We Need To Talk About The Fatphobia In ‘Bridgerton’
Penelope Featherington deserves better.
Bridgerton is back for a second steamy season full of Regency-era courtship and horniness, but the show’s treatment of its main fat character has not improved.
After a debut season of gorgeous gowns, classy string quartet covers and sexy times, Bridgerton‘s second season has been very highly anticipated. The series follows a handful of families as their adult children compete to be courted and married during the height of London’s matchmaking season. It’s a pot is perpetually stirred by the mysterious Lady Whistledown, a regency era Gossip Girl who publishes a pamphlet revelling in the matchmaking season’s scandals.
Every year, the Queen chooses the season’s main character — I mean, “diamond” — who is the most desirable bachelorette to woo. The backbone of the show’s drama, romance, and comedy centres on who desires the diamond and who the diamond herself desires. If Bridgerton is about anything, it’s about desire; the expression of it, the repression of it, the social politics of it, and even the cruelty of it.
So, it’s therefore fascinating to see what, or rather whom, Bridgerton deems undesirable. The series has been applauded for its diverse approach to the era, even if its approach to race leans into utopic colourblindness and not always for the better. Members of the upper class, or the “ton” as they call it, are from a range of different ethnic and racial backgrounds. So far, the series’ main couples have been interracial too. Season 1 saw Daphne Bridgerton and Simon Basset pair off on a steamy whirlwind romance, while Season 2 sees Daphne’s brother Anthony fall head over heels for Kate Sharma.
What’s The Deal With Penelope Featherington?
The series’ efforts in diversifying the romantic period drama notwithstanding, Bridgerton still has a fatphobia problem in its second season. Penelope Featherington, played by Derry Girls‘ Nicola Coughlan, has the distinction of being the series’ main plus-size character. Also, the aforementioned Lady Whistledown’s secret identity was revealed to the audience in Season 1 as none other than Penelope herself.
Thus, Season 2 irons out the logistics of Penelope’s dual identity, showing how she uses her status as the youngest and most ignored Featherington to eavesdrop and gather gossip for her Lady Whistledown pamphlet. We learn she publishes Lady Whistledown’s pamphlet from a publisher in the lower, poorer parts of London. When there, Penelope disguises herself as a maid, delivering Whistledon’s pages on her mistresses’ behalf.
However, things get complicated when she is spotted downtown. To make matters more difficult, Penelope’s bestie Eloise Bridgerton is hot on the trail of getting to the bottom of Lady Whistledown’s identity. Eloise even tracks Whistledown to the downtown publishing house and notices some idiosyncrasies in Whistledown’s prose that Penelope redresses in an effort not to be discovered. Eventually, however, Eloise works out her bestie Penelope is Whistledown and swears never to speak to her again, after all the scandal and shame she’s brought on the Bridgerton household with her gossip.
We also learn that Penelope squirrels away the money she makes as Whistledown, despite her family’s risk of destitution. The Featherington’s financial prospects occupy much of Season 2’s airtime, yet Penelope never offers up the money she makes as Whistledown as some sort of emergency aid, preferring to let her mother and siblings manipulate their way into finding a new benefactor for the family as fuel for her nom-de-plume’s pamphlet.
The series’ other major plotline for Penelope is her seemingly unrequited love for Colin Bridgerton. It’s established throughout Seasons 1 and 2 that Penelope has been in love with Colin since they were children and she almost confesses as such on multiple occasions. She uses her secret influence as Whistledown to sabotage Colin’s prospects of marrying Marina Thompson by spreading rumours of infidelity.
“Are you mad? I would never dream of courting Penelope Featherington. Not in your wildest fantasies,” he says.
But Colin prefers Marina Thompson as a romantic interest, going so far in Season 2 as to call upon her at her new home where she lives with her husband and children to see if she may still hold a candle for him. It takes Marina reminding him she is married now to someone else and directly pointing to Penelope’s feelings for him to realise Penelope is a viable romantic option for him.
This culminates in Colin asking Penelope to dance at a party. However, after the pair share their dance, Penelope overhears Colin berating some friends for assuming he’d court Penelope at all. “Are you mad? I would never dream of courting Penelope Featherington. Not in your wildest fantasies,” he says.
Season 2 of Bridgerton ends with Penelope resolving to continue writing Lady Whistledown’s gossip, despite her falling out with Eloise, Colin, and her family’s abysmal financial prospects.
How Is Any Of This Fatphobic?
Well, for starters, it’s truly bizarre that Bridgerton as a series applies modern notions of fatphobia to the Regency period. What evidence exists of Regency beauty standards point to larger, fatter bodies being preferred among the wealthy as they were a sign of wealth and opulence.
That Penelope is consistently framed as undesirable by Colin, her family, and the fact that her awkward costuming contrasts with the elegance of her skinny peers, is far removed from what we know of history. Bridgerton has never purported itself as a series that is concerned with historical accuracy, evidenced in its race-inclusivity that includes making Queen Charlotte an undeniably and openly Black woman (historians have heavily debated her ancestry for decades). The series’ embracing of a more ahistorical, modern approach to the period allows it to be so diverse in its casting, so colourful in its costuming, and far more charitable in its depiction of upper-class London.
It thus feels strange that Bridgerton would choose to apply modernity in such a negative way when it comes to Penelope being plus size. As the show’s only fat character of consequence, Penelope is consistently cast as ignored, and undesirable by the ton, her family, and her childhood crush — even filling the trope of the funny fat friend for Eloise in Season 1.
The modern correlation between fatness and lack of moral goodness also manifests in Penelope. The Fat Villain trope continues to be perpetuated, simultaneously demonising fatness, dehumanising fat people, and equating body size with moral worth. The Fat Villain is often portrayed as greedy, petty, pathetic, and bitter because of their fatness. Penelope may not be freezing the good guys in cryo-sleep for fun like Jabba the Hutt, but she certainly uses Lady Whistledown to antagonise, punish, and best those she does not like. Lest we forget, she ruined the marriage chances of her own cousin by revealing she was pregnant in the pamphlet all because Colin was courting her. Not to mention how she outs her own best friend Eloise as a rebel feminist, knowing it would shame the Bridgerton household.
Across two seasons, a major selling point of Bridgerton has been its diversity. But it’s becoming clear this diversity doesn’t extend past a relatively narrow embracement of thin, able-bodied, cis-gendered people. Even its race representation leaves much to be desired at times, and let’s not start on its total lack of LGBTIQ representation.
Bridgerton’s aesthetic is dedicated to the decadence of the Regency upper-class, except when it comes to the era’s known preference for fatness. Modern ideals of thinness being equal to beauty and goodness are advocated for by the series, despite every other inch of the show being steeped in Regency-era sensibilities. It’s not that Penelope can’t be the villain, or that the plotlines written for her are inherently bad, but she bears the burden of being the shows’ only significant plus-size representation.
If Bridgerton was truly dedicated to showing diverse bodies and truly dedicated to the Regency aesthetic, Penelope’s fatness would not be an issue. The show needs to be mindful of which bodies it deems worthy of romance.
Merryana Salem (they/them) is a proud Wonnarua and Lebanese–Australian writer, critic, teacher and podcaster on most social media as @akajustmerry. If you want, check out their podcast, GayV Club where they yarn about LGBTIQ media. Either way, they hope you ate something nice today.