‘Bridgerton’ Still Idealizes Whiteness
Spoiler alert: This essay contains spoilers.
I’ve been into period drama films since I was a kid. Classics like Amadeus and Pride and Prejudice were in hot rotation in my house because they were something we could all enjoy. The sweeping cinematography in European locales fed my creativity and wanderlust. My mom, a sewist, loved the exquisite costumes while my screenwriter dad enjoyed the rich dialogue. They both also liked the way most period dramas affirmed “Christian” virtues like chastity and traditional gender roles. Eventually, I came to realize how much they also virtuized Whiteness.
With its racy sex scenes and soapy subplots, no one would accuse Bridgerton, the richly realized and diversely cast Regency drama streaming on Netflix, of doing the former. But for all the hoopla surrounding its inclusive casting, I’m not convinced it avoids doing the latter.
For the uninitiated, Bridgerton’s main storyline is the first-fake-then-real romance between debutante Daphne Bridgerton and Simon Basset, Duke of Hastings, with Gossip Girl-style narration and side intrigues to keep things spicy. Daphne, the “diamond” of the season’s marriage market, is White and wants kids. Simon is Black and “can’t” have children. (Note the quotation marks. They’re important.)
I came to Bridgerton with high expectations. First, it’s a Shonda Rhimes joint. Also, showrunner Chris Van Dusen was intentional about creating a sort of post-racial Regency era where Black people moved freely within the upper echelons of society — an “excitingly different” way to handle race in a period drama, according to critic Aramide A. Tinubu. “Without an emphasis on race, historical accuracy or the backdrop of slavery, fans can focus on the scandals, costumes, gossip and intrigue at the heart of the series,” Tinubu wrote.
Sadly, this fan couldn’t. I’ll admit to being seduced by the first few episodes, though. Regé-Jean Page as Simon Basset makes me swoon, and I’d invite the formidable and quick-witted Lady Danbury to my ball anytime.
One of the true joys of watching period dramas over a lifetime is seeing how each generation reinterprets historical details like fashion and decor. Ever my mother’s daughter, I found the gowns, crafted from bright, richly-woven textiles with intricate details like neckline piping and beading for days, absolutely exquisite. Bridgerton’s 2020 take on Regency style is vibrant, lush, and gloriously fantastical, from the fireworks-lit dance number in episode 1 to Queen Charlotte’s extravagant, often Afrocentric hairstyles. It is a visual feast, and it is everything.
Seeing Black characters in their sumptuous attire, rolling up on lavish society balls and the queen’s court was something I never got from costume dramas growing up despite the presence of Black royalty, nobility, and merchants throughout European history. Importantly, Bridgerton helps undo this erasure by casting a Black woman to play Queen Charlotte, the Black-Portuguese wife of King George III. Helen Mirren, who is White, played her in the 1994 biopic, The Madness of King George.
But 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. 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.
I don’t recall any light-skinned Black servants. Dark-skinned Black men are decoratively sprinkled into balls and parks as extras. I’m not sure what side of the paper bag casting test Lady Danbury falls on, but I do agree with the critic who said Simon’s godmother gave off some “magical negro vibes.” The choice to have Simon’s abusive, absentee father played by a very dark Black man — or really a Black man at all — was a huge misstep.
My biggest beef with Bridgerton isn’t colorism or even, as one reviewer argued, that “almost all of the Black characters with speaking lines [have] negative attributes and beliefs that place them at odds with the white main characters.” Nope, my problem is Daphne Bridgerton.
Daphne, who the show reveals cannot even embroider, is the Regency version of every basic White girl I have ever known. Average, boring even, yet considered “flawless,” desirable, and intelligent. Everyone always had a good opinion of them, but I, usually the only Black girl for miles, was rarely seen yet always suspect.
Bridgerton follows a similar arc. “Daphne is written as a character that is supposed to exemplify Regency era white womanhood,” history writer and avid romance reader, Nikki Brueggeman told me in a private message. “She is young, she is extremely pure, and it is because of these characteristics that I feel her character is given a pass for awful behaviors.”
And that brings us to “The Scene.” After learning that Simon has been using the pull-out method to prevent pregnancy — it’s not that he “can’t” have children but that he won’t! — she forces him to ejaculate inside her the next time they have sex. Simon is so traumatized, his childhood stutter returns, which the show never addresses. Instead, Daphne unapologetically plays the victim for the rest of the season.
Even the magic of colorblind casting couldn’t deracialize this already immensely disturbing scene. I felt triggered and betrayed (as did many Twitter users). Bridgerton was supposed to be this fun Regency romp that finally spoke to women who look like me. Now, all I could think about was the history of Black bodies being coopted in service to White motherhood and how White women weaponize their supposed innocence and victimhood to the death and detriment of Black men. And as Brueggeman put it, “I worry about how many White women see themselves in Daphne … all the while ignoring the racial undertones of a White woman forcing herself on a Black man.”
Still, I haven’t decided if I’m going to break up with Bridgerton for good. Perhaps the next season will build on all that was right in those first few episodes. I’d like to see the writers add more depth to Lady Danbury’s story and give a few of those fine Black men some lines. I need them to address the Black trauma that they ultimately chose to inject into the story, instead of gaslighting us all with more White tears. If they do, maybe, just maybe, they can finally create the period drama so many of us Black women have been waiting our whole lives to watch.