By Mira Assaf Kafantaris, Ambereen Dadabhoy, Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall, Jessica Parr, and Kerry Sinanan
From the celebratory to the declamatory, there has been a range of responses to Netflix’s much-anticipated Bridgerton series, which was released on December 25, 2020. As academics who research the histories and cultures of race, slavery, empire, and colonialism, we were intrigued to see how a prestige drama set in Regency England, spearheaded by the influential Black executive producer Shonda Rhimes, would approach the sensitive topic of race. After a summer of racial reckoning, where #BlackLivesMatter activists brought down statues of enslavers like Christopher Columbus, Edward Colston, and Cecil Rhodes, we know our students will come to our classes with this series in their culture-scape, particularly its treatment of race and the early nineteenth century. Simultaneously, calls for more diverse casting have been growing as fans become weary of seeing white faces in period dramas with few opportunities for Black and Brown screenwriters and actors.
Netflix’s decision to air a series, adapted from Julia Quinn’s romance novels, promised to remake the period drama with a multicultural cast. As Chris Van Dusen, the show’s executive producer, asserted, “The show thrives in the space of being relatable to whoever’s watching, no matter who you are, so having such a diverse group of characters affords us the ability to explore such an array of storylines. Race is as much a part of the show’s conversation as class and gender are.” The show promises multiracial equality, or “escapism”, as Van Dusen tells us. We recognize that this multiracial casting — and the possibility of escape from the traumas of the present — has been deeply satisfying for many viewers. Nevertheless, as scholars, we are troubled that this escapist fantasy relies upon some deeply problematic myths of race, gender, and class that do not dismantle the overall frame of whiteness underlying so much period drama. If race, class, and gender are part of the deliberate conversation of Bridgerton then, we ask, what kind of conversation is it encouraging viewers to have? In a world where Meghan Markle endured insidious racism as soon as her relationship with Prince Harry became public, it might seem as if having Golda Rosheuvel play a Black Queen Charlotte is progress. However, simply placing Black faces in high places, to use Cornell West’s phrase, is not revolutionary.
It is important to recognize that the pleasures that the series promises — sensual, visual, culinary, fashionable, and escapist — rest on the materiality of Regency Britain, the lavish and inordinate wealth of which came directly from its colonized territories, primarily via enslaved people’s labour and the looting of India. As Saidiya Hartman and other Black writers tell us, the afterlives of slavery persist in our historical moment, and continue to be lived by Black people now — a fact that must be fully acknowledged in 2021. The escapism that Bridgerton promises, then, is one that asks viewers to ignore white supremacy’s sway over Black and Brown lives, particularly in the period it depicts.
In this piece, a few scholars of race and slavery from the premodern era to the present, with a focus on the early nineteenth century, present and elaborate upon commentary we made on Twitter to discuss the erasures that may not be immediately evident in the series because of its much heralded diversity. Below, we present our individual perspectives in a roundtable format to offer additional views. We intend our contribution to add to the rich and divergent conversations already taking place about other aspects of the series, whether laudatory or critical; we recognize that the series has appealed to viewers from many backgrounds, even as we remain uncomfortable with other aspects of the series, as we discuss below.
Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall: On Studios and Patterns of Erasure
I agree that it is necessary to interrogate Bridgerton’s storyline and casting. It’s so important that what we see on screen comes from diverse writers; it helps us get a more accurate depiction of the past. At the same time, it’s crucial to recognize that writers and directors don’t have total freedom to shape the stories we see; the corporate studios that fund and distribute content have tremendous power here. Producers and directors of color have talked candidly about changes made to scripts they have written or proposed. For instance, A’Lelia Bundles (the great-great-granddaughter and biographer of the pioneering Black entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker) shared her disappointment in 2020 when Netflix’s miniseries on Walker was full of distortions. In a piece entitled “Netflix’s ‘Self Made’ Suffers From Self-Inflicted Wounds,” Bundles explained how the studio had insisted on inventing details — even adding stereotypes — to make the story more melodramatic. From doing the research for my forthcoming book Slave Revolt on Screen: The Haitian Revolution in Film and Video Games, I also knew how often Black writers and directors have had studios press them to change storylines, to make them more palatable to white viewers — particularly involving stories about slavery.
