Bridgerton: A Discussion–Part V
Today we serve up our final post in our five-part Bridgerton discussion series. You can find the first four posts here:
Part I is centered on the show’s worldbuilding and production values, on its treatment of race, and on Lady Whistledown.
Part II focuses on the show’s matriarchs–the queen, Lady Violet, Lady Danbury, and Lady Featherington.
In Part III we talked about Simon and Daphne’s Courtship.
Part IV was about Simon and Daphne’s marriage, including the highly controversial scene, and about Anthony.
And now for today’s discussion:
Layla: One of the more interesting themes running in the show is the position of women in society. We didn’t spend much time talking about Eloise and Penelope, or Marina and Daphne, but I think the range of depictions of young women, their lives, choices and anxieties, is one of the things I enjoyed the most about the show.
Janine: Great point.
Layla: Most of the women depicted are upper class (some exceptions are the modiste and Sienna) but despite its focus on aristocratic women, the show nevertheless gives us, in my opinion, a range and depth of depictions of women’s problems in 18th century British society.
This is a time when women had famously limited options, virtually no rights, and limited power and mobility in society. In fact, marriage is one of the only paths for any power or social mobility for women, and we see that narrative unfold in both Marina and Daphne’s storylines.
While I didn’t love Daphne the character or Phoebe Dynevor’s depiction of her, I could sympathize with her plight and the dilemmas she is faced with. If Eloise resists the ideas of marriage and motherhood, in many ways she is the most ‘feminist’ figure, then Daphne succumbs to them.
But in Daphne’s depiction I think we see a very important narrative about feminism and what it can be—it’s not always strident, overt, institutionally challenging or path breaking—it is often quiet and mundane and quotidian, shaped by women’s lived experiences and reality.
Daphne is not a feminist in the 20th and 21st century sense—nor is she one by some of the conventional the standards of the Regency romance either (a bluestocking or suffragette)—but in her narrative, we see the limitations in women’s choices. She is ambitious where she is able to be—in securing a marriage. She wants to have a partner with who she can connect, she is repulsed by Lord Berbrooke, but she pursues the prince too. She wants to succeed as a debutante because it is what is expected and what will help her family, but also because it is one of the only realms in which she is allowed success.
Janine: That’s such a terrific point. I too liked that aspect of Daphne’s portrayal, not so much for the character herself, but as you say, because it points to the fact that marriage was the key to mobility and agency for the vast majority of upper-class women. That aspect is so much the focus of 19th century historical romances but often it is taken for granted in the books that in that world this is just how things are, and not examined to this degree. For all its fantasy aspects, the show delineates and underscores the stark nature of that reality—marriage or nothing—that so many women of the aristocracy faced, more than many a book. It’s not romanticized as much.
Layla: Eloise is an interesting foil to Daphne—although I LOVED her character, I did wonder about how the show would realistically allow her to flourish. Her idealism is part of what I liked about her, but her smug assurance that her sister’s ambitions were not worthy made think of her as somewhat naïve or immature.
Janine: Hmm yes, there doesn’t seem to be a wholly believable path for Eloise to come into her own. Daphne and Eloise are contrasted and present different aspects of late 18th/early 19th century womanhood: acceptance and pragmatism of the status quo versus suspicion of it and an idealistic commitment to other paths to power and autonomy. But a powerful subtext to their sisterly friction over these issues as well as to their love for each other is that the higher up Daphne marries, the more power and therefore agency (at least as far as making a good match, if nothing else) Eloise would be afforded.
It was such an inherent truth underpinning their relationship that I wanted Eloise to acknowledge it more than she did. Like you, I liked her as she was and a greater concession to this truth might have lessened her appeal. Nevertheless, there it was, undergirding their relationship.
Layla: Two quick final notes on Penelope and Marina. It was interesting that these two women were paired—Penelope is a lovely character, clever and kind and observant. Actress Nicola Coughlan did a marvelous job. Penelope is also insecure, somewhat shy, and obviously devious. The two sides of her character, I hope the show explores her more—and again I found it refreshing to have female characters that not only don’t conform to a norm of beauty, but that had dimension and depth.
Janine: Yeah. I wish we’d had the time and space to get into Penelope and Eloise’s friendship, too, because it was a lovely depiction of how women can draw strength from friendships with other women. Claudia Jessie, as well as Coughlan, did a good job there and thanks to their friendship the show aced the Bechdel Test.
Layla: Marina was more problematic—she had an interesting backstory and a potentially good love story, but her transformation from victim to villain didn’t feel good. I didn’t like her deception with Colin, although the show tried to show us that women in her position had few choices. Her strength of character was sometimes construed at least by me, as arrogance. And her idealism and rebelliousness, while refreshing, did sometimes come across as too “modern.”
