'Bridgerton' Isn't Interested In Historical Accuracy, But I Am

The historical romance appeals because it's aesthetically pleasing, deliciously subversive and both sex-obsessed and sexy. But its approach to race doesn't make sense.

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Stacy Lee Kong

Apr 08 2022

12 mins read

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Image: Netflix

This newsletter contains spoilers for season two of Bridgerton.

First of all: I know. Bridgerton is not meant to be historically accurate, and in some ways, I don’t even want it to be. I’m here for the string orchestra covers of “You Oughta Know” and “Wrecking Ball.” I care 0% if the hairstyles and eye makeup reflect the aesthetic trends that were popular in 1814. In fact, I wholeheartedly support giving all the returning characters ahistorical glow-ups, because muttonchop sideburns are not it. (Sorry.) I love that some of the show’s most powerful characters, like Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) and Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh), are Black, and that this season’s newcomers, Kate (Simone Ashley) and Edwina Sharma (Charithra Chandran), are dark-skinned Indian women whose skin colour doesn’t influence their desirability or perceived suitability, even a little bit.

But as I’ve written before, ‘light’ art intended for mass audiences still deserves thoughtful critique. So while I have a lot of frivolous thoughts about this season—mostly pertaining to the chemistry between Ashley's Kate and Jonathan Bailey's Anthony Bridgerton, everyone's outfits and how convincing I found Bailey’s delivery of objectively ridiculous lines—I also think it’s worth talking about the parts of history Bridgerton hand-waves away, and why no amount of diverse casting can make up for it.

Bridgerton isn’t just a romantic fantasy; it’s a race fantasy

 According to the show's internal logic, the utopian diversity of Bridgerton’s Regency-era society came about because of love. “We were two separate societies divided by colour until a king fell in love with one of us. Look at everything it is doing for us, allowing us to become,” Lady Danbury says to the extremely attractive Simon Bassett, Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page), in season one, a speech that has the additional purpose of foreshadowing how his love for Anthony Bridgerton’s sister, Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor), would help him overcome his demons (a.k.a. daddy issues). It’s the kind of statement that makes a woman of colour who loves romance (ahem, me) momentarily swoon—as long as I didn't think about it too deeply.

Because the “one of us” Lady Danbury is talking about is Queen Charlotte, whose marriage to George III elevated the status of racialized Brits in the show and this... doesn't really make sense. Aside from the white saviour-ness of it all, there's the fact that a marriage, even a royal one, just isn't enough to solve racism. By the 1760s, Britain had been the dominant slave-trading nation for more than a century. This kind of inequality isn't a simple problem; it's a complex system of oppression that is so deeply embedded in every aspect of society, from schooling to housing to finances to policing, that even if laws intended to discourage bias and discrimination are implemented, people will continue to behave in prejudiced ways.

Image: Netflix

‎So, even if this marriage is the point at which the Bridgerton universe branches off from our own, there’s no way that racism would have evaporated by 1813, the year the show's first season takes place. That would require an entire society to be remade in just 50 years, with the monarchy not only elevating the statuses of formerly enslaved people with no pushback from its white citizenry, but also presumably economically divesting from slavery, too. (I mean, you can't both sell a race of people and bow to them.) That's not how people work, unfortunately—especially since there was still a monarchy. The only way to rid systems of racism entirely is to tear them down and start from scratch, which clearly hadn't happened. Also: there was a real Queen Charlotte who married the real King George III in 1761, and some historians do believe she had Black ancestry, and that didn't solve racism in our universe, right?

Colonization seems to exist in Bridgerton, but the show glosses over what that would mean for its characters

Similarly, season two included several small details that hinted at the existence of colonization in the Bridgerton universe—as it should, because by 1761, Britain had already been a colonial power in India for more than a century. (Also, North America, the Caribbean and Africa, of course.)

