We can imagine a world where the only thing wrong with racial inequality is that non-white people are not allowed to share in the spoils of empire—but would we really want to live in it?
When I first moved to the US from London, I asked an American journalist what kind of reception I might expect as a Black Briton. “Well, when they hear an English accent, Americans usually add about 20 points to your IQ,” he said. “But when they see a Black face, they usually don’t.” Recalling that the authors of the book The Bell Curve had claimed that Black people have an IQ 15 points lower than whites, I figured that, at the very least, I would still come out at least five points ahead.
There were moments during my 12 years as the US correspondent for The Guardian when I needed all the help I could get. It could be a particular challenge when reporting from Republican events. Englishness, the American journalist had made clear, carried cultural cachet; Blackness did not. The two arriving in the same body could mess with some people’s heads. When I introduced myself as a British journalist, I was occasionally subjected to an interrogation of my credentials. “Were you born there?” they’d ask. “I don’t hear an accent.” (I sound like Ricky Gervais, with nary a hint of a transatlantic twang.)
But my point here is not partisan. Republicans could be, as it happens, ruder than most. But despite Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen, acclaimed author Zadie Smith, and actors Idris Elba, David Oyelowo, and Thandie Newton—to name but a few—the general American image of Britain (particularly outside the big cities) remains ossified in a time before the large-scale migration of Black people to Britain following the Second World War. (My parents came from Barbados in the early 1960s.) When I wrote an article for The Washington Post about being Black and British in the US, it ran alongside a picture of a Black man in a bowler hat carrying an umbrella in one hand and a cup of tea in the other.
So I can imagine that Bridgerton, the Netflix period drama set in 1813, which portrays a multiracial British elite complete with a Black queen, duke, and dowager aunt as well as debutantes and suitors of virtually every hue, might test credulity in the US and beyond. (Growing up in Britain, where I was born, people would frequently ask me where I was really from, too.) Whatever issues people may have had with this clearly didn’t stop them from watching the show: Its first season was the second-most-watched Netflix original series of all time; the second season will be available from March 25.
Bridgerton’s appeal is not difficult to fathom. Set in some of Britain’s grandest stately homes, with elaborate costumes, flamboyant coiffures (Queen Charlotte’s wigs deserve a series all to themselves), quaint rituals, and plenty of sex, it promises a great deal. (It didn’t hurt that it was released in December 2020, during what was then the deadliest month of the pandemic, when we had little else to do but watch TV.) To the undiscerning eye, it’s basically Downton Abbey with a bigger budget, better locations, more bonking, and a diverse cast.
While the series is named after the Bridgerton family, it might better be named “Lady Whistledown.” That is the nom de plume of the anonymous scandalmonger whose newsletter spreads well-informed word of the 19th-century haut monde’s romantic entanglements—as well as tart commentary on their consequences. Each new edition provides fresh gossip, revealing secrets, exposing trysts, and assessing the progress of the (debutante) season in all its lustful, scheming glory. We learn at the end of the first season that Lady Whistledown is Penelope Featherington, the youngest daughter of a family struggling to escape ruin.
Season 1 is set, appropriately enough, at the beginning of the “social season” of 1813, when debutantes and eligible bachelors are presented to high society in what is essentially a marriage market. Male suitors call on young ladies for a delicate courtship dance in which status is key. The Bridgertons are a family of eight children (named, in alphabetical order, Anthony, Benedict, Colin, Daphne, Eloise, Francesca, Gregory, and Hyacinth, and headed by Violet, a widowed viscountess). Queen Charlotte crowns Daphne, the eldest daughter, the season’s “diamond,” making her the most sought-after maiden of the moment. Along with welcome attention, this gives her the onerous responsibility of making a match worthy of both the queen’s favor and her own affections.
Sex is as key to the spectacle as it is incidental to the story line. Virtually all the main characters are at it like undergrads on spring break in Cancún. There is almost nowhere they won’t do it: against a tree, on the stairs, on a ladder, on a desk, beneath the bleachers, or in the immaculately tended gardens. From time to time they even use a bed. There is oral sex, masturbation, a threesome, sex education (even as Daphne seeks a husband, it transpires she does not know about the birds and the bees), sexual assault, and an attempted abortion.
Season 1 charts Daphne’s fraught romance with the Duke of Hastings. Though they profess to despise each other, a fissile courtship ensues after they concoct a mutually beneficial pact to hoodwink high society. Daphne calculates that encouraging the belief that she’s already being pursued is her best hope of buying time to find the right match. Hastings—a gorgeous, brooding, Byronic figure—has no interest in marriage, but the prestigious title attached to such an Adonis makes the debutantes swoon. He believes that his only hope of avoiding the besotted hordes is if they think he is already attached. So the pair decide to pretend—including with their closest relatives—they are embroiled in a serious but yet-to-be-sealed courtship. Only the ruse works a little too well, and they fall in love with each other.
Season 2 starts with the beginning of the next year’s “marriage market” events. Daphne’s oldest brother, Anthony, the season’s most eligible bachelor, decides this is the year he shall take a bride. But a romantic connection couldn’t be further from his considerations, as he sets about interviewing the candidates for future Bridgerton matriarch with clinical rigor.
“Love is the last thing I desire,” he declares at a ball, describing his future wife in language a horse breeder might use to refer to a prize mare. “But if my children are to be of good stock, then their mother must be of impeccable quality. A pleasing face, an acceptable wit, genteel manners enough to credit a viscountess. It should not be so hard to find. And yet, the debutantes of London fall short at every turn.”
The rest of the season essentially tests this proposition, as Anthony is torn between his duty to marry a woman with the appropriate attributes and his barely repressed desire to give himself to a woman on whom he has developed a monumental crush. Unfortunately for him, those two women are related.
The Sharma sisters, Kate and Edwina, have arrived from India and, along with their mother, Lady Mary Sharma, are guests of Lady Danbury, the dowager godmother to Hastings from Season 1. Kate effectively acts as Edwina’s governess and has come only to secure her sister the marriage she deserves. Headstrong, sharp-tongued, and quick-witted, she insists she has no interest in finding a husband for herself—many consider her too old at 26 anyway.
Demure, accomplished, and intelligent, Edwina ticks all of Anthony’s boxes. He courts her determinedly, and she falls in love with him. Everyone up to Queen Charlotte herself agrees it’s a great match. There is only one dissenter: Kate, who overheard Anthony’s comments at the ball and was not impressed. “I take issue with any man who views women merely as chattels and breeding stock,” she tells him. “When you manage to find this paragon of virtue, whatever makes you think she will accept your suit?”
But Kate’s loyalties are divided: Not only does she believe Anthony is too arrogant; she also fancies the breeches off him. Anthony feels similarly, though it takes both a while to admit it to themselves, let alone each other. Several times—too often to be plausible—they are caught in romantic near misses with fingers touching, eyes locked, breathing into each other’s mouths, only to be interrupted or rein themselves in. At one point Kate clasps his hand to her breast and holds it there to prove she has not been stung by a bee—which, unless things have changed radically in terms of courtship in the last couple of centuries, is a pretty unambiguous play for a straight man’s attention.
Elsewhere, Queen Charlotte becomes obsessed with discovering the identity of Lady Whistledown, whose commentaries she finds increasingly impertinent, while Penelope tries to remain anonymous and her family, the Featheringtons, still struggle for money and respectability. The only really standout actor is Adjoa Andoh, who plays Lady Danbury—an omniscient elder and friend of the queen whose mixture of tough love, hard truths, strategic ploys, and playful manner are made credible by Andoh’s consistently robust performance.
That the Duke of Hastings, Queen Charlotte, and Lady Danbury are Black and the Sharma sisters South Asian are facts that do not intrude into the story line. Their presence is not entirely fanciful. Some Black people did make it into British high society at the time. It has been argued that the real Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III, had some African ancestry, through a branch of the Portuguese royal family who supposedly mixed with the Moors in the 13th century. After six centuries the phenotypic evidence would have been negligible. But according to the historian Mario De Valdes y Cocom—who has done more than any other to extol Charlotte’s African heritage—the royal physician described Charlotte as having “a true mulatto face,” while one prime minister wrote of the queen that “her nose is too wide and her lips too thick.”
Of course, there have been Black people in Britain since Roman times—even if they began arriving in significant numbers only in the 1950s. Initially, their presence usually centered around the ports of Cardiff (home of Shirley Bassey), Bristol (home of the slave importer Edward Colston, whose statue was torn down during the Black Lives Matter protests), Liverpool (home to the country’s oldest Black community), as well as London. They numbered in the hundreds during the 16th century, rising to 20,000 as the Atlantic slave trade took off, only to subside with abolition itself. Across Europe throughout this time, a handful of Black people made their way, through one fashion or another, into the elites. There was Juan Latino, of Ethiopian descent, embedded in the Spanish court in the 16th century; Joseph Boulogne, made a member of King Louis XV’s Royal Guard in the 18th century; and Abram Petrovich Gannibal, brought to Russia (probably from Cameroon) as a gift for Peter the Great in the late 18th century, eventually rising to become a military engineer, a nobleman—and the great-grandfather of Alexander Pushkin.
