show got lucky with its start date. In late December, America went from a post-election crisis to a pre-election crisis, and citizens were desperate to escape it. But on Christmas Day itself, the British needed Bridgerton’s magical gifts extra. Five days earlier, Prime Minister Boris Johnson had abruptly cancelled the relaxation of quarantine rules promised at Christmas. Young People in London were disproportionately affected, as night-time quarantine zones prevented them from visiting their families outside the city. So, instead of turkey and charades, British millennials are turning to Netflix again.
Bridgerton offers the public eight hours of candy-colored entertainment. (For some Brits around me, those eight hours were their only Christmas activity). The story of Daphne, a beautiful London Regency debutante, is a fanfiction of Jane Austen. We lament the possibility of old age or scandal, but nothing alarming happens to those who have been dear to us for a long time The main crisis in the life of our heroine is that she must choose between a prince and a duke.
Like the fairy tale heroine, Daphne is portrayed from the start as the most beautiful girl in all of Canada, proclaimed queen of 200 girls by the winner of the debutante beauty pageant and heralded by the anonymous gossip Whistling City’s peerless column. She will face adversity – the two fairy gods will temporarily withdraw their favor – but we know that beauty and charm will always prevail.
Across the street we meet the wicked stepmother, Lady Featherington, cradling her two charming older daughters in dark feathers and belittling the clever young girl Penelope. Just as we know that only Cinderella’s foot will approach the glass slipper, we know that these ugly sisters will end the season unmarried.
In times of economic hardship, the mainstream media sell us fairy tales. Disney’s 1937 film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which was released to great success during one of the worst years of the Great Depression, is frequently cited as an example of this phenomenon. When theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer coined the term cultural industry, they were writing about how large corporations shape our imagination: The Walt Disney Company sold the song Someday My Prince Will Come to millions of young working class women who were fighting for a better life.
For women, in 1937, this better life meant marriage and a male breadwinner. Like Snow White, Bridgerton finds British and American audiences at their most desperate. Like Snow White, she sells dreams to a target audience of working class women. Some actors and the crew of Bridgerton have tried to claim progressive credentials for their show. The racial diversity of the actors is certainly to be applauded: This is a great step towards black British actors finally getting the chance to play the great dramatic historical roles they deserve. (Ajoa Andoh, for example, was born to play the great lady of the regency). But the happiness Bridgerton sells to its female viewers is still marriage and men. It’s Snow White with extra orgasms; social conservatism in progressive pants.
Why the public can’t be bored in Austin
As for panties and orgasms: Why does the world of regency have such appeal as a temporary backdrop? There is something culturally specific about this era that is deeply rooted in the modern female imagination. The Bridgerton series is based on the bestseller of the same name by Julia Quinn. The eight stories that follow Daphne and her siblings are just part of Quinn’s vast universe. Their dedicated fanbase has built a rich and varied archive of their own fanfiction, which in many ways is more nuanced and insightful than the scintillating series available on Netflix.
If there is a female perspective, Bridgerton wants to define and satisfy it. Filmed to appeal to women dating men, the sex scenes focus almost exclusively on the travails of Reg-Jean Paige, who plays the role of Daphne Simon’s lover, and Jonathan Bailey, who pursues his own exciting plots as Daphne Anthony’s promiscuous brother. Simon is accompanied by a confident and muscular boxing trainer who gives the two men plenty of opportunity to bounce around in the ring, shirt and sweat. Is it feminism or just female friendship?
Modern culture has long fetishized men in regent’s clothing (or underwear). When Pride and Prejudice was adapted in 1995, they made up the iconic scene where Colin Firth as Mr Darcy strips down to his undershirt and takes a dip in a lake on his estate. As recently as 2016, women in Washington were lining up to see the same shirt hanging in the Folger Shakespeare Library. The connection with Shakespeare is unclear. It’s common knowledge that men who dress like the heroes of Austin are dreamers.
But if Austen’s characters are dreamy, they’re not from fairy tales. Women identify with the heroines of Austin, so they like the men of Austin too. But modern women can identify with Austen’s heroines in many ways, as they face the real challenges women face in the 21st century. For Austrian women, marriage is an economic prospect, often the only economic prospect to escape poverty – or at best a lifetime of financial dependence on an unwilling parent. This is no longer true for women in developed countries, but their family and sexual choices are still subject to the pressures and controls inherent in their gender.
