Not all fantasies are created equal. Take Bridgerton, the British-period multiracial drama that is producer Shonda Rhimes’ debut show for Netflix. It was an unprecedented success: Reaching 82 million households, Regency-era romance became the most-watched show on Netflix, an enduring colossus of pop culture. Our eyes dart and sway, our attention rarely stops for more than a click these days, yet Bridgerton freezes us in place, he catches our eye – why?
In some ways, the appeal is obvious. Bridgerton is sexy and obsessed with sex. It’s witty and subversive and the kind of show that makes television better for everyone, a signature of Rhimes’ Midas touch. Its shows are led by women and inclusive, rich in emotion. It doesn’t hurt either Bridgerton is costumed in a trendy television subgenre – high society dramas about the machinations of the rich – and shares its DNA with forerunners like Gossip Girl and Downton abbey. Familiarity breeds popularity. That’s the kind of saccharin escape that this very moment responds to. We want fantasies that allow easy detachment, that appeal to our human senses. Bridgerton does just that.
What first catches our attention is a tangled affair between Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor), It Girl of the court season, and Simon Basset (Regé-Jean Page), a duke reluctant to daddy issues. Their relationship is the heart of the series but not its most fascinating attribute. What caught my attention BridgertonThe eight episodes of this film were its seemingly racially utopian backdrop and, more specifically, the inclusion of British black royalty.
It’s here that Bridgerton, based on a series of books by author Julia Quinn, departs from its source material. The books ignore race, it’s mostly a non-factor, while the TV adaptation elevates equality to the point of inevitability. Not only are the Black Brits part of English society; they govern it. “We were two separate societies divided by color until a king fell in love with one of us,” says Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh), explaining how the multiracial aristocracy was born. “Look at all he does for us, making us become.”
At first, revisionism plays out as a fun thought experiment. We see how a black queen of England rules – fiery and fearsome, she’s a monarch who prefers her pageantry with a side of gossip. We are familiar with the daily life and the innermost feelings of a Black Duke. It’s a fun game of What if?, but only for so long. Ultimately, these racing fantasies go nowhere beyond pure entertainment. What seduces ends up repelling.
I recognize that I liked the show. But there was something about it that wasn’t right. What is the type of representation used for? Bridgerton represents serve?
Bridgerton is a show that, in a sense, “pushes against records,” as cultural historian Saidya Hartman might put it. This reluctance to abide by the set of rules of history, to sidestep his emphasis on facts, is his most alluring fiction. It is also Bridgertonmost disturbing. Troubling because, deep down, fantasy consists of envisioning something new, perhaps in another way, in the service of a higher truth. Futility in BridgertonThe use of fantasy is how she plays with race. He wants to say something important but cannot. And that cannot because there is no higher truth to serve beyond its entertainment value.
If the inclusion of black artistry seems necessary to the point of revisionism, if Quinn’s vision alone is not enough, wouldn’t it be as easy to move the spectacle to Haiti to the 19th century, when Henry Christophe reigned, or during the reign of the Kingdom of Benin before its annexation in 1897? Granted, that would make it a whole different show –Bridgetown, do not Bridgerton– but the story, the drama, the backdoor intrigues, it’s all there, ready for a thoughtful dig. Why not give real black royalty the extravagance of a Netflix budget?