Bridgerton's Invisible Elephant
By now we've all at least heard of the triumph of Bridgerton, the regency era romance from the minds of Shondaland based on the series by Julia Quinn. The show has had massive success. There's been an uptick in the interest in regency-inspired fashion, tons of cottage-core TikToks have taken over our For You Pages, and the show's already been slotted for a second season after being released for about a month (yes, Christmas was only a month ago!).
I am among its hoards of lovers! As a self-proclaimed anglophile and a history buff, I tend to fall in love with most period pieces, particularly anything related to a monarch or the aristocracy. Further, I LOVE seeing--not one but several--black cast members. Bridgerton allowed me to put myself into the story (and the period) in a way that didn't include servitude or slavery. This is such a rarity among all forms of media, movies, or tv shows. The only other project I've seen this successfully portrayed in, was Belle, a 2013 drama/romance where the main character was the illegitimate daughter of an English admiral. Belle was slavery-centered, and the character (not the actress) was half-white. Bridgerton's characters were all indisputably black. This is an important distinction and should not be scoffed at because it RARELY happens.
And while Bridgerton didn't focus on the traumas of slavery it did bring attention to a different kind of trauma that I'd like to discuss. The trauma of a cis-black male.
Why is this important?
Because it's almost never (rarely just doesn't cut it here) explored.
Try to think of a movie or television show where a cis-black man experiences any sort of emotional pain that is not directly or indirectly a result of slavery, systemic racism, or just being black. They are few and FAR between. We could talk about 12 Years a Slave or Get Out or Black Panther or Luke Cage or All American or even Black-ish, and every single one of them would include one of the three subjects mentioned earlier in this paragraph. I'm not knocking any of those productions. I think it's absolutely needed and necessary to pinpoint these experiences, for black people to have entertainment that they can relate to. That doesn't mean we should ignore the other experiences that black men go through.
Sexuality and sexual desire through the gaze of the black man have also been limited in the media. You can complain all you want about the sex scenes in Bridgerton (though I won't understand why because they were A+ delicious) but it was a stunner for a black man to be seen in that period, in a sexual way, without being fetishized, animalized, or accused of rape. From my perspective, Simon, the Duke of Hastings, the most eligible bachelor of the courting season, and a black man, is desired by all because he is rich, devilishly handsome, and had a title. Not because he's black. Bridgerton not only displayed a desirable black man, but it also allowed him to display his desire without punishment. Too often (usually in a flashback) a black man who falls for or "has relations with" a white woman is either beaten or hunted down for it. Simon may have suffered gossip and the harassment of every mother in town, but he didn't have to worry about impending violence as a consequence of his sexual prowess.
This is the point in the post where I warn you that there are SPOILERS to follow.
S P O I L E R S ahead, I say!
You've been warned...
So, here's the thing. Simon did face a violent moment in season one that many people have glossed over, some have even blamed him for it. Initially, I was one of them. I have since changed my tune, as a black woman and a trauma survivor. There were many angles to process here; I'm talking about the end of episode six, peeps. If you've only examined this scene between Daphne and Simon from her point-of-view, you've missed a very vital part of that scene, which is its true importance for me.
Daphne, painfully inexperienced and naive, enters her relationship with Simon without knowing the basic biology of sex and reproduction. Simon alludes to Daphne that he's incapable of producing children. What he fails to mention is that he doesn't WANT to have children because he swore to his father, on his death bed, that the Hastings line would not continue. Thus ensues a slew of bad communications between Simon and Daphne. During each sexual encounter, Simon pulls out. Daphne doesn't understand why and given that she's a virgin, she thinks his behavior is standard, at first. She continues to have sex with him under the impression that pregnancy is unlikely, because of what he's implied, but might be possible. That is until she has a very frank conversation with her ladies' maid who explains the nuts and bolts of baby-making.
Hurt and angry, she drags him to bed with the intention of making sure he is unable to pull out. Modern feminism screams victory! Daphne has taken control of her life and her choice to reproduce. Women around the world cheered at the television collectively, feeling the sting of Simon's perceived deception alongside Daphne.
Others might have cringed.
Black women...were angered. Simon said "no" and "stop" several times. Daphne ignored his requests and forced an orgasm out of him. If their genders and races were reversed, the implications would have been clear and inarguable. The masses would've called rape and the show's success would have been affected. Once again the traumas of black folks were being used as entertainment.
Except, this time, I think it's the opposite. It stands to reason that if the desires of the cis black man have not been portrayed frequently in popular media, then neither has the sexual assault of the cis black man. I can't say how many cis black men have watched Bridgerton at this point, or any black men for that matter. I'm sure there are some, and even if the number is one, Bridgerton has done something profound.
Simon doesn't immediately forgive Daphne, he doesn't act like everything is okay between them. He feels betrayed and violated. He makes it clear that he no longer trusts her. Their entire relationship is put in jeopardy. Watching him stand up for himself, set boundaries, and (for the most part) stick to his convictions, is monumental. This is something that does not happen in mainstream media. Black men are often placed in a supporting role meant to teach a white character a lesson. Did Daphne learn something from the discord her choices created? Yes, she did. So did Simon but he is still given the time to process his feelings separately from Daphne's lesson.
A difficult part of masculinity has always been how men express their emotions. This is twice as hard for black men, who already have so much pitted against them. For a black man, cis, queer, or otherwise, to witness one of their own confront their emotions and reach a conclusion that doesn't include sweeping all of it under the proverbial rug, is a step forward, not a step back.
It took me a while to come to that understanding.
As a rape survivor, I know that talking about trauma, seeing someone else process it and learn how to move forward, is extremely important. Shonda Rhimes and Netflix have given many people to opportunity to see the same things. The question is whether or not they'll take the time to see beyond the normal gaze.
I have high hopes for season two. I'm excited to see how the producers highlight other types of traumas and if there will be a more varied cast of people of color.
So before you write off Bridgerton as whimsy and unrepresentative of the black experience, consider all the angles.