Tuning Up - Winter 2023

A Royal Disappointment

Am I the only Black woman in America who thinks Bridgerton is trash?

By Sharon Sochil Washington | January 6, 2023
Golda Rosheuvel, center, as Queen Charlotte in the second-season premiere of Bridgerton (Everett Collection)
Golda Rosheuvel, center, as Queen Charlotte in the second-season premiere of Bridgerton (Everett Collection)

A reported 82 million households watched the first season of the Netflix show Bridgerton—writer and producer Shonda Rhimes’s romance set in early-19th-century Britain—but until recently, mine was not one of them. Not that I didn’t want to see it. I’d heard a great deal about this period drama, with its prominent Black and women characters. I also knew that those bold casting decisions had led to its massive success, especially with people of color. And yet, just four minutes and 25 seconds into the first episode, I found myself wanting to gag.

Bridgerton unquestionably looks good. The surfaces—from the lavish furniture to the kaleidoscopic costumes to the made-up faces of all the beautiful people—are impeccable. But watching it was like overdosing on cotton candy. In particular, I couldn’t get past the actions of one character: Queen Charlotte, played by the British-Guyanese actress Golda Rosheuvel. The Queen, solely responsible for state affairs because of the mental condition of her husband, George III, is obsessed with gossip, equates appearances with character, and runs her court with a caricatured boredom that is both infantile and banal. She’s supposed to be a dignified commander but comes off as a petty mean girl, wielding her considerable power and influence only in the arenas of manipulating, meddling, and matchmaking. Her court reminded me of every seventh-grade playground I’ve ever been on, and I should know—I used to teach seventh grade. I was so bothered by this characterization that it took four attempts before I was able to get past those first few minutes.

Am I being too hard on the show? I wondered. I certainly don’t begrudge anyone the guilty pleasure of binge-watching television that doesn’t overtly challenge the viewer and is primarily meant to entertain. But Bridgerton’s wild popularity revealed that I was nearly alone in my critique. So was the show really as soulless and insipid as I’d thought, or was something else going on?

Bridgerton is fiction, of course, inhabiting a kind of fantasy alternative universe. The first season follows Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor), the oldest daughter of the powerful Bridgerton family, as she makes her debut into the competitive marriage market of Regency London. Enter the exquisitely gorgeous and rebellious Simon, Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page), who is the obvious catch of the season and a committed bachelor. Together, Daphne and Simon stage a fake relationship to make her more desirable to other potential suitors and provide him an escape from the overbearing mothers trying to hitch their daughters to him. (The women on this show are sickeningly preoccupied with men, even when they are being recalcitrant; their inherent shallowness always wins out.) It is both unavoidable and predictable that the two will fall for each other. The second season takes a similarly predictable path. The characters are archetypes—they represent; they do not live and breathe. And the dialogue works only as it could in that made-up world, often becoming cringeworthy.

As I thought more deeply about the show and its immense popularity, I started to wonder whether something in my past had conditioned me to respond the way I had. I am now a cultural anthropologist, but when I was an undergrad at Columbia, I studied film. I remembered a young white teaching assistant who told me, “You’re never going to make it here, because you can’t write.” I had graduated at the top of my class in high school, and now my papers, covered with horrible red markings, were earning Ds. Was I really not as smart as I had thought? My high school looked a lot like the cast of the television show Abbott Elementary—a smattering of white teachers and only one white student. But some of my biggest fans were those white teachers, and my writing teachers (all white) had regularly told me how much they looked forward to reading my papers. I had been led to believe that I was the smartest student in school.

But at Columbia, I started to wonder whether my high school teachers had lowered their expectations because I was Black. Or had I been ranked on a very low curve against my peers? Was that teaching assistant correct? Was it true that I really couldn’t write?

I was curious about the writers my Columbia professors were quoting in class—all of them white cinema theorists—and I went to the library and looked up their work. What I found were highbrow, academic, elitist texts, with long, elaborate, jargon-filled sentences. I read those works over and over until I understood their style. Then I mimicked that style, and I started getting As on my papers.

What I didn’t realize until a decade later is that copying that style actually facilitated a 10-year block that made writing excruciating. But it may also have led to the formation of an unconscious bias: my equating “excellence” with a certain kind of elitist white discourse. As I ruminated on that experience and my subsequent responses to the work of Tyler Perry, Tracy Oliver, and others—films and shows popular among Black audiences—I wondered whether I was automatically being harder on shows produced by Black filmmakers. Had I unknowingly swapped the definition of white with the definition of good?

In a controversial 2019 interview with The New York Times, actress, producer, and screenwriter Lena Waithe argued that, in fact, Black critics are not hard enough on Black artists because of an obligation to support that work publicly. An episode of #blackAF, a mockumentary sitcom also on Netflix, revisited Waithe’s comments the following year. In that episode, Kenya Barris—he is the show’s creator and plays a fictionalized version of himself—slams a hit film by a fictional, up-and-coming, African-American artist, spending the entire episode trying to understand its popularity among Black audiences. Making a cameo in this episode is Tyler Perry (playing himself), who says that he unapologetically produces Black stories for Black people—he knows his viewers, and they know him, and he’s talking to them and them alone.

People of color frequently find themselves clashing, within themselves and with each other, as they toggle back and forth across racial lines in an attempt to integrate into society at large—without losing their identities to knockoff, assimilated versions of themselves. Since my undergrad experience, I have attempted to reconcile the two clashing forces inside me: my Ivy League university experience and the culture I grew up in. I would like to think that I can easily have a foot in either world, that I am able to form my own opinions. But as an anthropologist, I also know how hard it is to know where our opinions come from, how they are constructed, and how to express them inside the social structures that are available to us. When I was studying film at Columbia, I never imagined I’d live to see a moment of cultural reconstruction like this one—when there are so many films and television shows written and produced by Black creators that I would feel comfortable enough to say publicly that I think one of them is awful.

To be clear, I have high regard for the talent of Shonda Rhimes, a powerhouse who dumped network TV for a nine-figure deal with Netflix. She is one of my heroes, along with Oprah Winfrey, Ava DuVernay, and Lena Waithe. But Bridgerton also happens to be predictably ordinary and ironically colorless. It’s possible I’ve been whitewashed in the sense that I’m still channeling those biases I acquired at Columbia. Or maybe the show really is trash. Perhaps a little of both. That’s the nature of opinions: they are highly subjective and yet culturally formed. Which part of me hates Bridgerton? I may never know.

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