[TW: Sexual abuse]
Lately it has seemed impossible to chat with other students about what’s kept us busy in lockdown without Bridgerton popping up. The period drama set in Regency era London has fuelled everyone’s Netflix addictions since it premiered last December, attracting millions of viewers with its escapist settings, steamy romance plots, and costumes as vibrant as they are wildly historically inaccurate (which I’ll admit bothers me a little bit). Bridgerton’s refreshingly diverse casting has resulted in a range of characters far more complex than those typically available for actors of colour in period dramas, and the subject of female autonomy in sexual relationships is, to begin with, handled with humour and heart. But for all its strong points, Bridgerton is by no means faultless.
Other viewers and I have taken issue with the way the show’s sixth episode includes a rape scene, only for the camera to cut and the matter to remain unaddressed. In the scene, Daphne and Simon are having sex, and she stops him from pulling out knowing that he does this because he does not want children. After watching this scene, I was shocked that more people were not talking about this. Why are scenes and suggestions of abusive behaviour often normalised onscreen to support romantic plotlines? And does the period drama genre, for all its quaint scenery and cosy dinner parties, romanticise a problematic past more than challenge it?
Before I discuss the sixth episode of Bridgerton, I should say that I am a huge fan of period dramas. However, we must be willing to criticise genres no matter how much of a sentimental attachment we have to them. So, before going into what the future of period drama could or should look like, I’ll pose the question: Why do we love period dramas so much? Many of the key attractions that draw us back to period dramas also feature in Bridgerton: strong heroines, compelling love stories, and the fact that it is strangely validating to bookworms to have our favourite novels celebrated by the wider viewing public.
One favourite of mine is the 2011 film adaptation of Jane Eyre (proof that period costumes can be both beautiful and historically accurate!) primarily because of the fantastic performance by Mia Wasikowska as Brontë’s strong titular heroine. There’s been a recent trend on YouTube where fashion history enthusiasts praise (and roast) period drama costumes based on historical accuracy. The queen of this trend is Karolina Żebrowska, whose content I cannot recommend enough. The 2004 televised adaptation of Gaskell’s North and South resulted in an increased interest in the original novel, largely due to the onscreen chemistry of the leads. 2019’s The Personal History of
David Copperfield, like Bridgerton, featured actors of colour playing lead roles to comic and emotive excellence, affirming that there’s no need for period drama to be whitewashed. There have been some wonderful queer period dramas in recent years too (Carol, The Favourite, and Dickinson, to name but a few). Nevertheless, we are yet to see a real departure from narratives strictly about white queer characters.
This brings us to the question: What is lacking in period dramas? What needs to change? Essentially, I think that creators need to approach past historical eras, particularly where discourses of sex and abuse are concerned, with far more sensitivity. I can’t help thinking that the problematic Bridgerton episode could have been salvaged so easily. The problem is that the rape scene isn’t treated like a rape scene; we’re just moved on to the next day and expected to see Daphne and Simon as a romantic pairing. As Izzy Schifano writes, ‘Male sexual assault is all too often ignored or not taken seriously.’
I would be intrigued to see if the show will open up a discussion about consent in the next season, but for now this mistake is one I can’t look past. For a show that gained attention for its progressive representation of sexuality, it is hugely disappointing that Bridgerton would suggest the message that sexual assault can be forgotten in an instant to facilitate romantic plotlines. If there’s any message that all television shows should suggest, regardless of genre, it should be this: experiences of sexual abuse are valid and both stories and wellbeing should not be swept aside for the sake of meeting our desires for romantic and digestible onscreen relationships.
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