“Love, Your Grace, Conquers All”
Or does it?
*Spoilers for Bridgerton await! Read with caution!*
So, I somehow managed to miss any trailers for Bridgerton before I plopped down on my couch to start binging it. The only things I knew going into it were 1) that it was set in Regency Era London, and 2) that it was a Shondaland production. The former greatly excited me; I consider myself a pretty big fan of Jane Austen (though I still have yet to read all of her works) and generally enjoy period pieces as a whole. The latter, on the other hand, made me a tad nervous. I’ve never been one to watch Grey’s Anatomy or Scandal. Would this be some horrible bastardization of a Jane Austen story where the women make overdramatic speeches and too many people have untimely deaths?
On a more optimistic note, though, I wondered if Shonda Rhimes’ involvement would result in a more diverse cast. I thought back on an older tweet of hers, where she said she didn’t want her daughters to watch the (gone too soon) ABC Family series Bunheads because of its lack of POC representation. That being said, I was pretty surprised for the first few minutes of Bridgerton’s first episode. Naturally, we first meet the lily white Bridgerton family. Okay, seems normal for Regency London, sure. Then, we see the Featheringtons. They’re almost whiter, in a way, with their red hair and tacky fashions. I see some Black actors in the background, playing servants. Again, I guess this is totally normal for a period piece, but it doesn’t seem to fit with Shonda Rhimes’ beliefs about representation in Hollywood.
Then, we get Queen Charlotte! Then Lady Danbury, then Simon (*swoon*). For the first three and a half episodes, I thought Bridgerton had simply opted for “colorblind” casting — something that theater productions have been doing for ages, and that Hamilton of course popularized. It’s not a perfect solution, but I don’t think it’s a bad one either. I would argue that it’s much better to put actors of color on the screen than to focus on maintaining “historical accuracy” (I put that in quotes because most period pieces are actually pretty whitewashed). Truly, for those first nearly four episodes of Bridgerton, you would have no idea that the concept of race exists in their society. Every young woman seems eager to snatch up Simon. They have no concern for his skin color, but they are extremely concerned with his newly acquired title.
Then, all of that “colorblind bliss” comes to a screeching halt with what I felt was a very odd scene. I’ve read articles that agree with me here, and some that disagree, but you have to at LEAST admit that the timing of this moment was strange. In essence, Lady Danbury and Simon, two Black aristocratic characters, have a hushed conversation about what it means to be Black in their world. Actually, no. They talk about “them” and “us” and keep things pretty vague and confusing. I guess the assertion is that the interracial marriage of King George III and Queen Charlotte, in this sort of alternate history (though, to be fair, there’s a lot of evidence out there that the real Queen Charlotte did have Black ancestry), effectively ended racism in England. Charlotte granted dukedoms and other titles to Black people, and all the white people magically accepted that. No questions asked! We’re all equals now! Love conquers all, didn’t you know?
Except, Lady Danbury claims that things are not as picture perfect for “them” as they seem. I would honestly believe her if the show gave me ANY reason to, aside from this one brief conversation. You would think, going forward, with Simon marrying Daphne and such, that the topic of their races might come up again. Nope! Not even in the slightest. So seriously, why did the writers even bother? If they had never once acknowledged race, viewers probably wouldn’t have minded it. Again, it isn’t the best way to start critical discussions on the role of race in different historical settings, but it at least makes for some pretty great 2021-approved escapist TV. But no. The writers felt inclined to make the Black characters’ race an explicit part of their identity, but did so 1) for only two minutes of the 8-episode season, and 2) without making the white characters deal with the topic at all. On top of that, they basically (with Lady Danbury as their mouthpiece) asserted that one couple’s love for each other has the power to not only end racial prejudice at the societal level, but to completely rid it from the hearts of EVERYONE IN THE COUNTRY. I’m sorry, but it’s so simplistic that it’s quite nearly insulting.
Look, in all fairness, I absolutely adored Bridgerton. Though it is, in many ways, a bastardization of Jane Austen, it is also a delightfully romantic and entertaining bit of television. So, even though I came down kind of hard on its handling of race, I do fully intend to watch the next seven seasons (if Netflix blesses us with them!). Among other things, I’m VERY curious to see what role, if any, race relations play in the future seasons. Hopefully the writers will read some of the discourse that arose from their odd choice and will seek to right their wrongs.
Originally published on January 26, 2021