If you have not heard the name “Lady Whistledown” or “Bridgerton” lately, you are most likely (and probably happily) unburdened with a Netflix account or social media. This author finally succumbed to the peer pressure and sat down to watch the whole of the first season. The breakout hit from Netflix, heavily favored by audiences, is aesthetically stunning on its surface but, much like an iceberg, there’s very little going on underneath.
Based on a series of eight books by Julia Quinn, each book focuses on one of the eight Bridgerton siblings, which gives Netflix plenty of room to churn out seasons and detract from their recent Cuties controversy.
The Jane Austen-esque knockoff is set in the 1800’s in London, England during the height of the social season, kicking off with a debutante presentation. For those who did not grow up in the South or are unaware of the practice in general, young women of a certain age (generally 16-17 years old) are “presented” by their parents/guardians to society, signaling they are ready for marriage to a worthy suitor, preferably of a higher socioeconomical rank than his intended bride.
Daphne Bridgerton, the 4th eldest child, is one of the main protagonists and is presented as a debutante in the first episode. She and love interest Simon Bassett, the Duke of Hastings, are the main focal point of the series, but the seven other Bridgerton siblings (and their various friends/acquaintances/enemies) get side stories, as well. While the various stories with the large cast aren’t exactly cerebral or hard to follow, they are jam-packed in with hastily tied up conclusions, leaving much to be desired.
The catalyst for most of the drama and intrigue comes in the form of a gossip sheet penned by Lady Whistledown, an anonymous writer under a nom de plume (or nom de guerre, depending on your perspective). A lot of the episodes focus on Lady Whistledown’s ability to know everyone’s secrets, which she dutifully reports to her readers on a regular basis.
And…that’s it. That’s the gist of the story. No more and no less than that, it is simply mental cotton candy – fluffy and sweet but with little to no substance. There is certainly nothing wrong with partaking in something popular or mentally unstimulating but, much like most things, should be done in moderation.
The substance some might claim comes in the form of the diverse and inclusive cast, which came about as a result of one of many creative liberties taken by the show’s creator/adaptor of the books, Shonda Rhimes. While biracial relationships and equal rights both economic and socially for those of different colors are certainly wonderful, when slammed into a historic fiction/period piece, it is revisionist history and a playing of progressive bingo.
“It’s not color-blind casting,” Betsy Beers, the show’s producer, said in an Entertainment Weekly interview.
“We try to imagine history and the world in the way we wanted to see it.”
Therein lies the problem: history isn’t what we want it to be but rather what it is: the good, the bad, and the ugly. While some creative liberties and educated guesses must be made in lieu of tangible/recorded historic facts, they’re still rooted with some evidentiary support.
Harriet Tubman’s story in the book Harriet Tubman: Road to Freedom by Catherine Clinton relies heavily on what was reported as conditions for slaves in general in that time period rather than Tubman specifically.
Why? Because very little was written or kept from Tubman’s life aside from the major events; much of her day-to-day life before her courageous journey ushering fellow slaves to freedom and her work as a spy in the Union army is unknown.
This absence of basic documentation further highlights the insidious nature of slavery in the dehumanization of its victims by not even allowing them a definitive written record of their lived experiences.
Back to Bridgerton: while it is a nice notion to have a diverse cast, when shoe-horned into a period piece, it comes off as pandering and disrespectful to the actual lived experience of people of color at that time. One or two lines of dialogue “explaining” why blacks have the same rights as whites halfway through the season is hollow, anachronistic, contrived, and quite frankly, lazy writing.
Simply hiring “BIPOC” actors in roles they clearly earned through talent/hard work without the “explainer” of fictitious racial relations of 1800’s England would be far less insulting to mine and most audiences’ intelligence. Or, and here’s a novel concept, if you want to tell a story about strong people of different races/cultures, perhaps write an original piece of work and leave history (and Jane Austen) alone? This is Us, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and a score of other amazing shows do this well without being preachy or trite.
The feminist element comes in the form of the oft-used Jane Austen theme of women of that time having few/no rights and their only value coming in the form of making a good match to a good husband. Aside from the costumes/set, etc, this is the only thing that isn’t completely historically inaccurate. Again, while women’s rights are important, turning the struggles of women in that time into flighty romance pieces is disrespectful and a degradation of the lived experience of women at that time – on top of which, it’s boring and overly-used as a theme. Let it also be said it is difficult to feel pity for the “plight” of women in this story when you consider most of the main ladies’ day-to-day is wearing pretty dresses, embroidering, reading, playing the pianoforte, and going to parties. Tough life. Much like Downton Abbey, the more interesting, dynamic, and human stories come from the “downstairs” staff and servants.
Costume, set, and acting-wise, these categories shine brightly, making the lack of decent plot and the two-dimensional characters with their vapid first-world problems of gossip and intrigue a little easier to digest.
Without further ado, the sex element must be addressed. Much like the banal Fifty Shades of Grey series by E.L. James (a Twilight fan-fiction), Bridgerton is the same in the sex-sphere: taking established work/themes and adding sex scenes ad nauseum. We get it – watching pretty people saying pretty words while getting busy sells big. Before this author is inundated with accusations of being a “prude”, let’s be very clear: I’m an adult woman who is happily married with two amazing children. I am by no means denigrating sex or condemning it as a stupid act as I, myself, enjoy it immensely; I am simply saying that using it as a plot device is, well, stupid. Arguing that my opinion stems from negative assumptions about my own sexual health or the state of the bedroom in my marriage is, likewise, idiotic.
What is even more stupid than the over-use of sex in place of a plot or worthwhile dialogue is the fact the young female characters are absolutely moronic when it comes to the dynamics of sex. Even the character with an unplanned pregnancy (and, spoiler alert, attempted at-home abortion via an herbal tea) is unable to adequately explain how sex and procreation works. Puritanism and ignorance of sex, while historically accurate in the Victorian era, made for an awkward and weird storyline juxtaposed to every other scene showing people screwing each other’s brains out. At the end of the day, what was the point of either? Yes, we get it, women weren’t taught sex-education and men went to brothels to “dip their wick” and “sow their wild oats”. Yawn. This non-point is dull when one considers children today are being taught about intricacies of sex-acts and complicated gender theory via public school without parental consent.
Would I watch this show’s first season again? Probably not – there are far worthier historic fiction or even romance stories to imbibe. Would I watch the second season? Like I said before, mental cotton candy isn’t necessarily a bad thing as long as one does it in moderation and understands they’re not going to be using a lot of brain cells in the process. I might catch the second season when it comes around when, like the incentive for this season’s viewing, fueled by peer-pressure and morbid curiousity.
Quite frankly, if I want to get a decent romance story, I’ll go straight to the well-spring that is the source of all these other pale comparisons: Jane Austen. At least her social justice points are organic to what she has herself witnessed and displays in a narratively creative way without reliance on sex scenes and woke-point-bingo games.