I started watching Bridgerton thinking about these larger patterns. Though Shonda Rhimes is the show’s executive producer, the show’s creator, Chris van Dusen, is white, as are several of its writers; there is also a growing literature in Film Studies showing how Netflix shapes its programs. In addition, before I started watching, my friend Annette Joseph-Gabriel had hinted at aspects of the series that she found problematic, though she found it appealing in other regards. I tried to give myself over to this imagined world, and enjoy it as entertainment. But by episode 6, I was increasingly uncomfortable, and decided to type out some of what I was observing. Here’s my tweetstorm from Dec. 28, 2020, unedited!
A thread on #Bridgerton (OR, why we get this shlock instead of a Haitian Revolution epic!).
#Bridgerton is a post-racialist fantasy. In its utopian world, Blacks & whites are equally powerful in Eng. Or rather, the scale is tipped toward Blacks, since Queen Charlotte…
..(rather than simply having been rumored to be of mixed racial heritage & passing as white) is presented as a Black woman reigning openly as one. There is no slavery or brutality — or acknowledged racism — in this world. Servants and aristocrats alike are of mixed hues.
The benevolent intention here was to repopulate London with POC — after so many “costume drama” productions which erased Black Londoners from history. GREAT! However, Bridgerton
OVERCORRECTS, to create a warped world in which (as Lady Danbury tells Hastings), the…
Black kingdom & white kingdom were simply united when Charlotte married King George — &now they all need to continue unity & mixing. THIS IS SHLOCK, I repeat. Where was all of this money coming from? Do we see the brutality of the enslavement that was actually going on…
…in the colonial plantations these aristos owned or invested in? Nope, nope, nope — that would be too stressful for white people.
@Netflix would not be going #ChaChing while the view count rolled up. In fact, Bridgerton
fits into a long Hollywood studio tradition…
…where films on Black history (I am using history loosely here) are funded only when they make white people COMFORTABLE. Slave revolt stories in which brutal enslavers receive retributive justice (like a Haitian Rev epic that would sympathize with enslaved Haitians)?
Too stressful for white people! So studios won’t fund (“where are the white heroes?” they asked Danny Glover when he was trying to make his Toussaint Louverture epic). But stories in which whites and Blacks live together in racial harmony: studios love that sh*t!
Hence: the integrated costume drama. If you love British royalty & arist’y — but felt kind of bad b/c it was depicted as a thoroughly white world — feel guilty no more! Here’s more of the same — but hip & integrated!! (let’s NOT discuss how the wealth was produced…
…that gave us the sumptuous dresses & lavish buffets). This is part of a PATTERN of how films on Black history get funded by studios, as I discuss in #SlaveRevoltonScreen. Keep in mind, even as more showrunners & directors are Black, the balance is still tipped so that…
…funding decisions are made by largely white execs on the basis of what wh. audiences will not recoil at. This WARPS the history we see on screen. Formerly colonized countries & ppl — b/c of the econ. legacies of col’m & slavery- do not have the same power to greenlight
So we get benevolent revisionism that wipes away slavery (too controversial, too polarizing) in favor of racial harmony & utopia that tells us: we really can all just get along!
I could say much more (for instance on the sexualization of Bl women in the show v. white women’s chastity), but needed to get that out now. I’ve been grateful to @AnnetteJosephG
for unpacking with me what’s going on as we proceed through the episodes. I’d love to see
her share more (here or elsewhere) about the probs she sees. & I’m hoping that some of our specialists in Black Europe (no pressure @tnflorvil :)) also might write s’thg. I’ve got two eps to go, but having suffered 6 hrs of this — & thought about what FAILS TO GET FUNDED –
…I had a few things to get off my chest, that I hadn’t read elsewhere yet! More on how whites’ real (or perceived) disinterest in the history of slavery combines with funding inequities to warp what we see on screen, coming later this year in #SlaveRevoltonScreen. Fin
(one last thing — we know this is not real, b/c of the way that actual Black royalty — the Queen of Hayti, Marie-Louise & her daughters — were treated when they showed up in London in 1820! Ppl like Wilberforce were happy to support them FROM AFAR, but basically iced them out..
…in person, as @NicoleWillson & @TabitaSurge can tell you in detail!)
