Loved it, loathed it: Bridgerton

29/01/2021

Sophie Lutkin and Megan Thornberry give their opposing takes on the hit Netflix series Bridgerton

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Image by Netflix, 2020

By Sophie Lutkin and Megan Thornberry

Content warning: Sexual assault

Loved it: Sophie Lutkin

Netflix’s new smash hit period drama Bridgerton has been watched by over 60 million viewers, reached the top 10 most viewed in over 150 countries, and has recently been confirmed for a second scandalous series. Quick-witted, moving, and humorous, this series sparkles with a diverse cast, incredible costume design, and a breath-taking soundtrack inspired by its main premise—the traditional made modern. Following the scrapes and successes of our heroine, Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor), as she navigates the infamous social “Season” of 1813, Shonda Rimes’ stunning adaptation of Julia Quinn’s novels shines with an honesty and a fierceness that is wonderfully refreshing.

Inevitably influenced by the queen of Regency herself, Jane Austen, Bridgerton features all the hallmarks of a beloved period piece: an emphasis on family honour, an irresistibly frosty love interest, and a host of vibrant characters each with their own stories—and secrets—to share or suppress. Indeed, with the anonymous gossipmonger Lady Whistledown on the loose, no one’s reputation is spared from a scathing literary review. Declared a “Diamond of the First Water” upon her London debut, Daphne nonetheless risks denunciation upon being seen, alone and unchaperoned, with the eligible Simon Bassett, Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page). What follows next is an emotional exploration into the lives of a society governed by rumour, rank, and the trappings of temptation.

As a result, the reason for Bridgerton’s resounding success is due to its relatability. Despite being set over 200 years ago, Regency-era England provides the perfect backdrop to expose the hypocrisies, prejudices, and problems that still haunt modern society. From Eloise’s yearning to be known not for her dowry but for her intellectual accomplishments, to Lady Danbury’s powerful statement that as a young Black woman, she was “afraid even of [her] own reflection”, this period drama does not shy away from bringing these issues to the fore and treating them with an urgency and a bravery not normally expected of the genre. Instead, Lady Danbury, Queen Charlotte, Simon Bassett, and his friends Will and Alice Mondrich, all understand their blackness as an important part of their identity—it is not erased nor forgotten in order for them to thrive.

Sex is also shown in a positive way, and not just as the consequence of a respectable marriage or as part of a debauched lifestyle. Siena Rosso, an alluring yet enterprising opera singer, is proud of her working-class identity and does not wish to change who she is in order to fit into the upper echelons of society. Exchanging sexual favours for financial support from patrons, Siena makes her way in the world without the comforts of social standing, family, and an education to aid her. Daphne’s own sexual awakening functions as a turning point in the series, with the show celebrating physical intimacy as an important aspect of a relationship both with your partner and with yourself.

Overall, Bridgerton reveals that the problems faced by those in Regency era England are not far from those we face in our own historical moment—we just need the wit of Lady Danbury, the perseverance of Daphne, and the courage of Simon Bassett to help us through.



Loathed it: Megan Thornberry

Bridgerton was utter trash. At first, I loved it; the convoluted scandals, the sexually charged ballroom dancing, and the shameless rip-offs of Pride and Prejudice were all exactly what I wanted to watch while munching through the last of my parent’s supply of mince pies. It was only at the end of Episode 6 that I felt Bridgerton begin to leave a bad taste in my mouth.

At this point, Daphne, “diamond of the season” despite her terrible fringe, and Simon, Mr Darcy if Austen had forgotten to mention the washboard abs and Dukedom, are coming to the end of their honeymooned bliss. After trying to get shot rather than having to marry Daphne, Simon gets over himself and they have sex on every surface in of his palace.

The only disappointment for Daphne was when Simon told her that he cannot have children. She assumes that he is medically infertile, and as Regency sex education for women is somewhat lacking, Daphne doesn’t realise that he’s using the ever-reliable pull-out method. Emotionally abused by his father as a child, partly for having a stutter, Simon doesn’t want to have children that would continue his lineage obsessed father’s name. He knows that Daphne wants an army of children, which is why he was prepared to flee the country, or be killed rather than commit to marrying her. Perhaps because Regency mental health education for men was also somewhat lacking, he doesn’t tell Daphne any of this.

When Daphne finds out why she is not getting pregnant, her response is sexual assault. Without confronting Simon about his lies, she physically prevents him from pulling out during sex. Simon’s childhood stutter returns, but we as viewers are supposed to take Daphne’s side on this matter . She’s done a fair bit of tenderly gazing at peasant children, so we know she’d be a good mother, and after all, she did turn down the Prince of Prussia, played by Freddie Stroma (also known as Quidditch star Cormac McClaggen), for a lowly Duke! Although dramatic, Daphne’s actions are displayed as simply an act of frustration, contributing to the conflict needed to keep both the tension of the show, and the sexual tension within their marriage going. We are supposed to see her wide-eyed acceptance of a tragically childless life as deeply romantic, taken advantage of by her husband. How dare he disrupt her ideals of a nuclear family with his baggage? How dare he not be completely open with her now that they’ve known each other for, like, three months? Did the fake dating and forced wedding mean nothing?

Simon is furious and promises to separate from her, but after being told to let go of his father’s “pride” (hello Ms Austen), and Daphne, by her mother, that “there’s nothing she cannot do”, the couple waltz it out. There’s a strange bit where it rains and Daphne tells him that he’s worthy of love, but she does not apologise for, or recognise the significance of what was essentially an act of sexual assault. Yet we are supposed to believe this is a fairy-tale ending. Perhaps it is not “pride” that this Mr Darcy suffers from, but shame.

Sloppy use of such a taboo subject as male sexual assault is regressive and dangerous, particularly when tied to a very idealised depiction of love and sex. I understand that the assault happens in a similar way in the early-2000s books upon which the show is based, but it was a major failure of Netflix when they decided not to confront this plot point. Even if the assault in the books cannot be cut out of the show, I struggle to believe that Netflix could not find a writer skilled enough to create some Regency-appropriate dialogue about male marital assault.

Saying all this, I will, of course, be consuming all of the next series as soon as it is released. Those violin Katy Perry covers deserve to be heard.