Blackness, Dehumanized: A Black Feminist Analysis of ‘Bridgerton’

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Since its release on Christmas Day, Bridgerton has attracted international attention for its racial cosmopolitan reenactment of early nineteenth-century Britain. In its first four weeks, 63 million households viewed the joint Shonda Rhimes-Netflix venture, making the series one of the top five most-streamed in the streaming service’s history. A multicultural reimagining of Julia Quinn’s novel, the show pivots on the romantic journey between Daphne Bridgerton, a white woman, and Simon Bassett, a Black man the Duke of Hastings. Initially a farce to manipulate the disparaging writings of the anonymous gossip writer, Lady Whistledown, their courtship culminates in a loving marriage and the birth of a son. Bridgerton likely owes this popularity to its diverse cast. It comes to life through Black, white, and Southeast Asian actors’ portrayals of Regency-era British aristocrats. Except a brief mention of racialization prior to King George III’s marriage to a Black woman, Charlotte, Bridgerton is untethered from a historical past riddled with imperialism, slavery, and the circulation of racist ideologies. Thus, the series traffics in historical fantasy seeking to emulate the liberal politics of our present. However, instead of breaking down historical racial and gender formations that continue to dehumanize Black women and men today, Bridgerton reinforces them.

Even as affluent, titled members of the ton, the Black female characters function to define and accentuate white womanhood. Take, for example, Marina, the cousin residing with her relatives, the Featheringtons, as she and her cousins seek prospective suitors. Yet Marina’s pregnancy, confirmed soon after her arrival, disrupts these plans. Pregnant out of wedlock, Marina’s knowledge about sex reanimates the familiar, hypersexualized Jezebel trope. Her insight starkly contrasts the ignorance of the other unmarried debutantes, who wonder how Marina became pregnant. This illicit knowledge places Marina outside the category of woman. And she is punished for it. Exhausting all alternatives, including deceit and a failed attempt to terminate her pregnancy, Marina is compelled to enter a loveless marriage of convenience. Significantly, her storyline is the only representation of Black women’s courting experiences throughout the first season. She is also a character of Shondaland’s creation; Marina is not in Quinn’s book. That her storyline breathes life into the myth of hypersexual Black womanhood is unsettling.

Yet Jezebel is not alone, for Mammy follows her. While Bridgerton reimagines Julia Quinn’s romance novel through a liberal anti-racist lens, the Netflix series preserves and complicates the classic romance narrative arc of women enabling their lovers’ emotional developing. In fact, Daphne is the principal force behind healing Simon’s childhood trauma to make him emotionally available to her. However, she does not do this alone. Adjoa Andoh’s Lady Danbury serves as unofficial maternal figure in this venture, too, encouraging Simon to accept and reciprocate Daphne’s feelings. Aside from her close relationship to Simon, whom she reared, and his late mother, Lady Danbury is a mystery, possessing no desires or past beyond her connection to Simon. She exists to facilitate the loving, healing relationship between Daphne and Simon. It is important to note that this is not the function Quinn’s Lady Danbury plays. In the book, Simon’s nurse assumes the motherly role. Showrunners exercised creative license in limiting the Black Lady Danbury to a mothering vehicle.

Given these racial-gender dynamics that affirm Daphne and deny Marina and Lady Danbury, the interactions between Daphne and Simon become unsettling. Their courtship and Simon’s instrumental role in facilitating Daphne’s sexual awakening reflect a strain of Black masculinist liberatory praxis that includes unfettered sexual access to white women. Yet, here, too, this gendered imaginary defers to the exigencies of white womanhood. By episode six, Daphne begins to suspect that Simon’s inability to procreate is actually a refusal to do so. Testing her suspicions during a sexual encounter, she reverses position, thereby denying Simon the pull-out method. In doing so, Daphne’s hopes deny her lover consent.

These representations are nothing new. Black feminist scholarship across disciplines has elucidated the connection between the ungendered flesh of Black women and the gendering of white women. These ungendering practices rendered Black women vulnerable to violence and criminalization while denying them the patriarchal protections extended to their white counterparts. 1 Others have highlighted how the category of woman is not only a racially exclusive gendered embodiment. It is also productive ground for white supremacy, enabling the “the relations of enforced dominance and subordination” between white women and nonwhite men. 2 Indeed, the racial and gender formations animating Bridgerton are historical processes preserving white supremacy while simultaneously peddling a historical fantasy.

In these ways, Bridgerton caters to liberal white hopes at the expense of portraying Black humanity onscreen. This approach resembles our social reality. For one, the dehumanization of Black women via ungendering persists. Tweets addressing Stacey Abrams as “Fat Albert,” and Anjanette Young’s haunting description of the police who invaded her home as not “car[ing] anything about me as a woman or a female” testify to this enduring practice. Black Lives Matter protests this past summer displayed similar gendered means of dehumanizing Blackness. A Google search reveals that many noticed the trend of white women denouncing racism while proclaiming their reverence for Black male sexual prowess, which some Black men actively endorsed. The perpetuation of such tropes resembles Hortense Spillers’s theorization of pornotroping in which the “captive body reduces to a thing, becoming being for the captor,” in this case the racialized libidinal desires of white women. 3

As historian Marlene Daut cautions, we should not demand that our fictional entertainment accurately detail what really happened. Like other fictional genres, historical fantasy can offer the possibility of escape. In this vein, Bridgerton succeeds in spades. At first glance, it offers a lighthearted romance story including charming characters, easily-defeated villains, and an inevitable happy ending. In a year that exacted immeasurable loss and isolation for many, that objective is a worthy one. Still, the show achieves its aims by framing humanity around whiteness, once again placing Eurocentric capitalist fantasies at the root of historical narratives. Bridgerton’s showrunners did not have to give into this impulse. One of the advantages of fantasy genres is the ability to erect imagined worlds that defy the laws and norms of our own. Yet, Marina, Lady Danbury, Simon, and Daphne show that Bridgerton has no investment in that political project at all.

  1. Representative texts include Deborah Gray White, Ar’n’t I a Woman: Female Slaves in the Plantation South (New York: Norton, 1985); Marisa Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and The Archive (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2016); Talitha LeFlouria: Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015); Sarah Haley, No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and Jim Crow Modernity (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016); C. Riley Snorton, Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).
  2. For quote, see Sylvia Wynter, “Beyond Miranda’s Meaning: Un/Silencing the ‘Demonic Ground’ of Caliban’s ‘Woman,’ The Routledge Reader in Caribbean Literature, ed. Alison Donnell and Sarah Lawson Welsh (New York: Routledge, 1996), 382.
  3. For quote, see Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17, no. 2 (Summer 19987), 67.
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Shaun Armstead

Shaun Armstead is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. Her dissertation, “Imagined Solidarities: Black Liberal Internationalism and the National Council of Negro Women’s Journey from Afro-Asian to Pan-African Unity, 1935 to 1975,” charts the understudied international activities of one of the largest African American women’s organizations in U.S. history. She considers their efforts to unite with women of color outside the western world to reimagine liberal internationalism as an anti-racist, anticolonial, and antisexist global order. Her work is at the intersection of histories on women’s internationalism, Black internationalism, and Global South Feminisms during the twentieth century.

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