In light of it being February, which means a bunch of articles about romance novels – and how they’re nothing but fluff – we decided to hash out our feelings about Bridgerton. We had a lot of them: excitement about watching a romance adaptation (especially with our spouses, none of whom read romance but all of whom were good sports and then got totally hooked), disappointment about some of the decisions the showrunners made, discomfort about the trajectory for Marina Thompson’s character…but most of all, a sense of grumpiness in the way people have been talking about the show. Not the thoughtful critiques of the show, because there are nuanced and necessary conversations to be had about race and gender and consent and class, but the ubiquitous takes that were like, “Wow, this show is fluffy, but it’s shockingly fun!”
Erin: I only read some of the headlines because I couldn’t deal with actually reading some of the pieces and they just kept on coming, but there were so many pieces that were reviewing or discussing Bridgerton, and they all seemed to think it’s just fluffy. But as I was watching, and seeing all of these women characters going through such different experiences, I felt like they made a point of having a variety of women – more so than Julia Quinn did – going through a variety of experiences. You have the opera singer, her friend the seamstress, you’ve got Marina, you’ve got Lady Featherington, you’ve got the Featherington sisters. And then you’ve got the Bridgerton sisters. And they’re all…
Holly: And Violet Bridgerton, and Lady Danbury, and the Queen
E: Yeah. And they’re all embodying these different experiences of women that aren’t even all that historical. Right? Like, women still get shamed for being pregnant out of wedlock. And women still have to deal with these difficult choices. Having it set in this historical period is a vehicle to emphasize that. Right? Having it be a show that’s like this sexy romance that has a happily ever after is what makes it palatable, but by just calling it fluff you’re completely ignoring all of the work that is happening discussing the role of women in society. And as I was continuing to watch the show, I felt like there’s a lot of work going into that conversation whether people realize it or not.
H: Hmm, that’s interesting. When we wrote up our expectations about the show ahead of time, we all thought it was going to be bananapants, but it wasn’t really. Based on the preview, I was expecting it to be like…
E: Drama, drama, drama?
H: Drama! And while there was drama, it wasn’t totally bananapants.
Ingrid: Yeah, I wouldn’t call it that at all. I thought it was very thoughtful, and I thought that it was very plot-driven and complex. I think people expect, like, there has to be a strong male. The women drove the plot in this. So I feel like anyone who’s saying it was fluff, that might be because you’re used to people feeling like there have to be gun fights or fist fights, and there was very little of that in this show, actually.
E: Or if there’s no real suffering, then it doesn’t count.
H: I think there was plenty of suffering, but it was muted. It was understated.
E: But that’s like the soap opera suffering. People expect meaning to come from deep emotional pain. Not like, “You didn’t get your way, Daphne.”
I: I think it’s Bad Guys.
E: Oh, there needs to be a bad guy?
I: There are no bad guys in this show. They’re all gray. They are all doing the best they can.
I don’t think there has to be some wrenching pain for a show to be taken seriously, because I would argue that Marina did have that. And also when Lady Featherington loses her husband, that was pretty gut-wrenching. You’re supposed to feel good that she’s got her comeuppance but you can’t feel good because it’s too complicated. So instead of having these highs and lows you just have this very complicated ride.
H: Or, going back to the question of whether it’s fluff, maybe people are just distracted by the color palette.
I: It was beautiful.
H: Right? The palette and the way it’s shot and all the gold chandeliers and the crystals everywhere…maybe that also helped people write it off.
I: What I noticed while watching my husband watch the show was that – because this is not something he would choose on his own, he usually chooses things that are like, much more intense – he was really drawn in because it starts to slowly snag at you and then you can’t not watch it. I thought it was well done and subtle, which was surprising because like you said it was so beautiful and then you don’t know that you’re getting pulled into this thing. And I absolutely loved how complicated all the characters were. All of them. Even some of the ones that were tertiary characters way down there. They were all interesting. I just loved it.
H: Also the Queen had amazing hair.
E: OMG, the Queen’s hair was one of the most amazing things. Just the Queen in general. Like, her voice, her look, I wish I could do her face.
