Imagine Thinking There's Nothing Worth Saying About Bridgerton

Some critics think there are genres—like romance—that can't sustain analysis

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Stacy Lee Kong

Jan 08 2021

8 mins read

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Hi, hello. It’s a new year and… um, the same old me. Okay, I barely checked my email for two weeks, which I do think constitutes growth. But other than that, I’m still mainlining Twitter, side-eyeing the rich and screaming into the void—or, you know, this newsletter—about pop culture being worth serious critique… most recently because of a Twitter thread by writer and editor Aaron Bady.

According to Bady, some things just can’t sustain cultural criticism. And he quickly specifies just which things he means, tweeting, “I’m thinking about the furors around American Dirt, Bridgerton, and WW84, which, in different ways, are all objects meant to be consumed for pleasure without thinking too much about why and how. And then you think about them and you're like ‘wow, this sucks.’”

 

Like almost everyone else on my social media feeds, I too was obsessed with Bridgerton and as a straight cisgender woman, I guess it didn’t take too much thinking to figure out why.

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But Bady’s tweets got me heated for a whole different reason.

 

Even those who see the value in close-reading HBO shows and literary novels can be dismissive when it comes to ‘lighter’ cultural products, whether that means superhero movies, reality TV or romance novels. And while I’m not immune to that type of thinking (I’ve worked in magazines for 14 years, including a stint at a home décor publication; I absolutely have thoughts about ~aesthetic~), I also know that looking down on—or worse ignoring—mass media both perpetuates systemic inequality and allows potentially problematic ideas to flourish.

 

So, let’s look at Bridgerton. According to Bady, it’s “an adaptation of romance novels—not serious alt-history—but when claims for the progressive work it was doing were made, lots of folks were like ‘wow, this seems pretty silly and kinda careless?’” Okay? That’s… not what I would take away from the Bridgerton discourse at all.

I thought the show excelled in several areas. I love how it centered the female gaze and allowed female characters to directly draw attention to the ways their lives were controlled—poorly—by men. It explored themes like power, autonomy and virtue. There was a lovely depiction of female friendship. And it wasn't hard to find many thoughtful articles and social media posts that made similar points.

But there were also ways it didn’t work for me; it didn’t live up to the promises it made in its trailer around race. There was an ableist plot point. It didn’t include nearly as much body positivity as it could have. And, in a major misstep, it included a scene that constituted marital rape, but didn’t frame it that way. And wouldn’t you know, nothing I read characterized those shortcomings as silly.

 

But this perspective—that some things just aren’t serious, so why are we thinking about them so much?—isn’t restricted to this one guy on Twitter, or even to people who didn’t like Bridgerton. As writer, editor and avowed romance fan Mishal Cazmi noted recently, romance is often understood as unserious because it’s about pleasure and exists to give pleasure, which impacts how critics, even those who liked it, contextualized it. “[The show] brought up so many questions about the merits of literature and what is ‘worth’ consuming,” she says. “The [review] that really stuck out was the Vanity Fair one because the hed was like, ‘delightful trash’ and the dek was something like ‘frothy escapism blah, blah, blah.’ But adding delightful in front of the word trash didn't make it any less dismissive. Bridgerton deserves to be criticized for so many things—you can criticize it for consent, you can criticize it for race. But not for being joyful, or making you feel good.”

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I don’t think it’s a surprise that romance is one of the genres that is so often and easily dismissed. Think back to Jennifer Weiner’s 2010 tweet that sparked 1,000 think pieces: “In summation: NYT sexist, unfair, loves Gary Shteyngart, hates chick lit, ignores romance. And now, to go weep into my royalty statement.” As Vox pointed out in a 2019 piece that looked at the lasting impact of Weiner’s missive, what she was trying to say in her now-deleted tweet was two-fold: “Why… wasn’t the Times paying attention to literary fiction written by women in the same way it was paying attention to literary fiction written by white men named Jonathan? [And] why was it… that the Times was willing to devote column space to genre fiction that is gendered either male or ‘universal,’ but not to the kind of genre fiction that is considered to be exclusively for women?”