Mira Assaf Kafantaris: Sugar and Consumption
In its desire to create a postracialist fantasy, Bridgerton erases the violent history of food, foodways, and race. One illustrative example is the beginning of episode three, “Art of the Swoon,” where Lady Daphne Brigerton and Simon Basset, Duke of Hastings continue to plot their fake courtship inside Gunter’s Tea Shop. It is a jarring scene that reproduces a variation of what bell hooks famously calls “eating the other,” particularly the image of the delectable Black man consuming the loots of transatlantic slavery and colonial plunder: sugar and tea. Watching the Duke luxuriate in a service of afternoon tea, Daphne gasps at the erotic possibilities that such an act of ravenous consumption suggests. Accentuating the female gaze, this brief scene is supposed to echo and continue the theme of the innocent white woman’s sexual awakening that the badinage with the Duke has provoked. However, to see Simon suggestively lick his silver spoon, a hint of the sexual pleasures to come, is problematic. What the show does not take into account, in its impulse to imagine a world without race, are the undercurrents of cannibalism that such a triangulation of Black man, sugar, and reproductive sexuality evoke. White cannibalism, whereby white slaveholders murdered and fed enslaved Africans to other enslaved Africans during the Middle Passage, has been discussed in the works of Vincent Woodard, Manuel Barcia, and others. The work of premodern critical race theorists like Kim F. Hall, Gitanjali G. Shahani, and Jennifer Park have troubled early modern England’s local and global relations to the extraction of tropical food systems. To see this horrific crime sublimated into a sexy television moment, where the candied Duke is offered for Daphne’s and our gratification, is not only insensitive, but more urgently, it coerces the Black body into a function, a utility, a narrative device that ritualizes and feeds, literally and figuratively, a white supremacist ideology.
What makes this brief scene doubly egregious is the dialogue that follows. In response to Daphne’s delight in the success of their ruse, the Duke responds: “In the grand battle of the season, I am your trusted general, marshaling the troops”; to which Daphne adds, while peering over a sumptuous spread of tarts, macaroons, and scones: “Wellington could only hope for a soldier so brave.” In a triumphant air, the Duke finishes the repartee with the words: “And handsome. You must not forget that.”
We, the audience, cannot forget that a Black man is conscripted as a tool of empire, as an edible commodity, and as a propagator of white heteropatriarchy, despite the showrunners’ insistence on a race-free world. Historians have told us that the Royal Navy defended the ships that carried enslaved Africans to British colonies in the Middle Passage. Historians have also told us the revenues of the transatlantic slave trade and the colonization of East Asia, including trade in sugar and tea, financed the British navy. In other words, the supply and demand of these culinary commodities, extracted through human trafficking, land theft, and free labor, cemented Britain’s imperialist domination as the empire on which the sun never sets. What we witness in this scene is the Duke’s transformation into a war machine — he is even compared to one of England’s most famous military leaders, the Duke of Wellington — who contributes to the expansion of the white colonial state. In less than three minutes, the show presents a Black man enacting the violence of foodways, the violence of military might, and the violence of forced reproduction — all legacies of white supremacy that still affect our present. The question that I grapple with here is: to what extent can we gloss over the brutalities of chattel slavery, the horrors of empire, and the afterlives of racial trauma, in order to consume an aesthetically-pleasing, digestable postracial fantasy?
Jessica Parr: There’s also a certain sexualized creepiness to this moment, of a Black man who winds up with a white woman. Set in 1847, Sherley Anne Williams’ 1986 novel Dessa Rose discusses a plot by a triumvirate of enslaved African Americans to free themselves from bondage. As part of the plot, an enslaved Black man who becomes involved in an exploitative sexual relationship with his white mistress, Mrs. Rufel. While Hastings is not an entirely unwilling figure in the ruse between Daphne and himself to manipulate the meat market aspects of the London season in their respective favors (he to be left alone, and she to garner desirable suitors), it is impossible to not to think of Thomas Foster’s work on the sexual exploitation of enslaved Black men when thinking about this aspect of the story line. The ruse is heavily driven by the suggestions of Daphne Bridgeton, whose proposals more or less drive their public behavior. Moreover, while the young white society women are sexual prizes within the social scene, it is impossible to ignore the racial dynamics of an almost solitary Black nobleman as a desirable, yet unwilling “prize” for more than a few young white women and their mothers in the context of a British empire that was still engaged in slavery. It’s one of the complexities of color-blind casting, a practice that allows non-white actors opportunities to play parts in film, television, or theatrical productions that have historically excluded them. The premise is that a production does not see race; that a multiracial utopia is possible; and that audiences accept race as a neutral, unproblematic identity marker.
