The PettyCoat Chronicles ‘Bridgerton’ Is a Gilded Failure of Imagination
Whiteness, not a fantasy, is what grants the Black English aristocracy its legitimacy in this fictional world.
This is ’ love of historical dramas. The PettyCoat Chronicles, a column by Natasha Oladokun that investigates our culture
When I first watched the teaser trailer for Shonda Rhimes’s Netflix series Bridgerton , I’m sure even my downstairs neighbors could hear my maniacal cackles of glee from my apartment. In ninety seconds, I was promised everything I could hope for in a binge watch of one of my favorite genres of television. Bridgerton by all accounts appeared intriguing, sexy—a swirling fantasy of silk and cravats. This, I thought, would surely make for the perfect holiday watch, a diversion from 2020’s daily stressors of an interminable global pandemic and an equally interminable presidential coup.
Well, Reader, I was wrong. Yes, Bridgerton is a colorful, glittering, even occasionally clever on-screen adaptation of its source material, a series of eight novels by the romance author Julia Quinn. But at its essence, it is a gilded failure of imagination, a disappointment rendered acute only because of how much it promises and how little it delivers. Even within its fictional premise, Bridgerton devolves into a bizarre “realist” replica of our world, one where sexual exploitation, homophobia, and aspirational whiteness are simply a matter of course. It is the cinematic equivalent of receiving a beautifully wrapped Christmas gift, only to tear away the wrapping paper and find a dead partridge inside.
A quick plot summary for any newcomers: Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor), a young woman newly “out” in society, agrees to be publicly wooed by Simon Basset, the Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page)—even though the two dislike each other intensely upon first meeting. Simon, a bachelor who swore a vengeful oath to his father on his deathbed that he will never marry or have children, benefits from the charade by keeping thirsty young women and their mothers at bay during “the season.” Daphne—virginal, naive, relatively rich—benefits by having her courting value driven up in society by the Duke’s attentions. All of this is further complicated by the meddling voice of a mysterious character named Lady Whistledown (a narrative red herring if there ever was one), who publishes a gossip column exposing the personal affairs and scandals among the members of high society. It’s a setup straight out of a Shakespearean comedy. Of course, within a couple of episodes, the Duke and Daphne’s half-baked ruse backfires: the two mismatched lovers actually fall in love and begin a strained but passionate sexual relationship.
At least, that’s what we are supposed to believe. On screen, Dynevor and Page have all the chemistry of a pair of socks. But somehow its handling of sex, or rather the pretense of it, is not even the first of Bridgerton’s numerous sins, sins worth examining solely because of the the scale of what the series as a whole promised.
Bridgerton ’s gorgeous visuals are duly worth noting. It is a stunning thing to behold, and its aesthetic appeal will no doubt remain critical to whatever commercial success the series garners, having been officially renewed for a second season. Everyone in this show is beautiful, including the characters who are supposed to be unattractive and ridiculous. Even Lord Featherington, bored and useless behind his newspaper for three quarters of the series, was constantly giving us semi-hot late-nineties Bond villain face.
The set, the costuming, the hair and makeup, the cinematography, the choreography at every ball—all of it is truly dazzling, meticulously constructed. We are immediately given the decadence of Regency England without any of the claustrophobia, smells, or disease known to even the wealthiest of the time.
These omissions do not feel particularly gratuitous; the series promises a sexy escapist romp. Every detail, down to the musical score (an anachronistic mix of classical pieces and pop music rewritten in Baroque styling, e.g. a Vitamin String Quartet rendition of Ariana Grande’s “thank u next”) initially suggest a wry sensibility, some playfulness.
Of course, there is the series’ primary bid for attention: Bridgerton boasts a conspicuously racially “diverse” cast, in which Queen Charlotte herself and a substantial percentage of court and high society are Black. This is not in itself particularly novel, and in doing this Bridgerton places itself in league with other adaptations that have made similar choices. Take BBC’s Merlin for example, or Baz Luhrman’s modern take on Romeo + Juliet , or Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing . All have significant characters played by Black actors, in which their race is virtually irrelevant to the story.
