Royal RepresentationOn the Strange Racial Politics of “Bridgerton”

Regé-Jean Page as Simon Basset, left, and Phoebe Dynevor as Daphne Bridgerton in Bridgerton (Photo credit: Liam Daniel/Netflix)

Bridgerton, in many ways, is just another period piece. Based on the eight novels by Julia Quinn that are collectively known as the Bridgerton Series and released by Netflix in December, the series is set in Regency-era London; its main characters are all gentry in the “ton,” and each one’s character arc is marked by anxiety about virtue, status, and marriage. Entertaining and sumptuous save for the occasional shoddy set, Bridgerton quickly became one of Netflix’s most popular shows—so popular, in fact (it reached 63 million households since its Christmas release), that series creator Chris Van Dusen may see his dream of seven more seasons come to pass. (Each book in the series focuses on one Bridgerton child.) But as period pieces go, Bridgerton is a new take on the genre for a new era. This is most visible in the way that Black and other people of color are part of the story in anachronistic roles for nonwhite actors.

The cast’s diversity is business as usual for Van Dusen and producer Shonda Rhimes, given their history with shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. Bridgerton’s seemingly bold creative choices, however, often seem like less an example of bravery than they are symptoms of caution, coddling, and—most strikingly—a lack of creativity. Though the show has been hailed as a “sparkly period piece with a difference” (the New York Times) whose “colorblind casting com[es] as a welcome surprise,” (ABC News), those same distinguishing features can come across as dissonance and erasure. The deployment of Black and Brown bodies to lay a melanated veneer over the continuing public obsession with oppressive, imperialist stories is nothing short of colorbaiting. A cousin of queerbaiting, colorbaiting draws in viewers and courts media attention with the promise of subversion, only to squander viewers’ goodwill by failing to deliver. Like Hamilton (2015), Hollywood (2015), and The Great (2020), Bridgerton is the newest in a recent trend of narratives that colorbait their audiences.

Bridgerton offers bits and pieces of information that explain how its universe became a space where Black people are understood to be equal to white people. For the pleasure of imagining a world without slavery, racism, and perhaps even colonialism, I watched with my disbelief summarily suspended. That lasted until midseason, when we learn that a single interracial marriage between King George (Jim Fleet) and Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel), his light-skinned Black wife, was enough to elevate Black people to Dukedoms and obliterate any racism on the part of the white Brits. Their marriage was how “two separate societies, divided by color” were united when “a king fell in love with one of us.” The storyline is a nod to real historic speculation that Queen Charlotte was a direct descendant of a Black Portuguese royalty; the idea that she would have been able to end racism—and slavery—in her lifetime, however, is idealistic speculative fiction, and perhaps a galling one, given that decades of interracial relationships has not done the same

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For all of its emphasis on this rewriting of race, Bridgerton still advances white protagonism: Audiences see the world of Bridgerton largely through the eyes of Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor). Daphne is an unremarkable white woman whose primary characteristics are her virtue, her amiability, and her blankness; she’s so lily white and uncomplicated that any viewer can transpose themselves onto her condition and feel enthralled at the idea of marrying a duke. Daphne is self-aware enough to admit that she knows that the only thing she’s ever wanted and prepared for is to be a wife, and the show’s formula is effectively translated through the void of her protagonism. Even though Bridgerton circa 1813 is a place where people of color stroll the streets of London unbothered, live in fancy mansions, and even carry royally conferred titles, the common denominator of existence is unadulterated whiteness. The sheer amount of story devoted to Daphne, ostensibly a teenager newly “out” in society as a marriageable woman, with whom we’re meant to sympathize despite her own deeply troubling transgressions, illustrates the doctrine of white supremacy and British superiority that permeates the show.

Through Daphne’s relationship with the Duke, Simon, (Regé‑Jean Page) we learn about how racial dynamics really work in this world. It’s somehow, Not a Big Deal. That they are in an interracial relationship is only mentioned once. While gender and the virtue of women are issues explored in their relationship, race appears to have been “solved.” Bridgerton doesn’t simply miss opportunities to discuss race, it imagines its characters as, for all intents and purposes, raceless. Bridgerton isn’t the only show to attempt to flip racial dynamics in a way that leaves much to be desired. Rather, this structure is similar to race-switching seen in Hulu’s 2020 series The Great, a period piece centering on Catherine the Great, who became empress of Russia after overthrowing the rule of her own husband. There, Black and Brown actors take on characters whose race has very little to do with their lives; they simply get to be white. The Great’s race-switching is never explained, but the show’s anachronistic absurdism and excellent writing might be explanation enough, which just isn’t the case in Bridgerton.

