by Leio Koga
*Warning: Spoilers Ahead*
Britain, 1813: It’s cuffing season, ladies.
Prudence Featherington is breathing shallowly, eyes scrunched in pain each time the corset of her empire waist dress is laced tighter and tighter around her body. Her mother, ignorant of her daughter’s obvious pain, exclaims “I was able to squeeze my waist into the size of an orange and a half when I was Prudence’s age!” For Prudence’s sake, I hope that they had some large oranges in 1800s British society. But on a more serious note, this opening scene in Bridgerton—a dazzling, steamy, and problematic Netflix show that has gained popularity since its release in December 2020—demonstrates the trajectory of what we see in the rest of the episodes: the objectification of women, traditional gender roles, blatant sexism, and an overall lack of diversity.
The representation of intersectional feminism in the show is lacking, to say the least.
The representation of intersectional feminism in the show is lacking, to say the least. The female lead is a white, heterosexual woman named Daphne Bridgerton, who comes from a class family ranked very high in the social and economic ladder. The show throws characters of color, but their contextualization and story arch only seem to support the narrative of white characters. However, I do not want to completely disregard the fact that this show takes place in the early 1800s, where the values of intersectional feminism were not prominent in society to begin with. Typically, shows taking place during this particular era do not include characters of color, and thus Bridgerton’s inclusion of several black characters seems progressive. Which is strange, considering that the Regency Era was more diverse than you would think. The problem here is how the characters, particularly the black women, are once again being used to bolster white characters’ narratives that have been at the center of most films and TV shows. While Bridgerton may have sought to include more racial diversity by having several characters of color in their storyline, what is blatantly obvious is that all of these characters of color were consistently made the object of heartbreak, loss, and disappointment. Let me list some examples from the show: Marina’s lover, the father of her child, Sir George, dies and she is forced into marriage with his brother; Queen Charlotte’s loss of her child; and Simon’s mother dying in childbirth. Is it a coincidence that these characters all happen to be black women?
I’m going to say no.
This wouldn’t be a critique of the show if I didn’t point out the objectification of women and the patriarchy. Again, I recognize that this is the 1800s and society wasn’t as progressive as it is now (although modern society still has lots of work to do), but why did they have to portray women in such a demeaning way? Honestly, it’s tiring to watch women constantly being objects of oppression—of sex, inequality, and marriage. Let’s start with one of the most problematic themes: the objectification of the female reproductive system and function. Many of the young girls, including Daphne, don’t know what their period is; they don’t know how a woman becomes pregnant and they have no knowledge of sexual empowerment because it is expected only from women to abstain from sex until marriage. And we see what happens when a woman does have sex before marriage: Marina is depicted to have a “condition,” and this becomes a rather unnecessarily large part of her development as a character. Next, and arguably more problematic, was the scene where Daphne manipulated Simon into impregnating her, despite his vocal unwillingness to have children. These two contrasting scenes not only present a racial issue– a white, high-class woman raping a black man as punishment for his silence — but absolutely destroys the idea of feminism in terms of women’s sexuality. Daphne’s pregnancy is celebrated, but Marina’s causes her to be even more of an outcast than she already was. In other words, these scenes display that sexuality is only accepted in certain contexts.
Men in the show, and men today, are encouraged and praised for having as much sex as possible…
Ah, Miss Marina Thompson. I could write a whole separate article on her story and how many injustices she faces throughout the show. Her story is the only representation of a Black woman’s courting experience — and if you’ve seen the show, you know how it ends. If you haven’t seen the show, well, I’ll break it down for you in one sentence: she finds out she’s pregnant, tries to terminate her pregnancy, fails, and is compelled to enter a loveless marriage in order to protect herself and her baby. Marina understands what will happen to her if she doesn’t marry—it was one of the many oppressive standards built by patriarchy—but realizes early on in the show that if she doesn’t cuff a man, she’s basically doomed. Her storyline comments on double standards that have trickled down into modern-day society; namely, the way sex is viewed differently based on gender. Men in the show, and men today, are encouraged and praised for having as much sex as possible—Daphne’s brother, Anthony, sleeps around to his pleasure, and no one says anything or looks down on him for doing so. And yet, the women of Bridgerton literally don’t even know what sex is. Obviously, today, people are generally educated on this topic, but we still see women being put down for being sexy or having sex, while males having sex is associated with being cool. It is undeniable that there is still a negative stigma around women and sex, and we were reminded of that in Bridgerton. The show had high potential to include important discussions about race and gender, and I hope Season 2 provokes more conversations and reflections about the backdrop of society in the 1800s, whether that’s from a modern perspective or reflecting on what the Regency Era was like in terms of race and gender. Speaking of race and gender, the race-baiting and queer-baiting needs to be addressed: to the writers of the show, if you’re going to claim and portray the show as diverse, then we expect you to fulfill that promise! Let’s consider using characters from all different backgrounds—whether that’s physical or something more internal—and allowing viewers to educate ourselves about the historical context of society during this time.