ambitious goals, the show is never just dry background reading for the fans.

    Both a prequel and a sequel, the series visits Bridgerton characters before and after the events of the original. At the center are the young Queen Charlotte (India Ria Amarteifio), who comes to England as the wife of King George (Corey Mylchreest), and the older Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel), who badgers her many children, begging them to provide her an heir. Younger and older versions of Lady Danbury, Viscountess Bridgerton, and Brimsley also appear, but it’s the relationship between the monarchs that generates the most heat.

    Bridgerton has already told us that Queen Charlotte’s marriage with an ailing King George lasts for years, but the plot still finds intrigue in the young couple’s travails as they try to balance their love, lust, and longing with the duties and codes mandated by their social standing. The new series details the king’s sickness and how it gets worse, thanks to the era’s inhuman mental health practices. At the same time, it explores the couple’s burn-down-everything, charge-on-in-sickness-and-in-health love. It’s radical within a society that sees marriage as a contract to either acquire land or produce heirs.

    While Bridgerton took a post-racial approach, Queen Charlotte presents a society where the race of its characters is fundamental to their stories. The king’s marriage to the Black princess from Germany is not treated as a norm. It’s part of “The Great Experiment” — spearheaded by the king’s mother and the British government — which gives rich people of color access to the hallowed aristocratic and royal spaces that have previously been inaccessible to them.

    To that end, people of color — like young Lady Danbury (Arsema Thomas) and her husband Lord Herman Danbury (Cyril Nri) — are given noble titles, though it’s undecided whether those titles will be hereditary. Within the strict confines of an extremely moneyed class, the show’s engagement with race is perhaps Rhimes’ response to criticism of Queen Charlotte’s predecessor for ignoring it altogether. It is still a series about very rich people with rich people problems, but it doesn’t have the same, fantastical premise that racial hierarchies don’t exist.

    Addressing race also lets Rhimes bring vitality to the very beige world of the white royals. The Black women flaunt their hair in its natural glory, unrepressed by Britishness; the colors they wear are vivid and vibrant, their dresses extravagant. But sometimes the show’s experiment falters, reinforcing stereotypes. In spite of his regal pedigree, Lord Danbury, complete with fake wrinkles and a bad wig, is depicted as an oversexed, uncaring, old Black man. There has to be a world that presents Blackness in all its complexity without pitting the women against the men, especially when everyone is harmed by the viciousness of white supremacy.

    Queen Charlotte fares better when it depicts female friendships. It richly depicts the connections among Violet Bridgerton (Ruth Gemmell), Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh), and Queen Charlotte — from their girlhood into their present day. Violet and Lady Danbury particularly talk of their sexual needs with intimate frankness. They liken their urges to a garden in bloom which, Lady Danbury insists, needs to be “nurtured fiercely.” Within the stiff-upper-lip rigidity of their society — the rampant promiscuity of its male members notwithstanding — this candor between older female friends is delightful and refreshing. And it’s even more affecting because it’s echoed by a moment when young Lady Danbury befriends the young queen, drawing charcoal diagrams to prepare her for “consummation.”

    It feels radical to see these women look at sex as something pleasurable after living out their lives in a society that is obsessed with childbirth and maintaining bloodlines. As vivacious as she is, young Agatha Danbury’s entire existence is dedicated to a loveless marriage in which her only job is satisfying her husband. And no matter how much she loves her husband, Charlotte is picked as a suitable bride because her hips look good enough to bear many children. In her old age, the queen’s biggest anxiety is the fact that none of her offspring are having babies of their own, making her fearful that her husband’s line will end. Through the timely dispatches of the narrator and local gossip Lady Whistledown (voiced as always by Julie Andrews), this anxiety soon becomes the town’s biggest worry and hottest tea.

    Frankly, it can be hard to watch a series that treats the societal control of women’s bodies as the subject of a soap opera. In 2023 — in a country where women, queer people, and trans people are routinely losing their autonomy — Queen Charlotte’s fixation on women and wombs can feel akin to The Handmaid’s Tale. With Shonda Rhimes at the helm, that tension and fear are of course undercut with levity and even resistance. (There is a scene in which the Queen’s children accuse her of being a bad mother who is only obsessed with heirs.) There is no denying, however, that this is a story of a brutal colonial empire served with a varnish of joy. It is also a story of systemic misogyny that is presented as history, but is very much a tragic part of the present, both for women and for postcolonial citizens.

    Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story premieres May 4 on Netflix. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Bedatri D. Choudhury is a journalist and a film programmer. Born and raised in India, she lives in New York City.

    TOPICS: Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story, Netflix, Bridgerton, India Amarteifio, Shonda Rhimes