I wanted to get 2021 off to a good start, so I binge watched Bridgerton over New Year’s Eve and Day. I had been so excited to learn that Shonda Rhimes would be producing this mini-series that I subscribed to Netflix streaming several months ago just so I could see it.
[Spoilers start now] I had high hopes for this production, and in many ways I wasn’t disappointed. The costumes! The settings! The characters! Those dance sequences! When a development company hurls money at a production like this, it really pays off. The series is spectacular to look at, a visual treat of the highest order.
However, Bridgerton isn’t flawless. I was unenthusiastic about some of the things the producers added to the source material—the angsty overtone, and interpreting Anthony as a jerk, which was a huge mistake in my view. And they left out Julia Quinn’s original witty dialogue, which was a sad loss. However, overall I was thrilled that the story really was a romance—a story in which the principal plot is the courtship between Hastings and Daphne, which I thought was fizzy and delightful. And they didn’t back off from the menstrual blood.
All in all, I thought they did a pretty good job until I read the review in Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. Among concerns that include casting and depictions of consent, Smart Bitches commenters were unhappy with the depiction of race. They pointed out that two Black characters (Hastings and Mrs. Danbury) remark that Queen Charlotte’s African ancestry helped to elevate Blacks to the peerage. But the discussion ends there, and none of the White characters talk about race at all. “That’s all we get?” was the consensus. Several of the Smart Bitches commenters thought that the Danbury/Hastings conversation protected White viewers from having to think about race.
Salamishah Tillet, a New York Times cultural critic, agrees, saying that the decision to have only the Black characters talk about race “risks reinforcing the very white privilege it seeks to undercut by enabling its white characters to be free of racial identity.”
I’m not sure what exactly what to make of this analysis. We’ve been watching colorblind casting for quite a while now (I can go back to 1961, when Mickey Rooney played a stereotyped Japanese character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but it goes back a lot further than that), and as time goes on, the issues seem to get ever more complicated. Even Hamilton, which became rather a standard bearer for casting actors of color as historical White figures, has come under the microscope. As Maya Phillips, another NYT critic says:
[P]roductions that would subvert a narrative traditionally owned by white characters must not just tag in actors of color but reconsider the fundamental way the new casting changes the story. In “Hamilton,” the revision of American history is dazzling and important, but it also neglects and negates the parts of the original story that don’t fit so nicely into this narrow model. The characters’ relationship to slavery, for example, is scarcely mentioned, because it would be incongruous with the triumphant recasting of our country’s first leaders.
I hear you asking, But what does this have to do with Bridgerton? Well, that’s kind of what I’m wondering. According to Julia Jacobs of the NYT, Bridgerton‘s creators were irritated when their casting choices were called color blind. “That would imply that color and race were never considered,” showrunner Chris Van Dusen said, “when color and race are part of the show.”
I enjoyed this new costume drama for all the escapist fantasy it offered—which was a lot—and I thought it touched on race and class about as heavily as one might expect Shonda Rhimes to do—which is to say, lightly. It seemed to me that to do more would be to create a different period piece, one not written originally by Julia Quinn and brought to the screen by the people that brought us Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy.
What do you think? Have you seen Bridgerton, and did you enjoy it? If they create a second season, do you want more Simon and Daphne, or do you want Eloise or maybe Penelope Featherington?
And for a fun look at the work that went into the costuming, check this out: