Can Bridgerton Really Represent South Asian Women In A World Without Colourism Or Colonisation?
Bridgerton’s latest season isn’t all sexual innuendo and poppy orchestral covers, it’s also an escape to a recreated reality where race and class structures are largely ignored.
Bridgerton is a period fantasy intended to turn racial and class ideals during the regency period on their head and Season 2, which premiered on March 25, is no different.
As a lover of period dramas and of Sri Lankan Tamil heritage, I was excited about the casting of two Tamil actresses as the romantic leads for Bridgerton’s second season, anticipating the cultural nuance this representation would bring to the central storyline: a love triangle between Viscount Anthony Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey), Kate Sharma (Simone Ashley, Sex Education), and her half-sister Edwina (Charithra Chandran).
Though Anthony appeared in Season 1, he’s given more depth this time around, especially given his previously rake-ish ways – never forget, the man was literally having sex with an opera singer against a tree in the last season’s opening episode. The impact of losing his father and carrying family responsibility from a young age enables an emotional connection with Kate, who has lost both her parents, despite their initial dislike of one another.
In a very tense scene mid-series, Anthony and Kate confront each other about their feelings, as he utters, “You’re the bane of my existence and the object of all my desires”. As a brown woman, while watching this scene I couldn’t help but put myself in Kate’s shoes – it got me hot under the chemisette. And given the difficulty white tongues have with South Asian names, in a scene when Anthony whispers her full name, Kathani at the end, I couldn’t help but get the flutters. (Call me by my full name, Anthony!)
But Bridgerton’s newest season isn’t all innuendo and poppy orchestral covers, it’s also an escape to a recreated reality where embedded race and class structures, and historical blunders by the British, are largely ignored.
Letting Go Of British Imperialism
Throughout the eight-episode season, Anthony and Kate Sharma’s intimate moments feel Bollywood-esque, filled with sexually-loaded exchanges and almost-kisses. Other cultural nods throughout the season include imported peacocks at a wedding, to a Haldi ceremony, where a mixture composed of turmeric, gram flour, sandalwood, and oil is applied to a bride’s skin to bless and ensure she looks radiant on her big day. The soundtrack even includes an orchestral version of ‘Khabi Khushi Khabi Gham’ from Karan Johar’s iconic movie.
There’s a subtle ode to South Asian traditional styles, as well. Kate, Edwina, and Mary’s (Edwina’s mother and Kate’s stepmother, played by Shelley Conn) attire incorporate floral and paisley prints, sari blouse-like dress cuts and sleeve detail, and bangles – choodi in Hindi or kaapu in Tamil. Though the women weren’t wearing saris, this could be attributed to the need to adapt to the local culture.
However, commentary on the Sharma’s and Sheffield’s existence in regency England, along with British colonisation’s impact, is completely missing.
However, there are confusing inconsistencies in this cultural application. When referring to her parents, Kate would use the terms ‘Amma’ and ‘Appa’, commonly used in South India but then would refer to Mary, her step-mother as ‘Mama’, a regency English term. Edwina would call Kate ‘Didi‘, meaning older sister, commonly used in North India.
Kate also specifies that Edwina can speak Hindustani; a language developed in 13th Century CE to converse with Persian, Arabic, and Turkic language speaking migrants in North India (now known as the mutually intelligible languages Hindi and Urdu), then promoted by the British during their 19th Century ‘rule’ to standardise the language; and Marathi, spoken in Maharashtra. While Indian identity is complex, and South Indians commonly speak several languages, it makes the geographic origins of the Sharma family quite confusing, particularly in India where dialects, languages, religion, and cultural traditions are regionally specific and distinct.
Throughout the series, there are subtle remarks on the “pitiful excuse for English tea that people seem to adore” and how Kate schooled her sister on regency culture, including dancing the quadrille and speaking French, to show social grace amongst the elite and secure a British man with an affluent birthright. However, commentary on the Sharma’s and Sheffield’s existence in regency England, along with British colonisation’s impact, is completely missing.
Colourism And Class In The World Of Bridgerton
Jane Austen is known for exploring class mobility through marriage and there are many subtle allusions to Pride and Prejudice throughout Season 2, including Anthony emerging from the lake in a soaked white shirt and Kate’s constantly soiled hems like Elizabeth Bennet – because women who break convention must always gallivant in the mud.
Unlike Austen, race doesn’t define class in Bridgerton, with many members of royalty and upper-class being people of colour. Though the Sharma’s financial means are modest, Lady Danbury’s (Adjoa Andoh) patronage ensures access to the highest networks, hottest parties, and the most eligible bachelors in the ton.
As Edwina, a brown woman, is crowned this season’s ‘diamond’ by the queen, her social standing increases immensely, and she immediately catches Anthony’s attention. And the casting of Simone Ashley, a dark-skinned South Asian woman, as the main love interest in Kate Sharma, within a culture with a history of equating fairness and youth (Kate is declared an old maid at only six and twenty) with attractiveness and marriage prospects, ensures that traditional ideals are subverted. This is incredibly important for a Netflix property that has international reach within the South Asian diaspora and the subcontinent, to question these conventions and to elevate brown women globally as desirable and worthy of love.
Women’s sexuality often isn’t openly discussed in South Asian cultures and it’s a missed opportunity to explore Kate’s self-exploration in pre-marital and post-marital contexts.
The approach to marrying within your class is accurate for both regency and South Asian cultures. When Mary marries a law clerk with a child from a previous marriage, instead of a Maharajah, she is disowned by her family and cut off from wealth. This is what motivates Kate in finding Edwina a husband – she wants her sister Edwina to not have to choose between love and affluence. However, Kate and Anthony’s eventual union does seem to defy the hierarchy. A viscount marrying a Law Clerk’s daughter? We love to see it.
The first season of Bridgerton was a window into life after marriage – the conflict, the adjustment, and ongoing sexual power play – while Season 2 is about Kate and Anthony getting together. Women’s sexuality often isn’t openly discussed in South Asian cultures and it’s a missed opportunity to explore Kate’s self-exploration in pre-marital and post-marital contexts, the former of which we saw from Simone Ashley in Sex Education.
Centring South Asian characters in a traditionally white genre made this period-drama fanatic very pleased, though the show missed the mark at times when it came to racial depictions and leaning into its anti-colonial rhetoric.
And so thirsty readers, despite the occasional cultural faux pas, this escape into regency England is still well worth the trip. And here’s hoping the third book’s focus on Benedict Bridgerton will bring queerness to the fore.
Vyshnavee Wijekumar is a freelance writer and culture critic. She is on the board of the Melbourne Women in Film Festival and is a fortnightly film reviewer for Triple R Breakfasters. She was born in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, and has lived in this country since the age of two. You can follow her on Twitter @vylentfemme.