Bridgerton’s Reimagining of Regency Society
Bridgerton is an extremely popular show. The second season itself is the most watched English-Language series debut on Netflix with a record 627.11 million hours viewed in its first 28 days. As the Vox article written by Aja Romano explores, many have praised and rebuked the show’s modernization and use of actors of color. Some say it’s not enough, some say it’s progress, and some say it’s too progressive. After the show’s debut season, arguments spanning from the show’s lack of racial commentary to the use of actors of color not being historically accurate became fairly widespread.
In observing the characters and specific scenes between the characters of color, we can find the showrunners at Shondaland are trying to find a balance between the conventions of the regency period drama and inclusion of people of color. Regency period dramas are predominately white and heterosexual romantic stories that do not focus on darker aspects of racial inequality of the time. The characters of Queen Charlotte and Will Mondrich are important examples of how Bridgerton is reimaging race and culture in an alternate regency society. Lady Danbury’s conversations with Simon Bassett and Kate Sharma also show small but definitive examples of establishing conversations on race and culture in the show. These examples show Bridgerton’s reimaging of regency society is a balancing act of adding characters of color and the conventions of the regency period drama.
Queen Charlotte Rules the Ton
Queen Charlotte is the basis for the racial integration of Bridgerton’s society. She and the King made a love match that then bolstered people of color in London regency society, which we learn from Lady Danbury in Season one during her important conversation with Simon. Throughout both seasons Queen Charlotte, a woman of color, is the highest ranked person we see throughout both seasons. In season 2 we see the King, but he seems to have dementia and is unable to perform many tasks. Due to this fact, Queen Charlotte seems to be running the country as well.
In the last episode of Season 2, she helps the main couple by using her power in the ton. She tells the ton that the reason that the marriage between Anthony and Edwina that she orchestrated did not happen was because she no longer wished it. This was a lie because the marriage did not happen because Anthony was in love with Edwina’s sister Kate, but the ton did not question Queen Charlotte’s actions because of her status and power in their society.
Another interesting point is that Queen Charlotte being mixed race is historically accurate. Bridgerton seems to be one of the only regency-set shows or movies to have the highest-ranking women be the highest-ranking person and be a person of color. No movie or show adaptation of Jane Austen’s works or the movies Belle or Mr. Malcolm’s List has the highest ranking character portrayed by a woman of color. Since there is historical proof of a high-ranking women of color in regency England, then it seems the show portraying this is accurate and needed in the genre of regency England dramas. There is also an example of lower-ranking people of color in Bridgerton’s society that fully round out this new reimaging.
Will Mondrich, Working Man
The character of Will Mondrich is also imperative to the reimaging of Bridgerton society. Will, a character of color, is a part of the working class. He is therefore one of the lowest ranking characters on the show and yet one of the most interesting. In Season 1, Will is a boxer that is the best friends with Simon Bassett, Duke Hastings. Throughout the 1st season, Will acts a voice of reason and as a grounding presence for Simon who is navigating the ton. Will reminds Simon of his privilege because he has to fight to provide for his wife and children. At the end of season one, Will purposely loses a fight for money to financially take care of his family not have to fight anymore.
Season 2 finds Will after making his morally ambiguous choice to purposely lose a fight for money. Will decides to create a club with his new financial status. His club is for everyone, no matter their place in society, which is different from White’s, the ironically named club that the Bridgerton men and other high men of the ton attend. As he tries to upstart his club, he struggles with his view of himself and his honorability. This comes to a head when Will can see the new Lord Featherington is scamming the ton. Will finally admits his choice to lose a fight for money to convince Colin Bridgerton not to invest in Lord Featherington’s scam jewel operation. At first, Colin seems to take the side of Lord Featherington. Then, after Colin exposes Lord Feathering ton, he brings his acquaintances to Will’s club to thank him for looking out for him and the others in the ton.
Though a low member in this alternate regency society, Will’s unique storyline provides an interesting look at the class status and moral choices of those not high-standing. This characterization is showing an array of characters of color from different backgrounds. At the same time, many of the higher members of the ton respect Will and take his opinion seriously. Though Will’s characterization is one way the show balances the genre requirements and includes characters of color, there are some short but important conversations also show the balancing act of reimaging regency society.
