Crossing the Bridgerton with on-screen diversity
For all the reasons most of us are aware of by now, lockdown is a difficult time - not least the winter edition. The outdoors isn’t quite the lunchtime summer escape it once was at the beginning of the pandemic, and many of us are looking to the small screen for our daily departure from Covid conversation. At The Unmistakables, the ‘has anyone watched...?’ question gets tossed about daily, and naturally we find ourselves entering some juicy areas of discussion around on-screen diversity.
As with much of our work, listening to a range of voices for insights is a key step in the process. We would usually extend beyond our own pool of perspectives to bring in the relevant people to the conversation, but this time we’re holding the mic to each other to get views on one show in particular: Netflix’s new regency-era romance-drama Bridgerton. The series has received a mix of praise and disappointment regarding on-screen diversity, so here’s our hot take in five:
1. A ‘smorgasbord of inclusion’
Asad: ‘[The subplots] embody why Bridgerton is so popular - it had multiple levels of appeal that didn’t rely on a single protected characteristic, but instead created a smorgasbord of inclusion. I believe that allows people to form their own opinions and conclusions, which is what all good art should enable.’
Sarita: ‘It casually weaves in people of colour, adds a splash of gay - and nothing breaks. It’s still fun and easily bingeable. This is an extension of films like Love, Simon and David Copperfield with Dev Patel - proof that diversity and familiar narratives can mix on screens and still have mainstream success. I feel like this is the future that the Brandy’s Cinderella hoped for back in 1997.’
2. A step ahead for queer actors
Asad: ‘Let’s just put the lusting after the Duke to one side. Jonathan Bailey playing Anthony Bridgerton piqued my interest - a rising, out gay actor taking on the role of the straight ‘player’ in this. With Russell T Davies saying this week that gay actors should play gay roles, were Jonathan’s straight sex scenes believable and [buzzword alert] authentic?’
Chris: ‘We’re always seeing straight actors picked for queer roles and celebrated for their performance. In Bridgerton’s case, I think it’s important to acknowledge the reversal and appreciate the range of queer talent out their, whose acting skills also extend beyond their own sexuality.’
3. A shortfall for Asian representation
Cathia: ‘As neither a lover nor a reader of The Classics (I have been unconsciously zoning out of these white British conversations since day dot), nor a die-hard fan of the highly successful Downton Abbey (background viewing with the older members of the family, sure), the release of Bridgeton on Netflix on my first unexpected tier 4 solo-Christmas brought all of the joy. From actress and actor selection (though stumbled on Asian representation), colourful costumes and scenes, to modern bangers via a string quartet - there is a lot to love about this show.’
4. A letdown for Black characters
Mercy: ‘Speaking to Black female representation on Bridgerton, I just think not one of them was done justice. I am happy they were there but not how they were portrayed. Essentially, they had no story for themselves and existed only for other characters.
‘To have Black women on the show but with no happy ending in sight just didn't make sense. [Marina] went from starting as the suitors' most desirable choice to someone who was unwanted and shamed in the space of one episode…Sometimes it would be nice to see Black women happy or even comfortable and not struggling.
‘The Queen seemed like she could’ve had a deeper story which was just touched on here and there but why did we not dive deeper? You can’t just have a scene of “The King fell in love with one of us” (aka a Black woman) and not pick it up again. That felt rogue and unfinished.
‘I really do think they tried to cover a lot in eight episodes. Sometimes less is more because people root for different characters and if you start a storyline with multiple, they shouldn’t feel completely lost in the air by the end of a season. Aware that it is a series, so if more seasons are to come they better know where to dive into next…’
5. An ideal remedy for lockdown 3.0
Cathia: ‘Ultimately, it's just pure swoon-worthy, light-hearted, and fun viewing.’
Asad: ‘One of the more fundamental levels of appeal was the soundtrack - hearing Ariana Grande’s thank u, next played by a string quartet was the music I didn’t know I needed to hear. I’ve been playing the album ever since.’
Skip to the end
Whether you come to Bridgerton through a passion for period drama or pure FOMO, it seems everyone can find some degree of lockdown relief. And when it comes to on-screen diversity, there’s no denying that the show steps ahead from others of its kind. So are we too demanding to ask for more? Positive storylines for Black characters and Asian representation are just some elements we feel are missing, and given how far race conversations have moved forward in 2020, we think it’s fair to ask for more. Our hope is that the diverse casting continues and the series begins to celebrate Blackness rather than just show it.
For further reading, we recommend Refinary29 on why Bridgerton could do more for race, or for the flip side read The Oprah Magazine on why the series doesn’t need to elaborate on its Black characters.