The Broken Promises of “Bridgerton”

TV
The show portrays a racially diverse society, but papers over white-supremacist interracial sexual assault and violence. Was there another way?

Like many other viewers, I was drawn to Bridgerton because it portrayed a racially diverse British society, offering a more accurate reflection of the Regency period than our typical representations. Throughout, we see Black and brown people in various social positions, including nobility. These are prominently represented by three characters: Simon Bassett, the Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page); Marina Thompson, a young debutante (Ruby Barker); and Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh), who raised Simon. Britain also has a Black queen (Golda Rosheuvel).1 She is the arbiter of good taste and rules in place of King George III, who is struggling with mental illness; their marriage has unified a racially divided society.

Show creator Chris Van Dusen claims that race is central to the narrative, but that the show is also an escape from everyday life.2 This escapism, in part, explains the show’s unwillingness to engage race in any meaningful way, other than diverse casting. Bridgerton papers over histories of white-supremacist interracial sexual assault and violence.

Bridgerton follows Daphne, the eldest daughter of the upper-class Bridgerton family, as she attempts to find a husband on the London marriage mart. Threatened by the local gossip sheet—written by the anonymous Lady Whistledown—Daphne and the young Duke of Hastings, the new most eligible bachelor in society, hatch a scheme. Together, they will find Daphne a perfect match; they will also divert the attentions of other ladies away from the duke, so he can settle his deceased father’s affairs. Unbeknownst to Daphne, the duke is traumatized by his father’s neglect and has vowed never to marry or have children. However, this plan—unsurprisingly—ends in love, marriage, and children for the duke and Daphne, but not without twists, turns, and a fair share of violence. One of Bridgerton’s secondary plots is a love story between Marina and Daphne’s brother Colin. Marina is pregnant when her father sends her to Grosvenor Square, and, under the direction of Lady Featherington, attempts to marry Colin before he finds out she is pregnant with another man’s child. Marina ultimately marries her lover’s brother after her lover is killed during combat, even though she has no desire to do so.

Bridgerton believes in colorblind love, and assumes that interracial love is inherently anti-racist and racially harmonious. These ideals are indicative of a turn, in the late 20th and the 21st centuries, to celebrating the multiracial child as a symbol of a utopian racially ambiguous future, brought about by heterosexual interracial coupling. However, Bridgerton never contends with the effects of slavery and colonialism, the legacies of interracial sexual assault, or the racial and gender power dynamics that structure society, even as they are evident in the interracial relationships the show depicts.3

Because of this, Bridgerton’s attempt at a progressive, anachronistic telling of what could have been is just another iteration of colorblind multiracial politics with anti-Blackness at its core.4 The show lacks any substantive discussions of race, beyond brief conversations between Black characters. Passing references to the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism are made, but Bridgerton makes no significant comment on the ways that white supremacy structures this world, or whether it has been dismantled.

The show is strategic in its representation of interracial relationships, because it is Black characters who champion interracial love as inherently transformative and anti-racist. In one of Lady Danbury’s conversations with Simon about marrying Daphne, Danbury says that the queen and king are evidence that love can transform society. In this moment, Simon highlights their precarity as Black nobility, because their elevated positions rely on a volatile interracial marriage. But, like the queen, Simon ultimately chooses to love and reproduce the mythic multiracial child with Daphne, and the show reaffirms Danbury’s statements and their underpinning logics: that love is colorblind and can transform anything.

What makes the failure of this politics most clear is the fetishization and objectification of Black characters by their white love interests. Bridgerton undermines its own racial politics by demonstrating the ways that racial power dynamics are present in the interracial relationships it romanticizes. Anti-Blackness and racial fetish dominate Bridgerton’s storytelling, as Black characters are presented as villainous and deceptive, even as they are also the objects of white admiration and desire. This is especially prominent in the love story of Daphne and Simon, and in Marina’s courting experiences. Daphne and Colin Bridgerton objectify then repudiate their Black love interests, demonstrating the power white supremacy grants them over their Black lovers.