Lady Danbury and Simon Disagree
In season 1, episode 4 Lady Danbury speaks to Simon Bassett, and they have one of the very few conversations about race in the show. The conversation goes as so:
Lady Danbury: I understand that you believe such subjects as love and devotion, affection, and attachment, you find it all trite and frivolous. But have you any idea those very things are precisely what have allowed a new day to begin to dawn in this society? Look at our queen. Look at our king. Look at their marriage. Look at everything it is doing for us, allowing us to become. We were two separate societies, divided by color, until a king fell in love with one of us. Love, Your Grace… conquers all.
Simon Basset: I believe that remains to be seen. The king may have chosen his queen. He may have elevated us from novelties in their eyes to now dukes and royalty, and at that same whim… he may just as easily change his mind, a mind, as we all know, that is hanging on by one very loose and tenuous thread. So, no, I am sorry, Lady Danbury, we disagree here. Love changes nothing.(Bridgerton, Season 1 Episode 4)
During this exchange, we see them set up the alternate reality for the regency period. Lady Danbury is discussing the positives of the mixed-race marriage of Queen Charlotte and her king and how it helped people of color gain access to society. We also see Simon rightfully questioning if this alternate reality is sustainable. He’s acknowledging the fragility of people of color’s place in this society. Lady Danbury has another interesting conversation with a main character of color in season 2.
Kate Despises English Tea
In the first episode of season 2, Lady Danbury has a conversation with the new lead love interest, Kate Sharma, a woman of color. Kate is an outsider in Bridgerton’s society because her father was Indian and was not titled. Her birth mother was also not English or titled. After Kate’s stepmother, Lady Mary Sheffield, married her father, her parents disowned her. Mary’s parents do not see Kate as an equal. The Sheffields will take care of her mother and give her sister, Edwina a dowry, but only if Edwina marries a titled Englishman. Lady Danbury tries to understand why Kate is not searching for a husband herself and why her sister’s grandparents are planning to give a dowry to her sister Edwina. The conversation goes as such:
Lady Danbury: And what about you?
Kate Sharma: If I could marry for the sake of my family I would. But I am not my mama’s daughter by birth. Edwina is.
Lady Danbury: Oh
Kate Sharma: I’ve spent the last eight years raising my sister to walk in the right way, to talk in the right way, to play the pianoforte just so. Teaching her twice as much and watching her work twice as hard as anyone else. I even taught her how to make this pitiful excuse for tea the English so adore. I despise English tea. But if it means my sister will not be left destitute, then I will smile, and I will nod politely after each and every sip, to be sure .(Bridgerton, Season 2 Episode 1)
Kate here is describing how outside of English society she is and how she detests it. She hates the titles, formality, and even the tea. She’s only performing for English society so that her sister and mother will be safe. Kate plans to return to India after her sister is married because she knows that the Sheffields won’t support her. Though her plans change after falling in love with Anthony Bridgerton, during the season Kate is constantly going against Bridgerton’s social rules by riding alone and shooting. Her telling conversation with Lady Danbury, in the beginning, is her questioning how English society works and why she does not wish to succumb to it.
The Future of the Ton
Despite what many critics think, there is an intriguing discussion on race and culture. Aja Romano explains:
Ultimately, whether you think Bridgerton is satisfactorily race-conscious or not boils down to the way you read the show itself. Viewers who read the show as consciously escapist are more likely to see its use of Black characters as fitting within an escapist milieu — racism is vaguely acknowledged, but not enough to encroach on the fantasy of a history in which Black communities could leverage social power and climb to the heights of the aristocracy.
Though race and culture are not the focus of the show, and especially not its source material, the small discussions and character placement ignite interesting discussions. Salamishah Tillet from The New York Times explains:
…the characters of “Bridgerton” never seem to forget their blackness but instead understand it as one of the many facets of their identity, while still thriving in Regency society. The show’s success proves that people of color do not have to be erased or exist solely as victims of racism in order for a British costume drama to flourish.
The race is a part of the characters of color’s identities but not the sole trait that might be more powerful. To have people of color see themselves in the glitz of the regency world without traumatic storylines based on race could provide a sense of belonging in an entertainment niche they didn’t feel a part of before. It will be interesting to see what the show does in the future, especially since there will be a spin-off series focusing on Queen Charlotte coming soon. Though Bridgerton does not intensely focus on race/culture, by including characters of color that are from different ranks of society, it is pushing the boundaries of previous regency-based shows and movies. The delicate balance of following the genre norms and including characters of color brings a richness to the genre that has not been apparent before.
What do you think? Leave a comment.