Janine: I agree with most of your points; however, I think Marina’s arrogance was contrived and I resented the writers’ choice to write her this way. To a large degree, as a friend of mine said (and I agree), her cruelty to Penelope was there to justify Penelope’s undermining of Marina’s goals. Her characterization was all over the place and that’s a sure sign that the writers didn’t care as much about her character—that at times she served as a plot device more than as a consistent, multidimensional human being. I don’t put that on actress Ruby Barker, it’s all squarely on the writers IMO.
Janine: Overall, although she show wasn’t deep or very nuanced, I felt that it had strong pacing and I liked that it had more bite than the book. I enjoyed the way the swoony elements represented by Simon and Daphne come up against a jaded, slightly cynical framing via Lady Whistledown, the Queen, and Eloise.
These two elements, cynicism and romanticism, act on the viewer as windows to two sides of the marriage mart. The necessary but also mercenary aspects of the marriage mart, which you’ve touched on, compete with true desire and with personal happiness. This is one of the keys to the show’s success. I also appreciated the use of period-influenced language in the dialogue. Modern language can pull me out of a historical novel faster than anything else.
The writers also hit the beats and plot turns strongly. I loved the way the writers can pack a lot into one scene. The almost-duel is a great example, with one emotion-action-revelation coming on the heels of another. Daphne’s decision to marry Simon locks them both in. It’s not clear to Daphne if Simon really wants that and Simon doesn’t know if Daphne meant it or was only trying to save her brother’s life. The way the duel and the decision to marry are bound up in one another is just brilliant.
There were plot holes, though, from the offensive to the weird. The biggest was the way the aftermath of the rape was treated or rather not treated at all. More generally, Daphne’s sense of entitlement wasn’t called out.
But there were smaller inconsistencies, too. For example, Anthony’s acceptance of Nigel Berbrooke’s proposal on Daphne’s behalf without consulting Daphne and even though Nigel was far more objectionable than the suitors Anthony had previously rejected. Objectionability had been Anthony’s disqualifying criteria then, so this made no sense, not even after the talk Violet had with him.
I feel the same regarding Anthony’s decision to challenge Simon to a duel. Anthony did this out of fury with Simon for embroiling Daphne in a potential scandal, but the scandal hadn’t yet materialized and a duel would only ensure it did. A duel would have caused a worse scandal. If Anthony or Simon had been injured or killed, or had to flee to the continent because duels were illegal and they’d been found out, there would be no way for Daphne to live that down.
I was also befuddled when, after the Prussian Prince Friedrich gave Daphne a priceless necklace, she took it off in the garden and placed it atop a garden wall. Simon showed up and if I recall correctly, they kissed. Then they went back in and the diamond necklace was left outside!
Still, and though I was disappointed with the way the writers handled Daphne’s rape of Simon, I felt the show had a lot of entertainment value and kudos to executive producers Shonda Rhimes and Betsy Beers as well as to showrunner Chris Van Dusen for that.
Layla: Despite its problems, I loved this series so much. I loved the costumes, the drama, the fantastical and historical aspects, much of the acting and Regé-Jean Page. I am so excited to see more!
I was so happy to be living in a fantasy in which women were constrained and yet empowered. That’s what historical romance is about—in some ways not rewriting history, but reimagining it from a woman’s perspective. And that was the most powerful thing of all for me with Shonda Rhimes and her cast and writers.
After finishing the show, I was reminded of the writing of Mary Wollstonecraft. Her essay, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, written in 1792, argues against the prevailing opinions of the time that gender disabled women intellectually.
Wollstonecraft fought against ideas of women’s inferior intellect, and instead described the consequences of depriving women of the opportunity to train their minds. “How grossly do they insult us who thus advise us to only render ourselves as gentle domestic brutes!”
She wrote a plea to her female readers—
I wish to point out what true dignity and human happiness consists—I wish to persuade women to endeavor to acquire strength, both of mind and body, and to convince them that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment and refinement of taste are almost synonymous with epithets of weakness.
One of the things the show does best—aside from fantastic fashions and lush scenery—is remind us of how women navigated the social rules in pursuit of dignity and happiness. The domestic sphere—marriage, motherhood, sex, and love—prove that women are strong of mind and body. The idea of the “gentle domestic brute” is the fiction—and its antidote is narrative and imagination.
I’ve started re-watching the entire season in order to look at everything through the lens of these discussions. After the first two episodes, Anthony is still an unmitigated ass. While he wears the look of a man who’s lost complete control of things he only thought he controlled to begin with, there will have to be major and agonizing (for him) groveling/personality transplant to redeem him. It could happen, I hope it’s painful.
