Content warning: rape.
It’s fair to say that everyone who’s watched Netflix’s new series “Bridgerton” wants to purchase silk gloves. Long, pearl-toned gloves that waltz up the arm, beckoning to be removed by the delicate touch of a suitor.
Since its release Dec. 25, “Bridgerton” has filled screens with enough fanciful frivolity and diverging drama to court audiences. Set in the Regency era, upper-class society revolves around class structure: who’s in, who’s ousted and, of course, who’s involved with whom. The series is the most recent project of Shonda Rhimes, creator of “Grey’s Anatomy,” who adapted the original “Bridgerton” series by Julia Quinn.
The primary story follows Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) throughout her summer coming-out season into London high society. Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) declares her as the “diamond of the season,” and from there, all eyes are turned on the young, terribly innocent, dovish Daphne. After her social surface becomes tarnished, however, Daphne cleverly concocts a plan of false courtship with the roguish (and famously raunchy) Simon Basset, the Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page), to revamp her status and to keep Basset off the marriage market, maintaining his preferred bachelorhood.
Alongside Daphne’s drama, there are the equally scandalous stories of her seven siblings. Their complex crises of sexuality, family honor and socially inappropriate partnerships pique interest but fail to develop in the brevity of the eight-episode season. All these interwoven stories are narrated by one Lady Whistledown, voiced by Julie Andrews, who acts as a Gossip Girl of sorts — an anonymous insider to London’s promiscuous parties and scandalous secrets.
“Bridgerton” certainly exceeds expectations for a period piece: It has the intricate ball gowns, the strict social rules and the sweeping romance, but it goes one step further by breaking away from accuracy on multiple levels. The bold ball gown colors, such as the brassy tones of yellow and fuschia of the Featherington family, differ slightly from the more muted tones of the time, and the soundtrack is frequented by orchestral arrangements of modern pop songs — familiar Taylor Swift tracks accompany scenes of Daphne and the Duke dancing the night away, adding a surprising, albeit untraditional, element.
The series made efforts to also liberate itself from the Eurocentrism of the 1800s. While the main Bridgerton and Featherington families are white, the Duke himself, his aunt, the Queen and other cast members are actors of color.
Colorblind casting is complex in its delivery, as there are dangers to ignoring how race factors into a narrative. “Bridgerton” did not explicitly acknowledge race, however, until a brief conversation between the Duke and his aunt, Lady Danberry (Adjoa Andoh), about the recent racial history of their membership in their class, making their social standing thus potentially fragile. As soon as the dialogue began, it seemed to end, the plot returning to their white counterparts. From that moment, casting turned from colorblind to color-conscious, but that consciousness was hindered from growing into meaningful conversation. Other actors of color within the narrative were posed as working-class members or otherwise ostracized members of society.
On the romantic level, “Bridgerton” is far from the physical repression in period pieces. The series’s sex scenes seem to be the talk of the town (or at least social media), but titillation also lies in the fleeting moments of flirtation — the raising of eyes to meet above a fan, the gracing of a hand in a bustling ballroom.
Unfortunately, the sex scenes are not without fault either. In one such moment where Daphne and the Duke are, well, becoming with child, Daphne blatantly disregards the Duke’s wishes and bodily autonomy. The television adaptation of this pivotal scene goes as far as sexualizing Daphne’s predatory decision, when this breach of consent was a rape. Attention is quickly whisked back to society, failing to give this scene the appropriate serious tone that survivors deserve.
To speak to Daphne’s own character, outside of her aforementioned act of violence, she certainly lacks the Austentacious wit befitting a female lead in a period piece. Her greatest asset seems to be her physical beauty, which is no match for the personalities of the stronger characters, such as those of her peers Penelope Featherington (Nicola Coughlan) and Marina Thompson (Ruby Barker). The series seems yearning for a heroine who could be championed, one to bring revolution to Regency and really stick it to social structure.
“Bridgerton” exemplifies the escapism of period dramas but fails in pivotal moments to crescendo to a greater climax. Although attempts were made, the missteps in depicting sexual violence and race hold the series at a fault. The emotional disparity between scenes of severity and the frivolity of other parts of the narrative leaves audiences in a whirlwind of emotion, encaptured by the series’s grasp but not entirely enraptured by romance.