Review: Bridgerton’s Gross Mishandling of Consent22 January 2021
Content warning for rape and anti-Black racism. Spoilers for Netflix’s Bridgerton.
Netflix’s new series Bridgerton—hyped up as Gossip Girl in period clothing—reeled viewers in with spicy sex scenes and racial diversity. Despite not being able to tell the Bridgerton brothers apart at first, I was hooked.
But the beautiful costumes and catchy violin covers immediately turned unsettling as the show glimpsed over its most controversial scene—the rape in Episode Six.
Let me step back and provide a little context. The show is based on Julia Quinn’s 2000 novel, The Duke and I, and is produced by Shonda Rhimes and adapted by Chris Van Dusen (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal). Its main storyline follows the fake-dating trope, in which protagonist Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) and the Duke Simon Basset (Regé-Jean Page) pretend to court each other but accidentally fall in love.
In its first four weeks, Bridgerton is projected to court more than 63 million households, which would make it Netflix’s fifth biggest original series launched to date. pic.twitter.com/Zs7N3NBh9i
— Netflix Queue (@netflixqueue) January 4, 2021
While Daphne is the fourth oldest in a loving family of eight children, the Duke faced an immensely traumatic upbringing. After years of emotional abuse from a father fanatical about lineage and dukedom, the Duke vows to let the family line die with him. Before marrying Daphne, he makes it clear that theirs would be a childless union.
Like many other young women depicted in the show, Daphne has no reproductive knowledge before entering marriage. After many steamy sex scenes—in the rain, on the estate’s prim and proper lawns, even atop a library ladder—she realises that Simon has been using the pull-out method to prevent pregnancy and seemingly takes matters into her own hands. Halfway through one session, Daphne stops Simon from pulling away, ignores his cries for her to wait, and forces him to impregnate her without his consent.
This is rape. Holding a partner down to force ejaculation and conception is rape.
Yet, as quickly as it happens, the act is over and the camera lens shifts to Daphne. We watch her tear up and we sit as audience to her heartbreak,
“You took my future from me, the one thing I wanted more than anything. … [You knew that] becoming a mother, to have a family of my own one day … was all I ever wanted.”
The flash of hurt on the Duke’s face is superseded by her outrage. Daphne emphasises the Duke’s duplicity in saying he can’t have children when he really meant that he wouldn’t. For me, the significance of this distinction collapses if we are to regard Simon’s emotional trauma as highly as we would any physical trauma.
Vox writer Aja Romano aptly describes the ethical issues at play: “It’s clearly intended to spell out the intricacies of informed consent, but none of Simon’s duplicity justifies the way Daphne pulls his secret… One bad moment of uninformed consent does not justify a moment of non-consensual sex.”
The cinematic devices used in a previous scene of attempted assault against Daphne by the presumptuous and unpleasant Lord Berbrooke are nowhere to be found. There is no dark foggy night, no dread-inducing music. The beautiful Daphne and the handsome Duke are married. They love each other. It doesn’t feel like a rape scene.
I don’t think it was intended to be one either, which makes the script infuriating in retrospect. Part of Bridgerton’s initial appeal was found in its close examination of the social norms of the 1800s. There’s female agency, women seeking more to life than marriage, and even an exciting whisper of queerness. So tell me why I had to rewind the rape scene and make sure it wasn’t a trick of the candle light. Much like many onlookers, I feel manipulated into siding with Daphne.
In the book, The Duke and I, the violations are more obvious; Simon was drunk when Daphne felt an “intoxicating surge of power” to take advantage of him. In the adaptation, series creator Van Dusen removes the clear markers of sexual assault and justifies including the scene as a way to present complicated and imperfect female characters.
“We felt that the female characters on this show — Daphne, especially — should be allowed to do just that. She should be flawed. She should be able to make questionable choices.”
In response to the argument that Daphne violated Simon’s consent, Van Dusen continued,
“I think part of the scene’s design was to raise conversation. The conversation that this scene has brought up around consent is an important one to be having. It’s one that we encourage audiences to engage in.”
For a show that made female empowerment its cornerstone, it did little to demonstrate the consequences of autonomy. Daphne simultaneously gained sexual awareness but took no responsibility for assaulting her husband. The gravity of her actions goes unacknowledged; Van Dusen’s argument of showing character flaws is hollowed by the way Daphne is never blamed for the harms she caused. Daphne does not apologise to Simon and argues with her mother about not being given sufficient knowledge on what she calls “martial relations”. Furthermore, the show does not hold any space for the male character to have trust issues or hesitations before getting into bed with Daphne again. If the genders were reversed and conception was forced on a female character, I doubt the show creators would have treated the scene so lightly.
Furthermore, what initially seemed like racially conscious casting only replicated the harms of colourblindness in the media. Here, colourblindness means pretending race doesn’t exist or has no impact on the characters. Colourblind approaches can include swapping out a few supporting characters while preserving the white-centric storyline, tokenising characters to tick ‘diversity boxes’, or, in this instance, ignoring the systemic power imbalance between white and BIPOC people. In Bridgerton, we get a brief explanation of why Black people and white people were equal in class at the time; the King fell in love with a Black woman and elevated all Black people and other people of colour to the same social level as their white counterparts. There’s a cheesy line about how love conquers all, but the show was otherwise silent on racial dynamics.
As a non-Black writer of colour, I don’t feel informed enough to talk at length on this point. Instead, I borrow from writer Merryana Salem’s critique. Accordingly, Daphne’s determination to have children despite Simon’s clear resistance is framed as empowering.
“[It prioritizes] Daphne’s white womanhood over Simon’s feelings as a survivor of abuse.”
Salem mentions the racist roots of this trope, wherein Black men are portrayed in the media as aggressive and untrustworthy. At the same time, the protection of white women’s innocence is used to justify violence against Black men. Historically, a white woman’s cry of foul play has been weaponised to justify lynchings. In fact, the pedestal of innocence on which white women are placed further buries the harms that Simon suffers at the hands of his wife. As such, Bridgerton enjoys the clout of having a Black male lead while ignoring the injustices that Black people have endured (and continue to endure). Predictably, sexual assault by a white woman against a Black man gets scripted as a plot device. Instead of having those important conversations, as Van Dusen claims, the show merely reproduces the outdated tropes.
If Bridgerton took the time and energy to appreciate the nuances of the topics covered, such as interracial marriage and female-on-male or marital rape, then perhaps it wouldn’t have failed on the very promise it tried to deliver. It might have actually been a show that championed the theme of consent.
So, to the readers excited for a second season, I kindly ask you to exercise caution. This show is based on a half-hearted attempt at social and cultural awareness. While the show creators may claim they were sparking conversation, they had a responsibility to do more. True depictions of female empowerment do not come at the cost of violence against Black men.