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  • Writer's pictureMerle Emrich

Bridgerton: Escapism, and Fatigue

Dearest Gentle Reader,

This author cannot help but wonder about the success of the Netflix series Bridgerton (2020–present) as it has entered its third season this summer. The first part of Season 3 accumulated an impressive 45.1 million views in just one weekend when it was released. This success does not come as a surprise, however, if one considers the popularity of the previous two seasons—landing Season 2 on the 9th and Season 1 on the 4th place of Netflix’s Most Popular TV (English) list as of June 9, 2024. But what precisely is it that has crowned this regency-inspired romance drama based on the novels by Julia Quinn the Diamond of Netflix?

To those of you who have not been following the drama and gossip of this particular story, allow me to introduce you to the 1800s London society of Bridgerton. Throughout the series, we closely follow the life of the Bridgerton family during the Regency era and their peers as one young lady after the other makes her entrance into society hoping to secure the best possible marriage. Now, dear readers, our heroines do not only attempt to find love and to secure your standing in society under the watchful eyes of the Queen and with the interference of mothers in the match-making but while the gossip of the ton is being spread by one anonymous Lady Whistledown with the potential to increase or ruin their prospects.

Before you say that this is a familiar story—after all the theme of balancing love and social status under the scrutiny of society is one we know all too well from other notable stories such as Jane Austen’s novels and Downton Abbey—I ask you to turn your keen minds to the characters one encounters. Bridgerton introduces a Black Queen Charlotte along with other non-white principles characters including Lady Danbury, the Duke of Hastings, and the sisters Kate and Edwina Sharma. 

The Regency era represented on our screens takes a liberal approach to historical accuracy and instead seeks to reinvent “the period drama through a color-conscious lens”, as screenwriter Chris Van Dusen is reported to have said. Several members of the cast welcomed this approach as it enabled them to play roles that would have previously been denied to them due to the color of their skin. Undoubtedly, the diversity of the characters is well-perceived by the show’s viewers, as well.

Bridgerton does not discuss serious themes such as being queer in a society that criminalizes homosexuality or racial discrimination and colonialism. Far from it. Instead, it creates a romanticized Regency era void of such struggles and concerns as a utopian story world in which being vegetarian appears to be far more shocking than being an upper-class person of color. 

Sure, the class still structures this society but we barely get a glimpse at those of lower classes, the occasional servant and the Mondrich family aside, the latter being eventually promoted into “polite society” thus keeping the utopian bubble of balls, afternoon tea, and gossip intact. Patriarchy, too, exists in the world of the Bridgertons but is mellowed by a narrative that to a great extent focuses on female characters who are too affluent, too occupied with the gossip of the ton and too surrounded by largely supportive male characters to pick a serious fight with patriarchy.

While the female gaze of Bridgerton—which, in this case, undercuts the male gaze by prioritizing nuanced representations of character over plot—as well as the diversity of the cast have been highlighted as a positive development, in particular, the series’ color consciousness (or blindness) has been criticized. However much romanticized and transformed into a utopian version of itself, Regency-era British society was one created in part through racism and colonialism. Thus, critics question how conscious of race (and racism) a story can be that does not acknowledge and represent this reality and therefore inadvertently risks negating the experiences of people of color in the name of diversity.

With regard to this debate, it is evident that racism and the skin color of the characters are much more a topic for debate among the denizens of the “real world” than among those of the story world. Yet, despite some eyebrows being raised and concerns voiced, the success of Bridgerton speaks for itself: Diversity seems to be a change to the typically all (or at least predominately) white period dramas that is welcomed by the series’ viewers.

Is it diversity, then, that makes Bridgerton so popular? I would argue that there is more to it than that.

We live in a world that is uncertain and often overwhelming, marked by economic and financial instability, a resurgence of the right and extreme right, climate change, war, and social polarization. In the context of COVID-19, philosopher Rosi Braidotti argued that “[e]xhaustion and fatigue—a recurrent sense of hopelessness and impossibility—have become prominent features of the contemporary psychic landscapes.” She even goes so far as to distinguish between different types of fatigue including: 

  • technology fatigue resulting in the constant presence and rapid advancements of technology, constant information overload, and connectivity;

  • mental fatigue from the stress and emotional strain that modern life and work exert on us;

  • existential fatigue which is reflected in many people wondering about the meaning and purpose of life in an increasingly complex world amounting to something close to a collective existential crisis;

  • political fatigue as the result of continuous political engagement, debate, and activism that leads to slow progress at best.

  • ethical fatigue which is connected to people struggling to live in accordance with their values in a complex and often contradictory world;

  • environmental fatigue in the face of climate change and ecological crises combined with the pressure to act sustainably.

In contrast to that, the world of Bridgerton is certain, the plot predictable to the point of being nearly void of suspense, the setting romanticized and marked by the absence of any “real” concerns. It would not be surprising then if the series has gained a large following because its viewers seek to escape the complexity and hopelessness of the real world for a few hours to watch yet another Bridgerton child get engaged and married rather than worry about whether to buy organic food wrapped in plastic or plastic-free non-organic food, whether they will get a job despite their foreign-sounding name if the war in Gaza or Ukraine will further escalate or whether Trump will be president again and if perhaps none of it matters because we will fail to prevent humanity spiraling into further chaos due to climate change.

But what to do when the episode is over, when the end credits of the season finale run across the screen? 

Braidotti advises us to come together; to acknowledge our differences but also that we face the challenges of this—the real—world together, and can therefore act together. She argues that we need to not only mourn together—both the human as well as the other-than-human losses—but also recognize the normativity of the Cartesian, masculine, white, Eurocentric, heteronormative, able-bodied, specist, and urbanized ordering of society, and find a language through which we can express current events as well as our thoughts and feelings about them.

Written by Merle Emrich.

Cover photo created using AI.


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