Unfortunately, period dramas are one of my guilty pleasures. I was basically raised on the BBC's Pride and Prejudice (1995), completely obsessed with Persuasion (2007) and even found myself lost in Lost in Austen (2008). So that I was eventually going to dip into the regency-themed fever dream known as Bridgerton (2020), was inevitable.
That Bridgerton was a period drama featuring people of colour in starring roles definitely piqued my interest: English period dramas are usually made up of white casts, even though non-white people were definitely a feature of 19th century England. So when it came to Bridgerton I was curious to see how the show would work – would they go for a colour-blind casting akin to Cinderella (1997) or The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)? Or would this be a period drama that acknowledged people of colour were part of the fray in 19th century England?
In the end, it feels like Bridgerton wanted to do both, and ended up doing neither.
When I first dipped into the Netflix series, I wanted to get my racial bearings. What world were these non-white characters inhabiting? What power structures were they up against? This was still an overwhelmingly white cast, and to quote Chris from Get Out: "Sometimes, if there's too many white folks, I get nervous." As Bridgerton was set a couple of centuries ago, I was nervous on the non-white character's behalf. But as I was gradually introduced to key Black characters: Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel), Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoah) and of course the Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page), I gathered this was a deracialised fantasy world, where what's-his-face never invented race in the 17th century and everyone got along just fine. Sweet! I was situated.
Then the show threw a spanner in the works. In episode four of the series, Lady Danbury suggests this was a version of our world after all. "We were two separate societies, divided by colour, until a king fell in love with one of us," Lady Danbury says to the Duke of Hastings. Ah, so a white royal fell in love with the Black Queen Charlotte (the real Queen Charlotte likely had African ancestors) and there you have it, racism was blitzed into oblivion. What? I don't know why this hippie pipe dream keeps rearing its head, but this really is not how racism works. Racism isn't just hatred; it's a system of power. As Michele Theil writes in gal-dem: "A marriage can't undo the racial superiority of the British empire, which was closely linked to the "civilising mission", the trans-Atlantic slave trade, or the ongoing racial discrimination and resentment towards people of colour after slavery was abolished." Pretending that love and marriage can do otherwise isn't an escapist offering; it's just irritating, especially for the people of colour who have been insulted by this ahistorical narrative again and again.
I was surprised that Bridgerton seemed to do such a bad job around race, especially since creator Shonda Rhimes is such a champion when it comes to colour-blind casting. For so many women of colour, seeing a character like Dr Christina Yang on Grey's Anatomy, for example, was a revelation. But it all started to make sense when I found out that Bridgerton's showrunner is in fact Rhimes' protégé, Chris Van Dusen. In an interview with The New York Times, Van Dusen says he didn't think the show was colour-blind. "Race is as much a part of the show's conversation as class and gender are," he said. But how, though? The only time it's really acknowledged is during the Duke of Hastings' and Lady Danbury's very special moment. There are other moments when it was maybe vaguely gestured towards, but nothing is ever said out loud.
The show's laziness and inconsistency around race left me too unmoored to fully enjoy what was going on. I'm not saying it should've shown racism happening to the characters or a spirited conversation about the transatlantic slave trade, but if you're going to acknowledge that race exists in the Bridgerton world, then you've got to take that world seriously; to commit to it. You can't just have a very special scene where Lady Danbury spins off some hippie bumper sticker about love conquering racism and call it a day. You have to then draw out how the legacy of having 'two separate societies' shapes the minutiae of these people's lives; because there's no (racialised) world in which it wouldn't. Do you really think a Black duke would've married a white woman in 19th century England without any discussion of 'race' at all? Pleaaase. You'd be hard-pressed to pull that off in 2021.
I know what you're thinking. Why are you getting all worked up? This is Bridgerton we're talking about. It's not meant to be taken seriously; it's just meant to be a good time. And I get that. But my god Bridgerton, pick a lane! If you're going to make a multiethnic cast the show's selling point, then maybe figure out a way to approach it that makes sense to those of us on planet earth (especially people of colour). If Van Dusen wanted to treat audiences to straight-up escapism, then he should've taken a leaf from 1997's Cinderella and gone with race-blind casting. Given the characters in the Bridgerton books are all white, this would've been the easiest way to do it. Instead, we have a show that briefly acknowledges 'race' but doesn't want the bummer of inequality to get in the way of the audience's sumptuous viewing experience.
Neflix's Bridgerton wants it all: both fact and fancy. In the end, it offers us neither.
Written by Reena Gupta, a Melbourne-based writer for MTV Australia. Follow her on Twitter @purpletank.
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