Kate’s assertion that Edwina has learned how to speak French, Greek, Latin, Marathi and Hindustani, play the sitar, murali and pianoforte, dance the cotillion, quadrille and waltz, and generally behave like the perfect high-society British wife is one. As Durba Ghosh, professor of British colonialism at Cornell University, told the New York Times, in the real-life Regency era, “there was a cognizance of the mores of their European counterparts [among India’s elites]. In a lot of such Indian communities, ‘they were trying to replicate what they thought was a European social circuit,’ Ghosh said, ‘they have balls and they have masquerades and they celebrate when the king is crowned.’”

‎The new Lord Featherington’s gemstone mine scam is another. While his mine was located in the American South, it’s far more likely British prospectors in the early 1800s would have headed to India for all their gemstone needs. In fact, that’s what the East India Company did for more than a century, stealing gold, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, topaz, jade, ivory and silk from conquered Mughal rulers, and seizing political power along the way.

These logical inconsistencies aren’t tiny mistakes. They’re evidence that the show’s dedication to representation is really only skin deep. As writer Kristen Warner puts it in The Cut, “Bridgerton’s thinned notion of color consciousness only acknowledges racial difference in as much as it does not derail the story. The show has positioned itself as a kind of representational Switzerland—neither shying away from the fact that its characters of color are visibly different from their white counterparts, nor bringing to bear the ways in which their racial difference has historical implications. It’s a neutral-neutral racial positioning in an era of ‘representation matters,’ in which feeling seen is only connected with aesthetics. Can you see your body type, skin tone, or hair texture on the screen? Good, our work here is done.”

The representation in Bridgerton is both meaningful and superficial

‎This is not to downplay how much I enjoyed this season, or to undermine the power of seeing Indian-ness in an extremely popular show in ways that feel authentic and accurate. I'm mixed, Indo-Caribbean and culturally Christian, so it's not like the type of Indian culture represented here reflects my lived experience—I don’t speak Hindi, my family’s wedding traditions don’t include haldi, I don’t call my dad appa or my sisters didi (though it is a tiny bit weird that the Sharmas do both, since appa is a Tamil word and Didi is a Hindi word, but moving right along…). But I still loved seeing Kate’s loathing for English tea and her feelings of familial loyalty and obligation, or scenes where she oils Edwina’s hair or gifts her sister her mother’s bangles. These moments felt real, and added to the sense that the producers took real care when creating these characters—as did the fact that the Sharma sisters were always lit beautifully.

Aesthetic representation is important—lighting dark-skinned actors so they look as good as the white ones is a deeply significant aesthetic choice, as are the visual references to Indian fabrics in the sisters' fashion choices, the nods to real Indian cultural traditions in the set decorations and Anthony calling Kate by her real name—Kathani—when he declares his love for her. As writer Isha Bassi recently pointed out, by doing this, "he's not only declaring his love for her but also honouring her Indian heritage. He's saying 'I love every part of you, and I want you to be proud of who you are, because I am.'"

But representation that is restricted to appearance is a safe way to appear progressive; it doesn't challenge the racist beliefs that infuse all our institutions or fight actual oppression faced by anyone who's not white, cisgender, male, straight, able-bodied, etc. And this is a deliberate choice; Shonda Rhimes, the show’s producer and mentor to its showrunner, Chris Van Dusen, is known for casting a diverse cast of actors in shows that rarely acknowledge race. In 2006, she told Broadcasting & Cable, “I don’t think anybody is color-blind in this world. I think I’m a product of being a post-feminist, post-civil-rights baby born in an era after that happened, where race isn’t the only thing discussed. And I just felt like there’s something interesting about having a show in which your characters could just be your characters.”

Image: Netflix

‎As Gary Younge argued this month in The Nation, “this is problematic. It suggests that your characters live in a void in which a key determinant of their life chances is irrelevant: that they can either be themselves or have a racial identity—but not both.” What’s more, he says, “creat[ing] a world in which racial difference has no meaning only to then subject her creation to a racial critique [renders] the entire premise untenable… Rhimes creates a world in which the historical crime of racism has been resolved, through a royal love match, and non-white people are fully integrated into the dominant classes. It offers viewers a society in which color is segregated from race—so that things look different but remain the same.”

