Written by Marta Pozzi.
Edited by Francesca Lombardo.
Please be warned that this article includes sensitive content.
It only takes a quick Google search to realise that reviewers are extremely divided on this. Many people praise Bridgerton, Netflix’s newly released Regency-era period drama, for its ground-breaking feminism, while others consider the show an utter failure or, at best, a missed chance at correctly portraying women. So, is Bridgerton feminist? Well, yes and no. First of all, feminism is a wide-ranging term and labelling a piece of art feminist can be tricky. Having said this, I think Bridgerton is heading in an interesting direction but probably needs some polishing.
The show is set in hypothetical 1813 London and it follows debutante Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) as she enters the marriage market and looks for a husband. I say hypothetical because, in Bridgerton’s version of 19thcentury England, the love marriage between the White King, George III, and Black Queen, Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel), has allowed both Black and White subjects to live together peacefully and aspire to the same positions in society. This representation of race has its problematic aspects, including avoiding any race-related issues and presenting race from a White audience perspective (if you are interested, you can find more about this here: Blackness dehumanized, Bridgerton failed women of color). However, it does showcase a leading biracial couple and a racially diverse cast.
Moreover, Bridgerton is not so hypothetical in its portrayal of gender relations and the female characters in the series have to deal with the patriarchy constantly. To mention a few things, they have very limited life choices and extremely (and I mean it) lacking sex education, which is a big issue when *spoiler alert* Daphne marries Simon Basset (Regé-Jean Page), the male lead. Most of the female characters in Bridgerton are aware of and criticise the limitations imposed on them. And a few, especially Eloise (Claudia Jessie), Daphne’s feminist sister, are extremely vocal about it. I must admit that, while I appreciated Eloise’s character and comments throughout the series, I found them quite repetitive and simplistic at times, even though a more nuanced dialogue would have probably required more screen time.
One of the things that I appreciated the most about the show’s “feminist agenda” is that even if London society is patriarchal, most of the power is held by female characters – which has a pleasant matriarchal feeling about it. We find out that Queen Charlotte is the actual ruler since the king is incapacitated by what looks like senile dementia. Most of the male figures of power, it seems, are either absent, inept, or dead. It is the case for the Bridgerton and the Featherington families, who are essentially run, respectively, by the Viscountess and Baroness since their husbands/sons are not capable of doing so. However, the person who holds the most power – even more than the Queen herself – is the infamous Lady Whistledown (voiced by no less than Dame Julie Andrews). She writes the scandalous, Gossip Girl-style newsletter and her real identity is unknown (guess what? She is a woman!). On the other hand, these seemingly empowered women often perpetuate the patriarchy by imposing society’s limitation on their daughters or protégées – see Daphne’s sex education and Marina’s treatment when pregnant.
Another aspect that I was thrilled to see was that all female life aspirations were validated, from Eloise’s desire to study and go to university to Daphne’s one to marry and have children. Usually, the female lead is not the maternal or the pretty type (see, for instance, characters like Elizabeth Bennet or Jo March, compared to their older sisters). It was interesting to see how Daphne took centre stage and lived up to Meg March’s “just because my dreams are different than yours doesn’t make them unimportant.”
This brings me to my next point, which is about the (one too many, in my opinion) sex scenes. One of which is non-consensual and appallingly excused by the show. Bridgerton is progressive in its portrayal of sexual intercourse and female pleasure – as it includes female masturbation scenes. However, there is a marital rape scene, which is not dealt with appropriately. Once Daphne discovers that Simon is not actually incapable of conceiving a child, like he had led her to believe, but simply does not want to, she forces him to climax into her while she is on top, even if he repeatedly asks her to wait. This scene is glossed over and justified as Daphne’s payback for Simon’s insincerity. What’s worse, in my opinion, is that Daphne is also excused because Simon’s wish is not represented as valid: what he really wants, the show implies, is to have children.
Bridgerton has many positive aspects but also some problematic ones. All in all, I did enjoy the show (can’t say no to period dramas) and I am looking forward to seeing what they come up with for the second season!