A modern, American interpretation of Regency-era England, with a hint of Jane Austen. That’s “Bridgerton”, the Christmas present we all got from Shondaland and Netflix at the end of 2020 [Thank you!].
The new series, based on the novels of Julia Quinn, is a daring mix of period drama and social rights advocacy. It follows the intricate dynamics of London’s elite in the competitive context of matchmaking and marriage design during the social season when debutantes were presented at court.
The focus is on the Bridgerton family’s oldest daughter, Daphne, and her out-of-the-box relationship with Simon Basset, the Duke of Hastings, but through its many diverse secondary characters, the story touches on a multitude of personal and social aspects.
I found many of them to be courageous initiatives, while others seem to rather harm the main purpose of the production.
Some elements of individual and social interest are openly addressed in “Bridgerton”, while others are rather hidden in the more subtle layers of the story. They all have the power to shape the viewer’s perception and understanding of modern life, which is why I believe a discussion on the social effects of the series might be useful.
This is why in this article, I will address 11 Psychological Hits and Misses in “Bridgerton”.
- HIT. Race and high-society.
People of color holding high ranks in 19th-century England. Although this is not a debut of the approach in the fantasy historical drama genre, for us modern humans it is still a novelty to mentally incorporate race diversity in the context of social elite when watching a period piece. This is perhaps the most striking visual element of the series. The Queen herself is a woman of color.
Lady Danbury, Simon’s protector, offers insight into how this whole context came to be – “We were two separate societies divided by color until a king fell in love with one of us. Love, Your Grace, conquers all.”. It is a romanticized, simplistic explanation, yet it satisfies our questions about the level of diversity and acceptance portrayed in the series.
Although not historically accurate, the black nobility element is a powerful mental exercise for the viewers of “Bridgerton”. The “What if” is sown and with the repeated visual exposure, one can become desensitized to the belief that race implies rank.
2. HIT. Women and their intellectual interests and endeavors.
In “Bridgerton”, women are not just pretty things of assistance to their men, only expected to take care of the house and raise the children. In this series, many of the women entertain intellectual interests and are engaged in activities that allow them to succeed as a result of their use of cognitive power.
Here are some examples:
- Eloise Bridgerton is an independent spirit. She does not simply settle for the life traced for her by others, she wants to experience the world and is almost always shown reading a book or taking notes.
- Lady Danbury takes Simon in when his own father rejected the boy because he had difficulties speaking. She steps in to protect and nurture her friend’s son, disregarding the threatening position of a powerful man – the former Duke of Hastings.
- Lady Delacroix, the modiste, is an entrepreneur who made her dressmaking business a success not only by creating fantastic dresses but also by manipulating her superficial clients. She fakes a French accent because it makes her seem exotic in the eyes of the rich, yet not well-traveled locals.
- Penelope Featherington – my favorite character – is not only an empathetic friend but also a great observer and analyst. In fact, she is the one whose pamphlets – published under the pen name Lady Whistledown – not only reflect the social events of the debutantes season but keep everyone on their toes and reveal key personal aspects about the main players in the series, aspects that the nobility would rather keep hidden.
3. HIT. Sex in “Bridgerton”.
Sex is one of the big taboos in the world of Regency-era nobility. You certainly don’t encounter any steamy sex scenes in Jane Austen’s novels. Well, things are very different in “Bridgerton”.
Another element bearing shock value in the series is represented by the explicit scenes that create a very different image of the 19th-century nobility, in England and everywhere else. This not only offers a different, intimate perspective on this social class, but the technique also plays a role in normalizing sex and making the nobility more human.
The contrast between the carefully crafted social image of the elite and the raw sexual appetite that hides underneath all that fabricated glamour is a strong argument for social equality. “We all bleed” is one way to say it. “We all fu*k”, is another.
4.MISS. Sex in “Bridgerton”.
There is one thing to use a powerful visual element to shock and make a point. But basically turning several episodes into erotica is almost killing the impact of the first.
Yes, Daphne and Simon were honeymooning. Yes, sex was a core element of their relationship, given the childbearing subject.
Still, I found that the overuse of sex scenes diluted the initial impact of the subject.
5. HIT. Trauma and its effects.
Simon’s mother died right after giving birth to him. His father rejected him because of his stutter.
The complex trauma that marked Simon’s childhood severely impacted the way he thought of himself, relationships, and the dangers of having his own children.
The series shows the long-term effect of severe trauma and how it can shape someone’s inner structure, even shattering core elements of their being.