Kerry Sinanan: The scene in which Simon licks the sugar spoon under the desiring gaze of an aroused Daphne is also an erasure of the fact that Black people in the Regency periods were by and large not the consumers of luxury but the unpaid producers of it. In many 18thc paintings, such as Bartholomew Dandridge’s, “A Young Girl with an Enslaved Servant and a Dog”, ca. 1725, we frequently see enslaved children in silver collars serving sweetmeats and exotic fruits while attending to their white masters. This is evident in the Figures of Empire exhibition by Esther Chadwick and Meredith Gamer. In 18thc-Visual culture Black people are definitively objectified as part of the material luxury of the time, not the recipients of pleasure.
Bartholomew Dandridge, “A Young Girl with an Enslaved Servant and a Dog”, ca. 1725. Yale Center for British Art.
In most of these portraits, white people do not register the presence of enslaved people but in the sugar-spoon scene, Daphne consumes Simon with her white gaze that reduces him to an artifact. The scene pretends to display him as an entitled consumer: he is not and the series erases what many historians of slavery call “blood sugar”, the sweetness made out of the blood of Black people. On 18thc-Britain’s Caribbean plantations enslaved people were malnourished, forced to use their “free” time to grow their food, and punished in deeply violent ways for eating sugar. One notorious example of such punishment comes from the diaries of a British overseer in Jamaica, Thomas Thistlewood, kept between 1750–86 and discussed by historians such as Trevor Burnard and Douglass Hall. In his diary of 1756, Thistlewood notes Derby as a frequent runaway who does not turn up for work. Withholding labor was a frequent form of resistance for enslaved men and women. Derby repeatedly ate sugar canes, something that threatened the entire logic of the plantation as the enslaved person was definitely not to consume the products of their labour: the blood sugar was for white people. Thistlewood punished Derby severely for this by forcing another enslaved man, Hector, to defecate in his mouth: “made Hector shit in his mouth, immediately put in a gag whilst his mouth was full & made him wear it 4 or 5 hours.” Bridgerton refuses to consider where the sugars and silks of its world come from, while still maintaining a class-based world of servants and poverty. Are we to suppose there is no labor there? That would be a pleasant fantasy if the series offered an alternative instead of denial and erasure. We consume much today made by enslaved labor, and we look the other way and Bridgerton faces the problem that one cannot dismantle race without dismantling capitalism. Reminding ourselves of pasts and presents of slavery is painful. But it is not the reminder of the past that is violent: we should object to its being sublimated and forgotten as we continue to consume.
Kerry Sinanan: Racism and Black Motherhood
Bridgerton, despite its promise of escape, trades in violent histories within a high-gloss set and world of beauty, something that the name of the second episode, ironically captures in its title, “Shock and Delight”. This indeed opens shockingly with the death of Simon’s mother who dies just after giving birth in a distressing scene that insists on showing us both her joy at her newborn, and her blood loss from maternal hemorrhage. As someone who very almost died from maternal hemorrhage myself after giving birth, I found this scene to be an obscene display that offered no real emotional engagement with the mother, only spectacle. The handling of this topic is so harmful when we know that Black mothers in the UK and US are over five times more likely to die during and after pregnancy and childbirth. Much work has been done on this, notably by ProPublica and NPR in their excellent series, Lost Mothers. The series’ plot blames the Duchess’ death on her tyrannical husband who is Black, and notably much darker-skinned than Simon and his mother, as the visuals repeat the hierarchies of colorism. This dangerously displaces the causes of Black maternal mortality on to the Black father when in fact the real cause of mothers dying today, are white systems of racist medical practice and the stress of living in racism, known as “weathering”. Class is no protection as the tragic story of Shalon Irving makes clear and, indeed, we witness an aristocratic Black woman die while the series simultaneously suggests that rising in class and accumulation of wealth is the answer to erasing race. In the 18thc, transatlantic slavery relied on Black mothers to birth, while stealing their children and their lives as Hortense Spillers, Jennifer L. Morgan, Sasha Turner, and Saidiya Hartman tell us in an extensive scholarly repertoire focused on Black women’s lives in slavery. In place of this history of white violence, Bridgerton harmfully projects a crude and violent attitude arising from adherence to primogeniture on to the Black Duke. But that system of male inheritance they make him the mouthpiece for is white. Simon’s mother is displayed as dying from Black male violence, when the real cause of Black mothers dying is white supremacy. This is no escape from race but an exploitation of its violent lies.
