"Bridgerton" and Its Blind Spot for Colonialist HistoryRoundup
tags: colonialism, racism, popular culture
Trishula Patel is an assistant professor of history at the University of Denver. She tweets @trishulapatel.
Warning: this article contains spoilers for Season 2 of Bridgerton. Historians rarely get to warn of spoilers.
Dearest Gentle Reader—
Historians are only human. Which is why I must confess that I swooned, just a little—maybe a lot—when Anthony Bridgerton declared his love for Kathani Sharma in the second season finale of Bridgerton. Kris Bowers’s version of the Bollywood song “Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham” made my heart sing. Kate, Edwina, and Mary Sharma showed women like me—a person of South Asian origin—characters missing from mainstream period dramas until now.
Regency dramas are a popular form of entertainment in the United States and the United Kingdom, from adaptations of Jane Austen novels to the 2022 film Mr. Malcolm’s List. They depict Great Britain between roughly 1795 and 1837, often centering themes of foiled romance and constrictive gender roles. In both seasons of Netflix’s Bridgerton, based on a series of novels by Julia Quinn, a number of roles went to actors of color, characters written as white in the source material. Such diverse casting is typical of executive producer Shonda Rhimes’s work, and commentators have celebrated this choice as a refreshing take when period dramas such as Downton Abbey have typically ignored race. But other critics denounced the show’s creators for imagining a world in which racism does not dominate the treatment of characters of color.
My inner historian kept poking me as I watched, akin to the metaphorical angel (or devil, probably) on my shoulder (a moral quandary some of my readers clearly lack). As a scholar of race and colonialism, I was truly perplexed by the show’s sidelining of the history of imperialism that would have, theoretically, brought families like those of the Duke of Hastings, Lady Danbury, and the Sharmas to British shores in the first place.
Historical dramas are rarely historically accurate. For those of you who have the luck to not be a professional historian, this manipulation of fact enables the dramatic turns that make these shows a delight to watch. In highlighting characters of color in the show, its creators do them an injustice by ignoring the histories that would have been a central part of their identity navigating the colonial metropole. In the show’s telling, the love match between King George III and a Black Queen Charlotte—whose racial origins have indeed prompted debate among historians—brought two worlds together through racial reconciliation. But Bridgerton ignores Britain’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade from 1640 to 1807, which brought enslaved peoples from West African ports to London. Those who escaped bondage became a part of the social life of the city; a few rose to prominence as abolitionists and traders. The show also ignores the colonialism that was central to Britain’s modern global identity. Rather than use this history as background, this world glosses over the more uncomfortable elements in favor of a simple celebration of racial equality.
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