Right square in the middle of a global pandemic, Netflix audiences are taking to regency drama in droves: Bridgerton. Being a Jane Austen fan, I had to watch. All of these beautiful people, drinking tea! After all, this blog is about some prominent aspects of my life, to wit. tea and (struggling to do any good) writing. Who doesn’t like a good romance story to take their minds off incompetent governments, overcrowded healthcare, economies crashing and children losing out on education? Give me gossip! Dresses! Give me a divine figure of a man, and a charming lady to woo. Give me flowers and tea in the garden with the queen in exquisite gowns and elaborate wigs! Give me dreams, dammit!
And boy, does Bridgerton delilver. In more ways than one.
I don’t know if you have seen it yet, dear reader, but the cast of Bridgerton is racially completely mixed. Black and White and Asian and all kinds of races mix effortlessly in Bridgerton’s early 19th century England, like there never was any problem with this whatsoever. Oh sure, in one of the episodes a character ‘explains’ that the king marrying a woman of colour has fixed the lot by making interracial marriage acceptable. Bam! Fixed it.
I mean, we are talking about an era when oppression and exploitation of Black people was quite acceptable. There were Black people in England, for sure, but they were not part of the higher social circles as presented in Bridgerton. They were servants and merchants and only occassionally one rose through society’s strata but this was extremely rare – let’s not fool ourselves here.
But then: let’s!
Let us fool ourselves, for once. Let us believe that this representation of Black and White people mixing in society is a completely normal and natural thing to occur. Let’s take it for granted that a Black duke is smitten with a White lady, and vice versa, and nobody bats an eye – gossip, yes, but not about what they look like except how handsome they are. Let’s be completely taken in with this fantasy.
It is a fantasy, of course. As many have commented before me (check out Oprah Magazine for instance) it feels a bit like pasting over unpleasant bits of history, just to make a nice picture, and ignoring the oppression and exploitation in the process because they are just so unsightly. It is usually jarring when this happens – I still don’t like the film Pocahontas for this very reason – but with Bridgerton… I don’t know.
Unlike BBC’s Pride & Prejudice production, Bridgerton was never intended to be historically accurate. Just listen to the music played at the balls: Shostakovich and an adaptation of Ariana Grande. This is supposed to be the Beethoven era, and dear Ludwig didn’t write Thank You, Next! (No he did not.) So if not historically accurate, what is it supposed to be?
I think it is supposed to be how things are supposed to be. If you catch my drift.
Look: representation matters. I am a very white woman who grew up in a very white environment. I shared a classroom for the first time with a Black kid when I was thirteen. He was the only one in our school. I grew up with Yo! MTV raps and Beverly Hills Cop. Let’s not be squeamish here but for all intents and purposes and without trying to diss the artists behind these icons: they are fairly limited ways to view Black people. The ‘sassy Black’ artist was for the longest time the most positive way that Black people were part of my world: a stereotype.
It took a while for me to grow up – it sounds terrible and I wish it were otherwise. I wish I had been a Wise Woman from day one, but I wasn’t. I was an idiot for quite some time in my life, and probably still am, but I believe it is only when we own our shit that we can progress. It took time and effort, listening and reading, to grow out of the marshes of childish perception and see people – any kind of people, including Black people – for who they are: real, whole people. (Dear reader, don’t worry. This newfound enlightenment in me is hardly a recent development – but it did take place at some time in my life. I think this is true for many people, whether they admit it or not.)
The people who are shot by police in the United States (and elsewhere) are real, whole people – as are the officers who shoot them. The people who stormed the US Capitol, and the staff who were hiding under their desks. The people who were duped by the Dutch tax office, and the bureaucrats who made it possible – as well as the politicians who condoned it. All of them: real, whole people. To see everyone just as real and whole as yourself, that requires a mind shift, and it requires a trigger.
Bridgerton can be such a trigger because it provides a balance to the usual depiction of Black people in media: from hard-core cops to struggling single mothers, to jaunty musicians, to vicious rap artists, to Sassy Black Friend (usually beside the Sassy Gay Male Friend). The scope is still severely limited! But in Bridgerton we see a man who is struggling with his identity and his love for a woman. Not because he is Black and she is White, but because he vowed never to marry and she wants to have his babies. Forget the skin colour, the bone structure, the hair that glitters in the rain – immaterial! No longer are these internal struggles or choice of frock for this evening’s ball only White people’s concern – everyone is equal in their social anxieties. And we need more of that!
Bridgerton treats Black people as people, and White people just the same. No heroes, no victims, no saviours. No pasting over history because it places itself beside history. And therefore the only thing that I found jarring was the explanation I mentioned before. I found it a little short-sighted to imply that all it took was a high-up marriage and a handful of generations to set all of society right on matters of race. It is that implied promise that I found… unhelpful. Society has proven itself much more resistant to change. So let’s just keep working on it. And let’s have a second season of Bridgerton. I’m all for it.