Ambereen Dadabhoy: Racist Tropes of the “Broken Black Family”
If the specter of the prematurely deceased Black mother and the hard and loveless Black father haunt Hastings’s psyche, to the extent that he refuses to participate in the economy of patriarchal lineage and peerage, Bridgerton is at pains to emphasize how much the white family at the center of the narrative is both loving and generative. Despite their own missing patriarch, we witness the deep care, affection, friendship, and rivalry between the Bridgerton siblings and their surviving parent. These relationships are given the time and attention to develop so that we get a distinct sense of each of the siblings. While it might seem necessary because they are the eponymous avatars of the show, the focus on the family intimacy, particularly as it is juxtaposed with the Hastings household reinforces the white supremacist belief that Black people don’t feel the same level of love and care for their own kin. This logic made possible the dehumanizing degradations that were part and parcel of chattel slavery which allowed enslavers to indiscriminately sever familial ties by selling members of enslaved Black families to distant and disparate locales. We see this continue to play out in our own time with the racist belief that Black people don’t value families, which is used to explain the “broken,” nature of Black families, rather than the ways in which the state actively ensures such with the increased policing and criminalization of Black men.
Even the Featherington household, where we don’t witness much love between family members, and we observe the matriarch, Portia, desperate to secure eligible men for her daughters, scheme and connive to make that a reality, we are meant to understand that underlying these comic and borderline despicable actions is care and concern. Because of Mr. Featherington’s propensity for gambling, Portia is saddled with seeing Marina Thompson make her debut in polite society and contract an eligible marriage. What is significant here is that when Marina falls on hard circumstances, pregnant and unwed, she has no family to turn to. She must endure Portia’s scorn and the humiliation of being matched with men twice her age. Her only salvation is either the return of her lover or contracting one of the distasteful marriages Portia has arranged. Confusingly, she can’t return to her parents. We’re given no explanation why the easiest option is unavailable to her, other than perhaps the fact her parents don’t care. The absent parents establish a link between Marina and Simon, but whereas the Duke as options, Marina has none.
Out of all the young ladies on the marriage mart that is “the Season,” Marina’s situation is particularly dire because she is most trapped by the forces of race, gender, and class. While the show downplays race as a strategy of its colorblind production, it does come up in two important moments and both have to do with the Black characters. The first is in a conversation between Simon and Lady Danbury, where we are offered an explanation for this racially mixed society, and the second is between Mr. Featherington and Will Mondrich, where it is made quite clear that race is still a barrier to advancement for Black people. Within this nexus of race relations, we have Marina whose precarious situation must be negotiated not only through her gender and how that marginalizes her, but also the promiscuity seemingly attached to her race (as all of the other young white women are well-bred enough not to indulge in sex until he puts a ring on it) but also to her class. In this way, the show seems to unintentionally fall into racist tropes.
Jessica Parr: On Simon and Daphne ‘interracial’ relationship… and gender and race
Simon/The Duke of Hastings is also fetishized. A lot. The series focused on his “rake-dom” while The Viscount Bridgerton was involved in more sexual encounters, sometimes, quite publicly. I count maybe 1–2 discrete sexual dalliances by Hastings over the course of the first session of Bridgerton. There are at least double that with Viscount Bridgerton, including a scene early in the series where he is engaged in sex with a racially ambiguous young women up against a tree in a public park as his (white) coachmen pretend not to see what is right in front of them. The unambiguously white Bridgerton’s sexual conquests are either racially ambiguous or plausibly light-skinned women of color and not the overwhelmingly blonde or red-headed milky-faced “chaste” young women that comprise the majority of the eligible women of his social set.
