When Bridgerton first premiered on Netflix in December of 2020, the show was an instant hit. In fact, it is still one of Netflix’s most successful shows since the streaming giant’s venture into the realm of film and television. Before Bridgerton was unseated by Squid Games, it set the record for Netflix’s top spot at the mark of 2021 as 82 million households around the world watched Bridgerton in its first 28 days.
However, with great popularity comes much scrutiny. Many viewers and TV critics rightfully noted the show’s initial lack of diversity regarding dark skin characters (specifically dark skin women) and wonky racial and color politics for a period piece set in 19th century England.
Yes, Bridgerton created a fictional world wherein racism and colorism don’t seem to exist (or at least these systems are not acknowledged) in old England. So much so that the queen of England herself—Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel)—is a biracial woman of color. All of which could be an interesting and, frankly, fun historical inaccuracy to explore if done right.
What kind of possibilities could we reimagine if English royalty supposed all people regardless of race are of relatively equal social status? However, the fantastical illusion of a colorblind England apparently only went so far.
In Bridgerton’s first season, the dark skin actresses the show cast as background characters seemed to merely decorate the setting. And the only dark skin female character to interact with the main cast, Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh), served only to uplift the characters around her while having little to no characterization of her own (and still doesn’t in season two).
This time around, however, Bridgerton has rectified the lack of dark(er) skin characters in the main cast with the addition of the Sharma family: eldest sister Kate (Simone Ashley), youngest sister Edwina (Charithra Chandran), and their mother Mary (Shelley Conn). In the show, the Sharma’s ventured to England from India to find Edwina a suitable husband, in hopes she’d have a chance at a more opportune life.
It was undoubtedly refreshing to see aspects of South Asian culture and traditions and Hindi terminology incorporated into a mainstream Netflix series. And it wasn’t just necessary but meaningful to see a dark skin South Asian woman loved unconditionally onscreen by her hero without question or doubt.
But it’s important we ask ourselves if our goal toward better representation was effectively fulfilled here given the show still has yet to reckon with its own confusing racial and color politics. To me, Bridgerton does its additional POC characters a disservice by portraying them through the same “color blind” lens that drew critique from season one.
Make no mistake, the show is capable of examining oppressive systems through their characters and does so often. For instance, Bridgerton frequently discusses the consequences of sexism; though, the show only really examines how patriarchy concerns the plight of (wealthy) white women. Notably, however, Kate Sharma’s actions and perspectives speak to a more specific facet of womanhood that inherently includes her race and nationality.
Kate doesn’t just have the burdening expectations of a woman, but of an elder daughter in a Brown family. The show’s failure to highlight, even in one conversation, Kate’s intersecting identities just feels incomplete. This last point also created shortfalls in season one. For example, not having any exploration or mention of race in Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) and Simon Basset’s (Regé-Jean Page) interracial marriage was simply unrealistic.
To have these characters who are in love truly know each other, Daphne and Simon’s differences and outlooks on race would’ve had to be discussed, even if briefly. Thus, the erasure of that kind of conversation leaves much to be desired from this coupling from a viewer’s perspective.
Similarly, there was no discussion of how race affected Marina Thompson’s (Ruby Barker) decisions and behavior as well as her social standing within the Featherington family. This caused Marina to come across as one-dimensional last season, even villainous and undeserving of empathy from the audience given some of her actions because the nuance needed to explain her behavior was missing.
So, ultimately, what do we expect when we ask for better diversity? Well to be understood. As pop-culture critic Zeba Blay writes in her book Carefree Black Girls, “Being seen is not a guarantee of being understood…Without understanding, there is no care, no protection, no consideration. People can look at you and instead of a person they can see a symbol…”
Meaning fictional media like Bridgerton must display the full characterization of their marginalized characters so viewers don’t simply see them as a ticked box. Rather, when given the fullness these characters deserve, the audience is better equipped to understand them and can empathize with these characters’ choices in spite of their flaws.
I’m a fan of the show, but it is admittedly frustrating to watch characters like Lady Danbury, Simon, Marina, and now Kate navigate Bridgerton’s awkward, half-hearted attempt at a color-blind society.
Despite how hard it might be for Bridgerton to talk about race, Kate deserved the acknowledgment of her whole identity this season. But we can only hope this won’t be the last time we see dark skin actresses in the main cast. So, hopefully, future seasons of the beloved Netflix series finally figures out what it is about race and color they want to say.
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This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Image Credits: Netflix.