I: She slouched. Like, a lot. She had the kind of power position – that bored, do-whatever-I-want – that kings have in shows. Her stance, her slouching position in the beginning scene, I was like OMG that’s Jonathan Rhys Myers in Tudors.
Usually the woman is always poised and the King is always, like, “What? What are you gonna do about it?” And in this one the Queen is like, “I’m bored.”
And I was like, “Yes! Get it!”
But although – or maybe because – critics and reviewers in many different publications deemed the show fluff, it became Netflix’s biggest show ever. Many viewers didn’t initially realize that the show was based on Julia Quinn’s romance series, and all the love for the show from folks who otherwise “don’t read those books” is yet another frustration for those of us who have been trying to extol the virtues of romance for years and years.
E: To go back to my being really grumpy about people who “don’t read those books” also being like, “I want to watch more Bridgerton.” … I hadn’t watched it yet, so I didn’t realize how sexy it was going to be, like, right off the bat. I mean, I knew it was not going to be network television level but also not porn level, but it was really sexy. And then you’ve got all these people who don’t read romance novels being like, “Oh my gosh I’ve watched this show multiple times already!”
I: It’s the stigma. When I was explaining to my husband about plots and tropes, I think he was kind of surprised by my explanations. It didn’t occur to him that there were pre-existing literary frameworks for the unfolding of these relationships. Or that we in Romancelandia examine these tropes so carefully. And I think that people just assume that it’s fluff, like you said, Erin. And it’s really annoying because there have been other TV shows like that, where I’ve been like, “Well if you like that, romance novels are actually better. They’re written better and they have all the sex that you’re enjoying. So I’m not really sure what your problem is. Wouldn’t you like your sex with a better plot? We can provide that for you.”
H: Now that I only read romance novels instead of romance novels and also other things, I feel like it’s one of those things where the more you read them the more you really understand the genre and recognize tropes, and see what they’re trying to do and how they’re playing with other books and all this internal conversation going on.
I: In romance novels it’s very clear that characters have fear and motivations. You get to be an expert, when you read romance novels, at reading fear and motivation. Like they’re two sides of the same coin. And so it becomes much more cerebral. People think “trash, trash, trash” and it’s not. While reading, you’re watching people be transformed while trying to seek their happily ever after and do that with somebody else who has their own fears and motivations. I just think it’s so interesting.
H: Right, and if you’re good at romance writing, then of course the fears and motivations are oppositional.
I: Like in Bridgerton, fear and motivation were very much at odds. You can see each relationship being framed by the players’ fears and motivations–running away from fears and running towards motivations is what gives that push/pull that’s so fun to watch. That two different people with their own fears and motivations are so compelled to walk through life together that they are both transformed by the pursuit of that path. That’s why it’s satisfying–because if only one is transformed it wouldn’t be complete. They each have to face their fears and motivations in order to make it. They both have come through that struggle as different people, all the better for what they’ve undergone. That’s something that I wish non-romance readers would understand about romance. That it’s actually this amazing genre that’s complicated, and that it unfolds people. And the sex, when it’s well done, it’s like the most incredible tool for showing vulnerability and growth. Period. Like it’s just really beautiful. And in Bridgerton, I feel like that’s part of it. Sex with Daphne and Simon really was showing an unfolding of that vulnerability. They didn’t have it initially and then they had to get back to it. Or unfold into it after they, you know… had such trouble together. Because Daphne did, she changed first and then she was like, “No, you have to do this with me.”
H: Did you think it was a satisfying resolution to Daphne and Simon’s relationship?
I: Yes. I did. Because they both change. Daphne initially changed, interestingly enough, when she accepted marriage without children for another person. I feel like in the book her change was about how she was so perfect and she had to accept imperfection. But in the show I felt like it was more feminist in nature, like she had to figure out how to advocate for herself even though she did it so imperfectly. With Simon the change was more obvious.
