Bridgerton: The good, bad, and (what should be) scandalous
You couldn’t change this one thing, could you?
To say that I put off watching Bridgerton would be putting it lightly. After seeing it touted as a far more sexualised approach to its admittedly very overcrowded genre I was intrigued, and set about looking for a quick overview of the series before I gave it a watch.
My search led me to discover several things. Firstly, that it was based on the novel The Duke and I by author Julia Quinn, released in 2000. Secondly, that it featured a far more diverse cast than was typical for a Regency-set drama. Thirdly, that it contained a depiction of an incident that equalled to full-blown sexual assault, with all the discomfort and absolutely none of the consequences.
This being something I find unforgivable, I decided to avoid it, even though Netflix’s ‘99% match’ notification sat teasingly in the corner, reminding me that in many other ways, the show was right up my alley. Period dramas are certainly a big weakness of mine, which only made the scenes I’d read about even more of a kick in the teeth.
As is obvious, I didn’t stick to my resolve. I eventually succumbed to my curiosity, not even bothering to click on the show itself and instead going straight to Netflix’s ‘Play Something’ button, with the full confidence that it’d take me directly to Bridgerton. And lo and behold, there it appeared on my screen, as I knew it would. I settled into my armchair, ready to find out whether or not the show would be exactly what I expected.
In many ways, it was. I wasn’t surprised to find myself thoroughly enjoying the first few episodes; many of the characters were charming, the dialogue formal yet accessible, the interpersonal relationships varied and compelling in all manner of ways, all neatly packaged in a show that was above all, fun.
I tried not to let it irk me that the heroine herself was the least interesting of the entire Bridgerton clan, and not on account of her very traditional femininity either. The Dowager Viscountess is just as feminine as her eldest daughter, yet watching her converse with other characters was engaging, especially in her quest to keep the abhorrent Lord Berbrooke away from Daphne (who tries to assault her, interestingly enough, something that the show has no issue rightly framing as wrong). Violet Bridgerton, along with those such as Penelope Featherington, Marina Thompson and Siena Rosso, to name but a few, are good examples of equally feminine women who actually have a character to speak of. It appears that being white, young, slender, rich and conventionally feminine can allow one to get away with all manner of sins, and as will be evident later, a lack of compelling personality is one of the lesser of such a number.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed the screen time given to the older women of the cast, with Violet Bridgerton, Lady Danbury, Portia Featherington and Queen Charlotte all possessing very distinct and memorable personalities, bouncing off other members of the cast with no shortage of charm, deliberate or no. Danbury, in particular, was especially enjoyable for the most part, with things like this coming out of her mouth on a semi-regular basis:
“I knew I would have to step into the light someday, and I could not very well be frightened. So instead, I made myself frightening. I sharpened my wit, my wardrobe and my eye, and I made myself the most terrifying creature in any room I entered.”
Words to live by if you ask me. A speech I would’ve loved to have delivered to me at some point, during moments in which I became increasingly withdrawn growing up. I should mention that I take ‘terrifying’ in this instance to mean that she commands respect everywhere she goes, as she certainly possesses one hell of a gentle streak, particularly towards our charming male lead Simon, Duke of Hastings.
Someone who I was surprised to end up appreciating as much as I did was eldest Bridgerton brother Anthony, who grew on me like a kind of pompous, self-righteous disease. I imagine this was due, at least partly, to the narrative’s willingness to admit his (many) flaws and shortcomings, unlike the approach taken to his younger sister Daphne. And again, therein lies one of the show’s most glaring problems, and the root of something much worse.
“Flawless, my dear,” says Queen Charlotte, speaking to Daphne during the very first episode. It’s an opinion shared by many other characters, for reasons that are never actually made clear. She can play the piano well, which is nice, not that we ever hear her speak about music in any meaningful capacity. She’s a talented dancer, not that she ever really talks about that either. In a show full of genuinely personable female characters, it seems a bizarre decision to award the personality of a nicely scented dishcloth to the protagonist, of all people. I’m frankly more interested in the many pigeons I see on my walks than I ever was in Daphne. Younger sister Eloise is quite right to be irritated by the notion that she’s simply well-loved just for being pretty: if only the narrative saw fit to prove her wrong in any capacity by actually giving Daphne a compelling character to speak of.
“It must be taxing,” says Eloise, speaking to her elder sister at the end of episode two. “What?” Daphne asks. “The game of pretend that you feel you must endlessly maintain,” Eloise clarifies. At this point I was hopeful, wondering whether there were hidden depths to Daphne we hadn’t seen yet, past the persona of the perfect Regency lady occasionally peppered with the odd Feisty™ line. Yet as the show wore on, it became more obvious that there was nothing else to her, with Eloise even thanking her ‘for being so perfect’ during the very last episode. Certainly, the longing looks between Simon and Daphne are convincing in their own way, but I’d put such success down to the beautifully shot scenes and natural charm of the leading man, as opposed to Daphne being interesting in her own right.
The closest she ever gets to becoming a truly enjoyable character is in the first half of episode three, which is the only time the show properly sells the bond of friendship between Simon and Daphne. “Is my general ready for battle?” she asks as her faux-suitor approaches. “I was born ready,” he answers, inspiring a chuckle from Daphne. Things continue in this vein until the newly arrived Prince Friedrich escorts Daphne away for a dance, leaving Simon smiling as she looks back at him. The show does nothing so bold as to deliberately introduce a flaw for Daphne, but the charming quips she exchanges with Simon at least serve to actually provide the slightest reason as to why he finds her so compelling, aside from her being pretty. Unfortunately, this added dimension to her evaporated as soon as it appeared.