There were approximately 20,000 Black Londoners in 1800 (total London population of 1 million). In the first decades of the 19th century, increasingly strict laws were deter settlement of Africans displaced first by the transatlantic slave trade, and then the Napoleonic Wars in Great Britain. While Chamberlain’s study does not offer data by race, Simon Hastings’ mother died in a period where maternal mortality was on decline. And we have a motherless child whose care is mostly overseen by Lady Danbury on behalf of an absentee aristocratic father who was already disparaging and potentially abusive of the younger Hastings’ mother. (The elder Hastings is a dark-skinned Black man and the late Countess is a lighter-skinned Black woman, so there is some colorism at play here.)
As a young boy, the junior Hastings (a lighter-skinned Black man) is soon rejected completely by the senior Lord Hastings, after it’s revealed that his son has a speech impediment. The absentee Black father trope is solidified, and Lady Danbury continues to raise Simon and to prepare him for his eventual Dukedom. His mother’s death and his father’s abuse and negligence damages young Hastings, and as his father lays dying, he vows that he will never marry and have children, bringing the Dukedom to an end at his death. The expression on the dying elder Hastings’ face reveals that the younger Hastings’ vow has the desired effect, since preservation of the Dukedom and its relationship to power within the British empire were in essence, all that ever mattered to him. And it is also why Simon is determined to avoid the London Season as his Dukedom makes him an imminently desirable conquest.
Enter Daphne Bridgerton, whose brother’s heavy handedness has scared off her expected large pool of suitors and left her promised by the same to a lecherous Nigel Berbrooke. She and Hastings begin the aforementioned ruse, which initially serves its purpose quite well. Daphne sees a big jump in suitors, including an Austrian Prince who is Queen Charlotte’s nephew. Simon Hastings is mostly left alone. But the ploy backfires when the pair develops feelings for each other
Daphne’s role in getting Simon Hastings through his childhood traumas where Black Lady Danbury has evidently failed (despite having been a steadfast support) more than hints at white saviorism. It is through Daphne’s persistence that he overcomes his past trauma and is able to fulfill his socially-expected role of Duke, husband, and father. In the original novel, with white characters, Daphne reads as a young, strong heroine who managed to carve out her own place in a society with very specific expectations for her. She works within those expectations to gain the companiable marriage she so keenly desires. But the color blind casting that matches the Daphne Bridgerton character with a traumatized Black aristocrat complicates the storyline.
Marina Thompson is another critical figure in the treatment of race and gender in Bridgerton. Early in the series, we are introduced to a young, light-skinned Black woman who is described as a “distant cousin” and guest of the Feathering family for the London season. Prior to her arrival, we witnessed the three young white sisters of the family fail spectacularly in their efforts to earn the approval of a bi-racial Queen Charlotte, brilliantly played by Golda Rosheuvel. Marina is set up to be a charity case for the Featherington family to usher into a suitable marriage. Not long after her arrival, we learn that Marina is pregnant out of wedlock by her (white) absent war hero love interest, Sir George, who is off fighting in the Napoleonic Wars. When Lady Feathering discovers the pregnancy, a race begins to marry her off before her condition becomes public knowledge.
Marina Thompson is understandably reluctant and holds out hope that George will return for her. Her hopes are cruelly dashed by Lady Featherington, who forges letters from Sir George, denying paternity of the paper. Lady Feathering then drags her off to an impoverished part of London, holding up the fates of its inhabitants (and especially the children) to manipulate her to her will. Marina soon sets her sights on Colin Bridgerton, a younger sibling of the powerful and aristocratic Bridgerton family. His interest arouses the jealousy of Penelope “Pen” Bridgerton, who nurtures an unrequited crush on Colin and is also angry at Marina for not disclosing her pregnancy to her would-be husband. This jealousy destroys their friendship.