Few made it that far in Britain, but in literary classics set only slightly later, Black characters are scattered among the beau monde, usually coming from the colonies. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) includes the character Bertha Mason, a Creole from Jamaica described as having “dark” hair and a “discoloured,” “blackened” face—whose parents approved of her marriage to Edward Rochester because he was “of a good race.” Bertha, portrayed in bestial terms, is hidden from view as she rages with mental illness in the attic before throwing herself from a burning building. In William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1848), there is Rhoda Swartz, the “rich, woolly-haired mulatto” heiress from St. Kitts whom Mr. Osborne tries to force his son George to marry. George refuses: “I don’t like the colour, sir,” he says. “Ask the black that sweeps opposite Fleet Market, sir. I’m not going to marry a Hottentot Venus.”
Britain’s colonial relationship with India also produced a significant, if relatively small, Indian community in Britain long before the arrival of the post–World War II migrants. With a broader range of classes, including seafarers, scholars, and diplomats, there was less need for white patrons (though Queen Victoria’s favored attendant, Abdul Karim, became famous after a film about him, starring Ali Fazal and Judi Dench, was made in 2017). Indian maharajas even funded the sinking of wells in a range of British towns during the early 19th century. Their presence in high society is thus more plausible, if only as visitors.
But such Black characters did not—indeed, could not—exist in the number and rank suggested in Bridgerton, set less than a decade after the abolition of the slave trade. The creation of a diverse world in which race is not an issue is both one of executive producer Shonda Rhimes’s commercial superpowers and narrative kryptonite. There is a lucrative market, particularly on-screen, for the depiction of racial difference in the absence of racial inequality, which one can only assume will grow with the proliferation of global media platforms, like Netflix, that want to sell shows all over the world in which different peoples can see themselves represented. Sex Education, another Netflix original, which focuses on the sexual habits and anxieties in a high school located in the fictional rural English town of Moordale, has a notably multiracial cast. The show deals with issues of class, disability, sexual assault, transphobia, homophobia, sexism, and body shaming—pretty much everything, in fact, apart from race.
Rhimes’s other hit shows—Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder—have for the most part followed the same logic. “Grey’s Anatomy has differentiated itself by creating a diverse world of doctors—almost half the cast are men and women of color—and then never acknowledging it,” wrote the New York Times critic Matthew Fogel in 2005.
This omission, Rhimes explained to Broadcasting and Cable a year later, was deliberate. “I don’t think anybody is color-blind in this world. I think I’m a product of being a post-feminist, post-civil-rights baby born in an era after that happened, where race isn’t the only thing discussed. And I just felt like there’s something interesting about having a show in which your characters could just be your characters.”
This is problematic. It suggests that your characters live in a void in which a key determinant of their life chances is irrelevant: that they can either be themselves or have a racial identity—but not both. It reminds me of the crowd of Barack Obama supporters in South Carolina chanting “Race doesn’t matter!” after he beat Hillary Clinton in the primary there. It didn’t make sense, not only because they were in the only state that, at the time, still flew the Confederate flag from its capitol. But because if it really didn’t matter, then why shout about it in the first place? By the time Obama’s tenure was over, it was pretty clear that race did matter: not least because nine African Americans had been shot dead in a church in that very state by a young white supremacist. Race matters.
“The success of [Grey’s Anatomy] and of Rhimes as a producer,” argues Kristen J. Warner, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama, in a 2015 paper, “is tethered to the use of racialized bodies as signifiers of historical progress in the struggle of televisual racial representation, as well as undermining the diversity of those bodies through a laundering or whitewashing of social and cultural specificity.”
There is an important debate to be had that goes beyond popular television to the kind of diversity we’d like to have: one where the world looks different—or one where the society actually operates differently. But since this is fiction and not a documentary, it should also be stressed that Rhimes can create whatever world she pleases and is not bound by the constraints of social realism.
The world she creates in Bridgerton is not post-racial—after four years of Trump, a place where race no longer matters and people can just be themselves seems not hopeful but deluded. But, at first sight at least, it does pose as pre-racial: a society in which race was never an issue and people wouldn’t know any other way to be. The fact that slavery has only just been abolished and colonialism is in full throttle—meaning race was very much an issue—is a point for pedants and killjoys. A world where people are this handsome and life is this plush that has not been contaminated by “race” is too good to pass up.
However, what Rhimes can’t plausibly do is create a world in which racial difference has no meaning—only to then subject her creation to a racial critique. This is precisely what she does, twice, in Season 1, rendering the entire premise untenable.
First comes a conversation between Lady Danbury and Hastings in which she tries to convince him that romantic love has made “a new day to begin to dawn in this society.”
“Look at our queen. Look at our king,” she says, referring to Charlotte and George III, as though Charlotte were Nelson Mandela and Meghan Markle all rolled into one. “Look at their marriage…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.”
