#GeekGirlTalk: Race and Sexuality in Bridgerton

Who We Are Vaguely and in Terms Only of the Media We Seek Out Most Often:

Teal (plain)
Literally any teen TV show, YA, women’s and feminist media, everything Star Trek

Caitlin (italics)
Star Wars, Marvel & the MCU, documentaries, and trope-defying comedy.

Jill (bold)
Superheroes, space, sci-fi, out-of-the-box sitcoms, cartoons, and PUNS.

Welcome to #GeekGirlTalk, a (biased, subjective, opinionated) conversation about the pop culture we’re currently loving, hating, and obsessing over. To launch this series for the year, I’ll be chatting with Caitlin, one of our content strategists here on the GGC blog, and Jill, our former workshop coordinator, about the Netflix series Bridgerton

Spoiler disclaimer: We definitely talk about a couple of big plot moments, but not in a ton of detail. If you really don’t like spoilers and you intend to watch the show, you might wait before reading.

Since I’m starting us out, I have a confession. I was really, really frustrated by almost everything about the show. Yes, it had our beloved cringey/dreamy regency social customs. It had the effervescent Nicola Coughlan. It had, if we’re being honest, the kind pure, unadulterated vibes that are getting us through this pandemic. But, as a lifelong fan of romance and period fiction and Shonda Rhimes (the show’s executive producer), my expectations were high….and entirely unmet. 

There’s a lot I wish had been different about the show, but if I had to sum up the thread of my disappointment, it’s this: Bridgerton uses the tropes of romance––a genre that’s fought for decades to carve out space for stories that center on the lives and relationships of women––to instead center a man, almost turning the women into caricatures in the process. Beyond this overarching critique, I also want to talk about how the show handles race and sexuality. But first, Caitlin, what were your impressions of the show overall?

I’ll start by saying that I haven’t read the books, so my comments will reflect my perspective as someone who’s judging the show by itself without that additional context. 

I think you’re completely right to be critical of how many of the women are portrayed. I agree that this is a male-centric story, even though it’s narrated and carried by women, and I was right there with you in feeling frustrated that so much of the storyline relied on the same destructive tropes that regency romances have been using for centuries. 

However, this is one of the first regency romances I’ve seen where Black characters are not only present but central to the storylines, and where the topic of race is at least touched on rather than ignored entirely or offered as the only dimension Black characters have. Sure, it was still a predominantly white-centric story created by a white guy (Chris Van Dusen), and I’m going to be pretty disappointed if they don’t do anything to move the needle more in season two. 

But, I was thrilled to see that the main love interest was a Black man and that he was given the same compassion and emotional depth that writers generally save for white male characters. In that sense, although the storyline was disappointingly trope heavy, I did feel that they at least tried to subvert some of those tropes by applying them to a Black character. 

[Image Description: Simon, the Duke of Hastings, from Bridgerton. He’s looking right at the camera and is sitting in front of a bookshelf. He has a serious expression and his left arm is raised. He’s wearing a gray jacket with a high collar.] Source: BBC

Jill, I’d love to hear your perspective on this and anything else you thought was noteworthy about the show!

Hi all! Over the past few years I’ve read so many romance novels, but the one sub-genre I’ve mostly stayed away from has been historical fiction, especially those set in England (Jane Austen perfected it). That being said, I did watch the entirety of Bridgerton on Christmas day with my mother (we fast forwarded a LOT of episode five), and we had a lot of fun speeding through the show. 

I have mixed feelings about the show. My plan was to read the book afterwards, but I got so frustrated with Daphne’s and Simon’s inability to communicate that I decided to just skip ahead to books two and three. In skimming those, it became clear to me that what I loved about the story was the lush costuming, the little moments outside of the main characters, and the instrumental pop covers—all elements of the show that are not really present in the books. Thousands of fanfics are written due to compelling pairings, and I didn’t even want to go back to the main source because I was just bored by Daphne and Simon! I loved Simon’s speech to the Queen, but due to all the wacky hijinks around it, I didn’t feel the weight of it. Daphne’s storyline of learning who she is and wants to be had the potential to be really compelling, but also fell a little flat to me. That being said, I felt like the women leads of the sequels, even if they lacked agency due to the time period, had a bit more character development in the storylines that makes me hopeful for the show’s future.

[Image Description: Simon and Daphne pose for a portrait. Simon’s wearing a purple jacket. Daphne’s wearing a blue dress with white gloves. Their faces look awkward and tense.] Source: CelebBabyLaundry

One of the main reasons I avoid regency romances is the lack of people of color, and I agree with Caitlin that it was refreshing to see some of the more tired tropes slightly invigorated by being told with a Black main character. With the casting of a woman of South Asian descent as the love interest for season two, it’ll be interesting to see if they continue down those lines. 

