Assistant Opinions Editor
If Gossip Girl and Downton Abbey had a baby, it would be Shonda Rhimes’s reimagining of the 20-year-old book series Bridgerton, written by Julia Quinn. This is the first production from Rhime’s production company, Shondaland, with Netflix. It is a wonderful alternate universe where people of color are placed into stereotypical white leads. The eight-episode hit series — which nearly got 63 million views in its first week — centers around a Black duke, who is London’s most eligible bachelor, ‘Rake’ Simon Basset (played by Regé-Jean Page), and the eldest daughter of the wealthy Bridgerton family and ‘Diamond of the Season,’ Daphne (played by Phoebe Dynevor).
The Netflix show had many great reviews attributed to its “feminist undertones,” marathon-ability, and “frothy, silly escapism.” As someone who is a huge fan of historical romances, I was excited to watch the show. It even exceeded my expectations because it created an alternate universe full of diversity in the 19th-century London caste system, which was historically against people of color. This is a win for representation in the Black community, especially since this historical romance genre is mainly White in terms casting. If we look at popular shows and movies in this genre: Downton Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, and Outlander, there is something similar in all these movies and shows: all the lead and elite characters are White.
The diversity within the cast of Bridgerton is the most striking part when you first watch the series because, in the book, all the characters are White — notably, the elite characters. Having people of color play characters in a predominantly White historical romance genre goes against the reality of racial dynamics in 19th-century London. Black characters are shown as aristocrats rather than servants of the complicated social caste system that make up the show’s version of early-1800s London. In an interview done by TheWrap, Bridgerton creator Chris Van Dusen discusses the importance of the casting. “I don’t call the casting colorblind because I feel like the word colorblind implies that color and race was never considered — and I don’t think that’s true for Bridgerton. I think color and race is very much a part of the show and very much a part of the conversation, just like things like class and gender and sexuality are.” This proves that people of color in shows don’t have to be erased, or solely be victims of racism in a genre that is stereotypically White.
Diversity is something that is present within all Rhimes’s productions; Grey’s Anatomy is an example, as it has been praised since 2004 for having many of their lead, regular roles be people of color. A Shondaland production, Still Star-Crossed — a Romeo and Juliet sequel that aired on ABC in 2017 — is a historical romance, like Bridgerton, that similarly brought people of color into the historically White genre. Though, it was more colorblind than any other production by Rhimes; viewers were asked to suspend their contemporary racial perceptions in order to accept the colorblind past of the setting that is Verona. Race isn’t acknowledged throughout the season of the show, even though it has Black characters. This strategy of a colorblind cast is widely unsuccessful, and is what led to the downfall of the show, leaving it to be canceled after only one season. Moreover, Van Dusen’s approach for casting ABC’s Scandal created a more successful show. While it wasn’t revolved around Olivia Pope’s interracial relationships, race was recognized rather than ignored, like in Still Star-Crossed.
It seems Shonda has learned her lesson when reimaging Bridgerton, as characters do not forget their race, and it is discussed rather than ignored, as they use Van Dusen’s approach. The Black characters of the show seem to understand that their race is a part of their identity, while thriving in an elite society that historically has erased them in their British television dramas. Not to mention, early 19th-century Britain is ruled by a Black woman, and historical figure Queen Charlotte (played by Golda Rosheuvel), who was married to King George III, was casted as a Black woman, which stems from the theory that she is historically of mixed race. She is to be believed the first Black queen of Britain according to historian Mario De Valdés y Cocom.
His research has suggested that Charlotte was directly descended from a Black branch of the Portuguese royal family, who are said to be descendants of the Moors of Spain, who migrated from North Africa. In portraits of Charlotte studied by Valdes, he found that some of her features were visibly African. She was often described by Sir Walter Scott — a Scottish historian novelist — as being “ill-colored” and having a very wide nose, and “lips too thick.” According to the Washington Post, Valdes’s research has been dismissed by scholars in England because the evidence is weak, and that every European royal family has Moor blood in them, as people have migrated over Europe. To me, this shows the degree to which these British scholars are anti-Black, as they believe Valdes’s research is frail due to his evidence. My belief is that they do not want to believe this research because, if Queen Charlotte was biracial, that would mean Queen Victoria, and present-day British monarch Queen Elizabeth, are all of African descent.