Hastings is not convinced. “He may have chosen his queen,” he replies, “and elevated us from novelties in their eyes to now dukes and royalty. But with that same whim he may just as easily change his mind. A mind that is hanging on by one very loose and tenuous thread.”
These “separate societies” are never mentioned again in the series—and we see no evidence of them. In the absence of any reference to or sign of an old day, this “new day” remains a peculiar abstraction.
The second time is when Baron Featherington attempts to persuade the Black boxer Will Mondrich to take a dive. “I know you have a fighting spirit, passed down by your father, no doubt: a soldier [who] managed to flee the colonies after serving in Dunmore’s regiment. Do you think he sought his freedom all for his future son to become some exhausted fighter, stumbling into the ring to put food on the table for his family?” Without any other mention of colonialism or racism, the reference simply does not make sense.
When it comes to gender, we are presented with the opposite narrative contradiction. Rhimes creates a world in which antiquated gender norms not only govern society but drive the story. Men pursue women, who literally drop their handkerchiefs and feign fainting so that they might be assisted or literally caught mid-swoon. For a woman, merely to be alone with a man without a chaperone is to risk disgrace. At one point, the brother of a fallen soldier who impregnated his girlfriend before going to war marries the girlfriend to preserve her honor. “You have no idea what it is to be a woman,” Daphne tells Anthony at another point. “What it might feel like to have one’s entire life reduced to a single moment. This is all I have been raised for. This is all I am. I have no other value. If I am unable to find a husband, I shall be worthless.”
But when the rules of such a society have not only been laid down but form the basis for the ensuing drama, you cannot then have a man tell a woman how to masturbate (possibly the worst case of mansplaining ever). Nor does it make sense, at the very end, to have Hastings in the room holding Daphne’s hand as she is giving birth—a practice still frowned upon in the PBS show Call the Midwife, set 150 years later. The problem here, once again, is not one of accuracy but of dramatic consistency. It is difficult to take their buttoned-up courtship seriously when Hastings has told Daphne, just a few episodes earlier “When you are alone, you can touch yourself…anywhere on your body, anywhere that gives you pleasure…. But especially between your legs.”
The second season avoids both such jarring commentaries and contradictions—and pretty much all of the sex. But it doesn’t replace them with much. Anthony is fond of Edwina and thinks she’ll make a good wife, while she is enamored with him. Given the prevailing culture, that’s as close to a love match as most are likely to get. Anthony and Kate, on the other hand, have barely had a civil conversation and have spent most of the time sparring. The downsides of consummating their infatuation grow with each episode. In a culture that sets so much store by propriety, pursuing their relationship is as impulsive and reckless a scenario as you’re likely to get. Since they are neither impulsive nor reckless, their mutual obsession is unsustainable.
The general issues of status, love, class, marriage, and gender—masculine arrogance and restraint pitted against feminine emotion and comportment—provide the essential ingredients to both seasons, as they do in almost every 19th-century literary classic, many of which have been made into TV dramas.
That’s also part of the problem. We have seen this show before, many times, only better. Indeed, the key elements of Bridgerton can be reduced to the single scene in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice where Mr. Darcy (Colin Firth) emerges dripping wet from Lyme Park lake in body-clinging linens and riding boots and bumps into a flushed Elizabeth Bennet (Jennifer Ehle) en route to Pemberley. (There is a moment in Season 2 where Anthony Bridgerton falls into a lake, only to be eye-humped by Kate and Edwina as he comes out. The sheer lack of subtlety in the scene nicely illustrates the point.)
Repression is a central element of the drama in both Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre. Seduction in these novels is a subtle, socially distanced affair. There may be cads and mistresses, damaged reputations, falls from grace, and dishonorable conduct—but all matters of direct sexual engagement are barely alluded to, let alone explicitly depicted. Britches remain firmly buckled; bodices remain securely bound. Happily for the novelist, the suggestion of, prelude to, and promise of sex is often more sensual than the act itself.
Besides explicit sex, what Bridgerton adds to the aesthetic is racial repression. Rhimes creates a world in which the historical crime of racism has been resolved, through a royal love match, and non-white people are fully integrated into the dominant classes. We find its modern iteration in the royal wedding between Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, which some commentators claimed illustrated just how far Britain had come racially—and which took place even as the Windrush scandal, in which thousands of elderly Caribbean citizens were deported or deprived of their citizenship, was unfolding. Bridgerton suggests that the only thing wrong with racial inequality is that non-white people are not allowed to share in the spoils—as though adding points to my IQ for having an English accent would be OK so long as they didn’t take them away for being Black.
It offers viewers a society in which color is segregated from race—so that things look different but remain the same. “There’s a model of diversity,” Angela Davis once told me, “as the difference that brings no difference and the change that brings no change.” For all the frock coats and corsets, bonking and balls, that’s precisely the kind of diversity we can do without.