Something I recalled from the first time we saw Marina was how she came into the Featherington drawing room, a hopeful smile on her face, but with her shoulders forward as if for protection. Clearly she’s not sure of her reception and there is nothing arrogant about her. Lord Featherington’s not-at-all-subtle leering really disturbed me and when a heartbroken Marina tells Lady Featherington that she could never understand Marina’s life, all the alarm bells rang about what might have happened.
I forgot that Colin was drawn to Marina immediately, which helped me make sense of what felt like an out-of-the-blue proposal later. Her situation was impossible and I understood what drove her, but she deserved better from the writers. That final “walk of shame” to the waiting carriage and a hopeful but uncertain future should have been much different.
At the end of the second episode, Daphne has made it clear–as ruthless as Marina is later–to Simon that her goals are the only things that matter, take it or leave it. I honestly applaud her peremptory behavior because this is the sole avenue open to her by design. Why then–although *we* know why–does Simon agree to keep on with the charade? How is this going to work the way Daphne wants, in that society, where her continued presence on Simon’s arm can only lead to one conclusion? I mean, the whole thing is delicious and I love the tension, but … still nonsensical.
Everything you’ve both said about the societal constraint and private empowerment of women is what draws me to this series, flaws and all. My husband has joined me in my re-watch and I love pointing this out to him. I am reminded of the power women wielded in convents centuries ago; with few exceptions, they ruled, managed, worked, cared, fed, housed, earned, taught and learned in a truly constricted setting. That’s how we do it.
@Darlynne: What a great comment. I don’t think I ever saw Marina as arrogant but I did see her as more confident and even abrasive (toward Penelope) in later episodes. But I wonder how much of that was a facade. She was, as you say, facing an impossible situation, so it is possible she squared her shoulders and put on a mask. She’d do what she had to do, and if it took pretending strength and happiness when on the inside she was scared and her heart was broken, she’d do it. I wish the writers had allowed us to see that side of it sooner.
Re women’s power. I especially like your final comparison to all that women could and did do in convents. Although women’s power was limited in both these worlds, they did what was possible to expand it.
A quick note about regency feminism: suffragettes were not actually a thing! If I’m remembering correctly (I could stand to do more double checking) the first known group to really push for women’s suffrage was the Kensington Society, which wasn’t founded until the 1860s. During the Regency, most *men* couldn’t vote. (A quick look at wikipedia suggests that major landmarks for extending the vote to men were 1832, 1867, 1884). I’ve had some interesting discussions about this & one theory I like is that it wouldn’t make much sense to advocate for women’s suffrage when the vote wasn’t really seen as a source or locus of power. Why fight for something that won’t really matter? That shift in ideology came later in the century.
Also, another thing I really LOVED in this series–and there weren’t many of them, so this stands out–was when Daphne attended Lady Danbury’s party for married women. It gave you this really visceral sense of the ways that a woman’s life could open up after marriage. For all of marriage’s many pitfalls (married women basically ceased to exist as legal entities), a married woman had so many freedoms that an unmarried woman didn’t. Watching that scene, you could feel it and believe it.
@Erin Satie: I took Layla’s comment to be referencing many of today’s regency romances, ones who aren’t historically accurate and therefore aren’t necessarily constrained from including suffragettes in books set during the regency era.
That scene with Lady Danbury and the gambling women was awesome. I didn’t analyze why but you are absolutely right; it’s because new vistas open up to Daphne. I mentioned the scene very briefly when we discussed the show’s maternal figures in Part II. Adjoa Andoh killed it.
@Darlynne: I LOVE your last few lines–and what you say about what drew you to the show is also what drew me (outside of the fantastic costumes and design!). The tension, the angst, the crazy plots! Even though our discussion has centered around analyzing some of the issues around depiction of female characters and ‘feminism’ and the non consensual sex scene, the show is so much about fun and fantasy.
@Janine: @Erin Satie: I loved this scene too! !I wish there had been more. It was refreshing to see women talk so frankly about marriage and also have fun while doing it. I’m sick of the male centric spaces of the gentleman’s club that Regency novels are always highlighting. Its nice to see women have a social space to hang out too.
@Janine: yes a 100 percent thanks Janine for clarifying. I was more making fun of or critiquing so many historicals especially Regencies where women are ‘feminist’ in a politized totally unrealistic and ahistorical way.
@Layla: Wow, what a great comment. I’m certain there were more social spaces for women to hang out then we typically read about in romances. I would love to see more of that.
@Janine: I just recently finished a historical that I loved—Evie Dunmore’s A Rogue of One’s Own and part of what I loved about the book was seeing women hanging out not just at parties but at breakfast, at thier publishing house, and other spaces. I loved seeing a depiction of female fraternity! Also what I always loved about Austen–its a very female centered world where women’s relationships to each other are intimate and deep. I did love in addition to that great party scene that Erin Satie mentioned, the interactions between Eloise and Penelope.
