Content Warning: Sexual Assault, Rape
Are you a fan of period dramas and trivial gossip? If so, Bridgerton is the show for you, until episode six...
On December 25, 2020, Chris Van Dusen’s Bridgerton became another hit on Netflix. Bridgerton is an adaptation of Julia Quinn’s regency romance series of the same name. The Shondaland production’s diverse cast portrays eight Bridgerton siblings at the height of the courting season in London 1813.
Anonymous gossip columnist Lady Whistledown (Julie Andrews) narrates the character’s scandals, shade, and slander, similar to Gossip Girl. Other than drama, the show focuses on the theme of consent: to marry, to love, to bed. However, a closer look at the eight-episode series ought to convince viewers otherwise.
Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) is the focus of the show. She searches for a suitor, but is intent to marry for love. Daphne negotiates pressures from family, friends, and the judgemental public as she eagerly, and sometimes ignorantly, looks for her best match.
At the first social event of the season, Daphne meets her eldest brother's old friend Simon Bassett, Duke of Hastings (Rége-Jean Page); the two banter like old pals. The chemistry between Daphne and Simon is undeniable, but Daphne’s brother immediately rules Simon out as a possible suitor because of his clear desire to never marry.
After Simon sees Daphne fend off an unwanted suitor with a feisty jab to the nose, the two hatch a plan to make the summer more bearable for Simon and more fruitful for Daphne. They agree to pretend to like one another so Simon can appear unavailable to girls and their parents, and so that, due to the Duke’s attention, Daphne can appear more desirable to the rest of society.
Meanwhile, Simon and Daphne develop real feelings for each other, share a scandalous smooch at a ball, and, to cover up the infamy of the kiss, are forced to marry. This is only the beginning of the mess that is their inability to communicate with one another.
The problem with Bridgerton
Content Warning: explicit discussion of sexual violence.
The theme of consent stems from Daphne’s persistent feminist dialogue and hope for a marriage of love, like her parent’s marriage. The show is clear on its message against forceful marriages, but contradicts this stance on several occasions, which ought to concern viewers.
After Daphne and Simon’s marriage, episode five presents the new couple’s intense sex, and, in episode six, a major violation of consent transpires. To elaborate, Daphne’s mother failed to educate her children about sex, which leads to Daphne’s ignorance about sex and pregnancy. Simon fails to elaborate on the information that he cannot have children, so Daphne assumes he is physically incapable. As a result of awful communication, Simon fails to elaborate on this, so Daphne misunderstands the situation. Because Simon pulls out before climax, Daphne is suspicious of him and, rather than talk with him about it, takes action.
In episode six, Daphne fears that Simon lies about his inability to impregnate her. Because of this assumption, Daphne forces him to finish inside her as he gasps for her to wait. After this, Daphne gaslights and blames Simon for the miscommunication and her mistrust of him: “You do not lie to the one you love. You do not trick the one you love. You do not humiliate the one you love.”
Although Daphne’s anger and betrayal towards Simon’s dishonest communication is valid, her sexual assault against him in an effort to get answers is immature, toxic, and plain rape. Even worse, no one addresses the assault after it occurs, and Daphne never acknowledges her wrongdoings.
In the next episodes, Simon struggles with trauma while Daphne remains indifferent, until Simon proves his love for her and apologizes—for being the victim. The audacity of this show to shape it’s story around a sexual assault and ignore it’s existence had my whole house screaming about consent at the television.
Worst of all: The showrunners know that this is rape. In this adaptation, the scene is less explicit, unlike in Quinn’s original. This subliminal message contradicts and erases the superficial message of consent. Because of this, the creators effectively normalize a narrative where a woman assaults and violates a black man without consequence. The show perpetuates society's erasure of black men’s pain. Daphne’s reaction to Simon after she rapes him reinforces a narrative that black men are to blame for the violence others perpetrate against them. While the show is successful for its inclusive production and diverse cast, Daphne’s violations of consent cancel out any racial progress that could have been made.
I’m tired of the performative activism. If viewers protest about social issues but ignore the obvious sexual violence in Bridgerton, then what does that say about the state of entertainment and its portrayal of activism in general? People are far more in favor of comfortable silence rather than acknowledging the issue at hand, which only normalizes instances like the sexual assault in Bridgerton. This message is a complete disservice to the public and promotes an idea of consent that is hypocritical, toxic, and tone-deaf.
Netflix has created a habit in this line of insensitivity, and has made a disrespectful profit as a result. Odds are if more people were to notice the wrongdoings in Bridgerton over how steamy the rest of their sex is, people would protest to Netflix and the streaming service wouldn’t be skating by so easily. Instead, this show, which so many people love, lies to, tricks, and humiliates its viewers with a contradictory message about consent, and gets away with it.