Bridgerton’s Most Controversial Scene Showcases The Series’ Mishandling Of Consent And Race
Content warning: This article discusses sexual assault and racism. It also contains spoilers for Netflix’s ‘Bridgerton’.
Between its steamy sex scenes, diverse vision of the past, and regency Gossip Girl-style narration — the hype around Netflix’s Bridgerton was impossible to ignore.
But viewers were quick to critique the series’ most controversial scene in which protagonist Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) manipulates her husband, Duke Simon Basset (Regé-Jean Page), into impregnating her without his consent. This is not Bridgerton‘s only fault, but it is emblematic of the series’ lack of respect for racial dynamics and how they can affect relationships.
Her entire life has been leading to this very moment. Bridgerton is now streaming. pic.twitter.com/FSYEPtT0tn
— Bridgerton (@bridgerton) December 25, 2020
Based on the best-selling 2000 novel The Duke and I by Julia Quinn, produced by Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal), and adapted by Chris Van Dusen (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal), Bridgerton follows an ensemble of horny characters and their drama, owing to regency sensibilities concerning sexuality, sexism, class, and race.
It’s a cultural melting pot, narrated and gleefully stirred by the mysterious Lady Whistledown and her gossip column. Voiced by Dame Julie Andrews herself, Whistledown jump-starts the narrative whenever the plot thickens too much for its own good. The main storyline centres on the romance between Daphne Bridgerton and Duke Simon Basset, after their plan to pretend to be courting backfires when they actually fall for one another.
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
I love the fake-dating trope as much as the next lovesick nerd — especially in a regency drama portraying the period to be as diverse as it was, imagining a history where Black people, POC, and white people were considered equal in class, thanks to a Black queen. However, the series took a predominantly colourblind approach, wherein the race of each character rarely impacts the story in any intentional way.
Colourblindness in media is the practice of presenting race as the least important element of a story or a person. It stems from the claim racism is no longer an issue — an ideology that became popular in the 2000s after Barack Obama became President of the United States. More often than not, it’s a tactic used to avoid discussions of racial experiences, by ignoring race altogether.
#Bridgerton is a perfect example of how visible racial diversity is lovely (Mostly black and mixed black here). But the script also needs to acknowledge that in some way particularly given the societal backdrop at this period and not necessarily in a clunky or moralistic way.
— Iesha Small (“eye-ee-sha”) (@ieshasmall) January 2, 2021
Colourblind representation in media only runs skin-deep and, in the long run, still upholds subtle forms of racism by pretending race does not exist. Bridgerton is verifiably guilty of this. While Van Dusen may claim they were intentionally trying to avoid this approach, Daphne and Simon’s romance suffers from a lack of respect for the complex racial dynamics between Black men and white women.
Bridgerton was never a story conceived with the nuances of interracial relationships in mind. The novel featured no characters of colour and its author, Julia Quinn, has a shady record when it comes to diversity. And despite Rhimes producing the series, its head writer Van Dusen is white.
— Christina Alexandria (@chrstnalxndra) January 4, 2021
The social impact of race is rarely explored in the series, save for a scene in which Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh) lectures Simon on the vagueries of love curing racial tensions when the queen married the king. (A bold statement, considering what Harry and Meghan endured as an interracial royal couple in our modern times.) While it’s an admirable fantasy, the show’s general unwillingness to acknowledge racial differences still sours this dream of historical racial harmony, and no more so than in Episode 6.
In this episode, Daphne discovers that Simon is capable of having children, despite previously believing that he wasn’t. She realises he’s been using the pull-out method when they have sex because he doesn’t want children. Nevertheless, Daphne forces him to impregnate her by sitting on top of him during sex so he can’t pull away. Despite his multiple cries of “wait” while she’s on top of him, Daphne persists.
So Daphne held Simon down while having sex forcing him to give her a baby (very Handmaid's Tale style)… This is not romantic, this is spousal/marital r*pe, had the roles been reversed woke twitter would be boycotting this trash saying how it glamorizes rape culture. #Bridgerton pic.twitter.com/CfJE7AnwPw
— 🦄 (@KarolinaVega) December 28, 2020
Van Dusen may have intended this scene with Daphne to be “part of her journey” but in doing so he ignores Simon, the Black man who is the other person in the relationship.
The scene positions us to side with Daphne and see Simon as a liar, despite Daphne sexually coercing him. This is quite rich considering, as Simon points out, he was always clear and honest about his intentions to never have children. Regardless of whether it was because he couldn’t or wouldn’t have them, his intentions were clear from the beginning of their marriage, and Daphne should have respected them.
