There were several things I liked about Netflix's Bridgerton: The inclusion of a racially diverse cast; Daphne’s (Phoebe Dynevor) discovery of her own sexual pleasure; her partner, the Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page) frequently asking for consent; and, of course, the Gossip Girl-style narration by Julie Andrews. But there were blind spots, too; colourism and a consequence-free rape scene were just two things that left even an impressed viewer feeling a little uncomfortable. Add in the palpable lack of queer characters, and it’s hard not to consider whether Bridgerton is really as progressive as it makes itself out to be.
Shonda Rhimes’ first Netflix project is based on the Bridgerton Series, a collection of eight novels by writer Julia Quinn. First published in 2000, with seven books following through 2006, each novel focuses on the love life and nuptials of one of the eight Bridgerton siblings. (Quinn later expanded the Bridgerton universe through sequels and prequels.) First up is the beautiful Daphne Bridgerton (played in the series by Phoebe Dynevor), the eldest Bridgerton daughter and diamond of the ton. In order to appear more desirable to a sea of competitive suitors, Daphne begins a fake courtship with the Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page), aka a “rake,” aka a 19th-century fuckboy. But in cinematic fashion, the two soon discover that they actually burn for one another, leading to marriage and the tantalising sex scenes that the show is now famous for.
Nevertheless, while the initial trailer for the show teased a gay sex scene that suggested we could expect some queer plotlines, Bridgerton is practically void of any LGBTQ+ narratives. There was certainly potential: When Benedict (Luke Thompson), the second oldest brother, meets Henry Granville (Julian Ovendon), a famous artist in London, there is inarguable chemistry between them. Benedict, who struggles with his role in society as the “spare,” is both intrigued by and attracted to Henry’s libertine lifestyle. Henry takes a liking to Benedict, inviting the latter to his “art parties,” where the models are nude and the wine flows like the river Thames. For a while, I thought this was the beginning of an illicit affair: Benedict’s introduction to a much gayer world outside the Bridgerton family.
But Benedict eventually finagles his way into a threesome with two women, leaving me (and others) wondering if we had totally misread any potential queerness. The trailer’s gay sex scene, it turns out, was between Henry and Lord Wetherby, a character so minor that he scarcely has a line. Yes, Henry Granville is a queer character. But so far, he appears to be Bridgerton’s only queer character. (Save, of course, for the silent Wetherby.)
In another world, the show might have used Henry’s parties as an opportunity for Benedict to explore his sexuality. After all, Benedict is the second oldest brother and possesses none of the societal expectations that burden the eldest Bridgerton, Anthony, therefore allotting him a bit more freedom that would have been interesting to see onscreen. But instead, Benedict begins a relationship with the town’s dressmaker, Madame Delacroix (Kathryn Drysdale), a choice that seems random and half-baked. Sure, he’s still breaking some societal rules by carrying on with a “commoner,” but Anthony’s secret relationship with an opera singer demonstrates that this is nothing out of the ordinary for wealthy men of the Regency.
Though there aren’t any gay storylines in the source material, part of the beauty of a book-to-TV translation is that the showrunners have the opportunity to make a good story even better, and more relevant. (Little Fires Everywhere is a good example of this.) Benedict’s novel, An Offer From a Gentleman, consists of a Cinderella-esque plot where Benedict falls in love with a housemaid. And though the intermingling of social class is an interesting premise, it’s not exactly unexplored territory. A version of this same story in which Benedict explores his sexuality would be an opportunity for Bridgerton to earn its progressive credentials. After all, the showrunners have already strayed from the source material to make the show more racially diverse — why not go all the way and strive for sexual diversity as well?
Another opportunity for Bridgerton to explore queerness in its main cast is through Eloise (Claudia Jessie), the second oldest Bridgerton daughter. Similar to Benedict, Eloise resents the expectation to adhere to rigid social obligations, but even more so, because she’s a woman and her options are to either A) get married, or B) live alone with her mother forever. (No wonder she smokes so many cigarettes.)
Eloise’s journey seems to be focused more on finding herself than finding a mate (she’ll do anything to prevent making her debut), but her non-traditional aspirations make her very relatable to Bridgerton’s queer audience. If love and sex do end up becoming priorities for Eloise, why not present her with non-hetero options, even if that means straying from Quinn’s original plot? This would create the opportunity for the audience to really understand what it might have been like to be queer during a time when it could literally put you in jail.
I’m not saying that every show needs a queer storyline, but if Bridgerton is making sexual discovery one of its themes, and includes a whopping set of eight children, why not make one (or two) of them fall outside the binary? What if Benedict’s threesome had included a man? What if Eloise Bridgerton, who abhors the idea of marriage, comments on the Regency’s dependency on heterosexual relationships? Why not include some main characters who are curious, questioning, or at least engage in same-sex affairs? While it may not be accurate to Quinn’s original series, it is accurate to life.
The good news is that we’re only one season down and season 2 with a new female lead, Simon Ashley will have more stories to tell. Like Eloise, we’re ready for something that breaks the rules.