Bridgerton: Playing the Race Card Badly
I have been reading recently a lot of critical reviews of Bridgerton and I have found it fascinating, although not surprising, at the range of reactions to the show. This post will look at the gamut of emotions the show has inspired, and I will particularly talk about historical accuracy or lack thereof.
Based on a fictional set of novels by Julia Quinn, Bridgerton the televised series spanned one season with another in the works. It is steamy, juicy and opulent, a visual spectacle in terms of the costuming and scenery. It has garnered a lot of interest, and reportedly has an audience of 82 million viewers. However not all viewers were pleased with what they saw. Hardcore regency buffs have been quick to point out the sometimes glaring historical inaccuracies, which a quick google search will find listed in lots of different articles and reviews. As a pure fantasy, however, it excels, and as much as I consider myself a regency buff, I definitely found myself lured in by the sumptuous costuming and entertaining characters, and on that basis willing to overlook the historical inaccuracies.
Die-hard regency buffs have criticized the show for various reasons, not least of which is the ethnic diversity which seems contrived for the greater part. The number of ‘NPC’ non-white characters which inhabit the background scenes, as well as those in the main storyline, is quite large. And when anyone questions the historical accuracy of this particular motif, there seems to be a hysterical response to a genuine enquiry. It got me thinking and wondering, how wrong have we got history? Were there really that many African people in England at the time? Just how black was Queen Charlotte? And if the show appears to address race in its themes, does it actually say anything worthwhile about the issue?
According to popular history, black people numbered around 20,000 in England around the time of the late eighteenth to early nineteenth century. Predominantly, these would have been people in service as footmen, valets, housemaids and the like, or even poorer folk, who had low trades such as seamstresses, staff at inns and cooks and cleaners. Some black people turned to trades such as army, navy and other trades, so a black tradesperson, storeowner, or soldier would not have been so rare that it raised eyebrows. But as for the middle and upper classes, I contend that there were so few people of colour in these realms that to suggest that every third person in a ballroom in London was a finely dressed black male or female, is ridiculous. Certainly there were historically named black figures of rank and wealth: Dido Elizabeth Belle and Queen Charlotte spring to mind. But on the whole, it was unusual to see person of colour who was not of the lower classes.
It can be garnered that black people were still not really thought of as equals, which can be seen from the 1803 illustration below. Entitled ‘Advertisement for a Wife’, the artist has drawn a black woman in the gathering of potential wives for the gentleman on the right. However, if you read the commentaries, the black woman’s supposed thoughts are not very erudite and make fun of her by stereotyping her speech, as she thinks, ‘You be pretty man, Massa’ while the other white figures think using full grammar and proper English. The poor would-be husband also makes it clear that the black woman is not his equal in contending for his hand. “Mercy me, there’s a black among them!”
If this idea that black people are not equal to white people in society, then it is unlikely that the scenes presented in Bridgerton are a faithful representation of society in England—in 1803 at any rate!
But Bridgerton takes artistic license with these historical details, and does so freely. The actress who plays the part of Queen Charlotte, a real historical figure in the regency era, is very much of African origin, with quite dark skin, whereas the real Queen Charlotte (1738-1820), the wife of the English King George III (The Mad King) was apparently not so dark-skinned. She is supposed to have directly descended from Margarita de Castro y Sousa, of the black branch of the Portuguese Royal House, although this is speculation. However, even with a somewhat light skin, she was ‘black’ enough to be often called ‘Mulatto Face’ as an insult. Again, this shows a general trend toward non-acceptance of blacks in English society. Allan Ramsay painted several portraits of her, and although we may surmise that her negro features may have been downplayed in his paintings, to create an image which was more acceptable to society, her appearance in these portraits bears little resemblance in skin tone to the actress who plays her in the show.
All this aggrandizing of black people in Bridgerton, this romanticization of colour and race, of course is almost what most audiences have come to expect; we now live in a society where truth and historical accuracy is less important than not offending anyone. But this does not mean Bridgerton is necessarily “bad” although it might be fair to question if Bridgerton’s creators are trying to socially manipulate its audiences. But as a fantasy piece it excels, and we must grant that the show allows opportunities for actors who would benefit from playing parts and genres they normally would be excluded from playing. We could even consider Bridgerton’s overuse of black characters of rank and consequence as an overt statement about the ease with which history can be diluted and even deleted, according to whoever has control of the history books—or the film.
But in deliberately provoking its audiences to divide like the Red Sea in front of Moses, and form two standing parts, one all for the truth and one all for the fantasy, did Bridgerton succeed in creating a meaningful dialogue about the age old ‘race question,’ or didn’t it? Could we accuse Bridgerton of not actually creating a meaningful dialogue about race and inclusion, but rather of burying the real issue, Imperialism, under a heap of luscious, glistening costumes, and behind beautiful sets, and distracting us from distasteful truths with head-turningly gorgeous actors? When real Imperialist stories which are galling and chilling, are hidden and given mere lip service, (yes there are some black people in service in the show, but where are the slaves, bought and sold on the markets? Unless in Bridgerton’s phantasmagorical universe, slavery was abolished way, waay, before 1833) where the show’s heroine, Daphne, is pure white, and has the whitest worldview to impose on her audience (she just want to get married and have children, a narrative so powerful and so pervasive that it overpowers and crushes the race issues which Bridgerton ought to raise), when the real issues are hidden behind the glitz of a fantasy piece, and where no other cultures and races are showcased as ‘equal’ ( I did see one token Asian female in a diaphanous gown) I cannot take Bridgerton seriously in terms of its colour-baiting promises to address the race question.
For a show that wanted to declare itself ‘woke’ (a political term I dislike immensely by the way, for its inherent untruthfulness and inverted intentions), it did not do very well. Bridgerton pleases the eye, and that is what it does well. But as for anything else, it is clear the show’s creators and producers did not wish to do anything more than soothe the guilty white conscience through active denial, and in the end, instead of celebrating race, it has succeeded only in creating a raceless, homogenous, snow-white fantasy world.