The “jezebel” who manipulates white men to her bidding is a longstanding trope. Historically, Black women have been heavily sexualized, and as Stephanie Jones-Rodgers wrote in her prize-winning book, They Were Her Property, were even sold into sexual slavery at the hands of white women. Marina’s attempts to marry Colin without disclosing her condition plays into those tropes. “Pen” discloses that she has found her mother’s forgeries, but Marina notes that the forgeries prove that Sir George hasn’t replied. Marina bluntly tells “Pen” that she needs to cease her unrequited crush, and that Colin sees her like a brother and not a potential partner. Scheming and manipulation is not exclusively limited to Marina, but Daphne Bridgerton’s ploy with the younger Duke of Hastings, to improve her marriage prospects is treated far more sympathetically. The series is quite clear that much of the ploy is masterminded by Daphne, who commands that the Duke of Hastings send her “expensive” flowers, dictates the number of dances per social event, and insists that they regularly be seen promenading in the park. That the Duke of Hastings is a disabled Black man of an absentee father who is available as the pawn (if not entirely unwilling) is another notable feature of the story. Moreover, the storyline emphasizes his “rakedom” by Viscount Bridgerton to a degree that eclipses Bridgerton’s own extensive (and occasionally public) sexual dalliances.
Marina isn’t sold, but her treatment as a sexual being who is imminently available to white men becomes a theme of Bridgerton. Lady Featherington tells Marina that she’s to be married off to Lord Rutledge, a titled, eldritch, and utterly misogynistic Englishman. In a moment that will make more than a few watchers jump, the Feathering matriarch slaps Marina across the face when she objects to the match. Despite the Feathering daughters’ own failures to attract suitors, Featherington’s focus is heavily on the unwed pregnant Black woman.
Marina Thompson’s examination by Lord Rutledge itself smacks of the slave market. He was not the only licentious male character. Daphne Bridgerton’s would-be groom, the vulturine Nigel Berbrooke, attempts to sexually assault Daphne in the garden after the engagement is announced. The London season in itself is a bit of a meat market, but in a scene that invokes the demeaning physical examinations for “soundness” in the slave markets, Rutledge demands to see her teeth, as though he were examining livestock rather than seeking a wife. Rather than music, embroidery, and conversational skills, it is her physicality that becomes important. He also demands to spin her. It is an examination in her mobility and fluidity of movement. There are some sexual undertones to dance, but in this context there’s a layered-ness to Rutledge’s examination of Thomson’s physical capabilities.
Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall is professor of history at California State University — San Marcos. Her newest book, Slave Revolt on Screen: The Haitian Revolution in Film and Video Games, will be published by the University Press of Mississippi in June 2021. Her previous work has focused on the French and Haitian Revolutions; modern Haitian history; the history of racism and slavery in France; and depictions of slavery and colonialism in cinema.
Jessica Parr is an Assistant Professor of history at Simmons University in Boston. Her previous work focused on the controversies over baptizing enslaved Africans. Currently, she’s at work on an edited volume of the papers of eighteenth-century British physician-abolitionist-clergyman James Ramsay (under contract with the University of Georgia Press) and a monograph that explores the entanglements between Black anti-slavery activists and white identity politics.
MIRA ASSAF KAFANTARIS is a Senior Lecturer in the English Department at the Ohio State University. She is completing her first manuscript, titled Royal Marriage, Foreign Queens, and Racial Formations in the Early Modern Period. Her public-facing work has appeared in The Millions, Overland Journal, The Rambling, The Conversation, Synapsis, and Medium-Equity.
Kerry Sinanan is Assistant Professor, Department of English at University of Texas at San Antonio. She is completing a monograph on British enslavers, Myths of Mastery: Traders, Planters and Colonial Agents 1750–1833 for University of North Carolina Press, and has recently published an essay, “Slavery and Glass: Tropes of Race and Reflection” in, In Sparkling Company: Reflections on Glass in the Eighteenth-Century World, ed. Christopher Maxwell (Corning: Corning Museum of Glass, 2020). In Summer 2020 she collaborated with Peter Brathwaite’s on his Black Portraiture Series. In 2017 she was a Visiting Scholar at the Yale Center for British Art where she researched representations of enslaved mothers.
Ambereen Dadabhoy is an Assistant Professor of Literature at Harvey Mudd College. She works on race and religion in early modern English drama. She also has a research and personal interest is premodern and modern Islamophobia. You can find out more about her work and writing at: ambereendadabhoy.com.