‘Bridgerton’ Finally Harnesses The Power Of The Romance Book Community
To say that Julia Quinn and the Bridgerton books are an institution within the romance community is an exercise in understatement.
If you haven’t heard of Bridgerton by now, I hope the rock you’re living under is warm and super cosy.
Debuting on Netflix 25 December with eight episodes, Bridgerton has been streamed in more than 63 million households and is on track to be the streaming site’s fifth biggest original show. The success is dizzying and there’s even talk by people on the show of plans for a further eight seasons. But romance readers have known the appeal of the franchise for a very long time, and Netflix understood the community in a way that has guaranteed its success.
To say that author Julia Quinn and her alphabetically named, chestnut-haired octet of siblings are an institution within the romance community is an exercise in understatement.
Appearing first in The Duke and I, in 2000, the Bridgertons weren’t Quinn’s first foray into linked books. She had previously published seven novels into three series. When first conceptualised, the Bridgerton series was supposed to be of a similar make-up: four connected books set in Regency England. However, the intense popularity and success of the first few stories led to the series being expanded to include eight books — one for every Bridgerton sibling.
Since the original series’ conclusion, there has been a collection of second epilogues, two short story collections built around Lady Whistledown’s scandal sheet, The Smith-Smythe quartet, about a family whose annual event many Bridgertons attend, a handful of stand-alone novels set in the Bridgerton ‘verse, and Quinn’s current series, the Rokesbury series, a prequel series which features the previous generation of Bridgertons (our OG Bridgertons feature occasionally as children).
Quinn won a RITA award for the last novel, On The Way to the Wedding, was inducted into the Romance Writers of America’s Hall of Fame shortly afterwards, and has hit the New York Times’ Bestsellers list for each of her 19 latest novels. As a choice for an adaptation, Shonda Rhimes could not have made a more obvious or beloved choice: the Bridgertons provide a complete universe in and of themselves and are as close to romance canon as it gets.
The Bridgerton plot reminds me so much of those period romance novels I used to “borrow” from my auntie 😂
— 🍔🗺 (@JuliaInezM) January 12, 2021
The Power Of Romance
Shondaland’s adaptation of the Bridgerton books isn’t the first romance novel adaptation; it’s not even the first for Netflix. However, it is the first on the streaming site to receive this kind of budget and marketing push.
Traditionally, romance novels aren’t picked up for splashy, big budget book-to-screen adaptations unless they somehow break through the romance reader barrier to more mainstream success, like Fifty Shades of Grey. This isn’t to say that romance novels don’t get adapted; Hallmark regularly draws from the sweeter romance writers like Debbie Macomber for their sugary films, Lifetime has adapted several of Nora Roberts’ novels into films starring C-list celebrities, and PassionFlix is a streaming service that exists only to adapt well-loved romance novels into films unique to the platform, including Australian author Kylie Scott.
Netflix itself has already adapted Virgin River, based on the best-selling novel by Robyn Carr, and Sweet Magnolias, based on the well-loved series by Sherryl Woods. However, the closest example to the sheer number of dollars thrown at Bridgerton is Starz’ adaptation of Outlander, a television adaptation now in its sixth season based on the novels by Diana Gabaldon. Outlander has a similar level of production value and certainly spent a great deal of marketing cash on launch to incite the curiosity of readers and non-readers alike and get people tuning in.
The difference, however, is in the attitude of the adaptations around the romance genre. Gabaldon has famously denied that her books are romance (or even romance-adjacent) even as she writes the ongoing romantic story of Claire and Jamie. The show relies heavily on the romance to keep viewers, but has never embraced the romance genre, calling itself a historical drama and talking up the fantasy and science fiction elements of the story, likely to create cross-over appeal to Game of Thrones viewers.
Bridgerton, in contrast, has embraced its romance novel roots with Julia Quinn being invited to set, the actors reading from the novels to camera, and the marketing centring the love story and genre romance source material throughout. In short, the Bridgerton marketing team understood the sheer power of mobilising the romance community and made sure that the readers were not marginalised nor dismissed, and it is in this way that it set itself apart.
And the romance community responded by doing what the romance community does: showing up and turning out.
— ᴍᴀʀʏ ʟᴏᴜ (@mary__lou_) January 17, 2021
The Romance Community
First, it’s important to recognise that the romance community includes hundreds of millions of readers all over the world, and are not a homogenous blob of lonely, cat-sweater wearing women.
The romance community is fiercely loyal to their genre and take any criticisms with very little chill. As romance writer Melissa Blue says on Twitter, “Don’t piss off Romkanda. You don’t want that smoke”.
Don't piss off Romkanda. You don't want that smoke.
— Melissa the Unicorn Blue (@mel_thegreat) January 8, 2020
Netflix accessed both that loyalty and the mobility in its ongoing campaign in the lead-up to Bridgerton, and its ongoing marketing afterwards. From filming a behind-the-scenes special of Julia Quinn touring the set to drip-feeding casting choices to releasing extended trailers of beloved scenes like a Bridgerton family dinner, Netflix had the romance community tuned in and dissecting the choices months before the show landed, and the online buzz launched a thousand social media fan accounts that endlessly mined the cast and crews’ accounts for sneak peeks.
Even if you weren’t a fan of the books (or indeed had never read them!), you could not be a part of the romance community without being aware that Bridgerton was on its way.
For readers familiar with the series, the show freshened up the series and brought it more in-line with a 2020 production than the books published 20 years before, showing that historical romance may be set in the past, but it carries contemporary mores. First and foremost is the alternate universe set up by Chris van Dusen through the acknowledgement of Queen Charlotte as a person of colour and the creation of a new generation of aristocrats of colour. The introduction of characters of colour into the show has been both applauded and criticised by those within the romance community and without, but is of note for two particular reasons:
First, Julia Quinn’s full-throated support of the casting choices suggest that she has perhaps grown as a person beyond some of her past dubious statements about race in the Regency period and romance readers love a redemption story. Second, by creating this AU, van Dusen has created space to have very contemporary, very necessary discussions about the writing of history, race in the UK, and the distribution of wealth against what is essentially a pretty, pastel-coloured backdrop.
Second, as is very familiar when reading romance novels but not necessarily found in romance depictions on screens, the female gaze is centred throughout the course of the series, not just in reference to the show’s many (many) sex scenes. Bridgerton unabashedly centres the women in its universe, and the women centred are many and varied, with different wants, needs, characteristics, and personalities. While the men may bluster about with their attempts to be head of the household (looking at you, Anthony) or focusing on bad fathers instead of the supportive women they had in their lives (oh, hey Simon!), it is the women who drive the narrative forward, using the tools they have available to them. And while there are certainly men’s stories to be told, rather than focusing on the oft-trod plotlines of honour and duty, Bridgerton focuses on and prioritises the role of relationships in one’s life: familial, friendship, and romantic.
Romance scholars, writers, and readers have been telling those unfamiliar with the genre for years that romance novels are not only about the central love story, but about connection and community over individuality, and Bridgerton puts it right there on the screen. And while romance is doing its own growing in terms of representation of non-monogamous, non-hetero romantic love, Bridgerton has provided space on that front as well.
#Bridgerton romance between Daphne and Simon is quite beautiful but how about Daphne's brothers? 😂 I find them so interesting especially Benedick and Antony. I'd love to see their stories unfold in the future 😊 #bridgertonnetflix pic.twitter.com/WibR8ixrCn
— FallingStar✨ (@PrincesaDemy) January 15, 2021
This is not to say that Netflix is entirely successful in its efforts. There is still the matter of reproductive coercion that Daphne enacts on Simon at the end of episode 6 (Swish), a scene that more than one writer has pointed out does not need to exist in order to generate the same conflict, and in which the breezy post-racism society that the inclusive casting was meant to create falls down hard.
In the book scene, criticised by Romancelandia long before it appeared on the screen, Daphne is already aware of Simon’s abusive childhood and his relationship with his father. Further, Simon is drunk and Daphne’s point-of-view narration in the scene shows a clear decision to take what she wants from him while she has the power and benefit of sobriety. While the TV series cleans the context up quite a bit, making it more of an experiment on Daphne’s part as she works through her growing understanding of reproduction, it is still a scene that sits very poorly. Privileging Daphne’s desire to be a mother over Simon’s right to bodily autonomy and, more importantly, creating a space where a white woman takes what she wants from a Black man without consequence ignores the lessons learned through the ongoing #metoo and #blm movements and undermines the show’s aims to be a period drama for a new generation.
Bridgerton might exist in a post-racial world, but Netflix viewers do not, and this is a serious misstep on the part of the showrunners in what is otherwise a smart and frothy fantasy.
However, the most potent part of the romance community that Netflix has harnessed is the ongoing and constant critical engagement with the texts and adaptation by the romance community in romance spaces.
It is here that Netflix will benefit, because these are conversations that can last decades and will keep Bridgerton as relevant going forward as the Bridgerton books continue to be two decades after their release. Critical and ongoing analysis isn’t normally associated with the romance fiction community, however Netflix knew it was there, and it will be Bridgerton that thrives because of it.