With Bridgerton bringing to life the theory of Queen Charlotte being biracial, it acknowledges the history rather than ignoring it, which Britain has done for many years. Queen Charlotte, according to Lady Danbury, is the reason why the “two separate societies divided by color” came to be one, as King George fell in love with one of them, which has allowed them to achieve everything that they have become. This creates an alternative history that has many comparisons with actual history by displaying a very progressive Britain in the 19th century. This alternative history allows people of color to flourish which is a contrast from hit period dramas like Downton Abbey.
In an interview in 2014 with Vulture, Gareth Neame, executive producer of Downton Abbey, explains the importance of the casting. “It’s not a multicultural time. [ . . . ] We can’t suddenly start populating the show with people from all sorts of ethnicities. It wouldn’t be correct.” To me, this displays racism through the claim that historical accuracy within the show has nothing to do with race or ethnicity; it was just another way for the creators of Downton Abbey to say that they don’t cast people of color as leading roles. Most historical romances are written to be modern — none are 100 percent historically accurate! Historical romance often ignores social and moral issues, giving old-timey characters more modern attitudes to appeal to the modern reader. These stories are simply fiction, as the genre itself is built on a throne of lies since these stories are romanticized. Most historical romances erase people of color altogether, as they don’t want their heroines to be shown off as ‘cruel and evil.’ Realism isn’t put into historical romances because they are written to fit modern standards, not historical ones.
This is why Bridgerton is so important in terms of representation; it has become a blueprint in creating historical, British romances, in which Black characters prosper without having to be servants or enslaved. This is, hopefully, a new beginning and a progessive start for historical romances, as it could create an opening for people of color to start auditioning for these types of roles, which they have been overlooked for in the past. In an interview with The Times of London in 2017, Thandie Newton expressed how it felt wrong to act in British period dramas such as Downton Abbey, Victoria, and Call the Midwife because she doesn’t want to “play someone who’s being emotionally abused.” Historical dramas always bring up things from the past when it comes to people of color, which leaves them with the “slim pickings” for roles.
As great as Bridgerton is in displaying representation, there are a couple of things that the series falls flat on, the first strike being its understanding of racial identity within the White characters of the show. It is very odd that the Black characters in the show are the only ones who discuss race. This reinforces White privilege, as it enables the White characters to ignore racial identity because they are free from it. Plus, the only reason why the Black characters in the show progressed is because a White king married a Black woman, which made it seem like a White savior series when this information was given in episode four.
Also, most of the Black characters, other than Simon, didn’t have a storyline, so it was very confusing as the episodes went on; the storyline developed in each episode rather than in one. Most of the couples in the series are in interracial relationships — which is totally fine. Being in an interracial relationship myself, I’m okay without having to see one on the screen because it’s been done many times, and they mostly center around whiteness. Daphne and Simon are an example of this, and so is Anthony Bridgerton (played by Jonathan Bailey), and his future love interest, Kate Sharma (played by Simone Ashley) in the upcoming season. All are interracial couples, and the show lacks on showing Black love. There still aren’t enough portrayals of Black love on the screen, and television has ignored this, therefore implying to their audiences that it is nonexistent. Black love does exist, and it needs more representation within television shows.
Overall, Bridgerton is an escapist story during these tough times, as it is both sexy and smart. The show is very fun to watch, and even to rewatch all over again, as the mystery of figuring out who Lady Whistledown (voiced by Julie Andrews) is intriguing. Not only that, but the show has 21st-century aspects that are very different from any historical romance I have ever watched; for example, it had a pop culture aesthetic by having orchestras play songs from Ariana Grande, Maroon 5, Taylor Swift, and Billie Eilish. This was honestly my favorite part of the show — watching these 19th-century characters dance to popular songs that viewers know and love. I even downloaded the soundtrack and pretty much listen to it every day because that’s how beautiful these songs are when they are turned into a classical version.
It’s not your typical Regency romance that your great-great grandma would watch or read, but it isn’t too far off from being something you should like. Along with the representation the series gives the Black community, I say this show is pretty extraordinary, as it goes beyond the limits historical romances seem to have due to historical accuracy. It is a step in the right direction in opening up this genre to people of color, and allowing us to see ourselves not only on the screen, but also in the books, without confining us to the roles that were placed on us by White men.
Featured Photo Courtesy of Liam Daniel / Netflix