Did anyone else catch the bruises on Daphne’s back from her corset? It was such a brief moment but I felt it was really impactful. The tightening of the corset is relatively common in films and usually includes the breathing difficulties but I think this is the first time I can recall seeing marks on a body from corset wearing.
I also thought the relationship depicted between Anthony and Violet was interesting. The way they handled the power dynamics between the two… Violet, as the parent, was at some point in charge of Anthony and now he’s in charge of her. And not just her, but he makes the decisions for Daphne as well. And he doesn’t handle either of those relationships or responsibilities well. I think he’s almost unforgivably rude to his mother.
I haven’t read the books yet but I wonder if you felt like the books handled Simon and Daphne’s relationship better than the show?
@Dianna: I read The Duke and in the early 2000s and my memories are murky now but from what I recall I would say the answer is no when it comes to book one. I was much more incensed after reading the book than after watching the show. Of course, the latter was helped by the fact that I’d read the book so I had some idea what to expect and was braced for it.
We finished the re-watch and I’ve been mulling over some of my earlier responses/reactions. I feel more sympathetic to everyone while maintaining my objections to certain behaviors. Society has created an impossible situation for all people, obviously with varying degrees of impossible depending on gender and rank. People do what they think they must or can (get away with) to survive or triumph. I’m not excusing anyone, it just feels that I’ve softened with the second viewing.
An unexpected aspect for me has been my husband’s reaction to the the entire show. With no prompting from me, his biggest takeaway was that characters needed to talk to each other; he immediately felt Marina should tell Colin about her pregnancy, that Daphne and Simon both should have been clearer, and so on. What completely tickles me now, however, is his “Wait, is this an epilogue baby?” when any scene with babies is on screen. Reader, i treasure him.
Layla said @Janine: @Erin Satie: I loved this scene too! !I wish there had been more. It was refreshing to see women talk so frankly about marriage and also have fun while doing it. I’m sick of the male centric spaces of the gentleman’s club that Regency novels are always highlighting.”
It reminded me a great deal of early Amanda Quick novels such as Rendezvous where the heroine is a member of a all female version of a men’s club (later coming to own it).
Darlynne said “ We finished the re-watch and I’ve been mulling over some of my earlier responses/reactions. I feel more sympathetic to everyone while maintaining my objections to certain behaviors. Society has created an impossible situation for all people, obviously with varying degrees of impossible depending on gender and rank. People do what they think they must or can (get away with) to survive or triumph. I’m not excusing anyone, it just feels that I’ve softened with the second viewing.”
I think that’s a fantastic summation and probably what the creators intended. I think most of the main characters, even beloved Penelope, do some bad- or at least ill advised things depending on their circumstances and as audience members we are meant to sympathize with them, even when we don’t agree with their actions.
@Christine: @Darlynne: you know whats funny, this conversation which has been a I think maybe a little critical more than celebratory (through no one’s fault of course!) made me want to revisit the show and remember what I liked or enjoyed so much about it. I havent had time to do that but I did rewatch the ‘I Burn for you” scene partly because I saw a funny sketch on SNL that mentioned it. So two things–rewatching the scene, I have to say that Ive been harsh on Daphne and the actress who plays her. She and Rege Jean Page do have chemistry and in that scene you see how ardently they both want each other, and how afraid they both are of expressing how they feel. It is achingly romantic that they confess it to each other, and I love her final line, that the one thing she couldnt sacrifice was him. His line about burning for her, it was beautiful. I guess in all the discussion of the betrayal scene, I forgot that this was thier honeymoon night. and certainly they appear in love there.
Oh and its lovely that your husband watches it—you should cherish such a husband!!! Mine refused and only mocks it lol. I mean even in the SNL sketch I referenced before, they kind of make fun of that–that its “girls show”.
this is the scene if anyone is interested!
@Layla: I feel this is a one-off, Layla, as far as my husband watching. On the other hand, I think he liked the crazy sauce so we’ll have to see what happens with the next season. I did make it clear that if he could not control any snarky comments he would be banished. We ended up with a really good discussion and loads of questions. It was fun and unexpected.
I have enjoyed everyone’s comments, this entire discussion and especially the critical observations. This has been our gambling night and I, for one, feel smarter and more informed because of it. Thank you all.
My husband watched it with me. We struck a deal where I would watch an episode of The Mandalorion for every episode of Bridgerton that he watched with me. He was surprised that he enjoyed it.
Felicia Day and Tom Lenk have a good podcast called Undressing Bridgerton where they dish about the show. They bring their knowledge of working on TV to the podcast and you can tell that they are good friends and that they’re having fun.