Even if the story is set in the past, it’s being made today, and therefore must engage with the present moment. 

I absolutely agree with you on that, Jill. Part of my wariness around any new regency stories by white creators is that they are inherently—whether explicitly or not—part of the larger cultural project of centering and romanticising white culture and history. I guess my perspective is that that can be so dangerous that the strategy for challenging white supremacy within the new story must be much clearer than I felt it was with this show. I hope, like both of you, that it will be a bigger priority for season two.

To add on to this conversation, I’d love to get both of your opinions on the show’s handling of sexuality as a theme. I was very disappointed both by the way the show treated sexual liberation and autonomy for women—first as a joke and then as something to be gained through relationships with men—and the way the show teased queerness as an central theme without following through with any of the main characters. To me, this was unbelievably frustrating since I’m a firm believer in the romance genre having the ability to take on these conversations so thoughtfully and powerfully. Caitlin, what did the show bring up for you in terms of these topics?

Yeah, I agree that the show did a poor job of addressing the theme of sexuality, and I got the impression that wasn’t an accident. The trailer that made me want to watch the show in the first place had some heavy queerbaiting, which hinted that at least one queer relationship would be pretty central to the storyline. Obviously, that’s not how the first season played out. 

Bridgerton felt like one more show that treats representation like a math problem: If you have a person of color for a protagonist and you want to show a woman experiencing an orgasm at some point during the season, then how much should you sideline any queer relationships and how gratuitous do your depictions of women’s sexualities need to be to ensure you don’t lose too many potential audiences?

I get that marketability and profitability are often the difference between a show that gets renewed for another season and one that gets used as a cautionary tale for why shows with similar representation are a waste of money. But, Netflix has seen success with more “financially risky” shows like Dear White People, Hollywood, and Sex Education, and I’d like to think the network has some idea of how broad their audiences are and how tired many of them feel of not seeing themselves well represented in media.

Once again, I’m hoping the huge success of season one will lead to a second season that revisits these themes with the accuracy, thoughtfulness, and screen time they deserve. 

Jill, what are your thoughts on the show’s handling of sexuality and/or anything else we haven’t covered yet?

Just wanted to add that I love Dear White People so much! What a good show. 

You’re absolutely right, I definitely felt like we were promised something with queer representation, and it was disappointing to not see that. I’m hoping the positive response leads to more…is “risk taking” the right phrase here? Showing people living their lives shouldn’t be risky, and yet it is. 

Given the often abysmal state of sex education, I think the storyline of the women being utterly clueless and having to learn everything piecemeal had promise and could have been a great commentary on the inner lives of these women. It was so fun to see Eloise and Penelope try to figure out what’s happening, and there were good points made about the awful culture around lack of information and obsession with women’s virginity. But, in a show famous for its risque scenes, I wish there had been more of a chance for the characters to really talk about these subjects. 

In Jane The Virgin (spoiler), Jane has a bit of an identity crisis once she gets married and has sex because for so long sex has been something mysterious and forbidden, and it’s a big change for her and how she sees herself. In this show, we get Daphne tricking Simon into potentially impregnating her—a scene and argument I found incredibly questionable. I hope the second season discusses this further.

And, somewhat on another note, I just really want more Lady Danbury moving forward. She was my favorite character by far. 

[Image Description: GIF of Lady Danbury looking like a badass. She’s wearing a red silk dress and holding a cigarette.] Source: Tumblr

Jill, first, you’re absolutely right. Give me more Lady Danbury! Second, I’m really glad you brought up that scene. I think there’s a huge conversation around consent and how it’s gendered that needs to continue in general, but also much more explicitly in the show. 

Something that I’ve found really heartening about this conversation is that despite how differently we might have all quantified our enjoyment of the show, we ended up having very similar critiques. It’s not so much that I’m surprised—we are all GeekGirlCon people after all—but that I think it’s so important for us to hold space for these conversations. Even with pieces of media (and genres and artists) that we really love and feel it’s politically important to uplift, it’s still vital that we engage with them through a lens of anti-racism and social justice.

I know I speak for Caitlin and Jill when I say that we’d love to hear what y’all thought about Bridgerton and how this kind of love-hate relationship with media plays out in your lives. Let us know, and stay tuned for the next #GeekGirlTalk.

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Teal Christensen
“Rock On!”

Teal Christensen

Teal is a recently-graduated English literature student with more unfinalized future plans than favorite songs from Hamilton. Her main hobbies are reading books, thinking about books, and talking about books.

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