Even if we were to put fiction aside for a moment, the portrayal of free Black people in pre-contemporary England isn’t new, either. Doctor Who, for instance, did this as far back as 2007 in “The Shakespeare Code,” an episode in which Martha, the Doctor’s first Black companion in the long-running sci-fi series, is transported back to sixteenth-century London and is shocked to meet free Black Tudors living undisturbed among Englishmen, a little-known or acknowledged historical detail.
But much like every man in this show, Bridgerton climaxes way too quickly. Whatever is sexy, witty, or potentially arresting about it is diminished by the beginning of the second episode, and squandered by the fourth, as the race-bent fantasy is jarringly cracked. In a bizarrely-positioned monologue halfway through the series, the Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh) appeals to the Duke, challenging him not to walk away from his increasingly fraught relationship with Daphne.
But much like every man in this show, Bridgerton climaxes way too quickly.
“Look at our queen,” she says. “Look at our king. Look at their marriage. Look at everything it is doing for us, allowing us to become. We were two separate societies, divided by color, until a king fell in love with one of us. Love . . . conquers all.”
With his typical caustic stiffness, Simon dismisses Lady Danbury’s appeal, reminding her, “The king may have chosen his queen. He may have elevated us from novelties in their eyes to now dukes and royalty, and at that same whim . . . he may just as easily change his mind—a mind, as we all know, that is hanging on by one very loose and tenuous thread.”
Reader, I was gagged. For four episodes, I had been perfectly willing—even relieved—to suspend my disbelief, to accept what Bridgerton had pretended to offer me throughout the tonal unevenness of the past four hours: the escapism of a forgivably derivative, racebent imitation of a Jane Austen novel. But in the turn of a single scene, Bridgerton disabused me of its pretense. It became clear that the series would do little else but remain trapped in its own smallness of imaginative thinking, in which racial assimilation and white acceptance from the upper class— neatly packaged as love—is the goal. We are expected to cheer for this “love story,” as though a racial component added to the strategic political marriages of the upper class is a mere footnote. We are expected to accept that it is whiteness, not a fantasy, that grants the Black English aristocracy its legitimacy in this fictional world. And we are expected to accept this uncritically.
As Bridgerton unravels, its Black characters inevitably fall into the same kind of Western racial tropes one would expect from a show set in any other time, contemporary or not. Lady Danbury transforms into a somewhat elevated mammy figure, a “magical negro” whose primary purpose is to shape the character development of the Black men (Simon and his late father) and the white women (Daphne Bridgerton) in her life. We learn nothing of her personhood beyond the people she serves. As charming as she is, she never fully becomes anything other than a prop.
Even Marina Thompson, brilliantly played by Ruby Parker, shares a similar fate. She devolves into little more than a Black Cinderella who never gets a fairy godmother let alone her prince. For the entirety of the series, she is marked as a social pariah among her few friends, defined almost entirely by her sexually “fallen” past and status as an unmarried woman, pregnant by a white man we never see.
Simon, i.e. the Duke of Hastings, is in a league of his own. Rich, powerful, intimidating, he appears to possess all the power a man of his rank should have. And he does, albeit superficially. We learn of his history in the second episode, and discover that his father abused and neglected him as a child so severely he developed a debilitating stammer, one that kept him socially isolated and painfully reserved. Rescued by Lady Danbury’s care in his childhood, however, Simon grows to become a man accustomed to commanding a room and getting his way, a facet of his character that renders him abrasive, yet desirable among women.
Daphne Bridgerton, on the other hand, has all the trappings of idealized white womanhood: she is conventionally beautiful, witty enough to be interesting but unthreatening to the men around her. Above all, she is innocent, pure, and naive. She knows nothing of sex or sexuality before meeting Simon, who, for instance, rather awkwardly teaches her how to masturbate during their pretend courtship. Unlike the female servants in her home—and at great cost to the health and stability of her life with Simon—Daphne lives in a cloud of unworldliness, no doubt designed to make her character sympathetic and endearing, but this does not last long. At least, it did not for me.
