The Ruling Class
‘Queen Charlotte’ and ‘The Great’ offer very different takes on royalty and romance
Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story has taken the Netflix charts by storm. With a commanding 148 million hours viewed in just its first four days of availability, the show proves the continued popularity of one of the odder niche genres of our time: high-society period romance dramas with interracial casting.
But in a equally bizarre irony, this iteration of the Bridgerton extended universe came out in the same month as the third season of The Great on Hulu, another 19th-century style high-society romance drama set in the 18th century that could almost read as a parody – if the shows didn’t share nearly identical production cycles and on a superficial level, design.
Yet the tone of these shows is wildly different despite the visual similarities.
Different views on nobility
Where Bridgerton for the most part sincerely and austerely accepts the premise of dignity among the nobility, The Great constantly mocks the idea. Where Bridgerton delves into the seriousness and importance of manners among the upper classes of British society, The Great constantly upends such ideas in Russian society of the same time period through such colorful storytelling devices as random murder or a choice of death by bullet or bear. (For what it’s worth, I’d take either of those before a lethal injection.)
There’s one obvious culprit for why these two shows seem to be so much at odds with one another tonally. Bridgerton takes place in Great Britain, a country whose royal family and institutions enjoy an extremely high degree of reverence, if not from actual people, then certainly from a media culture that offers breathless coverage of the coronation of King Charles III. Some of us might wonder, “Didn’t we literally fight a war so that we didn’t have to pay attention to this nonsense?” The Great, by contrast, takes place in Russia, a country that’s gradually returned to being an official state enemy over the last ten years, even if its own royal family died over a hundred years ago.
Catherine the Great is famous for being a foreigner who tried to rein in many of these innately savage Russian impulses, with limited success. Of course, The Great doesn’t purport to be an entirely serious retelling (episodes open with the subtitle “an occasionally true story”) but nevertheless, it’s difficult to imagine any English-language production taking such a harshly negative view towards the traditions of our own heroes, confusingly defined as they seem to be sometimes.
One would think that a culture that embraces the smash Broadway hit Hamilton would intrinsically oppose a fundamentally sympathetic portrayal of King George III, one of Alexander Hamilton’s many enemies, but, well, all great men of history are created equal, apparently.
Catherine the Great is, not coincidentally, a woman, which allows her to fundamentally function as a heroine with progressive societal ideals, despite often seeming overwhelmed with the huge mess that is 18th-century Russia. A major factor that makes The Great’s exact politics difficult to accurately gauge is that a lot of what Catherine the Great promotes as smart, mainstream European ideas (educating women, serf liberation) wasn’t that popular in Europe at the time. To the extent it was, motives were often considerably less progressive than anything The Great suggests.
The Great seems to always stop just short of arguing that the whole idea of a noble nobility is a complete sham. The Swedish royal family, for example, seems just as dysfunctional as the Russian one. Although does anyone in the English language world really think of the Swedes as being any less backward and irrelevant as the Russians? Our popular understanding of their history basically goes from Vikings to modern-day socialist paradise, with no real grasp of the intermediate period that lasted maybe a full millennium.
Catherine the Great’s mother suggests the French nobility are just as bad. Although it’s unclear whether “try to have sex with daughter’s husband” is something any West European noble would do, or just Catherine the Great’s mom, because she’s kind of a jerk who looks down on Russian nobles for reasons at least she believes.
Everything in The Great naturally leads to farce, which is why trying to analyze many of its more explicit sociopolitical implications can be a bit unsatisfying, what with how easy it is to dismiss any individual event as being just a joke.
But the diverse casting is one of the more intriguing, if rarely discussed, elements at play. Despite (most) Russians having relatively light skin, especially among the nobility, The Great casts a large number of minority actors in supporting roles.
The effect of this is intriguing – by making the cast look less like period-era Russians and more like contemporary Americans, The Great implies that a lot of the dysfunction of the show is quite relatable to the present day. At the end of the day, rules of noblesse oblige are completely made up, and our leaders only go along with them because it’s easier than just shooting people.
Bridgerton and Queen Charlotte in particular uses multiracial casting for a far more idealistic purpose, however, explicitly and literally suggesting that ennobling Black people is key to ending racism. The casualness of this identity politics is more than a little bizarre given the current pedagogical emphasis on critical race theory, itself also boosted by Hulu’s recent 1619 Project series, which argues that we explicitly designed most of our legal institutions to be racist in both form and function.
And as far as we can tell, the British Empire in Bridgerton functions identically to the historical one. The only apparent difference and (alleged) improvement is that Black nobles also exploit the bodies of Black laborers, who in practice may as well be serfs or slaves even if not in title.
The Great constantly making use of the poor living conditions of serfs is, in comparison, quite refreshing. But it’s hard to escape the very specific implication that serfdom, a quintessentially Russian institution, was uniquely bad compared to the fate of the European lower classes Catherine the Great knew previously.
Amusingly enough, despite The Great’s superficial similarity to Bridgerton, thematically, the show it’s most comparable to is Veep, which consistently showed that politics was a petty, backbiting mess. (Just with less stabbing, since we live in more civilized times.)
But even that comparison is surprisingly unhelpful, since in one of the more mixed-metaphor events of our times, Julia Louis-Dreyfus played her generally repulsive title character as a campaign surrogate for Joe Biden in 2020, as if the endorsement of her narcissistic, destructive personality was somehow positive for the campaign. I could easily see Elle Fanning doing the same kind of public service routine next year. At the very least, she’d be a more logical surrogate, both for being young and also for portraying a character who at least has some positive qualities.
Can we expect such a public-relations push from Arsema Thomas as Queen Charlotte? Probably not, because both Bridgerton and Queen Charlotte are such shallow concepts – window-dressing for a literally imperialist form of fiction suggesting that our hereditary leaders acted and continue to act with basic dignity, even if for some reason we don’t want to suggest they have any real power anymore.
Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story is a woke fairy tale for our times. Take that for good or ill as you please.