Netflix’s latest television series Bridgerton has become wildly popular in a short period of time. But how well does it portray women in the Regency era?
Warning: This article contains spoilers for Bridgerton.
Bridgerton, Shonda Rhimes’s new series for Netflix, has become wildly popular since its release on Christmas Day. It’s a Regency-era period drama that follows the Bridgerton family and their adventures in London high society.
It’s a show largely about women based on a book series by Julia Quinn that caters largely to women and definitely passes the Bechdel test. So – can we call it a feminist TV show?
Obviously, feminism is complicated and there are lots of different theories about what makes a piece of art feminist or not. But, I wanted to delve into how the show portrays women and the ways in which I think it excels.
While Regency England was certainly a patriarchy, we see the London Ton is ruled by two women: Queen Charlotte and the mysterious gossip sheet writer, Lady Whisteldown. Yet, the young women of the show are painfully aware of the fact that women have few options in life.
They also lament the things that are kept from them as girls, like basic sex education. At one point, middle sister Eloise (Claudia Jessie) demands to know, “How did she become with child if she’s not married?” But her mother hushes up her older brothers before they can provide any real information.
Later, Daphne receives a useless explanation of sex from her mother on her wedding night that leaves her totally unprepared for her (steamy) scenes ahead. She even calls her mother out for not giving her the knowledge that she needed to be comfortable going into her marriage.
Pregnancy outside of wedlock, considered very scandalous at the time, is a major topic on the show as Marina Thompson (Ruby Barker) is unwed and expecting. Though the series explores the difficulty of her situation, it never shames her for it despite the way that others in the show react to it.
Eloise Bridgerton is the main source of what we would recognize as modern feminism in the show. She is uninterested in being a debutante or finding a husband and would rather go to university.
Her older brother Benedict (Luke Thompson) and her best friend Penelope (Nicola Coughlan) are sympathetic to her wishes. In fact, Penelope and Eloise’s friendship, though not without some trials, is one of my favorite depictions of female friendship seen onscreen lately.
Eloise’s older sister and the show’s main character Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor) is her definite opposite. She is beautiful, kind, and eager to become a wife and mother.
Characters like Daphne, who is more of a Meg March or a Jane Bennet than an Elizabeth or a Jo, are rarely the protagonist in popular period dramas. The show is certain to demonstrate that though Daphne is very concerned with marriage and is praised for her beauty, she is still strong.
Though Daphne is happy to follow the traditional path laid out for her, she values her agency and getting to make her own choices about her suitors. When her older brother Anthony (Jonathan Bailey) promises her hand to a suitor without consulting her, she is (understandably) livid.
She stands up to him, telling him that she refuses to enter into a marriage not of her choosing. “You have no idea what it is to be a woman,” Daphne says.
One woman I wish we saw more of in the show is Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel), who is managing running both the Ton and the country as her husband King George’s madness debilitates him. We don’t see much of her politics, but we do get to witness the way that she can decide the fate of a young woman by bestowing her favor.
She’s far from the only powerful woman. Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh) is a fantastic character and Violet Bridgerton (Ruth Gemmell), the matriarch of the family, demonstrates how women have a unique ability to get things done.
When the men can’t solve the issue of a persistent suitor, Violet uses the power of female gossip to send him running.
The characters of Bridgerton, from Daphne to Eloise, aren’t afraid to point out the unfairness of the world they live in whether it’s a brother deciding their marriage prospects or a father gambling away their money.
But beyond the characters themselves, the show itself has a definite feminist lens. Bridgerton is full of steamy sex scenes, but they are uniquely focused on female pleasure.
There is male nudity within the first five minutes of the show and the nudity is fairly evenly distributed throughout, as opposed to many shows that feature female nudity much more heavily.
One of the hottest scenes features the dashing Simon (Regé-Jean Page) telling Daphne about masturbation and we later see her figuring it out on her own. There seems to be a running trend of media beginning to acknowledge female pleasure, both with and without a partner, more and this certainly contributes to it.
The show certainly feels like a romance novel brought to life, which makes sense as it’s based on one. Romance novels are often looked down upon as frivolous; yet another thing with a largely female audience, like boy bands, that are seen as less worthy or lowbrow.
For Bridgerton to be enjoying this success and having been given this large of a budget by Netflix indicates perhaps a beginning of a shift in these views. This is to say nothing of how fantastic it is to see a leading man who is clearly emotional and whose lack of communication is shown as a flaw.
Of course, the show could do much better in terms of intersectional feminism as it barely reckons with the integrated world that it sets up (as I discussed in my review). However, it does seem like a step in the right direction to have such a diverse cast.
Bridgerton presents a group of women who demonstrate that there is no one correct way to be a strong female character. For that, I’m grateful and hoping for a season 2 filled with even more female agency, female friendships, and pretty dresses too.
What did you think of Bridgerton? Are you hoping for a second season? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter.