Arts and Entertainment

“Bridgerton”: A 19th Century Love Story

Based on Julia Quinn’s novels, “Bridgerton” tackles the struggles of finding love in a strict society during the 19th century, Regency era.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Emily Chen

In a time when people are rarely traveling farther than their living room or the depths of their kitchen cabinet, the opportunity to be whisked away to a 19th century Regency fever dream seems too perfect to pass up.

Nearly 86 million viewers have jumped at the chance to do so with Netflix’s new hit show, “Bridgerton,” which has taken the world by storm. Based on the first book of the popular book series by Julia Quinn, “The Duke and I,” the first season of “Bridgerton” is romantic, raunchy, and remarkable in both the barriers it shatters and the amount of pop songs it plays.

Set in 1813, the story follows the quest of our protagonist Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor), the eldest daughter of the Bridgerton family, to find her perfect suitor. She longs to marry, desperate to replicate the love between her mother (Ruth Gemmell) and late father. During her search, she strikes up a ruse with the Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page), as well as her brother’s oldest friend, in which they appear to be courting when in fact their intentions lie elsewhere. Daphne uses this scheme as an opportunity to attract more suitors while the Duke takes advantage of the situation to shake off public attention. But as a friendship blossoms and the facade crumbles, the characters begin to develop feelings for one another—making both of their situations all the more complicated.

The relationship between Daphne and the Duke (his name is Simon, though only Daphne addresses him as such) is captivating. The fast-paced nature of the story keeps the viewers’ attention, as does the raunchiness of their relationship. But as you’re propelled forward into the story, their love is what grounds the viewer in the more grandiose scenes.

“I burn for you,” Simon declares to Daphne in a flurry of frustration, fear, and fondness.

And we burn for them—their romance commanding the viewers’ attention. Daphne’s compassionate and delicate nature, colored against Simon’s more cynical point of view, brings about a fire of emotion, to the point where the viewer is unable to tear their eyes away from the screen.

That isn’t to say Simon and Daphne are the perfect couple. Many criticisms have been made about how their relationship is stagnant, and as we watch them confront the same obstacles and recycle the same arguments, the brightness of their flame dims. In truth, their relationship can grow tiresome at points. All of these problems are in addition to their lack of communication, which culminates in a rape scene that, despite the argument it causes, isn’t addressed in any meaningful manner.

But beyond that issue, their love story serves as a refraction of the nuanced and subtle dynamics of suitor season, particularly the imbalanced one between men and women, which is shown even more expansively through the engagements of two of the show’s major families, the Bridgertons and the Featheringtons. However, that event happens to be one of the only ways the show commits to replicating the reality of Regency-era England. With the exception of the inequality portrayed between men and women and the more decorative vernacular, the show diverges from accuracy in almost every other sense.

From music to fashion, “Bridgerton” takes inspiration from the modern day. The score is mostly composed of string renditions of popular pop songs (Ariana Grande’s “thank u next” and Shawn Mendes’s “In My Blood” among the most well-known). Additionally, the costumes—while reminiscent of the style of dress of the period—are far from accurate. In an interview with Express, Ellen Mirojnick, the dress designer on the set of Bridgerton, said that the team “kept the style and silhouette of 1813 for the most part” but also used “more modern fabrics and more modern techniques.”

The entire show can be said to be a silhouette of 19th century England held to a 21st century moral standard—yet another way “Bridgerton” diverges from any commitment to historical accuracy. Though “Bridgerton” is an escapist fantasy, the show’s ignorance to certain racial realities often has come off as tone-deaf to some. The storyline of Marina Thompson (Ruby Barker) is recalled as an example of this disregard, as the debutante is humiliated amongst a town full of privileged white families after news breaks out that she is a single mother. Compared to Daphne’s hopeful aspirations for love, Marina needs the reassurance of marriage when it comes to the well-being of herself and her baby—her bitter storyline is difficult to watch.

There is an absence of hopeful and uplifting Black characters in Hollywood, and “Bridgerton” doesn’t make an effort to change that reality. In its attempt to be completely colorblind, the show not only refuses to confront the issue of privilege but refuses to confront the issue of race at all. In fact, the only attempt the series makes in order to address this issue is a half-baked explanation from Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh) and a naive belief in the power of love. In doing so, the series internalizes that this society has suffered from systemic racism but refuses to provide any solutions and, instead, heralds interracial parties and marriages as the shot for reconciliation. Not only does this choice minimize the severity of racism during that time period, but it wastes an opportunity to address racism within our own.

The issue is best summarized in Kathryn VanArendonk’s Vulture article, where she states that the “diversity backstory feels warm yet half-baked, as though the writers were eager to include a rationale but not all that interested in dealing with the less pleasant ramifications.”

At the same time, the show’s existence at all is certainly worth applauding. Prior to its release, there were many concerns raised criticizing the presence of powerful Black people in a historical piece. Diversity has scarcely existed in a Regency piece such as this show, with roles being reserved solely for white people. That casting was mostly to attend to questions about accuracy, recognizing that—historically—people of color were systemically and socially excluded from positions of power.

But in a piece of fiction such as “Bridgerton,” where 19th century couples dance to symphonic-style Ariana Grande and dances are adorned in anachronistic glitter, historical accuracy isn’t a viable enough justification to exclude POC actors from these contemporary genres.

“Bridgerton” recognizes this fact, and—while there are many issues regarding colorism and stereotyping—it’s incredibly refreshing to stand witness to. And with all the problematic aspects of the show taken into consideration, it starts a necessary conversation about how we grapple with addressing diversity within historical fiction. It forges a space for more shows like “Bridgerton” to be made, hopefully more nuanced and more capable of grappling with the complexity of, particularly, historical marginalization.

Still, with the show’s highly dramatic storytelling, the exciting display of young love, and—of course—those gorgeous ball gowns, “Bridgerton” serves as the perfect show to binge while stuck at home.