Bridgerton’ s primary narrative tension lies in a somewhat absurd, but not impossible, misunderstanding between Simon and Daphne regarding sex, which is at the heart of this show. Before their marriage, Simon tells Daphne that he “cannot give her children,” and Daphne believes he means this literally. She knows nothing of the oath Simon swore to his father as he died, that “the Hastings line will die with him.”
Inexperienced as she is, she thinks nothing of it when Simon—rather dramatically—pulls out every time the two have theatrical, choreographed, softcore on-screen sex. This goes on for an episode or two before Daphne finally learns from a servant how babies are made, and realizes that Simon can have children—he simply does not want to have any of his own. Filled with rage and a sense of betrayal, she decides to get even with him in what cannot be described as anything other than sexual assault, though it is essential to the story’s success that we fail to see it that way.
What follows is a disturbing scene, all the worse for its masquerade of female empowerment.
Simon takes Daphne to bed and she goes willingly, only for her to force him to ejaculate inside her as they have sex, despite him begging her to stop. When he confronts her, she does what has been done many times before: she pivots and accuses him of lying, laying the entirety of the blame for what has happened at his doorstep.
None of this is explored further narratively in the remainder of the series, beyond the possible inconvenience of an unwanted pregnancy on the Duke’s part. Simon from then on is portrayed as increasingly cold and brutish, and by the end of the series, he not only begs Daphne’s forgiveness for the failings of their marriage, but also relents and agrees to have children with her.
The amount that can be said regarding the fraught history of sexual politics between white women and Black men could fill a book of its own, but there is little space to say much more about it here other than in this: in Bridgerton ’s weak attempt to portray an interracial love story, it only replicates a tired trope of the inflexible predation of Black men and the innocence of white women, a trope as old as slavery itself, however less explicit.
It only replicates a tired trope of the inflexible predation of Black men and the innocence of white women.
Held hostage by a series that had overstayed its welcome by the halfway mark, all I could do was force myself to see the rest of it through so I could write this. While it may be partly a matter of personal taste, the longer the series went on, the less I cared about the pettiness of the characters or what became of them. All I could ask myself was “Who is Bridgerton for? What is it trying to prove?” The only kind of love this show has any imagination for is, at best, heterosexual and interracial—as though this is somehow in itself the peak of inclusion.
In terms of sex and romance, little of substance can even be said about Bridgerton ’s treatment of queerness, because little of substance happens in this regard. Beyond the blatant queerbaiting between Penelope Featherington and Eloise Bridgerton, there is only one queer character explicitly acknowledged in eight hours of storytelling—a moneyed artist who throws sex parties with a woman who is ostensibly his wife—and he makes it clear that he can never publicly be with the man he loves due to society’s prejudice. Even here, in a made-up, alternate universe where the queen of England is Black, even white queer characters are an aside at best, invisible to the world around them.
I am endlessly intrigued by the appeal period dramas hold in the mainstream. I too am implicated in this, as I am deeply fascinated by the gloss and theatrics that usually accompanies the genre. I also wonder about how much escapism and nostalgia play a role in the public’s interest in the form. In a time of contemporary upheaval, domestic terrorism, war, climate change, disease, what is going on with the cultural obsession with television and film set so firmly in the past? Why is there often so little meaningful interest in doing anything transformative with imagining if not “the” past, but a fictional past?
Bridgerton is ultimately a disappointment, in that it upholds the status quo while truly believing it is innovative. Its failure of imagination culminates before it even begins, in the pointed choice it makes to create an alternate realism that essentially dresses up its source characters from the novels—white people—in blackface, while making the easy choice, the cowardly choice, to shortchange its audience and sell us a world no better than our own. As far as I’m concerned, it could have done all this and gotten away with it. If only—if only—it hadn’t tried to lie about what it is.