In the world of romance, ‘historical accuracy’ is a more contentious idea than you might think

To be fair, the concept of historical accuracy is a thorny one, especially in historical romance. As Vanessa Riley explained in a 2021 Washington Post article, when she released her first Regency romance focused on racialized characters, people “skewered [her with] questions of historical accuracy. Critics... were ignorant of the diversity of England’s history or its deep colonial ties to Africa and the West Indies. Some hinted that the mere existence of this work was a way to assign guilt to society for ignoring the wealth derived from enslavement.”

The question of historical accuracy was used as a “cudgel,” Riley wrote, with the implication that these questions were meant to discourage writers from undermining the overwhelming whiteness of the genre. These lengthy author’s notes, which detail their research and disclose deviations from historical fact, are common practice among all romance authors, but they have an additional function for authors who include racialized characters—a ‘citing of sources’ that will hopefully ward off this kind of critique.

‎Our perception of what is accurate is also kind of flawed. Bridgerton gets a lot of praise just for including racialized characters, but it's actually just acknowledging that racialized people existed before, like, 1950. On the press tour for season two, Chandran stressed that 50,000 South Asian people lived in England during the Regency era. (Sake Dean Mahomed, a 25-year-old Bengali entrepreneur, opened the first Indian restaurant in 1810.) Ghosh, the Cornell prof, says relationships between Indian women and European men were very common, in India at least. And while it was rare, some women of Asian descent did move among the societal elite in Europe. Similarly, I’m willing to bet part of what makes the show feel so transgressive is its approach to sex, which feels thoroughly modern, even though pre-martial sex was far more common during the Early Modern Period (1450 to 1800) than contemporary audiences tend to realize.

Tbh, I just want to watch the pretty people smoulder at one another without noticing race-related plot holes

So actually, maybe 'historical accuracy' isn’t what I want from Bridgerton's handling of race. Maybe it's logical consistency. I know this is deeply nerdy, but to me, the problem isn't that the show imagines a world where racism doesn't exist—that's the dream! It's that no one spent enough time thinking this plot point through. Also, Bridgerton can't have it both ways; it can't include a minor character—Will Mondrich—talk about how his father escaped from slavery, but also refuse to ponder what abolition would look like if it happened because of Queen Charlotte and King George III's marriage instead of decades of activism and the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.

Back in season one, when Lady Danbury explained to the Duke of Hastings—and the audience—how society had become so inclusive, His Hotness didn’t actually buy it.

“I believe that remains to be seen,” he said. “The king may have chosen his queen. He may have elevated us from novelties in their eyes to now dukes and royalty, and at that same whim... he may just as easily change his mind, a mind, as we all know, that is hanging on by one very loose and tenuous thread. So, no, I am sorry, Lady Danbury, we are in disagreement here. Love changes nothing.”

The romantic in me fundamentally disagrees with this sentiment, but when it comes to the show’s handling of race, at least, I’m afraid he was right.


OOO Alert

Next Friday is a holiday, so there won’t be a newsletter. However, I will still be sharing TikToks/celebrity gossip/opinions on social media, so give FT a follow on Instagram and TikTok if you haven’t already!


And Did You Hear About…

Beauty writer Erika Veurink on “good enough” skin.

Xtra’s excellent analysis on how anti-trans agitators are converting feminists to their cause.

The law student who based her dissertation on Clueless.

Disgraced America’s Next Top Model contestant Angelea Preston’s allegation that the show’s producers stripped her of the season 17 crown because she’d been trafficked.

This truly infuriating New Yorker article about a student who overcame an abusive childhood to excel at the University of Pennsylvania, only for the school to abandon her when her mother came calling.

Bonus #1: Melody, an icon and #2: The Meanest T.A., also iconic.

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