This past December, TV screens were dominated by lacy dresses, extravagant balls, and dance cards. With its beautiful scenery and fabulous ambiance, Netflix’s new original series, “Bridgerton” became television’s “diamond of the season.” The show, which Netflix projected would have 63 million views within the first 28 days after its release, garnered 82 million views in that period, making it one of the platform’s most popular series.
“Bridgerton” follows the story of the Bridgerton family, specifically, the oldest daughter Daphne as she enters Regency-era London society in 1813 as a debutante looking for a husband. The show is based on a series of novels by Julie Quinn and was produced by Shonda Rhimes, who is known for producing other smash hit shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal.”
Excitement for “Bridgerton” began with the release of its trailer, which seemed to promise an alternative history with a more inclusive Regency setting featuring a diverse cast of characters. Of course, inclusivity and Regency-era do not historically go hand in hand. Instead of focusing on historical accuracy, “Bridgerton” seemed to set out to be an alternative history and a fun show for people of all different identities to find representation in. However, despite the hype and popularity, the series did not live up to these expectations. Rather than the diverse Regency series that the trailer promised, the show features queerbaiting, colorism, and a scene with nonconsensual sex.
Many viewers of the teaser trailer noted and celebrated the promise of LGBTQ+ representation in the show; the trailer features a moment from what appears to be a queer sex scene, as two men are in each other’s embrace. This was particularly exciting because the TV and film industry, especially within the Regency-era genre, lacks queer representation.
However, the representation and narrative promised in the trailer are not delivered. Upon viewing the show, it becomes disappointingly obvious that instead of including a queer narrative, “Bridgerton” engages in queerbaiting. Queerbaiting, as defined by BBC, is “the practice of using hints of sexual ambiguity to tease an audience.”
The show does include a queer character, Henry Granville, an artist who befriends one of the Bridgerton brothers, Benedict. However, Henry is an underdeveloped, minor character who only appears in a few scenes. Many viewers, including myself, expected Benedict to be another queer character, but instead, his lover is a woman who works as a modiste (a dressmaker).
So, not only does the show lack the important representation that viewers were excited about, but it capitalizes off of the promise of LGBTQ+ representation, ultimately capitalizing off of the LGBTQ+ community. The community’s broad identity is used to generate more views, but the show ultimately fails to include this underrepresented identity in television, resulting in a disappointing and hurtful bait-and-switch scenario, which, in the end, diverts attention from other media that actually features LGBTQ+ representation.
“Race-baiting” and Colorism
“Bridgerton” creates a similar false promise with racial representation. Regency-era pieces particularly lack diversity. Viewers of color would be hard-pressed to find representation in principal characters of popular pieces like the 2005 Pride & Prejudice film or even the 2020 remake of Emma. Instead, in this genre, people of color seem to be erased. If they are present, they are often cast as servants or background characters. Modern viewers of color are left trying to connect and identify with characters that rarely look like them. So, it is unsurprising that the racial diversity present in the trailer generated a lot of buzz. However, this expectation went unfulfilled.
Although it is not an official term, in her YouTube video, “Race-baiting, queer-baiting, colorism, featurism, and performative diversity,” Khadija Mbowe, who makes video essays analyzing the social implications of different media, defines race-baiting as “a branch-off term of queer-baiting.” It involves using promises of diversity to draw in viewers, which “Bridgerton” does with its trailer. Still, when watching “Bridgerton,” it becomes clear that the people of color shown in the trailer are mainly extras and, in Mbowe’s words, are “mostly just decorative.” She also points out the lack of Asian and Latinx characters, which proves the shows’ lack of commitment to truly providing representation for members of many minority groups.
Of course, “Bridgerton” does feature Black characters in principle roles. Unfortunately, colorism, defined as “prejudice or discrimination especially within a racial or ethnic group favoring people with lighter skin over those with darker skin,” has a clear role in the casting; the Black characters that do have larger roles, such as Simon (the Duke of Hastings) and Marina, are lighter skinned.
As Mbowe points out, the few darker-skinned Black characters fall into hurtful stereotypes. For example, Simon’s father, who is darker skinned, is arguably the most villainous character of the show, based on his cold and harsh treatment of his son. This plays into the horrendous stereotype that those with darker skin are more immoral or even more dangerous.
Instead of the racially representative show that viewers were excited for, “Bridgerton” falls into the all-too-common and harmful conventions of colorism and stereotyping.
Perhaps the most troubling and harmful part of the “Bridgerton” series was the inclusion of a rape scene. It must be noted that the show does not include a trigger warning for rape.
At the end of the sixth episode, Daphne engages in a sexual act that her partner is uncomfortable with, has been avoiding, and does not consent to. As she does so, he calls her name in protest and afterwards, he exclaims, “What did you do?” It is clear that he feels hurt, uncomfortable, and violated by what Daphne has done.
Despite his reaction, this act is never addressed as a violation at any time during the show. Instead, it seems as if the viewer is supposed to sympathize with Daphne and consider this scene as an example of her taking control in her relationship. It is clear that the show’s creators did not recognize that this scene lacks consent, and thus is a representation of sexual violation.
If this scene is considered necessary for the development of the show, then the creators should have developed commentary or framed the scene in a way that makes it clear that this not a healthy representation of sex, and instead is harmful and should not be recreated. A representation of nonconsensual sex requires not only a trigger warning for rape but also a clear acknowledgment of the violation.
I would argue that the scene is unnecessary and instead undermines the main relationship of the show. Although Daphne feels hurt by Simon hiding why he cannot have kids, having her rape him undermines her likeability for viewers. As the main character, Daphne is meant to be loved and sympathized with by the viewers. Instead, we are left with a very sour taste in our mouths. Furthermore, at the end of the season, viewers are left scratching their heads as to how Daphne and Simon have made up without addressing this violation and the underlying issues within their marriage related to sex and having children.
Overall, this rape scene not only sabotages Daphne as a character and the believability of her relationship with Simon, but it also provides a harmful representation of sex, seemingly passing rape off as acceptable.
Some may argue that “Bridgerton” is meant to be light-hearted and fun. They may feel that this analysis is unnecessary. However, arguments like this only further justify the need for criticism of content like “Bridgerton” — a lack of criticism fosters indifference to problematic content, such as a casual rape scene that has real-world effects. This is especially true for a show as popular as “Bridgerton.”
Overall, these issues in “Bridgerton” are representative of larger patterns and issues within media production and the entertainment industry. Even if these issues exist in media that is meant to entertain, it is important to consider their implications; the media we consume helps form societal realities, norms, and morals.
People learn from what they watch and recreate what they see on the screen. Real representation helps people feel seen and affects the possibilities they are able to imagine for themselves. The relationships shown on screen — sexual and not — are recreated in reality. So, although it is fine to enjoy the beauty and frills of “Bridgerton,” these elements cannot overshadow the broader implications of the show.
This is not to say that “Bridgerton” should be boycotted. Season 2 of “Bridgerton” is on its way and with it is the possibility of improvement.
Images courtesy of Netflix.