Netflix’s ‘Bridgerton’ is a feminist disaster. But it (almost) redeems itself.

If this review is a mess, I blame “Bridgerton,” the raunchy, Regency(ish)-era soap opera produced by Shonda Rhimes for Netflix. I believe I have sustained a “Bridgerton”-related brain injury while trying to mentally accommodate a world where soft porn meets Lisa Frank meets… not Jane Austen, but someone who has definitely heard of Jane Austen. Someone who doesn’t realize that Austen was already skewering the shallowness of society and has decided to skewer Austen by pointing out that society is mean to women. But with very wacky hair and clothes!

It is not just that “Bridgerton” is full of deliberate anachronisms. Anachronisms can work if the show understands the rules and knows how and why to break them, or else if the show is just so much fun you will forgive anything. But “Bridgerton” knows nothing, understands nothing and provides zero fun. It somehow turns graphic sex scenes into a slog. Its putative, clever outrageousness is just a multicolored explosion of clichés. Whether or not it’s faithful to the series of romance novels on which it’s based, I do not know; but the show we got is a mess and nothing else. At least at first. 

In the first few minutes of the show, Prudence Featherington (the daughter of one of two prominent families vying to make brilliant marriages while a mysterious, omniscient voyeur distributes brochures gossiping about high society) is mercilessly laced into a tight corset while her mother looks on approvingly.

This is the beginning of a nearly nonstop jeremiad on the callous mistreatment of women during this era. Every episode has at least one woman delivering lamentations on the subject of How Society Is Unfair To Women. I thought often of the scene in “Blazing Saddles” where several vicious cowboys beat up an old woman. In between punches to the gut, she looks straight into the camera and cries, “Have you ever seen such cruelty?” The feminism of “Bridgerton” is that subtle. 

And they are not wrong. It’s a hard world out there in “Bridgerton.” Lots of sexism, plenty of objectification. The problem is, much of that sexism and objectification comes from the writing itself. Two of the sisters complain that, in this society, artists see women purely as decorative objects, mere “human vases” to gawk at. Within minutes, we transition to their older brother, who is also trying to liberate himself from this same artificially constrictive society. He achieves his liberation by visiting an artist’s studio, where he is delighted to find not only a casual orgy, but naked models standing around in candlelight, for you to gawk at. Why the first scene is sexist and the second one is awesome, don’t ask me. 

There are too many examples of this double standard to list. The show self-righteously excoriates society for its shallow focus on outward appearances, but in the same breath indicates to the audience that certain characters are evil or foolish by making them fat, or slightly buck-toothed, or by giving them puffy hair. Ugly dudes are evil when they attack girls, but sexy dudes are just impetuous, and true love means trying to save them. 

Remember the first scene, with the tight corset? Once the girl is crushed into a tiny hourglass shape, she steps into an empire-waisted dress, which is gathered under the bust and then flows freely past the waist. And there it is. “Bridgerton” puts a merciless squeeze on the audience in all the wrong places, for no reason at all. Have you ever seen such cruelty?

The viewer shall also endure the laziest, most moronic attempt at fancy, old-timey speech you shall ever hear, shalln’t you? I barely made it through the first four episodes. I only continued because I wanted to be fair and thorough.

And darn it, that’s when the show turned a corner.

Read the rest of my review for America Magazine.

Image is a still from the trailer below:


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9 thoughts on “Netflix’s ‘Bridgerton’ is a feminist disaster. But it (almost) redeems itself.”

  1. I watched Bridgerton until the young heroine was taught how to masturbate. At the beginning of that scene I turned the tv off and have never gone back. Nor have I regretted it. I’m a huge Austen fan because of her wit, her observational skills, and her dialogs. This silly production had no wit, no interesting dialog, and what we observe is boring, as these television escapades into light porn always are. The one character I found marginally interesting was the queen; all the rest were cliches. Ugh, that was several hours I’ll never get back.

