Art always says “And yet!” to life.
I’m late to the conversation about Bridgerton—specifically, about its counterfactual premise, which undoes white supremacy in Regency-era England. But I want to jump in from another place, or what looks like another place: not race, but class. I’ll start with a moment in Episode 4 that has not been a magnet for commentary. In it, Eloise Bridgerton, our heroine Daphne Bridgerton’s soon-to-be marriageable younger sister, seeks to discover the identity of Mrs. Whistledown, the pseudonymous society columnist whose hints whip the ton—fashionable people, from the French “bon ton”—into a gossipy froth. Obsessed, Eloise sneaks into a servant’s room in her home and rifles through a stash of Whistledown scandal sheets she finds under the bed. Caught in the act by the room’s occupant, Eloise discloses her suspicion that this servant is the eponymous gossip. The mood changes. The older woman bursts out laughing. How, she asks, could she possibly be Whistledown? How would she ever have time to write, with all the housework she has to do?
Eloise is clueless: a joke to her servant, incapable of guessing who wields Whistledown’s quill even though—spoiler alert—Eloise’s best friend is named Pen. Eloise also dreads the marriage market, carries a notebook, and bemoans the narrowness of her domestic existence. She epitomizes the obtuse (white) feminist whose obliviousness to racial privilege translates into the failure to know that housework is work. But having granted a servant the power to issue this rebuke, Bridgerton invites a few more questions about work. Given its production values, they seem glaring: who bakes the towers of pastries that frame the premarital jockeying at court functions? (Daphne’s mother, whose quirks evoke Pride and Prejudice’s Mrs. Bennet, nabs a sweet at an awkward instant, embarrassing her daughter.) More glaring, some levels down: who harvests the sugar cane and boils the sugar, a global import prodigiously consumed here? Who grows the tobacco savored in Bridgerton’s swanky clubs and seedy pubs? Domestic work serves as an admonitory index of Eloise’s blinkered status, but the mercantile sphere—and the sphere of commodity production—never enter the picture. The only market Bridgerton represents is the marriage market.
The avatar of a certain kind of feminist, Eloise echoes Regency-era caricatures of her historical predecessor Mary Wollstonecraft. Eloise’s naïve, brainy, ludic fervor replicates, if gently, the specter of enthusiasm conjured to toxify Wollstonecraft’s extramarital sex as much as her radical politics. In iterating this particular parody, Bridgerton bypasses a difficult thing about Wollstonecraft: she denounced not only slavery, but also the existence of an aristocratic elite. For a show whose G-rated kicks come from court luncheons and red velvet hunting jackets, Wollstonecraft is a feminist killjoy indeed. Eloise can’t recognize, let alone analyze, the fact that she goes Whistledown-sleuthing only because other women clean her massive Georgian house. Eloise’s obtuseness splits her aversion to hyper-feminine ornament—cue the scene at the modiste where she’s reluctantly decked out—from the bigger perspective Wollstonecraft grasped. Sumptuous outfits oppress the people who produce them as well as the women who wear them on the marriage market. These are not, needless to say, the same oppressions. But they are structurally bound, because people have to buy fabric for it to become a global commodity.
Maybe my problem with Bridgerton is obvious: its refusal of racial hierarchy and its maintenance of rigid class hierarchy contradict. Bridgerton wants to have its cake (undo white supremacy) and eat it too (maintain an egregious discrepancy of wealth accumulation and all the cinematic trappings). But that amassed wealth came from slavery and exploitation, and not just on the part of crass merchants; land-owning lords invested in empire too. By undoing white supremacy but leaving class intact, Bridgerton naturalizes aristocratic structure. The whole system of class domination, down to its minutia—note the stress on Anthony Bridgerton’s role as eldest son, sole inheritor of an estate legally entailed on him to conserve the family property—is not up for historical reimagination.
Let’s revisit the dialogue in Episode 4 between the show’s hero, Simon, Duke of Hastings, and his surrogate mother, Lady Danbury. Here Bridgerton signals explicitly that the show’s undoing of white supremacy results from a specific historical revision rather than, as The New York Times suggests, “colorblind casting”:
Lady Danbury: I understand that you believe such subjects as love and devotion, affection and attachment, you find it all trite and frivolous. But have you any idea those very things are precisely what allowed a new day to begin to dawn in this society? Look at our Queen. Look at our King. Look at their marriage. Look at everything it is doing for us, allowing us to become. We were two separate societies, divided by color, until a king fell in love with one of us. Love, your grace, conquers all.
Duke of Hastings: I believe that remains to be seen. The King may have chosen his Queen. He may have elevated us from novelties in their eyes to now dukes and royalty, and at that same whim, he may just as easily change his mind, a mind, as we all know, that is hanging on by one very loose and tenuous thread. So, I am sorry, Lady Danbury, we are in disagreement here. Love changes nothing.
As many commentators have noticed, the process here is vague. According to Lady Danbury and Simon, the king can dissolve or reinstate racism. But just how would George III, by marrying Queen Charlotte in 1761, reverse white supremacy entrenched in a social and economic system fueled by empire? The dialogue seems to project a yet-more-elusive revision further back in historical time. “Separate societies” or “novelties in their eyes” refer to racial inequity but, apparently, not inequity so deep that it cannot be reversed without impairing the fortunes of white imperialists and aristocrats, who might then resent—and, surely, resist—the demise of their socioeconomic dominance.