That’s not to say she isn’t a deeply flawed woman. On the contrary, she’s among the most flawed characters in the entire show and commits one of its most abhorrent acts, not that it’s ever presented as such. Daphne Bridgerton can do very little wrong, she’s the beautiful diamond of the season, of course, and all her mistakes are the result of only the very best intentions. Which brings me to that pivotal scene I was so appalled by, a disgust I felt before I’d even seen it.
Due to a traumatising childhood and abusive father, brought on at least in part by said father’s lofty and ruthless expectations of his only son and heir, Simon is resolved to never have children of his own and tells his father so when the latter is on his deathbed, vowing to rob him of the legacy that he so cruelly demanded. I don’t think this spiteful vow is as irrational as the show likes to paint it as, especially since it’s never particularly clear whether Simon desperately wants children of his own and is held back by his stubbornness, or whether he’s perfectly content to live life without them, indulging any fatherly tendencies with the younger Bridgerton siblings and any eventual nephews or nieces from the rest of Daphne’s large family. Apparently, it ends up being the former, but since it’s so wrapped up in Daphne’s victim-blaming and self-pity, it becomes rather difficult to see clearly, let alone stomach.
Speaking of things difficult to stomach, the leadup to the scene in question is nothing short of chilling. The eerie music, the dark corridors, Daphne’s face of resolve as she thinks about what she’s about to do. That look on her face is one of the worst parts of all; it’s so premeditated, so calculated in her utter disregard for Simon’s autonomy, her only thoughts being those of self-pity and perceived betrayal that she throws back at Simon after he rightly asks “How could you?”. “How could I? How could I!?” she answers, placing all blame entirely on the man she’s just assaulted.
I think of a conversation I had with a friend recently, in which we spoke of an idea of a plotline that would utterly replace the rape scene at the end of episode six, and the fact that it would feasibly change nothing else about the show’s remaining storyline demonstrates just how unnecessary the assault was to the plot in the first place. Simply put, the idea would be that Simon’s trusty pull-out method would fail him, leaving Daphne shocked and confused to find herself with child, having been under the impression that he couldn’t have children due to a physical problem as opposed to a personal decision. She would then have that fateful conversation with her maid and finally learn what exactly causes a woman to become pregnant, and at long last realises why Simon had been pulling out the entire time. Feeling betrayed, she would be conflicted over her perceptions of Simon’s attitude towards their marriage and unborn child, just as she is in the show.
Whether that alteration is enough to make her just as sympathetic as Simon is another matter, but pretty much anything would be more sympathetic than what she does in their bedroom that night. Furthermore, the show’s framing of her being a wronged party would actually have a chance at some weight, and the idea that their fleeting separation was primarily a matter of tragic miscommunication would be far more believable.
The notion that what Daphne does to Simon is comparable to his evasiveness is utterly absurd and in many ways, genuinely sickening, and I wonder again what possessed the staff of this show to look at this part in their script and think it was a good idea. The fact that the scene was ‘toned down’ somewhat (ie Simon wasn’t drunk, as he is in the novel) indicates that the show’s writers were well aware of the controversial nature of such a scene, and for the life of me I cannot comprehend why they didn’t remove it entirely, in favour of the kind of conflict that I’ve already suggested. It’s even more egregious considering that the show diverts from the book in many other ways, most notably in the introduction of the entire subplot between Anthony and Siena, the creation of characters such as Henry Granville, and the expansion of the other sibling’s roles in a story that was initially far more focused on Daphne and Simon alone. Simon himself is also a much nicer person in the show than he is in the novel, with such claims that he ‘owns her’ thankfully being nowhere to be found. Which begs the question; if Simon’s character was rightly altered to be more sympathetic to the audience of 2020, why wasn’t Daphne’s? One of the show’s greatest strengths; the fact that it wears its anachronisms proudly on its sleeve to shamelessly appeal to a modern audience, also serves as a brush to damn it with. I can only think it a callous and uncaring approach to rape committed against men, a matter made even more damning in this instance when you consider that it’s a white woman assaulting a black man, something that Ruth Terry talks about in greater detail, explaining the issue far better than I, a white woman, ever could.
All ends happily ever after for Daphne, of course. She gets her dear wish of children, her desire for an (unwarranted) apology from Simon, and the love and respect of those around her. All while being hailed as the perfect sister, the perfect mother, the perfect wife.
The final scene of episode six ends with the words of our narrator, Lady Whistledown, writing about the scandal involving Marina Thompson and Colin Bridgerton, but these last few lines are spoken over footage of Simon and Daphne, alone in their respective beds:
Desperate times may call for desperate measures, but I would wager many will think her actions beyond the pale. Perhaps she thought it her only option, or perhaps she knows no shame. But I ask you, can the ends ever justify such wretched means?
This is the only hint the show gives that Daphne may have done something wrong, and serves as proof once again that the writers knew exactly what they were doing, they just ultimately decided that yes, apparently the ends can indeed justify such wretched means. As with my decision to put off watching this show, to say that I passionately and unequivocally disagree would be putting it lightly.
To put it not-so-lightly: Can the ends ever justify such wretched means? No, they damn well can’t.