In Australia, sexual assault is defined as “sexual intercourse with another person without the consent of the other person and who knows that the other person does not consent to the sexual intercourse”. This consent can be withdrawn at any time. By this definition, Daphne sexually assaulted her husband when she continued to have sex with him, despite his resistance.
I finished #Bridgerton yesterday, and I wasn't aware I could be so angry at a show that wasn't GoT. So, we're just rooting for rapists? We're literally going to sit through a rape scene and go, "Girl boss!" This has apparently been an issue with that book for 20 years? pic.twitter.com/xPVEl9sATE
— 🦇FairyGothMother🖤🔮🥊⚔️📗 (@VioletRiotGames) January 3, 2021
What happens between them is not treated as an act of assault. While the pair are at odds in the following episode, the audience is still positioned to take Daphne’s side, as she is angered by Simon’s emotional distance. We are treated to scene after scene of Daphne wallowing in her anger at Simon for “deceiving” her, including a scene where she berates her mother for not explaining “marital relations”.
There’s also a scene where Simon’s ‘neglect’ is paralleled to abandonment when Daphne, a white woman, offers to help Marina (Ruby Barker), a Black woman, find the missing father of her unborn child. The scene reeks of the white saviour trope wherein white characters are portrayed as benevolent saviours of people of colour, so that white superiority is maintained. Furthermore, when it’s revealed that Daphne’s ‘efforts’ did not result in pregnancy, we are subjected to several minutes of her crying.
Daphne and Simon’s ‘romance’ is not only so toxic it borders on abusive, it also fails to acknowledge the racial power dynamics that are clearly at play.
At no point is Simon afforded even a fraction of the same level of sympathy as a Black victim of abuse who has now experienced marital sexual assault. Indeed, he is barely seen in the following episode. When Daphne questions his determination to not have children, he shares with her his father’s abuse, only to have her throw it back in his face as a poor excuse for lying to her.
Daphne never apologises or acknowledges the harm she committed. Their ‘quarrel’ is patched with some drawn-out ‘I love yous’ and the dubious claim that if they continue with their marriage and have a child “nothing else will matter”. Daphne and Simon’s ‘romance’ is not only so toxic it borders on abusive, it also fails to acknowledge the racial power dynamics that are clearly at play.
TLDR: white womanhood doesn’t supercede another human being’s right to choose their parenthood, even if it’s inconvenient to the white woman or the other person is Black. 🤷
— Helena HoliGays Greer (@BlumAgainCurios) December 28, 2020
Daphne’s determination to have children, despite Simon’s wishes, is framed as sympathetic and even empowering with no acknowledgement of how this is prioritising Daphne’s white womanhood over Simon’s feelings as a survivor of abuse. Daphne’s harmful behaviour is excused at every turn, while Simon is portrayed as ‘japed’ and irrational in his anger at her violation. This trope has hideous racist roots. Black men are often portrayed in media as untrustworthy and violent, and the protection of white women’s innocence was used to justify the lynching of Black men throughout history. Bridgerton echoes the racially insensitive sentiment that the feelings of white women take priority over Black men to the point where even marital sexual assault is barely a hiccup in an interracial romance.
If Bridgerton acknowledged the dynamics of interracial marriages, then perhaps the mishandling of consent between Daphne and Simon could have been avoided.
This is the problem at the heart of ‘colourblind’ stories. Blindness to one social factor leads to the ignorance of others. If Bridgerton acknowledged the dynamics of interracial marriages, then perhaps the mishandling of consent between Daphne and Simon could have been avoided. Acknowledgements of nuances make a story more compelling, not less. And, at the very least, you get a show less likely to romanticize marital sexual assault.
I can’t believe Shonda Rhimes got Netflix to fund a full-blown Bridgerton series and nowhere along the way did anyone convince her to take out the hugely problematic rape scene.
— Scafe says wear a gd mask (@erinscafe) December 28, 2020
The past decade saw the beginning of the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements. These two movements specifically advocated for sexual safety and justice against those who commit sexual violence, and for the equity of Black lives everywhere. Bridgerton premiered in the wake of these movements, yet categorically fails at a nuanced or even justifiable approach to its handling of both race and consent.
In the late 2000s, a show about an interracial romance in a fictionalised regency era with a Black monarch might have gotten away with a colourblind approach. But in the 2020s, it’s just not good enough.
Merryana Salem is a proud Wonnarua and Lebanese–Australian critic, teacher, researcher and podcaster on most social media as @akajustmerry. If you want, check out her podcast, GayV Club where she gushes about LGBT rep in media with her best friend. Either way, she hopes you ate something nice today.