“Bridgerton” also offers a positive perspective on trauma management, since it presents a solution for all of Simon’s main problems. Lady Danbury helps him overcome the stutter and also offers him a family when his own abandoned him. Daphne’s love and determination help him gain a rational view about having children. She makes him focus on the present and the possible future instead of remaining trapped in the dangers and promises of the past.
6. HIT. The Assertiveness Prize goes to: Siena.
Artists are promiscuous and not worthy of a place in high society. That was a common belief in 19th-century England, and many who have acted against it faced public backlash for their lack of conformity regarding social norms.
In “Bridgerton”, Siena Rosso is an opera singer who has multiple romantic relationships, one of them with Anthony, the oldest son in the Bridgerton family. Given the social context, Anthony kept his relationship with Siena hidden and gave it no chance of ever turning into marriage, even though they were in love with each other. The best he would offer her – we found out in the last episodes of the series – was to make their relationship public, but not official.
That was not enough for Siena and, in what I consider the best example of assertive behavior in “Bridgerton”, she decides to break up with him for one last time, her main argument being that he will never accept and love her for who she is. She will always be less, not worthy of the full story. She also says that she would rather be in a relationship with a man who truly sees her and does not ask her to change.
7. MISS. Modern attitude vs. Period roles.
There’s a lack of balance when it comes to the attitudes displayed by the women and men of “Bridgerton” and the roles they accept to comply with.
For example, many of the women are quite smart and aspire to achieve more than social norms would normally allow them to, and yet they end up using those brains to simply fulfill their stereotyped roles in the best way possible. None of them fully break free from their social destiny – that of being an addition to a men’s life. Maybe there’s still a chance for Penelope…
The same seems to be valid for painter Henry Granville. Although he is comfortable admitting to his artist friends that he is gay, he decides to live a life of dishonesty and deception, married to a woman he is not in love with. While that is a valid choice for the real-life legal contexts of that era, the Granville of “Bridgerton” seems too bold to obey social norms in this respect.
8. HIT. The “you get what you deserve” thread.
There is at least one type of rule that “Bridgerton” seems to apply to most of its characters: they usually get what they deserve, thus maintaining the fairytale-like moral setting of the show.
They punish bad behavior – Marina does not get to trick Colin into marrying her, Mr. Featherington pays for cheating in his gambling games, and they reward good behavior – Eloise protects madame Delacroix when she thought the modiste was Lady Whistledown, at risk of being punished by the queen, and she is rewarded by being the only one who realizes who the mysterious writer is.
There is also a fair treatment in the face of necessary compromise – Simon’s friend, Will Mondrich, accepted to fix a boxing match to win money for his family. While Mr. Featherington, the one who suggested this deal, died as a result of the scheme, Will, who had good intentions for accepting the compromise, was allowed to live a peaceful life with his wife and children.
9. MISS. The Nature of the Happy End.
At the end of the series, Daphne and Simon welcome a son. This sounds like a great way to end the story on a high note. But let’s look closer.
When they got married, Simon told Daphne that he could not have children. Although later on it was revealed that this was a decision of his and not a physical problem, at the moment of their wedding Daphne agreed to marry him and never have children. She said that he was enough for her happiness.
However, the story takes several psychological turns and the couple ends up with an heir.
In my opinion, this sends the wrong message. It all started by making a statement that for some couples, a childless relationship is enough. The end of the show told us otherwise. For the couple to be happy and fully satisfied with their life, a child must be born.
For the Hastings family, this is great, but for the overall purpose, I think the series failed.
An alternative ending would have been for them to help one of the women in the village – maybe the lady we’ve seen struggling to take care of her children -, to raise them and give them a different path in life. I would’ve welcomed that more than the traditional “beautiful rich couple ends up having it all” finale.
10. HIT. Diversity.
I believe that the highest achievement of “Bridgerton” is the amazing range of diversity that it manages to put together on screen.
From the various social classes to racial diversity at a social level, interracial marriages, sexual orientations, and preferences, to plenty of opportunities and interests, “Bridgerton” has it all. It makes the complex simple by showing it all in a straightforward, unapologetic manner. And it works!
11.HIT. Lady Whistledown.
Powerful psychological grip. We all wanted to know who she is. If the romantic stories and the glitter were not enough to keep you watching, the mystery story unfolding in the background but with strong effects on the main settings would definitely keep you in front of the screen, episode after episode.
I think I started suspecting that Penelope might be Lady Whistledown around episode 5, but I was still afraid that I wasn’t going to have my perspective validated in the last episode – I have to admit, I was afraid that maybe Delacroix was indeed the answer or maybe I completely missed a rather hidden character.
The short version of all this is that I actually enjoyed the series. An easy watch with complex implications. An unexpected, pleasant way to end a year like 2020.
About that… May we all have a peaceful new year!