Just two months ago, Netflix released Bridgerton. Set in 1813 London, the story follows high-society families as they search for eligible suitors and bounce between social events, all whilst trying to avoid having their scandals broadcast by Lady Whistledown, the mysterious author of a gossip sheet. While it may sound just like your average period drama, Bridgerton is drastically different in that it fluidly incorporates Black and non-white characters into all ranks of society. This provocative move was made by producer Shonda Rhimes, a Black woman who is also known for her work on Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder.
“We were two separate societies divided by color until a king fell in love with one of us,” says Lady Danbury, played by Adjoa Andoh, to the Duke of Hastings, played by Regé-Jean Page, both of whom are aristocratic Black characters. Based upon the real existence of a possibly biracial queen in 19th century England, Bridgerton imagines a world in which titles and property have been awarded to people of color, and Black people pervade the highest echelons of society. However, this fictional universe in which one love story can solve discrimination and bring about equality for everyone is extremely far-fetched. Bridgerton’s Black characters seem to face no struggles due to their race; their titles and nobility are not questioned. This is a highly unusual premise and an implausible situation; the luxurious and insouciant lives of the Black nobility provide a stark contrast from the grim reality of Black people being enslaved and colonized at this point in history.
This creative decision has many effects. For Black actors, it opens up doors to roles they once thought were closed off to their race. Golda Rosheuvel, the accomplished actress who plays Queen Charlotte, finds this creative decision “beautiful” and “to be celebrated.” She said, “I’m biracial. I was brought up in England. My mother was crazy about period dramas, which made me crazy about them. I never thought that I’d be able to be in one. It was something that was far away. I couldn’t touch it. Now we can rewrite that story for the little girl who’s sitting at home. That cycle is stopping now.”
Not only do Black actors get roles, but Black viewers also get to see themselves represented in period dramas, not just as maids and menial workers, but as lavishly dressed lords and ladies. Brigerton’s escapist allure may have contributed to its huge appeal: it has been viewed by a record 82 million households. In a world that is filled with racial discrimination and injustice, many may enjoy seeing a lighthearted drama where Black people aren’t constantly dealing with racism.
Bridgerton paints a fantasy world where race doesn’t appear to matter. But this projection may actually be damaging to the real world, where race does matter and discrimination is rampant. We can’t afford to let people believe that we live in a post-racial society like the one portrayed in Bridgerton. It might diminish the urgency of the problem, because it makes it seem like the fight for racial justice has already been won, when Black and Brown people still suffer so much violence and discrimination. Ultimately, Bridgerton’s bold decision to integrate Black actors into a period drama seems positive, offering people more roles and representation. But we must acknowledge the fact that we don’t live in a Bridgerton world yet, otherwise we’ll never get there.