Opinion – Bridgerton: A Black Man in a White Fairytale
A professor of British literature argues that the popular Netflix series trivializes childhood trauma and marital sexual violence to get to a traditional “happily ever after”
The Netflix series Bridgerton has been lauded for its novel take on a period drama. However, it is difficult not to view it as a narrative of a traumatized Black man stuck in the fairytale world of his white peers.
The show's white female protagonist, Daphne Bridgerton, has grown up knowing that her parents had a perfect marriage which produced a brood of offspring named alphabetically (Anthony, Benedict, Colin, Daphne, and so on). Daphne dreams about a similar life of marital bliss.
In contrast, the Black male protagonist, Simon Basset, Duke of Hastings, has grown up with considerable childhood trauma. A series of flashbacks reveal that his parents had a strained marriage, his mother died in childbirth, and his father's relentless demand for absolute perfection led him to develop a speech impediment. As a grown man, he vows to never marry or reproduce, to put an end to the hereditary Dukedom that his father so prized. But then he collides with Daphne's world.
The show uses Simon's trauma as a plot point (it is the reason why he cannot marry despite being clearly in love) with very little reflection on his internal thoughts. When circumstances lead to his marriage to Daphne, he still hangs on to his choice of remaining childless by resorting to the age-old method of contraception (pulling out) until Episode 6. Daphne, betrayed by his refusal to procreate, physically prevents his withdrawal at the very last minute of their lovemaking.
Amazingly, the show portrays Daphne as the wronged party after she inflicts this sexual violence. Viewers are tacitly encouraged to imagine Simon's consent. The narrative signals that he will eventually renege on his vow of childlessness, thereby minimizing, if not negating, the sexual violence he suffers.
However, Daphne is fully aware of her violation of Simon's physical consent. Her deliberate plan to assault her husband, instead of investigating the reason behind his decision to remain childless, is mindless at best and predatorial at worst. I hardly need to mention the negative reaction this scene would have garnered had the genders been reversed. Imagine a woman deciding against having children due to the trauma she suffered in the hands of her father, and her male partner duping her into forgoing her chosen method of contraception!
And yet, the show quietly glosses over the scene and shifts its attention to the bigger picture – Simon's inability to visualize a "happy" life. This broader narrative is unfortunately centered in the show's foremost positive aspect – its racial diversity. In one of the most notable speeches of the show, Simon's mentor Lady Danbury explains the longstanding benefits of a white English king's marriage to a Black queen:
"Look at their marriage. Look at everything it is doing for us, allowing us to become. We were two separate societies, divided by color, until a king fell in love with one of us. Love, your grace... conquers all."
This speech sets the tone for Simon's predicament: His psychological and physical trauma is trivialized for the continuation of the white sanction of the Black upper-class. This racial sanction needs to be rigorously maintained by marriage and propagation, fulfilling the ultimate social fantasy of building a strong future through solid domestic units.
However, Bridgerton knows better than to allow Daphne to fulfill her dreams through sexual violence. In a maudlin scene, Daphne gets her menstrual "course" and breaks down, realizing that to make her fairytale work, she needs true love's ejaculate, and not ejaculate procured by force.
True love and happiness in this 21st century reimagination of the Regency era is not marital bliss with plenty of sex (which the show does not shy away from depicting). To be truly happy, Simon must embrace the immutable tradition of childbearing with a prominent white family of the "ton" and maintain its glamorous racial diversity. Simon is cured of decades of trauma by conveniently timed rainfall and an impassioned speech by a drenched Daphne, as magically as his childhood speech impediment was cured off-screen.
In the final episode, Simon appears as a giddy, willing participant in Daphne's marriage fantasy. Now a proud father to a newborn son, Simon declares that the baby's name must begin with an "A," effectively restarting the alphabetical naming scheme of the show's eponymous white family and signaling his integration into their fairy tale.
Riya Das is an assistant professor of British literature at Prairie View A&M University, a public Historically Black University in Prairie View, Texas. She holds a Ph.D in English, specializing in nineteenth-century British literature and gender.
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