It’s not that the period-piece norm that stays true to its time with all-white casts—like, for instance, Downton Abbey, is preferable. That said, Bridgerton pales in comparison to Downton Abbey’s real engagement with class politics. That is completely missing from Bridgerton. As a whole, the quality of representation in the world of Bridgerton itself is one that appears lacking. It recreates the United States binary of Black and white, with most darker-skinned characters relegated to the background, to villainy, to temperamentality, while the lighter-skinned get pushed to the front as sexual objects—like an excessively handsome, half-clothed boxing duke or a secretly pregnant farm girl conniving to entrap a “good man” into marriage via her undeniable beauty. Asian characters speckle the background occasionally; those presented as Bridgerton’s lower class are chiefly positioned as objects of lust with thinly sketched dimensions (an opera singer, a dressmaker).

In essence, all shows like Bridgerton do is show people of color being terrible white people.

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The biggest question I had as I watched Bridgerton was: why? If you are to reimagine a world in a very particular way, why center and even cherish all of its other oppressive factors? Surely there are other historical stories in the world that include Black and Brown people. Why choose this one and alter it so? And do we really think that our present world, transposed into a largely unaltered social and political milieu, is so excellent? If the creators of the show cherry-pick nominally “feminist” moments but still preserve female virginity and a contrasting set of Madonna/Whore characters as the narrative’s main preoccupation, can Bridgerton claim to be more than a display of narcissistic hubris with a cynical agenda, meant to cultivate both the cachet of “woke points” and true capital? The reluctance to move away from the colonial propaganda of the predominant period-piece narrative of royalty and riches and quaint cobbled streets renders Bridgerton a story dipped in color—a facade to placate viewers and soothe white guilt, and perhaps make us all more cynical than ever about the worth being placed on the bodies, but not the lives, of people of color.

It is an easy salve for development executives who want to be celebrated for their progressiveness but not have to delve into the details. After all, it’s much more fun to see a Black Duke than to have to contend with why a Black person would not have been a Duke in 1813. Dr. Kristen J Warner, author of The Cultural Politics of Colorblind TV Casting (2015), calls this “plastic representation,” a mode of representation that “offers the feel of progress but that actually cedes more ground than it gains for audiences of color,” also noting that the demand for it as a “sanity-preserving tactic” that builds esteem is understandable. Warner writes that plastic representation acts like a system that makes Blackness an empirical system of box-checking, one that allows industry gatekeepers to devote less time to “developing the meaningful cultural and historical differences of those bodies.” This form of surface-level representation is a mere checkbox for diversity marketing experts, a product of the Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity complex (DIE, aptly). The historical conditions of the person of color are buried by glamorous and “colorblind” characterizations.

But when you lift the context out of a person, you also remove their personhood. Colorbaiting is a diversion that distracts us from the material: an imperialist fantasy. What is Bridgerton but an escape into the lives of the elite whose sole concern is to stay rich, of how it takes a Black queen to fix racism? What is The Great but a story about the extraordinary talent at power plays of one white woman, helped along on her journey to true greatness by, among others, a bumbling and socially inept brown guy? What is Hamilton but a convenient way for rich liberals to clap along to dancing people of color and imagine a United States that was not founded on genocide and built by slavery? In essence, all these shows do is show people of color being terrible white people. And in observing Bridgerton’s immediate popularity, a few more questions arise. Is our urge for justice, as people of color and antiracists, so weak and conditional that such narratives may be seen as “good enough”? Is “representation” too limited a request, a distraction? Bridgerton is peddling an insulting brand of aesthetic level justice through the common vocabulary of representation. It’s way past time to complicate that vocabulary.

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by Aditi Natasha Kini
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From a sunny apartment in Queens, Aditi Natasha Kini writes essays, scripts and other text objects.