A Double Hot Take On Bridgerton, Race & Romance

Photo: Courtesy of netflix.
This post contains spoilers for Bridgerton Season 1 and is based on the Netflix series alone, not the books. 
Bridgerton’s elevator pitch goes like this: Gossip Girl meets Downton Abbey, or Jane Austen with some Black people. It’s an easy sell for Black women who love all of the above and have unwavering faith in Shonda Rhimes. The Regency-era romance is the first in Rhimes’ major deal to bring original Shondaland content to Netflix, and we were hooked from the trailer alone —  our expectations were as high as Queen Charlotte’s hair. 
At first glance, Netflix and Bridgerton’s choice to cast Black actors as characters written as white people in its source material (Regé-Jean Page plays romantic lead Simon, Duke of Hastings, who is white in the Bridgerton book series by Julia Quinn) harkens back to 1997’s Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, in which the cast was made up of multiple different races whose ethnicities held no bearing on the plot, or on their familial ties. It gave a magical twist to the term 'colour-blind casting'. Cinderella existed in an alternate universe where Brandy could be a princess, and Victor Garber and Whoopi Goldberg could procreate to make a Filipino Prince Charming (Paolo Montalban). The Bridgerton books by Quinn (who has a sketchy track record when it comes to commenting on diversity) don’t tackle race at all. Plus, most 19th century period dramas are overwhelmingly white, so the Netflix series wanted to change that. But its creator and showrunner, Rhimes’ protege Chris Van Dusen, balked at the idea that the series exists in a fantastical colour-blind realm in an interview with The New York Times
 “That would imply that colour and race were never considered when color and race are part of the show,” Van Dusen explained.
“There’s a difference between showing brown skin onscreen and representing brown people onscreen,” Page chimed in.
There is a difference, but only when it's done with care and intention. (Spoiler alert: season one fails at this, but the show does have potential.) In addition to being entertainment journalists, we are also self-described Shonda stans who love romance and Regé-Jean Page. But we also love nuanced stories about Black women and Black love. So, does it live up to the hype? We’ve been rage-DMing about this show for weeks, so we decided to get together to go deep discussing what we loved — and kind of hated — about Bridgerton. 
What was your overall reaction to Bridgerton
Kathleen Newman-Bremang: I was hype for this show, and mostly, I enjoyed it. I mainlined the entire thing in one day, but my overall feeling is disappointment. I love a period piece; Belle is one of my all-time favourite movies, and Alyssa Cole is one of my favourite authors. I haven’t read Bridgerton, but I love romance novels set in this era, and I especially love a period piece that we rarely get to see on television: one starring non-white people. But after watching it, I think this show is a perfect reminder of the fact that representation won’t save us. Just sprinkling some light-skinned Blackness in there isn’t enough. 
Ineye Komonibo: It was fun in a way because I, too, love a good old-timey kind of show. And Regé [Jean Page] is very fine, so obviously I was into that. But I’m also in that space where I watch anything — TV, film — and think, Where the Black people at? I was initially excited to see that there were Black characters in the show, but then I realised that most of them had zero storyline. So as the episodes went on, and the storylines got more “developed”, I kind of divested from it emotionally. 
KNB: It’s romantic. It’s horny. I think they’re banking on the fact that this show is a diverse period drama, and people are so deprived of this genre. While I was watching it, I was thinking, Oh, white people are going to love this.

Bridgerton did a lot of hinting or winking at race without actually ever going there. It was almost like they were scared to say it out loud.