  2. Admittedly, I binge watched a good chunk of Bridgerton just now after drinking two glasses of red wine, and my first thought after the […spoiler?] Onanism scenes was “I wonder if that woman who wrote The Sinner’s Guide to NFP has Thoughts on this pastel-colored mishmash.”

    The empire-waist + corset combo was puzzling, but I guess I overall liked it? I appreciated that Shonda Rhimes has a way of making old themes seem present: the failing of vague, wishy-washy sex ed; the way that childhood neglect harms marriages; the way that one spouse’s unwillingness to give themselves to the other can collapse the bond completely. I guess I disagreed in the “reconciliation” bit insomuch as Simon clearly *wanted* true marriage down, but just needed a ton of therapy (I feel like that’s distinguishable from someone who is only in a marriage for control that manifests as abuse).

    Mixed feelings, but I guess at the end of the day, the presence of a few happy marriages (the boxer, Jennifer Ehle presumably missing Colin Firth (?) after being widowed) was kind of life-affirming.

  3. Thank you for that review. I found Bridgerton engaging at the beginning…all the beautiful costumes, props, sets and people were distracting. I understood that Shonda would reinvent history to re-position people of colour into every rank and employment possible presenting an “almost” equal façade.
    What I couldn’t reconcile was the perky and determined Daphne turning into the stereotypical hysterical woman so often described in that era, over semantics: ” I cannot have children”. An extreme breakup, rather than even a semi-mature “let’s talk about this so I can understand the “cannot” in that sentence. He is relegated to villain and her to suffering woman. I don’t get it, so much love (and sex…well, uninspiring, short screen blasts of it) and then so much fury, enough to throw it all away. Was that supposed to be Daphne standing up for herself? To me she came across as foolish…again playing to the stereotype of the era. I wanted to see her growth in maturity and strength but it seems that TV requires a sensational breakdown before a reconciliation can happen and so much emphasis is in the breakup period. Oh well. The saving grace for me was not in the chracters but the sumptuous visuals.

  4. Having finally watched Bridgerton (sorry I’m a bit late) –

    – I, too, did not enjoy the graphic sex scenes, but then I never do. Must be an age thing because weirdly enough they were my favorite thing when I was younger.
    – The scene you mentioned where Daphne “suddenly and violently gets her period” …. I thought it was implied that she was having a miscarriage, so that made sense to me.
    – It was frustrating to listen to Daphne’s mom encourage Daphne to “forgive” and “reconcile” with what is essentially an irreconcilable incompatibility, and toward someone who, at the time, really wasn’t speaking to her. Reconciliation, by definition, needs both people. One person can’t just unilaterally reconcile.
    – However, that did lead to an incredible mic-drop moment where Daphne models the forgiveness her mother is preaching toward someone her mother is unable to forgive.
    – I did appreciate that it’s the story of the whole family. It’s more focused on Daphne, especially in the earlier episodes, but supposedly the next season will be more about the brothers.
    – The Duke was a very frustrating character, but I thought what we saw of Daphne made sense. She was just perpetually dealing with a LOT so it made sense to me that’s what we saw of her character.
    – The opening credits were gorgeous!

    Overall I enjoyed it! I didn’t look at it quite the same way you did, but I enjoyed it for what it was.

  5. Simcha, I thought Bridgerton was pretty bad myself. I think I should have not watched it. By the time I realized you had reviewed it and I read you kept the watching for the review, I said “Well, Sarah, hang in there. There’s a procreative and unitive sex scene somewhere near the end.” Still it wasn’t all that loving a sex scene. In my mind, married folks have some foreplay and after play. Anyway, I don’t think I will see season 2, either. The books are probably better.

    Your Fan.

    1. oh, definitely. I tried to be clear that it was just a faint hint of something right, floating in an ocean of wrong! People keep telling me that I only have a problem with it because I’m uptight, because apparently it’s uptight to think women like foreplay?

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