What Elizabeth Bennett can teach Daphne about economics – and sexual consent
As a cultural phenomenon that encompassed both novels and television series, Bridgerton took advantage of women’s great love for Austen’s books and shamelessly catered to her fan base. If you ever identified with Elizabeth Bennett, you can fall in love with any actor in the Regency mold. But while the landscape of Austin is full of tragic statistics of women who lost their lives, in Bridgerton none of our loved ones are ever wrong for long. Ferrington’s niece Marina Thompson, richer than she seems, is forced to settle for a respectable marriage for lack of passion. But since she has already tried to lure a naive young man into a false assumption of paternity of her child, our sympathy is limited. There is a cosmic order to her history that is far happier than the chaotic lives of most unmarried pregnant women of the time.
Meanwhile, Daphne is a financially naive heroine like no other in Austin. In the first episode, she scolds her sisters who don’t care about her social success: My success in marriage affects all your prospects. We all have to find love one day. In two sentences, this scenario rejected every comment Austin had ever made about the social norms of the Regency. For Austin, marriage is an economic transaction in which love has little to do with worldly success; for Daphne, it is a popularity contest in which worldly success and love go hand in hand as a matter of course.
Daphne gets everything she wants. He persuades his impetuous Duke Simon to accept fatherhood, even though he never wanted children. Bridgerton presents this development as an act of psychological healing for Daphne – because who would actively choose childlessness, the show suggests, if it wasn’t a symptom of unresolved childhood trauma? However, this apparent remedy involves acts in the bedroom that could be called rape at worst, reproductive coercion at best. This goes against his explicit desire to use the (unreliable) withdrawal method.
Sexual consent does not cease to count when it is violated by an attractive young woman Daphne’s justifications and Simon’s eventual forgiveness send the wrong message to anyone caught up in an abusive sexual relationship. None of this is feminist. Daphne’s Law perpetuates the old stereotype that women are succubi velvet thieves. Marina’s similar behavior toward Colin indicates that men should be wary of female deception.
Such conservatism would not have been out of place in the 1930s. The same goes for Bridgerton’s solid heterosexuality. There is a symbolic gay symbol that appears in each sub-box. While Daphne’s brother Benedict explores the London art scene, he stalks a friend and fleetingly observes a man kissing his lover on the verge of an orgy. But Benoît rushes to join a double female trio, a classic male heterosexual fantasy. Some Bridgerton fans are hoping that Daphne’s rebellious sister, Eloise, will turn out to be a lesbian in future episodes – if so, that would be a break from the romantic series.
In the end, walking away is always a pleasure
But Bridgerton lets us run, and we have to run today. If you’re British, the anti-naturalism of this fantasy is particularly obvious. The first shots of the show show us the most famous views of the city of Bath – and yet we are told we are in London. Buckingham Palace is shown with unwarranted CGI scaffolding. Anachronistic names pop up everywhere – Nigel for a Regency aristocrat? Really? — and instead of old-fashioned music, Daphne and Simon’s sex scenes are played to Taylor Swift’s string orchestration. These are not mistakes or the work of pedantic historians. These are features, not bugs.
This aversion to precision does not exclude a certain historicism. As in Quinn’s novels, the dialogue in the television adaptation is accompanied by references to popular myths about the Regency period – in the opening lines, a character suggests using lead and arsenic as effective make-up. A handful of authentic references to the social history of the Regency are used in this paper: There are constant references to immature characters who barely emerge from the main plots, i.e. child molesters from the Regency era. The goal of these writers is not historical accuracy: This is the suspension of the reading of the sign : It’s not 2020 anymore.
Bridgerton rejoices in the fantastic nature of his own construction of the world: It is a world of extravagant wigs and overflowing parties; a world where a glamorous wedding can be celebrated in three days; a world that has achieved racial restoration and equality without signs of struggle or trauma taken for granted. In a brief explanatory scene not mentioned once in the rest of the series, Simon’s godmother explains that racial harmony came to Britain after King George decided to marry a black woman. The idea is as simple as a fairy tale – whatever you think of Queen Charlotte, whose distant African ancestry has challenged her cultural identity in recent years there will be no racial progress anytime soon. I doubt Meghan Markle shares his faith in royal candor. But what a wonderful story for us to believe in that possibility for a moment.
But it’s an American fantasy about England. Unlike the historical members of the Tone Regency, who indulged in informal nicknames and scatological jokes, our aristocratic brothers use cold, formal language with each other. Fathers and sons perpetuate the cycle of emotional abuse; no one is able to communicate their feelings. Even an optimistic view of racial diversity is limited by the American perspective: There are no main characters of South Asian descent, the largest ethnic minority in modern Britain.
It is also, like most American fantasies about Britain, a conservative fantasy. Our heroines are aristocrats: no servant intrigue, no working class protagonist. Just like in a fairy tale, happiness is given to the beautiful and the innocent: Lady Featherington and her ugly daughters end the show overjoyed and unhappy. Maybe this is what we need to get through 2021, but if so, we are in a very bad situation.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly called Bridgerton’s character Andrew. The character’s name is Anthony.