The Significance of the Insignificance of Race
by Emma Pearce | 12 January 2021
Content warning: discussion of rape and racial violence
Spending Christmas alone this year, Netflix’s release of Shondaland-produced Bridgerton on Christmas Day was certainly a welcome distraction. The show is based on the bestselling Bridgerton novels by Julia Quinn, with each book looking at a different sibling in the Bridgerton family and their quest for romance in early nineteenth-century Regency England. Netflix’s first series is roughly based on the first novel The Duke and I, focusing on Daphne Bridgerton’s romance with Simon, the Duke of Hastings, a classic Darcy figure who has sworn not to marry.
One of the most interesting aspects of Bridgerton is its ‘colourblind’ casting. Most notably Simon (played by Regé-Jean Page), the leading man, is Black, as is Queen Charlotte (played by Golda Rosheuvel), wife of George III. This has been both celebrated for its diversity and criticised for its ‘historical inaccuracy.’ We are first led to believe that perhaps this version of Regency England is a colourblind society. It is not until episode four that Lady Danbury reminds Simon that when George III fell in love with a Black woman society overcame its racial division. This brief conversation about race is the only one that seems to happen in the show but proves that the concept of race does exist in the Bridgerton world. Queen Charlotte’s Black heritage is also not completely fabricated, as there is some speculation as to her possible African ancestry. Although the idea of love uniting against racism is very romantic, it also seems highly unlikely in 1813. With the slave trade only abolished in Britain and the empire in 1807, this seemingly racially unprejudiced Britain just wouldn’t exist. One only needs to think of the criticism hurled at Meghan Markle since her marriage to Prince Harry in 2018 to prove that becoming a royal does not end racism. The brief exchange between Lady Danbury and Simon in the show therefore makes the insignificance of race significant.
Bridgerton is, of course, fictional. Through the playful string quartet renditions of modern pop songs such as Ariana Grande’s ‘thank u, next’ and Billie Elish’s ‘bad guy’ we are reminded that this is an embellished, whimsical twenty-first-century fantasy. Although there were Black nobles in eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Britain (perhaps most famous Dido Elizabeth Belle), it is refreshing to see a diverse cast in a historical drama that is not underscored with racial tension. As Regé-Jean Page comments on representation in Bridgerton: "What happens in culture often is, you go back in time and only white folks are happy”... “Setting the story in the past doesn’t mean that Black folks do nothing but suffer. We've always lived and laughed and loved and married and danced and lived the truest expressions of our lives through societal restrictions, just the same as everyone else.”
As an art historian, I am also excited about the new possibilities of art and fashion in this alternative Regency period. We are introduced to the Duke of Hasting’s estate in episode six, filmed at Castle Howard in North Yorkshire. On her tour, Daphne stops to pause at a portrait of Simon’s mother, and in episode eight, Daphne similarly stops to reflect on a portrait of Simon’s father. Both paintings are in typical eighteenth-century portrait styles of Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. Indeed, the portrait of the late Duchess is exactly reworked from Gainsborough’s Mary Little, Later Lady Carr. The displaying of these portraits of Black individuals in a country house, which often has ugly histories of connections to slavery, could arguably be seen as reappropriating history.
Courtesy of Netflix
Thomas Gainsborough RA, Mary Little, Later Lady Carr, ca. 1763, oil on canvas, Digital image courtesy of Yale Center for British Art, Bequest of Mrs. Harry Payne Bingham, B1987.6.2
Reynolds and Gainsborough provide us with two of the most famous portraits of Black individuals in the eighteenth century, with Reynolds’s unfinished A Young Black Man (c.1770s) and Gainsborough’s depiction of an abolitionist writer in Portrait of Ignatius Sancho (1768). The Bridgerton world, especially with the painting of the dual portrait of Daphne and Simon in the last episode, offers us an art history where portraits of named Black individuals are not a rarity. The fashions in Bridgerton are also commented on by Patricia A. Matthew in her review of the show, especially the beautiful incorporation of dreadlocks and afro hairstyles into the elaborate wigs of Queen Charlotte and her ladies in waiting. Matthew further remarks on the entrance of Marina Thompson (played by Ruby Barker), cousin of the gaudy Featheringtons, and how her simple linen attire and later wearing of her head wrap calls to mind the depictions of mixed-race women of the West Indies by Agonstino Brunias. What might have been even more interesting is if Bridgerton pushed these small nods to Black culture further, perhaps even incorporating African textiles and fabrics, something like Yinka Shonibare’s post-colonial reimaginings of the eighteenth and nineteenth century.
