Somewhere between episodes 1 and 2 of Bridgerton’s second season, I decided to start counting the number of scenes per episode in which people did not speak exclusively about getting married, the necessity of finding a good husband or wife, and the various hoops one would have to jump through in order to find this perfect paragon. I am not talking about elliptical references to marriage—which, after all, is the acknowledged end-game here and the primary driver of the plot—but direct, unsubtle discussions accompanied by much hand-wringing and sighing and melodrama. In episode 2, there were exactly two.
If there were a way of measuring how often two characters in a Regency romance speak of anything except impending matrimony (like the Bechdel Test to determine the quality of representation of female characters), Bridgerton would fail miserably. It would also fail the Bechdel Test.
Yes, courtship and marriage are overarching themes in most Regency novels—from Jane Austen’s biting social satire to Georgette Heyer’s lighter yet perfectly crafted Regency romances—but they provide a backdrop and a narrative structure against which character and plot develop.
I wouldn’t presume to list Austen’s merits but the less well-recognised Heyer—who created the Regency romance genre with over 40 novels set before, during and after the culturally influential nine years of the British Regency period—while writing memorably of the “marriage mart”, created characters who are motivated by a whole host of reasons. Strong-willed Sophy wants to bring her aunt’s dysfunctional family together; beautiful Venetia wants independence for herself and respect for her disabled brother, Aubrey; young Arabella wants to “cut a dash” during her first London season but makes a massive faux pas when she pretends to be an heiress in order to deliver a set-down to a proud man; twins Kit and Evelyn are forced to exchange places when the recently betrothed Evelyn goes missing and the more sober Kit has to step in to save the family’s fortunes.
Bridgerton’s protagonists are not hampered by any such problems—unless you count bad dialogue as one. The show is poorly written fan fiction; it has all the tropes of the original without the blood and bones that make a good story.
It’s probably unfair to compare Heyer’s writing with that of Julia Quinn, whose series of novels, which provide the source material for Bridgerton, unabashedly and somewhat joylessly copy Heyer’s world, but then the makers of this show did choose one over the other, and Heyer fans are hardly likely to be forgiving.
Even if you are not a connoisseur of the genre, Bridgerton will infuriate you with its strange tone—somewhere between sentimental melodrama and farce. Is this show taking the absurd rules of a highly mannered society seriously, or is it not? Is it making fun of them, or is it merely using them to heighten the drama and create obstacles to move the non-existent plot along? It is very difficult to tell.
It is also very difficult to decide whether the racial utopia of the Bridgerton universe—the show depicts a mixed-race England ruled by a black queen, while the primary couple of the show is a very white Viscount Anthony Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey) and Indian-origin Kate Sharma (Simone Ashley)—is as good a thing as it is made out to be. Commentators have pointed out that the shoehorning of black and brown characters into narratives that have traditionally been white is not necessarily true representation.
In a much quoted article on racial representation in pop culture published in Film Quarterly in 2017, Kristen J. Warner, an associate professor in journalism and creative media at the University of Alabama, US, coined the term “plastic representation” to describe exactly the kind of casting choices Bridgerton has made. “Such measures yield a set of duelling consequences: first, that any representation that includes a person of color is automatically a sign of success and progress; second, that such paltry gains generate an easy workaround for the executive suites whereby hiring racially diverse actors becomes an easy substitute for developing new complex characters. The results of such choices can feel—in an affective sense—artificial, or more to the point, like plastic,” Warner, who is a black woman, wrote at least three years before Bridgerton debuted. She might have been discussing the show, though.
In making an Indian-origin woman its protagonist, the show wants to be seen as inclusive and daring but it reduces her ethnicity to her skin colour, a few mannerisms and a tendency to call her sister “Bon” (the Bengali word for younger sister; puzzlingly, the Sharmas are not Bengali). “Second season #Bridgerton moves to South Asian characters & I can understand the lure of seeing desi women in beautiful period costumes that are usually verboten to us. But a character’s race is not just their skin (colour). It’s how they experience the world WITH/in that skin!” wrote UK-based author and academic Sunny Singh on Twitter in a long thread on Bridgerton’s problematic casting.
“Moreover a character is not just the physical appearance but the long histories—individual, collective—they carry in their skin (that) impacts what they want and why, what they will do to get their goal, and how far they will go…. And adding race—or gender, sexuality, disability, class, etc—impacts not only the character but also the obstacles and difficulties they face in the storyworld, the support (or lack of) they may receive. It impacts their plot arc. A character’s external traits are impacted by and impact their inner characteristics and are all bound up with their biography (not so different from actual humans). To cast desi women as Kates and Edwinas and changing the last name to a South Asian one ignores all of this,” Singh, who is professor of creative writing and inclusion in the arts at London Metropolitan University, went on to say.
You could argue that this is fantasy—but even fantasies have to follow their own rules. You could also argue that we are being too harsh on a show that is pure confection—but confection can range from a sticky boiled sweet to a complex lemon meringue pie. This, sadly, is an insipid boiled sweet.