Sex and Sensibility

‘Bridgerton’ is NSFW Jane Austen lite

This bawdy, buzzy, bingeable Shonda Rhimes production follows the amorous adventures of the aristocratic Bridgerton family, as chronicled in romance novelist Julia Quinn’s eight-book Bridgerton series. Lady Whistledown (Julie Andrews), a Gossip Girl-style anonymous insider who writes a London society scandal sheet, narrates the eight-part Netflix series, set in 1813. But this isn’t your parents’ Masterpiece Theatre. There are as many Black faces as white ones onscreen, and—in addition to the expected balls and tea parties—there are duels, elopements, gambling, murders, boxing matches, abortions, and lots of sex: sex on a lawn, sex on a stairway, sex in a folly, sex in a hedge maze, sex on a library ladder, sex on an entirely different stairway, gay sex, group sex, oral sex.

All sorts of people—romance readers, costume drama fans, Shondaland denizens, proponents of inclusive entertainment in general, and undoubtedly the Netflix execs who paid $150 million to lure Rhimes away from ABC—want Bridgerton to succeed, in hopes that it will pave the way for similar adaptations. With literally hundreds of beloved romance franchises out there waiting for their close-up, there’s a built-in audience for these sexy, soapy stories that don’t take themselves too seriously, brought to life with attractive multiracial casts, top-notch production values, string quartets playing Ariana Grande songs, plenty of nudity, and the occasional orgy.

Bridgerton delivers all that, but this particular franchise probably wasn’t the best choice for a test case. Though romance novels have come a long way since the rape-y storylines and Fabio covers of the ‘80s, Quinn published the first installment of her series (on which Rhimes based Bridgerton) in 2000. It contains a pivotal scene of dubious consent that might not get past an editor today, though Rhimes slightly tweaked it for the screen. And while the casting boldly confronts the inequities of the lily-white world of Regency romance, it ends up creating some new ones.

Creator Chris Van Dusen has fun exploring the theory that Britain’s Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) may have had African ancestry. However, Black actors simply play other characters who Quinn wrote as white in the books. This introduces an uncomfortable racial dimension to, say, Lord Bridgerton’s reluctance to let his best friend marry his sister, or that problematic sex scene. There’s a big difference between the way the show uses light-skinned and dark-skinned Black actors, and there are no other people of color to be found, a circumstance explained away by some revisionist history:

Shondaland presents a racially-mixed and sex-soaked Regency England in ‘Bridgerton.’

“We were two separate societies divided by color until the king fell in love with one of us.” Regency England certainly wasn’t entirely white, as films and shows so often portray it onscreen, but neither was it the model of racial harmony that Bridgerton presents. Instead of magically erasing the era’s legacy of slavery and colonialism, Netflix might have adapted one of the many historical romances that actually address it.

Even with an eight-hour running time, it’s difficult to care about or even keep track of the saga’s many, many characters, who include the eight Bridgerton siblings and their widowed mother (Ruth Gemmell), the nouveau riche Featherington family, and various friends, mistresses, servants, and suitors, not to mention the queen and court.

When one Bridgerton left town for several episodes, I didn’t even notice. Milquetoast debutante Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) and the dashing but damaged Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page) get the most screen time as they fake (then, predictably, form) an attraction to deter other marriage-minded pursuers. But I found the B and C plots much more compelling than these two blandly beautiful people who kept getting in their own way. Among the crowd, battle-axe Lady Featherington (Polly Walker), her lovelorn daughter Penelope (Nicola Coughlan), bluestocking Bridgerton Eloise (Claudia Jessie), and wise, wry dowager Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh) stand out as characters with whom we’d like to spend more time.

A lot of bad writing masquerades as faux Jane Austen-speak. “They all try to avoid the dreadful condition known as the Spinster,” Lady Whistledown muses, while the duke huffs: “If you desired an introduction, madam, I do believe accosting me to be the least civilized of ways.” The show tells rather than shows how amazing and special the Bridgertons are. Too much character development comes down to: “You are a Bridgerton—there is nothing you cannot do!” British viewers will cringe over mispronunciations of words like “marquess,” “Trowbridge,” and “Cowper.”

Apart from the tortured diction, much of Bridgerton just doesn’t make sense. In a major departure from the books, Queen Charlotte—who famously had her own marital issues—is weirdly invested in Daphne’s social success. It seems assured when the queen declares Daphne “flawless,” yet she struggles to snag a husband. Daphne’s brother, Viscount Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey), rejects most of her suitors as unworthy fortune-hunters, only to promise her hand to an obvious cretin. A dressmaker—who sews for a living—disparages her clients for “simpering over their needlework, or whatsoever it is these debutantes must do to pass the time.” The duke takes revenge on his cold, cruel, and very dead father by sabotaging his own chance at a happy ending.

Bridgerton obviously cost heaps of money, even they didn’t always spend it well. There are gorgeous set pieces and lavishly appointed historic locations, but the costumes are a mixed bag, and, despite its apparently limitless wisteria budget, the production doesn’t have the distinctive and cohesive visual style of say, The Crown, The Favourite, or the most recent adaptation of Austen’s Emma. Nevertheless, it’s a joy to see the full arsenal of Hollywood glitz and gloss unleashed in service of a period piece, and the female gaze is on point.

Sure, not every sex scene may be strictly necessary to the plot, but sex itself certainly is. While Austen and her contemporaries left much unsaid and unseen, Bridgerton doesn’t shy away from the extramarital escapades of the English upper crust, the dangerously inadequate sex education “proper” young ladies received, and the ways pregnancy could make or break a marriage. It portrays most of the central male characters as lovable(ish) rogues; in contrast, the women are openly frustrated, sexually and otherwise, and not all of them find relief. Bridgerton may be gloriously NSFW, but bodies aren’t the only things it strips bare.

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Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell writes about fashion, art and culture for the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and Book + Film Globe.

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