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No Escape

By Dorinne Kondo

Simon and Daphne’s faux courtship quickly evolves into a relationship of secret longing. Daphne’s desire for Simon is primarily communicated through camera shots that linger on Simon’s body. This desire begins with an act of physical touch, which initiates a sequence of longing and erotic memory, consistently filtered through visual emphasis on Daphne’s responses. Her gasps, gulps, and prolonged open-mouthed gazes show Simon and Daphne’s relationship as a sensorium of racialized desire: the most significant and overtly sexual of these desires are portrayed when Daphne stares at Simon licking ice cream off a spoon, gulps at Simon’s arms as he rolls up his sleeves at a boxing match, and gasps when she sees his penis. Daphne’s consistent shock and awe in response to Simon’s visually dismembered body depicts, significantly, her inclination to possession and control. Daphne’s desire for Simon cannot be separated from stereotypes of Black hypersexuality and a history of white women’s sexual abuse of Black people.5

However, Daphne’s gazing at Simon is romanticized through Daphne’s idealized white womanhood, which transmutes her consumption from something violent into, instead, a naive love response to Simon’s presence. Because the camera centers Daphne’s emotional responses, we are supposed to empathize with Daphne’s desire for—and objectification of—Simon and cheer for their burgeoning love. The qualities of innocence and virtue are gendered and racialized, so Daphne, of course, has no context for understanding her reactions to Simon’s body. It is this fact that Daphne uses, in addition to Simon’s sexual maturity, to justify her sexual assault of him. Daphne’s ignorance about sex prefigures her ability to rape him while also dissolving her culpability.

Daphne and Simon’s relationship is overtly fetishistic during their first sex scene. When Daphne sees Simon’s penis for the first time, she inhales deeply, gasps, and raises her eyebrows, again reflecting a preoccupation with Simon’s body in addition to stereotypes about Black penis size. After this encounter, Daphne becomes hyperfocused on Simon’s penis, and in particular his (in)ability to ejaculate inside her. Simon becomes an enticing, shocking, and lust-arousing Black penis, to which Daphne feels entitled.6 Once Daphne learns that Simon has vowed to never have children, she forces him to ejaculate inside her and justifies her assault through his husbandly duty to provide her with children.

Saidiya Hartman notes that enslaved Black people “could neither give nor refuse consent” and were “presumed to be always willing,” therefore having no legal protections or recourse.7 Within these structures, plantation rape is also repressed through discourse on the “power of feelings,” which focuses on the potential for a mutual affection that elides white culpability.8 These racial power dynamics are reflected in this scene, as Daphne’s behavior is mobilized as an act of autonomy, rather than a manifestation of white racist dominion.

Because Simon and Daphne love each other, Simon’s trauma is deflected so they can reconcile, and the show does this by emphasizing Daphne’s emotional turmoil and devastation at the potential dissolution of their marriage and Simon’s “betrayal.” In contrast, Simon is shown as stoic and unfeeling. Although Simon is angry at Daphne, she is the one shown to be suffering emotionally, and the focus switches from her act of violence to Simon’s vow, which places the responsibility of reconciliation onto him, and suggests that he caused his own assault.

“Bridgerton” believes in colorblind love, and assumes that interracial love is inherently anti-racist and racially harmonious.

Marina Thompson is similarly fetishized and vilified for her Blackness and sexuality. After Marina is sent to live with the Featheringtons and they learn she is pregnant with her lover George’s child, they attempt to auction her off to the highest and quickest bidder to prevent scandal. This endeavor involves multiple scenes of older suitors inspecting Marina’s body and teeth, and “trying her out” in society. Even though the camera does not collude in this reduction as with Simon, Marina is also presented as only a body for white pleasure, without any comment on the ways gender and race structure these exchanges.

