Shonda Rhimes’ Regency-era romp, Bridgerton, has well and truly superseded any label of being simply a ‘guilty pleasure’. Unlike some of its period drama predecessors, Bridgerton has a hell of a lot of influence, with spades of think pieces being written (much like this one), rumours of eight seasons filling Facebook feeds and Netflix declaring that the show is its biggest series ever, with eighty-two million households globally watching it within the first month of its release after Christmas day.
Though Bridgerton may not be a guilty pleasure, the show certainly generated a lot of pleasure, and perhaps guilt. Both viewers and characters were addicted to scintillating ‘romantic scenes’– think three-minute sex montage, lavish interiors and costuming, as well as just the right number of dramatic entrances and exits at each visually spectacular ball. However, whilst watching the show I couldn’t help questioning whether I should be ashamed of enjoying it so much. Can someone who calls themself a feminist wholeheartedly enjoy a period piece like Bridgerton for the entertainment it represents while still being critical of the gender politics it portrays?
For those who haven’t watched the show, which by Netflix’s statistics must be a pretty small number, Bridgerton details the rise and fall of several society-driven families and individuals, mainly the Bridgertons, Featheringtons and then the hunky Duke of Hastings. There’s tonnes of taffeta, tears and (sexual) tension juxtaposed with a loosely historical setting during the year 1813 under King George the Third. There are vague references to an ongoing war, but obviously, the show isn’t touting its historical accuracy – that’s not what it’s about.
Bridgerton attempts to realistically portray the ‘marriage market’ and the process of 19th-century courting. Evidently, women didn’t have much say in who they wanted to marry. They were effectively used as pawns to secure a promising match for their family; financially and socially. In Bridgerton, this inequality manifests itself in a romanticisation of the oppression that women faced. There are secret kisses and longing glances between the unwed, lingering touches in silk embroidered gloves with chaperones present, and an over-dramatized duel at dawn between the Duke of Hastings and one of the Bridgerton brothers over his disgraced sister Daphne.
All that is fine. I get it. To show the possibility of ‘love-marriages’ and the more glamorous sides of an oppressive reality is fair enough. It does make for riveting television and perhaps I’m thinking about it all too hard. The show appears to be cognisant of the cruelty that these women faced. Some characters even question these patriarchal structures and the role of women within marriage and society in general.
This is mostly represented by Eloise, Daphne’s younger and more radical sister. She abstains as long as she can from wearing floor-length dresses and resists the pressure to conform to the scrutiny of entering society.
But is her character really enough? Has Eloise just been added in as a token nod to modern society? Or can she genuinely prompt viewers to engage with a ‘safe space for critique’ about the past, facilitating a thought process of ways to improve the present, as film and television scholar Andrew Higson argues.
For every Eloise, there are still the characters whose essence is confined to looking visually appealing. As Simcha Fisher in America Magazine writes, “the problem is, much of that sexism and objectification comes from the writing itself.”
Someone like Siena Rosso, the opera singer, was intriguing. The show could have easily expanded on her career and lust for societal acceptance instead of having her existence revolve around Anthony Bridgerton, who would run back to her anytime something went awry in his personal life.
Bridgerton could have done some things better. But one thing it does benefit from is the genre it celebrates, and perhaps revived for a new generation. There is something absolutely engrossing about a period drama. Some may think they are frivolous and fluffy, often disregarded due to having a mainly female viewership, who are seen as engaging in a time-wasting pastime lacking in cultural seriousness.
Yet a period drama’s power lies in the way it facilitates a watching experience of a time not that dissimilar to ours. It allows audiences to critique what has and hasn’t changed, and what issues continue to pervade representations of gender structures within our current society.
Some may watch Bridgerton and give absolutely no thought to the female narratives it captures, accepting it as purely plot or storyline. For others, a TV show like Bridgerton may be the very impetus they needed to think about feminism in a non confrontational setting. Either way, both are perfectly acceptable. That’s part of the beauty of television, everyone takes away something different.