Ineye Komonibo
The show hinges on Simon and Daphne’s relationship. First of all, did you believe it? 
KNB: This was the most disappointing part of the show for me because a show like this hinges on the chemistry of the main couple. Daphne is just the most basic and boring human. Simon is obviously a godlike specimen of a man, but I wasn’t feeling the desire between them — I was not feeling the burn. When Simon says, “I burn for you” and Daphne replies, “I burn for you,” we, the audience, are supposed to be swooning in that moment. We’re supposed to be thinking that finally this palpable chemistry has come to a head. As much as I was into that scene in theory, in practice, it just wasn’t giving me what it should have given. I was like, Where’s the sauce?  
IK: Simply put, no. Daphne is not interesting enough. Simon has the capacity to get there but, again, the writing needs to take it further. There was something that was missing from him, and she just didn’t have...anything. I think the show relied a lot on the setting, the scenery, and the overall design of it to make these people look interesting so they didn’t have to write them in an interesting way. We were just supposed to care about them just because they looked pretty. Unfortunately, I wasn’t rooting for Simon and Daphne at all, and I honestly even hoped that there was going to be a random third person who was going to come in and really raise the stakes for their relationship. I don’t think I’ve ever rooted against a main couple like I did during Bridgerton. They needed some of that Scandal spice! 
KNB: Ineye — you are spicy. I would love to see you in Bridgerton, but you are a dark Black woman with a personality, and there’s apparently no room for you on this show. Like every other Netflix show, the only Black leads allowed are light-skinned. Their colourism problem is exhausting. 
Shondaland chose to make the central relationship an interracial one when that’s not how it plays out in the books. How did they handle it? 
KNB: I am in an interracial relationship. My partner is white. And I’m okay with not seeing Black and white relationships depicted on television right now because we’ve seen it. We saw it on Scandal, How To Get Away With Murder, and now there’s Mixed-ish and that random Bob Loves Abishola show. We don’t have enough depictions of Black love on television or even of interracial relationships that don’t centre whiteness. But if you are going to give us this type of relationship, then let’s make it real. It’s a Black man and a white woman, which we know historically is a loaded combination. Daphne is supposed to be the catch of the season, and it’s a Black man who gets to court her. There’s even this whole fight about how Daphne’s brother Anthony doesn’t think Simon is good enough for her, but it’s supposedly only because he sleeps around. There’s no acknowledgement that maybe her brother is a little racist and that it’s possible he doesn’t want her to date Simon because he’s a Black man. I’m not saying to make the brother a bigot, but at least acknowledge the possibility. To me, that’s a huge blindspot. 
If you’re going to do it, you have to give us actual conversations that would happen between people in interracial relationships. You have fucking hard conversations, especially in the beginning. You talk about race. You point out the other person’s blindspots. So it bothered me for Simon and Daphne to be the central relationship of the show and the one that we’re in the weeds with, digging in about their differences and listening to them fight about how they are going to move forward as a married couple but have race be completely ignored. 
IK: Maybe Netflix and Shondaland were scared of making Bridgerton a super sociopolitically charged show. But you don’t have to make the characters racist to acknowledge race. That’s where the nuance comes in. What if people in town are taken aback when they see Simon, not just because he’s handsome, but because he’s handsome, rich and Black? Just give us something to even slightly acknowledge that he’s Black in this world where most of the other people of his status are not. There are ways to do it without breaking out into a race war. 
KNB: Exactly. I think the default in Hollywood is that a show with Black people not only has to be a show about race, it has to be a show about racism. Or if it’s going to represent the Black experience, it’s going to be all about death and violence. In reality, we live somewhere in the middle. Black joy exists. Black love exists

I think the default in Hollywood is that a show with Black people not only has to be a show about race, it has to be a show about racism. Or if it’s going to represent the Black experience, it’s going to be all about death and violence. In reality, we live somewhere in the middle. Black joy exists. Black love exists.