E: So, I thought they got to the happily ever after fine, but I was kind of hoping that they would do something different to address the way that the Simon and Daphne rape scene goes. And they really didn’t at the end of the day. It was maybe a little less obvious than in the book, but in the show when she finished I was like, “Wow, that was really cold.”
Because of that, I feel the same sort of lack of satisfaction as I did with the book the last time I read it. I get where Ingrid’s coming from in that Daphne demonstrates that she truly loves Simon by choosing him over this imagined future that she’d envisioned, but at no point does she have to stop and think about the possibility that Simon had a different experience than her, and that he had reasons for making the choices he made, and that by forcing him to change his mind in order to be with her, she wasn’t really giving up much of anything while he had to give up everything.
I: No, you’re totally correct there. But I think her change had to come in two phases. And that was her huge and terrible mistake. She had to accept that she went into the relationship with her own idea of what marriage is, and then when she did that terrible thing to someone who trusted her, that’s a real clear sign that she’s not done yet. And that’s phase one.
E: I feel like her indignance over the situation won out. He didn’t have a hot minute to be like, “That was not okay.” I actually almost appreciated in the book more when he left. And he’s like, “Write to me if you’re pregnant.”
I: So this is the one unfortunate failure that I think existed with the show. I don’t think it was clearly enough articulated that she was trying to control a situation she had no right to control when she found out he’d misled her by omission, and she only got Simon back when she stopped trying to control him. The reason they stayed together was because she opened up to him and asked him to go through this journey WITH her instead of trying to back him into a corner and force him into things. So I’m not trying to excuse what she did. It’s terrible and cold, but …I don’t know. She wasn’t done changing yet. It should have been made more clear that she knew what she did was wrong.
E: What do you think, Holly?
H: I just think that the show doesn’t show them addressing any of their root problems. They’re just angry at each other and then she’s like, “I violated your privacy and read these secret letters, and you just have to choose love!” And then they get caught in a rainstorm and he’s like, “Okay.”
I: So what I saw was that she was trying to control a situation but when she saw the letters she realized… on some level she had to see that this was bigger than just her. So this whole time she was like, “But you lied to me!” And it wasn’t until she saw the letters that she was like, “Oh you’re actually a whole person who’s been through trauma and I completely betrayed your trust. This is bad.” Did they go into it fully? No, I don’t think they did. They should have.
But I think that the choice that she made in the rainstorm was: she didn’t say, “I’m willing to not have children.” What she said was, “I do not care if you’re perfect. I do not care if you make mistakes. I do not care about any of this. I literally just want to be with you the way that you are.” So it went from Daphne trying to control the situation to Daphne opening herself up, and that made it so he could trust her enough to talk things through and make decisions not on his own.
H: So what you’re saying is really her speech in the rain is just a grand gesture, if we’re talking in romance terms, which we should, as romance readers, understand to be a stand-in for all of the difficult conversations that they would have to have if they were a real couple.
E: I feel like that’s a good summary.
I: You know I hate the grand gesture so much, but yes–I feel like that was the purpose of the rain scene. I don’t feel like it was to gloss over stuff, I feel like it was one last shot for Daphne to open up. To be like, “I see you and I like you the way you are, and you’re safe with me.” And he was like, “Oh, I’m safe with you!” He had been trying to win his dad’s approval forever. So Simon and Daphne were in the same pattern. When Daphne was the one who was like, “Well it would look bad if you didn’t come…” Simon does it, but isn’t it the same kind of “be perfect for me” pressure he’d lived with his whole life? And he needs the opposite of that. That’s why a conversation in the rain was the big transformation because she was finally like, “I just don’t care about this stuff.” She was finally addressing his needs by making space for him and all his imperfections–he deserved that time and space to have those traumas understood and addressed. But that’s what I saw it as, that she was fully embracing what really mattered in the big picture of their marriage.
But also I’m like, Miss Therapy so maybe I’m just filling in the gaps so I can see exactly what I want to see.
H: Also who the fuck plans a ball outside in England?
E: Hahaha I thought that was really funny too. Like, why would they not have a ceiling? Hoo boy. Obviously so they could have a scene in the rain.
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