Note: Here be Bridgerton spoilers and discussion of multiple traumas. Read with care.
After watching Bridgerton in its entirety in one fell swoop on Christmas Day, I sat on my thoughts for a long, long time. I took in some of the discourse, both before and after watching, and thought long and hard about what I could say as a Black person, a Black woman, after watching something that should have been soapy escapism at its very best, but ended up wildly yo-yoing with my emotions, thoughts, and even certainties.
I remember being fascinated by this choice, back when it was first announced. I’d remembered the controversy when Bridgerton author Julia Quinn said, out loud, that she didn’t write more diversely because she wrote happy endings and that wouldn’t be historically plausible. I wondered, at the thought of her being involved in a Shondaland project, whether she had gotten some kind of Come-To-Jesus talk from the woman herself, who would then give lots of people—of different races, genders, and sexualities—their own HEAs. And I was conflicted from the moment the cast was announced. It was a beautiful collection of people, perfect for what I assumed would be a “colorblind” cast like Still Star-Crossed, Shonda Rhimes’s previous historical project. I expected that it would be a fantasy world, akin to the Brandy Cinderella or any good Shakespeare production (*cough*MuchAdo*cough*).
And I sat down to enjoy the pretty, if nothing else.
But about halfway through watching, it was brought to viewers’ attention that the characters portrayed by Black actors were actually supposed to be Black people, in a Britain that had made an effort to right its wrongs much earlier than in real life (if one would argue that it has made much effort to do so at all). And in that moment, the people who were chosen to be portrayed as Black characters became something else. Another element of Black pain and trauma in what would have been yet another generic historical fantasy.
One can’t help but notice—even before the vague acknowledgement that the Black Britons are indeed Black—that the Black characters have a certain commonality between them: Trauma.
There’s Simon, of course, the central love interest of Season One. One can argue that as not only the first introduced love interest but also a whole goddamned Duke, a title in British aristocracy that is closer to royalty than anything else, he is one of the most important Black characters to be introduced. But his rakish ways are not the only thing holding him back from being the ideal (and idealized) romantic hero. As the Second (?) Duke of Hastings, he’s already got a lot on his plate, but he’s also got a traumatized upbringing to deal with, which has led to the big conflict of his own romance: he made a vow not to marry or bring children into the world. And when he tries to maintain this (misguided but incredibly sincere) promise, his young, white wife, instead of maybe asking a question or two? Takes matters into her own hands by forcing him into vaginal ejaculation instead of his usual handkerchief. This is a nonconsensual act. This is sexual assault.
(Aside: There has apparently been some conversation online about how it’s not rape because Daphne is very small and he’s a big man who could have done something about it. I wonder what they would have said about small white women enslavers and their big Black captives.)
Simon’s terrible dead father, whose only love during Simon’s life was for the continuation of the Ducal Line, is the person who has inspired this vow. And we not only watch said (Black) father emotionally abuse and neglect his son from childhood through to adulthood, but we have been given a clear understanding of why he doesn’t have a loving, motherly hand until Lady Danbury comes into his life. Right on screen. At the beginning of the second episode, we get to experience a difficult, traumatic childbirth and the death of a Black woman—the unnamed First Duchess of Hastings.
This comes right on the tails of the big reveal about another Black character: Marina, a young Black woman who has been sent blindly into a white, hostile household thanks to a gambling debt that’s not her fault at all. She’s been sent away from home because she got pregnant. Lady Featherington, with three daughters all Out and in need of worthy husbands, has already resented Marina’s appearance, as the suitors are all enamored with her (because she’s beautiful or because she’s Exotic? One never knows). But she locks Marina in her room, a prisoner in her only place of refuge, when it’s revealed that she’s pregnant. And when she believes there’s no happy place for her and her child, we get to experience the trauma of her trying to herbally end her pregnancy. (And when that doesn’t work, who’s the only woman in the whole season to try to manipulate someone she doesn’t love into marriage? That’s right.) She’s essentially sold off to the highest bidder who inspects her body in a way that invokes the Block.
Why is she the only young, single Black woman cast in this narrative?
And then we have the older Black women, the matriarchal types who like gossip, meddling, and getting their ways. They’re fearful women who people are afraid of upsetting, and neither gets to live their own happily ever after. While Lady Danbury’s presence on screen is relatively trauma-free, we are forced to watch Queen Charlotte endure shouted insults by her husband multiple times. And when she’s not being verbally abused and maligned by the King of England and the Empire, she’s shallow and only looking to be entertained.
The one working class Black family we see includes a Black man who is not only an athlete, but whose whole role involves putting on a spectacle of violence for a mostly white betting crowd. (And teaching Simon to fight so he can beat up toads, of course). His wife is a delight, thinking of her family’s needs and not afraid to speak her mind…They might be the most well adjusted pair in the whole damn show. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that the poor Black man is one whose role in life makes him easily swayed by a possible high payday. He’s doing it for his family, yes. But he’s doing it because he can’t say no without consequences.
If one were to write a play-by-play list of each traumatic moment that a Black character experiences in just one season of Bridgerton, it would read much longer than this particular article. There are so many small things that add up quickly. So many tiny cuts every Black viewer has to endure as they watch the melodrama unfold.
There is plenty happening in Bridgerton that doesn’t highlight the trauma and pain the Black characters are experiencing, but that might actually highlight their trauma and pain even more. The troubles the white characters are dealing with are—while still notable—lesser troubles. The fear of not finding a husband. The fear of finding a husband, who might not love them. Not knowing how babies are made. Losing the family fortune. Being embarrassed by family members. Not being able to support your mistress. Not living up to expectations. These are troubling, but not trauma.
If the rumors are true and Netflix signs on to produce a season per book of the eight-book series, everyone involved has to think about what their casting choices say. If every tragic character is a Beautiful Black Person and the only unequivocal HEAs are offered to the white characters, they have not succeeded. If they don’t offer more recurring roles to people of color who aren’t Black, they haven’t succeeded (and let’s not make them tragic characters either, huh?). If they build out the cast to offer friends, love interests, extended family members, good suitors and bad ones, and continue to only cast happy Black people on the periphery, they will not have succeeded. We can only watch and see how much the actionable concepts of DEI play out in the fantasy world in which the Bridgertons live and their little part of the real world where the rest of us do.
Bridgerton, at its heart, is not an adaptation of a single romance novel or even a series, but a soap opera built upon the idea of one. A saga that, instead of centering the wildly flawed romance and potentially building out that story to make their HEA one we can all root for, offers multiple new characters whose flawed and traumatized lives take away from the joy we could have had (even with the unceasing melodrama!) from beginning to end.