 

But while Vox’s thesis is that Weiner’s tweet changed the way we talk about women’s literature, I’m not so sure. As I confessed to Cazmi, for a long time, I’d read dozens of romance novels a year but wouldn’t like, talk about them with my friends—or even log them on my Goodreads account. I fully bought into the idea that there were books you could feel proud of reading and books that were “guilty pleasures,” and romance fell squarely in the second category. This was thanks in part to feminist critique of the genre, but if we’re being honest, it was mostly about wanting to be seen as a serious person.

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I now know that’s silly, especially in the context of my conversation with Cazmi, who asked a brilliant question toward the end of our chat: “It just makes me think, why is suffering art? Why is joy not art? When [these genres] aren’t taken seriously, I feel like you're sort of denying yourself feeling authentic joy. You're not giving yourself permission to feel good and joyful, because you're telling yourself, ‘Oh, I'm not supposed to like these things.’”

 

(You guys. I’m going to be thinking about this for a long time. Why is joy not art?)

 

And as with everything, though, these internalized ideas have wider repercussions. The idea that “serious” people don’t think deeply about romance novels, superhero movies, pop music, fashion or insert your own too-popular category here all stems from a frankly lazy over-reliance on an elitist high culture-low culture framework. It deliberately positions things that most people like as low-quality and sends the message that the people who like those things are somehow lacking, too. And it’s SUPER classist. This type of gatekeeping is not new; the rich and powerful have always decided what constituted art versus tawdry entertainment—and that's a dynamic that functionally bars some people from participating in cultural discourse, which maintains class lines. Unsurprisingly, this is detrimental to everyone; as Pacific Standard argued in 2017, “art thrives on connection, and society is better off when people of different backgrounds and interests are able to talk to each other.”

 

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Also, when we say some content can’t sustain critique, it implies that we shouldn’t worry about problematic messages in mass culture because… it’s not that serious? But clearly it IS that serious. If you dismiss these genres without ever actually exploring them, you might never know that there’s a real movement toward making romance an intersectional feminist genre. And if you refuse to critically evaluate pop culture with mass appeal, you might never help people see cultural appropriation in a candy-coloured music video, or understand the problem with casting non-disabled actors to play characters with disabilities, or introduce them to the idea that superhero movies help Americans understand themselves as the ‘good guys’—even when they are emphatically not.

 

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It’s also a question of scale. Consider this: there was a question on Jeopardy this week about the highest-grossing movie of 2017 set during World War 1. (I’ve been at my parents’ house during the pandemic and we’re immigrants, so of course we watch Jeopardy.) All of the contestants guessed war movies—Dunkirk, 1917. But the answer was actually… Wonder Woman. It’s a good reminder that many more people will watch the superhero movie than will ever watch the serious Oscar bait-y film. So what happens when we ignore the cultural products that people consume the most? What happens if we don’t point out the issues around consent in Bridgerton, or the fact that superhero movies regularly disseminate jingoistic ideas about America’s purpose or place in the geopolitics?

 

Well, then millions of people internalize those ideas and nothing fucking changes.



And Did You Hear About...


Hood Feminism author Mikki Kendall’s op-ed about how incredibly unsurprising it was to see a pro-Trump mob storm the Capitol building earlier this week.

 

David Dennis Jr.’s searing piece on “the pain of watching white people continue to do things that would get Black people killed.”

 

Anne Helen Petersen on trying to work through a coup.

 

The trio of white women who decided mahjong needed a ‘stylish refresh.’

 

KimYe's (still unconfirmed) divorce and the accompanying news cycle. ICYMI, there were so many Twitter reactions, ridiculous rumours and Kris Jenner jokes.

 

Bonus: It's been a very long week, so... here is a puppy.

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