Warning: SPOILERS for Bridgerton.
For all that it was a fun watch, Bridgerton‘s toxic Regency-era romance failed its modern audience. The major story of season 1 revolved around the tumultuous relationship between Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) and Simon Basset (Regé-Jean Page), the Duke of Hastings. The romance, which started out as a ruse of convenience and eventually evolved into a true love connection, had more than a few ups and downs on the way to marriage.
Bridgerton is set in 1813 during London high society’s social season, which would be more aptly named “find a rich husband season” or “find a suitable wife so you can carry on the family title season.” It is the Regency equivalent of semi-speed dating, with balls arranged for girls “entering” society to meet and catch the eye of London’s most eligible (and, hopefully, rich) bachelors, even better if those bachelors have a title with their family name. It’s a far cry from modern times: The women of the noble families and landed gentry are not expected to work or taught a trade. Instead, they’re taught social skills and wifely tricks, such as how to play the pianoforte, sew, entertain guests, and play the coquette to catch a suitor’s eye. Aside from some anachronistic music in a few scenes, Bridgerton season 1 plays it straight, so it makes sense the historical accuracy of courting rituals remains intact. However, this isn’t Bridgerton‘s real issue.
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The problem with Bridgerton is not in how it portrays society but in how it portrays the relationship between Daphne and Simon. Beneath the veneer of romance, it’s a mutually manipulative and toxic relationship and one that shouldn’t be emulated. Unfortunately, it’s this sort of relationship that Bridgerton chooses to center, and in doing so, the show fails its modern audience.
Simon And Daphne’s Relationship Is Not One To Admire
The relationship between Daphne Bridgerton and Simon Basset/Hastings is one that isn’t meant to be admired; it only serves to reinforce damaging tropes about relationships. It’s presented as swoon-worthy romance, but it’s anything but romantic. Their initial relationship starts out as a mutual deception: Daphne needs to get out of her arranged engagement with the odious Lord Berbrooke, while Simon needs an excuse to stop women from throwing themselves at him, so they agree to pretend to be courting to throw others off the scent.
As their feelings for each other turn into something real, Daphne’s complete naivete and years of being taught how to manipulate men and Simon’s emotional stuntedness surface. From the start, they’re a mismatch: Daphne wants marriage and children while Simon has sworn off both entirely – a complete deal-breaker in any normal relationship. Instead, they spend the season trying to change each other, resulting in an unhealthy push-pull dynamic where they come together in passion before pushing one another away.
Worse, Daphne manipulates Simon and Simon lies to Daphne. Simon’s enormous pride regarding the vow he made to his abusive father that he’d never marry or have children is such that he’s willing to die like an absolute fool rather than marry Daphne. He even still clings to this after he potentially ruins her reputation, a scandal Lady Whistledown will surely spread far and wide. Simon tells Daphne he can’t marry her because he can’t have children – a very different thing from won’t have children. She accepts this and agrees to marry him, anyway, sacrificing her dreams of children to keep him – but neither does she really give him a choice in the matter of marriage. Upon learning the truth after they’re married, however, she traps him into finally finishing inside her when they’re having sex in the hopes of getting pregnant. It’s gross, it’s mutually disrespectful, and not once did they ever have an adult conversation about any of it. Yet Bridgerton presented their relationship as wholly romantic.
Bridgerton Differs From The Books In A Number Of Ways
Bridgerton is adapted from a series of romance novels by Julia Quinn. The first book upon which season 1 is based, The Duke and I, was first published in 2000 – twenty years ago, well before woke culture, the #MeToo movement, and our growing understanding of consent and healthy gender dynamics. It could be argued that the series’ creator, Chris Van Dusen, simply didn’t want Bridgerton‘s characters or story to deviate from the book that dramatically.
Yet, this argument falls apart considering Bridgerton has no problem making major changes from the original source material in other areas. The identity of Lady Whistledown, which isn’t revealed until the fourth book of the series, is revealed at the end of season 1. In the books, Daphne’s older brother, Anthony, is well aware of her and Simon’s ruse. The character of Marina Thompson is only mentioned in the fifth book, and then only briefly as her story was incredibly tragic; in the show, she’s given an entirely new arc and made a prominent character. The series also introduces half a dozen brand-new characters outright who never appear in the books.
Most importantly, the series changed one key, controversial sequence from the book. In the book, the scene in which Daphne forces Simon to finish inside her is, frankly, rape: In the book, Simon is drunk and sleeping when Daphne arouses him and has sex with him in his sleep, forcing him to ejaculate into her so she can become pregnant. She feels no remorse for her actions, and though the sexual assault scene is muted in Bridgerton, Daphne’s lack of remorse carries over into the series. Still, it’s clear that the creator and showrunners knew that scene from the book was problematic and changed it, which makes it even worse that they left the rest of the toxicity intact.
Bridgerton Could Have Kept The Drama Without The Toxicity
For all that Bridgerton is a fun watch, unfortunately, it relies on two badly outdated storytelling tropes: 1. A toxic relationship being passed off as romance and 2. A dramatic plot that could easily be resolved by two characters having a single conversation. It’s unfortunate as Bridgerton might have really reinvented the way romantic stories, particularly period romance, are told. The issues with London’s patriarchal society are made clear in the series. The audience is made to understand in no uncertain terms that women being traded like prized cattle is archaic and misogynist. It’s made to understand Anthony’s domineering control over his sister’s life is outrageous and wrong. It’s made to understand the utterly ridiculous pressure under which the sons and daughters of nobility lived, and that the strictly controlling and judgmental society is not something to be admired.
Had Bridgerton chosen to give Daphne and Simon a less toxic relationship, it would have stood in fascinating c0ntrast to their oppressive society as a whole. It wouldn’t have been impossible. Their dramatic arc didn’t need to revolve around lies; it could have revolved around Daphne struggling to come to terms with Simon’s vow to never have children, for example. In a society that operates on gossip and hidden truths, Simon and Daphne being honest with one another would have been an interesting and welcome mirror. Bridgerton eschewing the traditional, toxic norms of the age to show a healthier relationship that still isn’t without its troubles would have given audiences – particularly the women watching – something fresh and admirable. Unfortunately, Bridgerton wasted that opportunity by lazily reinforcing outdated, damaging and tired stereotypes about the “ideal” romantic relationship, and in doing so did a disservice to its audience.
Next: Everything We Know About Bridgerton Season 2
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