Bridgerton’s Race-Neutral World is Marred by Colorism (Contains Spoilers)
Netflix’s historical romance series, Bridgerton, based on Julia Quinn’s bestselling novels, seems to be a hit. I’m one of the many viewers who enjoyed the show, which explores the absurdities and complications of young, English debutantes entering the marriage market in search of wealthy husbands. I thought the story balanced intrigue, passion, flirtatious banter, and tragedy well. There was enough angst to create tension and tug at your heartstrings but not enough to erase the frothy lightness of the slightly ridiculous narrative or create any doubt in a happy ending for the romantic leads. Bridgerton was a nearly perfect execution of the historical romance formula. The story, however, made some crucial deviations and wasn’t without its problems.
Bridgerton is set in an alternate Regency-era England, where the Queen is a Black woman and many of the aristocracy and gentry are people of color. The romantic lead, Simon Basset, Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page) is a Black man. Simon is dashing, devastatingly handsome, and wounded — the perfect romantic hero. Page’s portrayal of Simon turned viewers into sentient heart eyes emojis and set social media alight. The young debutante who catches his eyes is the “diamond of the season” — Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor). Daphne is white. The different races of the romantic leads doesn’t matter in the world of Bridgerton. Simon’s rank and desirability are never questioned. He is the season’s most eligible bachelor until a foreign prince turns up.
Bridgerton isn’t a completely race-neutral world, though, and Simon is the one who tells us so. In a conversation with his surrogate mother, Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh), he says that the King having taken a Black Queen may have elevated Black Britons into the aristocracy, but their position was scaffolded on a whim. It was a delicate thing that could be destroyed as quickly as it had been created. I thought it was important to have the main Black character say aloud that Black people were still racialized in this idealized fantasy world, and there were still precarities for them to navigate around. Even so, that moment pointed to something the creators of Bridgerton missed the mark on quite widely: the treatment of the characters played by dark-skinned actors.
Bridgerton is marred by some pretty stark colorism. During the introductory scenes of the first episode, I noticed that all the Black characters who were given speaking roles and presented as desirable were light-skinned. There were dark-skinned actors attending the balls where Daphne and her fellow debutantes were husband-hunting, but they were purely background players. I don’t think any of them even had a line of any note. There were plenty of Black servants. I didn’t like the dynamics and began to suspect certain discussions weren’t had during the casting sessions. My worst suspicions were confirmed when Simon’s traumatic birth and childhood were brought to the screen.
It is common in historical romances for one of the star-crossed lovers to have an ogre of a parent. They rarely rise above the level of caricature. In Bridgerton, the odious villain is Simon’s recently-deceased father, from whom he inherited his title and wealth. The former Duke of Hastings is the only dark-skinned person in the show with real power, and he wields it in a cartoonishly evil fashion. As Simon’s mother dies following his birth, the Duke, who is obsessed with carrying on his line, holds Simon aloft and brays in celebration to a gathered crowd that he finally has a son. He neglected Simon, who was raised by the servants. As a boy, Simon began speaking late, and, when he did, it was with a noticeable stutter. The Duke rejected him as defective and unworthy to be his son. Watching the cruel admonishments the Duke made to a little boy were difficult for me to watch, in part, because other wrongdoers in the story are feckless, weak, or caught in untenable situations with only bad solutions. Fairy tale wickedness comes in dark, Black skin in Bridgerton. Simon’s father’s cruelty is never directly connected to his race or how dark his skin is, but stereotypes are often crafty elisions.
There was something very ugly indeed about watching the only dark-skinned person with the power to affect the story cruelly abuse his light-skinned wife and child and have that abuse shape the conflict that threatens the happy ending. When he visits his father’s deathbed, Simon makes a vow never to sire children and have the Hastings line end with him. His commitment to seeing his word kept nearly puts his relationship with Daphne asunder. A main plot point of Bridgerton is an obsession with ending the line of the only important dark-skinned character.
Some of the criticism of Bridgerton has been focused on the “historical inaccuracy” of the race mixing. People like Simon did exist in Regency-era England. There were Black aristocrats, some of whom even had close ties to the Crown. The demand to “get history right” is an unsurprising and predictable demand to center whiteness. The irony is that this is what the show ended up doing with its colorist casting. Proximity to whiteness as redeeming is one of the values Bridgerton extols unwittingly. Demands for the show to reflect history accurately don’t make sense — it’s set in an alternate universe and presents a heightened reality. Suspension of disbelief is necessary. However, we can’t pretend that popular culture doesn’t shape bigotry and discrimination — particularly the politics of desirability. Bridgerton’s failing in this regard isn’t that it ignores history, it’s how limiting the fantasy that replaces it is. The story is teeming with romantic entanglements and not a single one of them presents a dark-skinned person as desirable enough for a character of note to pursue. I hope the showrunners address this next season.
Originally published on my Patreon.