Bridgerton is Fun, Except for the Consent Issues
Why is it so difficult for people to agree that there’s a rape scene in the show?
At the start of shelter in place, I was desperate for escape. Where once I would look down my nose at pop fiction and seek out literature — profound works that would stand the test of time, written by those at the height of their artistry — I struggled with having the attention span or the will to read anything too heavy, demanding, or difficult. Instead, I found myself reading more feel-good romance novels. My Kindle began pitching me regency romances, which I hadn’t realized was such a prolific subgenre. I devoured dozens of them, although I would have been embarrassed to admit as much to my friends.
So when the latest Shondaland series, “Bridgerton”, came out, it seemed almost tailor-made for me, along with the added bonus of a racially diverse cast (one of my complaints with the genre is how white it is). The show did not disappoint, with sumptuous costumes, lavish sets, great pacing, and a gorgeous cast. It had all of the trappings of a great escape, not just for fans of the genre, but anyone.
Basically, the show centers around Daphne, a young debutante in the London season, and Simon, the Duke of Hastings, who is one of the most eligible bachelors of the season but decidedly against marriage. The two concoct a plan to their mutual advantage; to fake courtship. But in the course of their act, they (quite predictably, but still enjoyably) fall in love for real.
[Spoiler warning] However, there’s a snag. Daphne wants children, and Simon does not. He tells her that he “can never give her children”, rather than framing it as he does not want to have children. I interpreted this not as deliberately deceptive, but simply not the best word choice; a semantic distinction whose importance he does not realize.
Regardless, Daphne now believes Simon is sterile, but decides to marry him anyway because she cares for him so deeply. This puts us in murky territory for consent; would Daphne still have married Simon if she knew he could have children but did not want to? It isn’t clear, although it is significant that she essentially agreed to a childless marriage with him when she believed it was beyond his control. For its part, the show frames Simon’s deception as lying by omission.
[Trigger warning: discussion of rape and sexual assault ahead]. Due to her lack of sex education, Daphne does not realize that each time they have intercourse, Simon pulls out to avoid conception. When she finally discovers what this means, she is angry. Here’s where we get to the part of the show that doesn’t sit well with me. In a charged scene, the two of them start to have sex, but Daphne positions herself on top, and doesn’t let go of Simon when he comes. Right before he orgasms, he looks alarmed and says “wait”, twice, but she doesn’t listen. This arguably is rape; at the very least, it is sexual assault and a violation of consent.
If Simon knew what Daphne was planning, he probably would not have consented to sex at all. Or even if he had, he did not consent to ejaculating inside of her. Consent is not a one and done blank check; it can be revoked at any time. Worse still, Daphne already knew Simon did not want to finish inside of her, even before he said “wait”, and she forced him to anyway.
Let us consider the reverse, i.e., a male character impregnating a woman against her will during otherwise consensual sex. I think viewers would be more likely to take issue with that. Yet many viewers of the show, and the show itself, did not seem to view what happened as rape, or sexual assault, or even problematic. Why is that? Well, many reasons:
1. The difficulty of recognizing intimate partner and spousal rape as rape.
Many people have a very specific schema for what rape is, usually involving a male stranger violently forcing himself on a woman (who is ideally conservatively dressed, sober, and fights back). But most rape isn’t that — — the perpetrator is usually someone the survivor knows and trusts enough to get close to.
People also struggle to see intimate partner and spousal rape as legitimate; “you love them and have consented to sex before, so what’s the problem?” the argument goes. In this case, because Simon enthusiastically consented to intercourse, enjoyed himself enough to orgasm, and Daphne wasn’t physically violent with him, it doesn’t fit the definition, they reason. However, rape does not require physical force, or a complete lack of any pleasure from the survivor. It’s much more complicated than that.
2. Men are less likely to be seen as victims and are assumed to perpetually want sex.
I am not suggesting that men have it worse than women, but they are even less likely to report experiencing sexual assault. Also, I’ve lost count of how many jokes about prison rape I’ve heard throughout my life. If that wasn’t bad enough, there’s the mistaken belief that rape must involve being physically overpowered, which dismisses the possibility that men can be violated by women at all.
3. Simon wants children but just doesn’t know it yet, so what Daphne did isn’t a big deal.
The show seems to imply that it’s not all that sympathetic or understandable for people who can have children to refuse to do so, especially when their partner wants to. And while I’ll agree that I found Simon’s particular rationale a bit petty and not very compelling (he wants to spite his father, who’s dead now anyway), it is his reason, and ought to be respected. Even the simple answer “I don’t want to have children” must be respected. The fact that Simon ultimately does decide to have children at the end of the show does not retroactively justify what Daphne did.
4. The show does not treat what happened as rape.
Simon is angry with Daphne, but mainly because she might bear his child, not because she sexually assaulted him. There is no emotional fallout that frames what Daphne did as a serious violation of trust. Nor do we see Daphne apologize or take responsibility for what she did. The optics of this (a white woman violating a black man’s consent and then never owning up to it) are pretty awful. Worse, still, the show focuses mainly on Daphne’s feelings of betrayal, decentering Simon and implying that he deserved what happened, or brought it on himself. But Simon’s deception (direct or by omission) does not justify what Daphne did. Two wrongs don’t make a right.
In addition, Vox’s Aja Romano notes: “the fact that the rape victim here is both male and a person of color makes it even more egregious that the show is glossing over the incident. Men are often considered silent victims of sexual assault, and Black men in particular are often made scapegoats for sexual violence, which further erases the status of Black male victims of sexual assault. In this context, the show’s emphasis on Simon as the instigator of Daphne’s choice basically paints him as being responsible for his own rape. This aligns with the broader cultural gaslighting of Black men and the shifting of blame away from the white men and women who enact violence upon them.”
As someone who volunteers for a Rape Crisis hotline, I know how difficult it can be for survivors to call what happened to them rape, especially if their perpetrator was an intimate partner or spouse. I tell them that only they can define their experience. But regardless of what they call it, what matters is that they are still dwelling on it, that it still hurts them. Simon’s experience would probably stay with him too, and affect his ability to trust Daphne. Even if he continued to love her and want to have sex with her.
There are many other ways Daphne could have confronted Simon about his deception that would not have involved violating his consent (she could have used her words, maybe?), which would have been plenty dramatic but less salacious (and apparently less true to the source material, which was even worse).
5. We live in a rape culture.
A rape culture is defined as “a sociological concept for a setting in which rape is pervasive and normalized due to societal attitudes about gender and sexuality. Behaviors commonly associated with rape culture include victim blaming, slut-shaming, sexual objectification, trivializing rape, denial of widespread rape, refusing to acknowledge the harm caused by sexual violence, or some combination of these.” As a society, we are pretty poorly educated about consent dynamics, and what rape actually looks like (beyond the stranger in the bushes scenario). We are also discouraged from setting boundaries, or respecting the boundaries set by others. Violations of consent are normalized.
I know that people often have difficulty referring to things as rape except in the most extreme cases — — it’s an extreme crime, with criminal and legal implications, and they don’t want to minimize or overuse the term. But I think this often hurts survivors by narrowing the definition of rape and making it more difficult to seek support or justice. I am comfortable calling the scenario in “Bridgerton” rape. But even if someone is not, at the very least I hope they consider it a violation of consent, and wrong.