Yinka Shonibare, Installation from Flower Time, 2006-2007, image courtesy of the Stephen Friedman Gallery.
However, as the press release for Shonibare’s 2006-2007 exhibition Flower Time asks: “can art evolve absolutely oblivious to our time of extreme trauma?” I would ask the same of Bridgerton: Considering that Bridgerton’s world is not colourblind, should it be when Britain’s history of empire and racism is such a violent one? As a Twitter thread from Dr. Alyssa Sepinwell points out - where was the money for the luxuries of the upper-class Regency elite coming from if you erase the implications of empire? She argues that big-budget productions like Bridgerton only include people of colour when they make white people comfortable. Other writers, such as Madhu Manivannan for gal-dem, have commented on the colourism of the casting, where the only main dark-skinned Black actor is Simon’s father, portrayed as abusive and cruel. I would, however, argue that Simon’s friend George is portrayed as a sympathetic character. Refinery-29 writers further argue that “just sprinkling some light-skinned Blackness in there isn’t enough.”
Furthermore, Bridgerton inflicts and then ignores an act of sexual violence against the leading Black man, which many viewers have rightfully found extremely distasteful. In episode six, Daphne, after realising that Simon has been deliberately “pulling out” to avoid pregnancy, gets on top during sex so he has to finish inside of her. This is slightly different from the books, where Simon is drunk and unable to stop Daphne. In both cases, however, he is unconsenting. In the TV show, Simon is visibly distressed, and tells her to wait, and gets angry and upset after the act. Daphne counteracts this by claiming he has lied to her in saying he ‘can’t’ have children when it is in fact ‘won’t’ due to his traumatic upbringing and emotional abuse of his father. Although semantically deceiving, as Simon points out, he was willing to die in a duel rather than not be able to provide Daphne with the family she wanted. The two spouses spend the last two episodes woefully switching between anger and passion towards each other, before their inevitable happy ending. Although it is laid out that both have been duplicitous, what I would label as Daphne’s rape of Simon is never unpacked. If a man had forcibly inseminated a woman, I think we would have no problem condemning it, but the other way around and we are forced to try and sympathise with Daphne for another two hours. I believe this assault, and the ignoring of it, is made even more poignant by Simon’s race. With the history of Black men being falsely punished for the assault of women and the myth of the Black man rapist (historically perpetuated by films such as the KKK supporting The Birth of a Nation), I think it is harmful to make us continue to sympathise with a white female rapist and ignore (and arguably victim blame) the Black male victim.
How then do we create diverse period dramas that do not ignore or tokenize race, but also do not make it all about Black trauma? There is no one right answer, but I think it is important to avoid creating and then ignoring Black male suffering as Bridgerton arguably does with Simon. Additionally, in acknowledging race but for only two sentences, Bridgerton creates itself a problem yet never unpacks the implications of it. Several recent period dramas have used colourblind casting: one of the best for me is Hulu’s The Great (2020), an ‘anti-historic’ parodic retelling of Catherine the Great’s rise to power in eighteenth-century Russia. Although people of colour are still only side characters in this, they are also not tokenized and their difference in race is not acknowledged. In my view, an excellent example of a period drama that is both historically accurate and racially diverse is Hulu’s Harlots, a drama surrounding the women in the sex industry in eighteenth-century London. Although still focused on the white Wells family, people of colour are cast in leading roles. The implications and struggles of race are certainly there for the characters, set in 1763 at the height of the Transatlantic slave trade, however, they are more nuanced than simply the colour of their skin and are not the only characters who suffer. Neither of these shows is perfect, but I believe there are aspects from both we can take to create entertaining and diverse period dramas, which do not lazily acknowledge and then sidestep the issue of race as I believe Bridgerton does.