I’m a reader of sci-fi and dystopia (utopia, too, though nobody cares about that any more). For Georg Lukács, a Marxist literary theorist, sci-fi invites a quizzical take on speculative world-building. How does an imagined world hold up? What’s inconsistent? What would you imagine differently? But in Lukács’s case, the reader is encouraged to be quizzical about the real world—or, in film and literature, the realist world. What relations does realism present as solid, as given (in Marxist parlance, as reified), that we might try to imagine differently in our own actual world? Bridgerton is both things, anyway: it makes a huge speculative edit of history, but its cinematic vocabulary is committed to the high-gloss, smoky, grubby materiality of actually-happened (or we-wish-actually-happened) history. Following Lukács, I’ll go against the grain of that aesthetic—if you’ve made it this far, you doubtless wonder why I’m worrying this so hard, and that is precisely the point—and pursue the issue of speculative causation one step further. Based on what Simon and Lady Danbury say about “separate societies,” maybe it’s possible that the Bridgerton version of England’s past was just a little better prepared not to be white supremacist. Maybe, somehow, the white people in those separate societies were just a little better able to relinquish their prerogative. That might explain, by a sci-fi kind of logic, how Bridgerton represents a harmonious socioeconomic hierarchy with everybody included across the class spectrum and no hint of a trace that such a reordering involved resentment or violence.
But then in Episode 7, Bridgerton indicates that when George III marries Queen Charlotte in 1761, history is just as white supremacist as history really was. This happens when the bad dad Lord Archibald Featherington—whose impassivity tropes on Austen’s Mr. Bennet, but who far more disastrously blows through his daughters’ dowries—confronts Will “Iron Fist” Mondrich, a Black boxer. Lord Featherington, a gambler, wants to bribe Will to throw an upcoming exhibition match. Goading Will, Archibald invokes Will’s father, a “soldier,” who, Archibald intones, “Managed to flee the colonies after serving in Dunmore’s Regiment. Do you think he sought his freedom all for his future son to become some exhausted fighter, stumbling into the ring to put food on the table for his family?” The exchange ceases here. Will angrily accosts Archibald, who slinks off after leaving his card. Led by the royal governor of Virginia, John Murray, Earl of Dunmore, from 1775 to 1776, Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment, as it was called, was composed of about 300 men who fled enslavement to fight as loyalists for the British. Dunmore promised freedom to those who served. In large part, the British kept that promise. After losing the American Revolution, the British did not surrender Dunmore’s troops to former masters, like General George Washington, who wanted to re-enslave them. Some troops wore embroidery on their uniforms that spelled “liberty to slaves.” Flash back to the stuff of Bridgerton’s ballgowns, which carries a different message even if it’s not legibly stitched.
In Episode 7, Bridgerton tells us that real history happened not only before 1761 but also afterwards. This adds to the strain on the world-building conceit. The question becomes not just how can a king undo all traces of racism and slaveocracy in the nation of England after 1761, but also how could the slave system in America and the British colonies—Caribbean settlements like Jamaica and Barbados—coexist with a racially egalitarian metropole. More sci-fi logic: without an alternative source of wealth in sight (this is a realistic show, after all) we have to assume that Bridgerton’s spectacularly rich aristos and traders continue to extract their incomes from colonial plantations, whether directly or through stock investment. But rather than deal with ensuing issues of characterization, which are mind-boggling (are these characters acting in incredibly bad faith? or somehow unaware?), I return to Lukács, because the issue, in the end, is what Bridgerton says about us now. It’s not exactly the show’s central paradox—that righted racial hierarchy leaves intact a class hierarchy based in imperial exploitation—that’s symptomatic. What’s symptomatic is the fact that none of us seem to register the paradox. We would rather savor the show’s opulent staging and the indisputably urgent pleasures of its explosion of the hegemonic whiteness (with the vital exception of “Belle”) of Regency-era cinematic tropes.
To be clear, I’m not saying all Black people in Regency-era productions have to be servants, or that there were no Black people in the metropole in long eighteenth-century England, or that Black people did not author narratives of their own experiences of this place and time. Nor am I saying that white supremacy was so profound that it cannot be undone, even speculatively. On the contrary, the problem Lukács prompts me to ponder goes in the other direction: how can the undoing of white supremacy not also propel other undoings? More specifically: how can the speculative reversal of white supremacy not also speculatively demolish an aristocratic regime whose profit from, and conspicuous consumption of, colonial commodities—sugar, tobacco, fabric—instead cater to our visual delectation?
Lukács coins a formula for his Marxist critical method: “Internal discrepancies in artistic form are manifestations of distortions in life patterns and result from unresolved (and therefore especially compelling) social contradictions.” Eloise is a tiny symptom—we’re so used to it, it’s easy to miss the trivialization of feminism that was, historically, a threat to the ruling class. But what distortion in our own life patterns, what unresolved social contradiction, makes us see no necessary tie between white supremacy and class dominance, even speculatively? Or is the fantasy of Bridgerton exactly this: that the former can be brought down while we continue to inhabit a world whose meanings and delights are defined by the latter?
Helen Thompson teaches eighteenth-century literature, philosophy, and history of science at Northwestern University. She has also taught feminist speculative science fiction and hopes one day to develop a class on feminist and anti-racist aesthetics in ’60s and ’70s women’s painting, drawing, printing, sculpture, collage, and fiber art.