Kathleen Newman-Bremang
Let’s talk about the Black women of Bridgerton and how they are depicted in general. What are you thoughts on Marina (Ruby Barker), the Featheringtons’ pregnant cousin?
IK: She’s not memorable. Even if she has a backstory, you don’t really care about it because her whole story is being pregnant out of wedlock. No personality, no character development — just vibes. But what if the Featherington dad’s brother married a Black woman or had a baby with a Black woman on the side and that, in addition to being pregnant, is why Marina was sent to live with her well-off white cousins where she is treated like a second-class citizen? See, I just made that whole backstory for her! Instead, Bridgerton says No, she’s just pregnant outside of marriage. That’s basically all they gave us. 
KNB: I was rooting for Marina just because I root for Black girls in whatever show I’m watching, but she also almost becomes a villain; we aren’t supposed to root for her. We’re supposed to feel bad for Penelope and the fact that this bitch is trying to marry her crush/best friend under false pretences. You also are supposed to feel bad for Colin because he just loves her blindly. They’ve set it up so that her entire personality is that she is pregnant, and she’s the villain because of that fact. 
IK: I even thought that I might have missed an episode, because the turn from Marina being reluctant to participate in Lady Featherington’s scheme to her being the bad guy was so quick. All of a sudden, she started to be so ruthless and have this very chaotic energy. Again, this was a perfect opportunity to talk about race. There’s already a stigma around being pregnant, and on top of that, she’s the only Black person in this white family. They sort of alluded to this when Marina said, “You don’t know what it’s like” to her cousin Penelope (Nicola Coughlan), but she never explains what that reality is. Bridgerton did a lot of hinting or winking at race without actually ever going there. It was almost like they were scared to say it out loud. Just tell us! 
Marina wouldn’t be a villain or an antagonist; she would just be a woman whose circumstances and station in life — a direct consequence of her race — made her into a person who couldn't afford to be more concerned about white feelings than her own survival. 
What about Queen Charlotte and Lady Danbury? 
KNB: They are such minor, inconsequential characters. Other than some small great moments and a couple of good monologues, they didn’t have interior lives. They existed for other characters. The Queen herself seemed to exist just to have that scene of Daphne and Simon appealing to her for their wedding, and Lady Danbury exists to prop up Simon. That was it.
IK: Lady Danbury was definitely giving me magical negro vibes. “I am the magical, all-knowing person who is going to guide you along your journey and give you wisdom.” But she should be a whole person. She was very close to Simon’s mom before she died, and she knows Simon’s dad. What’s her story? Why does she have all the tea? How did she get so high up in society? The Queen also had some moments because there was clearly something going on with the King, but the plot would just barely touch on it before redirecting us back to this couple no one cares about.
KNB: I think I also wanted what this genre does so well  — the yearning, the angst, the love  — for any of the Black women characters. Even with Marina when Colin is loving her, we don’t see a lot of them together. We get him telling other people he loves her, but we don’t get a lot of that yearning on screen, that horniness from them in the same room. And the older Black women get none of that. I think they thought they did enough just by having them there. 
There’s a scene between Simon and Lady Danbury where they talk about why they’re the only Black royals. She says, “Look at our Queen, look at our King. Look at their marriage, look at everything it is doing for us, what it is allowing us to become. We were two separate societies, divided by colour until a king fell in love with one of us.” What did you think of that scene? 
KNB: Simon barely acknowledges what she says and just moves on, and then it’s never spoken of again. It felt really against what they were giving us for the rest of the show, which was that race doesn’t exist in this world. It’s also a very “be grateful to white people” and “love can conquer racism” sentiment which feels weird, especially since it’s the only thing ever said about their Blackness. The fact that this scene is there, and that the showrunner says he wanted to make race a part of this world though he absolutely did not is frustrating. It felt like they gave a little tease just to say that they did it. If the writers read this, they might be like, “But we did acknowledge it!” 
IK: Though brief, that recognition really should have changed the whole universe. If people in this world know that race actually exists, that should lend to a certain type of character development in the plot. Think of Simon and his beef with his dad and his hatred of his family name. If he knows that he’s Black, then that knowledge should lead to a pivotal understanding of his circumstances. The way his dad acted may have been due to the burden of being the only Black duke in the kingdom, as far as we know. That conversation should have been clearer, but it also should have had more of an impact on Simon. It should have made him more aware of his identity, and that would have had such a powerful impact on the way he navigated the world. 
KNB: It would be more interesting if Simon comes to the revelation that he wants kids because he realises what his dad was trying to say: “Listen, we have to be twice as good in this world because they’re already going to judge you unfairly as a Black kid, as a Black man, as a Black duke. You have to be better than everyone else, and that is why I pushed you so hard.” 
This is a Shondaland production, the first in her Netflix deal. How’s her reputation and resumé when it comes to representation on screen?
KNB: For a really long time, I thought that Shonda was doing a good job with representation. In Miranda Bailey and Cristina Yang on Grey’s Anatomy, I saw women of colour depicted on screen in ways I never had before. Then with Scandal, we saw a Black woman running shit on TV like we’d never seen in Olivia Pope, and that show has some great commentary on race. But when there was barely a Black love story in sight, I started to think, Oh, there may be a blindspot there. Aside from some side plots and one exception in Bailey and Ben on Grey’s, Black love is not something that Rhimes seems to care about. 
IK: I think it’s more of an indictment on the industry and the fact that there is just one Black woman who is this much of a titan of television. Automatically, people expect her to represent us in a certain way, but that’s just one of the pitfalls of being the only one in the room. You have the responsibility to put the team and the culture on your back. 
Bridgerton is a love story with several key things missing that could have added some necessary texture to it and made it something that people could really be invested in. Presumably, as a producer, Shonda allowed or at least signed off on those things to not be included in the plot.
KNB: As we’re talking, I’m wondering if we're asking too much of this show. Maybe we are. But Bridgerton definitely fell short considering that both of us wanted more from it. You expect more from something you love, and you’re more critical of things you love. That’s the energy I’m bringing. 
IK: Part of our job is to watch it critically. It’s supposed to be entertainment, and it’s supposed to be fun, but the representation aspect does matter a lot, too. There is no perfect show, but I think that as we grow, we understand that people who are creating content have to be a lot more intentional. We have to move past surface-level diversity.
Bridgerton is now available for streaming, only on Netflix.

More from TV

R29 Original Series