Like Simon, Marina is also shown to know too much about sex, and Blackness becomes firmly associated with sexual immorality through both of their characterizations. Marina’s knowledge of sexual intercourse is contrasted with every single white woman in the Featherington and Bridgerton families. When Lady Featherington discovers the pregnancy, she scathingly shames Marina, accusing her of being hypersexual and promiscuous. Although this is never stated directly, Marina’s sexual experience is a result of her Blackness.

When Marina and Colin meet to discuss Marina’s deception, she is clear that she has been neglected and misguided throughout her life: rejected and dismissed, with no one to help or guide her into better choices. Colin’s response, like Daphne’s, is to prioritize his own hurt, and dismiss Marina’s experiences. To Colin, Marina is a wily, wicked woman, and, like his sister Daphne, he is the victim of Black seduction.

Blackness’s association with deception and pollution is also firmly embedded in Whistledown’s revelation of Marina’s pregnancy to the entire town and her public humiliation. The gossip sheet compares the effects of Marina’s deception on the Featheringtons to the staining “tars of the Thames.” Marina’s Blackness has irrevocably tarnished the Featherington household, and, as ever, a Black character’s deception is both expected and surprising. Anti-Blackness is never critically addressed in Simon’s or Marina’s treatment, and their white lovers never consider the ways their moral superiority is a connected to their whiteness.

Bridgerton’s promise of a multiracial, egalitarian escape fails, and only shows the ways that racial hierarchy is entrenched in such tellings. Black characters are never able to mention their precarity to their white peers, and society functions on a myth of racial unity that protects white privilege and erases Black suffering.

At the end of Bridgerton, I wondered what it could have been. What if they had made explicit that the queen and king abolished slavery and dismantled the empire, rather than merely raising a few Black people up to nobility? What if Daphne did not sexually assault Simon and they resolved their differences without the usual focus on the production of a multiracial child to complete their union? And what if we had more character development for any of the Black women in the show, but in particular the darker-skinned characters such as Lady Danbury?9

Bridgerton ends with the birth of two multiracial children: a Hastings heir—after Simon is able to “choose love”—and Marina’s child (which isn’t shown, only assumed). The multiracial child is figured as the solution, the end of conflict for Daphne and Simon, and is what brings Phillip and Marina together, albeit through a marriage of necessity. Nevertheless, both endings refuse to acknowledge the ways anti-Blackness will continue to affect Simon, Marina, and their children, and the ways their spouses, and the rest of society, are complicit.

Ultimately, the show doesn’t provide us with well-written and multifaceted Black characters or adequately complex storylines. Instead, Bridgerton is yet another iteration of colorist, colorblind, multiracial theater. It obfuscates the legacies of colonialism and enslavement, and does so by reducing the dismantling of white supremacy to the success of interracial relationships. There’s really nothing promising about that.

 

This article was commissioned by Sarah Kesslericon

  1. Show creators cast a Black woman because of indications that Charlotte of the House of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the monarch on whom Queen Charlotte is based, had African ancestry.
  2. Valentina Valentini, “How Showrunner Chris Van Dusen Brought Regency London to Life in ‘Bridgerton,’” Shondaland.com, November 16, 2020.
  3. In Amalgamation Schemes: Antiblackness and the Critique of Multiracialism (University of Minnesota Press, 2008), Jared Sexton asserts that the threat of interracial sex is foundational to white supremacy, and multiracialism’s focus on the multiracial child reinforces the racial hierarchies and distinctions it claims to dismantle.
  4. Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics, vol. 17, no. 2 (1987).
  5. Martha Hodes discusses this throughout White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth-Century South (Yale University Press, 1997).
  6. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, translated from the French by Richard Philcox (Grove, 2008).
  7. Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 81–82.
  8. Saidiya Hartman, “Seduction and the Ruses of Power,” Callaloo, vol. 19, no. 2 (1996), pp. 537–38.
  9. Netflix recently ordered a Bridgerton spin-off that follows the story of Queen Charlotte and Lady Danbury, but this does not make up for the overall lack of development for these characters in Bridgerton.
Featured image: Still from Bridgerton (2020). IMDb