(Photo Creds: Liam Daniels/Netflix)
Ah Bridgerton. We’ve all seen it. We’ve loved it. We’ve all fantasised about Regé-Jean Page.
However, if you’ve missed the last two months or the person who’s Netflix you bum off has changed their password, let me summarise the show.
Netflix’s Bridgerton, produced by Shonda Rhimes (Scandal, HTGAWM, Grey’s Anatomy), is a fictional British period drama set during the Regency era. Based on a novel series by Julia Quinn, the series focuses on the Bridgerton family during courting season (aka cuffing season). In the background, stirring up the drama, is Lady Whistledown, a gossip columnist who comments and reveals the secrets of the upper class.
As a fellow black writer and Shondaland fan, I had to watch. However, what convinced me to watch the series (Regé-Jean Page?) was the casting. It was interesting to see black people in a BRITISH period drama. And, it was not just me who was intrigued by the casting choices.
However, although there’s potential, the show never rose above the hype it created.
The show fumbled the bag.
And it fumbled the bag because the hype about the casting did not translate.
The Importance of Representation in British Period Drama
Firstly - and I stress - I will not take away from the casting decisions. For ethnic minorities in Britain, it is really important we see ourselves represented in film and TV, especially in period drama.
Historically, British period dramas came to fame in the 80s and 90s during Thatcherism. At the time, many filmmakers were adapting classical British texts - Shakespeare, Dickens - into films as they had a wide and popular readership. However, critics note, these films came to become ‘part of the enterprise of marketing and selling Britain’s past’.
Well, its colonial and imperialist past, of course. You know the one, rule Britannia! Stealing other countries resources for their own use, enslaving people, drastic class division (Please sir can I have some more?) That past.
These films, known as ‘heritage films,’ glorified a whitewashed, elitist past, dissociated from the present. Pushed by Thatcher and the Conservative government, these films indulged in the romanticisation of the 1% to encourage (ethno)national pride.
Recent examples, such as Downton Abbey, illustrate British period dramas continuing this narrative. Weekly reminding viewers of the ‘good old (white)’ British days. However, critics and viewers aren’t having it anymore.
In 2017, defending the all-white cast, Julian Fellowes, showrunner of Downton Abbey, in an interview defended the choice for the West End musical Half a Sixpence, stating: “you can’t make something untruthful.”
However, if this is true, why are we not telling the whole truth? Most likely, these aristocratic characters were bigots, profiting from slavery and colonialism. Additionally, as Armando Iannucci, writer and director of The Personal History of David Copperfield, stated in defending the film’s diverse casting choice: “London then and London now was and is a global city.”
Britain has been a multiculturally diverse country for centuries - even before colonialism and slavery. However, producers have chosen not to reflect this in period dramas. The lack of diversity in period dramas are not ignorant or attempting to be truthful to British history but strategic. Strategic choices which suggest ethnic minorities can be easily erased, easily unwritten.
So Bridgerton is important. It leans into an accurate representation of British history. Although fictional, it casts Regé-Jean Page, a biracial British/ Zimbabwean man, as the show’s main love interest. It illustrates the Queen of England (Golda Rosheuvel) with dreadlocks and an Afro.
But, it is still not representative of multicultural Britain.
The Lack of Asian Representation
According to the last government census in 2011, White ethnicities make up the majority of the population at 86%. Followed by Asian and Mixed Asian ethnicities making up 8.1%, Black and Mixed Black ethnicities follow at 4.4% and other ethnicities making 1% of the population.
The show’s cast does not reflect the stats. To be frank, there are a lot of white people, garnished with black people (mainly lighter or biracial black people) and maybe, just maybe - if you try hard enough - you may have seen an Asian extra.
This is problematic. There was no major representation of Asian characters within the main cast. The ‘diversity’ in the show is simplified as a black and white issue - literally, a Black and White (people) issue. As the biggest ethnic minority group in Britain, the lack of representation is wilfully ignorant.
What the show is praised for - its ‘diversity - it doesn’t actually do.
The Problem With 'Colour-Blind' Casting
The term ‘colour-blind’ casting simply denotes characters casted obsolete of specific racial or ethnic identities. I’m not a fan of ‘colour-blind’ casting but it has been efficiently done in film. For example, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella.
Bridgerton could (I say that loosely) have worked in this way. But the show intended to comment on race, as noted in a scene between Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh) and Simon. In Bridgerton, there were two kingdoms separated by race until the King, a white man, fell in love with the Queen, a black woman, and the kingdoms were unified.
Yet, this does not change the show or the characterisation. In fact, the Black characters are reduced to stereotypes or misunderstood. Lady Danbury appears as the 'Magical Negro,' Simon's Dad (Richard Pepple) is the 'Angry Black Man' and don't get me started on Marina.
Marina (Ruby Barker) is the best, most complex, character in the series but she also goes through the most tragedy.
Marina starts as the most eligible woman in court when she comes to live with her extended family in London. But, she is pregnant out of wedlock with her lover at war. Desperate, Marina attempts to seduce a man into marrying her but is caught and humiliated by her cousin. Reputation ruined, her lover dies, she tries to abort her baby and is forced to marry her lover's brother.
Absent of race, Marina's sub-plot reads as a cautionary tale, but conscious of race she is the victim of the writer's room. Marina lives with her (white) family members who detest and purposely make her feel uncomfortable. She is betrayed by the only family member who acknowledges her. She is lonely and isolated by society.
Why do (white) writers find so much drama in portraying the tragedy of Black characters?
Marina must overcome several hurdles but never without consequence. In comparison to Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor), who is disgraced after kissing Simon but then marries him. Daphne, who sexually assaults her husband. Daphne, who has a baby with a man who vows never to have children.
Daphne wills to have her own way and gets it. This is a privilege Marina is never afforded. Everything Marina does is to survive and she barely comes out of the season unscathed. How many women of colour can relate to that?
Bridgerton’s incorporation of race is a footnote in the series and is never articulated in the characterisation of the Black characters or translated to wider audiences. It’s an irritating housefly in a ‘post-racial’ utopia.
This is the problem of ‘colour-blind’ casting. Without acknowledging ethnicity, writers cannot efficiently narrate the stories and nuances of ethnic minorities. The notion of ‘colour-blind’ implies sameness and reinforces the notion of universalism. And, as I’ve discussed previously, the universal experience is still associated with whiteness.
“Colorblind casting is an aberrant idea that has never had any validity other than as a tool of the Cultural Imperialists who view their American culture, rooted in the icons of European culture, as beyond reproach in its perfection.” - August Wilson
The Solution: Colour-Conscious Casting
To me (and I was inspired by Khadija Mbowe's video) the solution is ‘colour-conscious’ casting. This means casting is not always based on specific racial or ethnic identities but they must consider how the bodies casted transforms the character. How do experiences within a certain ethnicity develop characterisation. 'Colour-conscious' casting is willing to explore the complexities and differences in people of colour.
This requires input from the actors but it also requires a diverse production and writers team. And a quick search on IMDB shows Bridgerton lacked in this area as the producers and writers were mainly White Americans. This explains the lack of depth and representation, especially for British ethnic minorities, but it's not an excuse.
Bridgerton disappointed. The show baited Black audiences with the promise of diversity and executed the premise carelessly. The show did the bare minimum with its 'diverse' cast and, as a Black writer, I refuse to praise the series for this. I refuse to excuse this as ignorance in an age where we have access to a plethora of information.
So what I'm trying to say is: Shonda Rhimes, hire a baby girl I've got ideas.