Bridgerton Review: Colorism, corsets, and color-grading

The belle of the ball catches the eyes of 82 million households

~Ashley McMillan, Arts & Entertainment Editor~

Here, here! A new royal family has taken our gaze, and this time, it is as fictional as ever. 

On Christmas day, Netflix welcomed a new Original series; adapted by Julia Quinn’s eight Regency novels, Bridgerton broke Netflix records by achieving 82 million streams in its first 28 days of release. Taking place in early 19th century England, the books follow the Bridgerton family’s eight children, four boys and four girls, as they seek for their better halves. For the series, Netflix plans to do a season per book, focusing on each Bridgerton sibling’s trials through love in the spotlight. The show not only highlights the journey of heartbreak and scandal, but additionally, intertwines fashion trends like corsets and square necklines and cinematic ideologies like escapism. We see each of these ideals throughout the series’ addicting showcase. 

The first season follows Daphne, the oldest daughter of the Bridgerton family. From the very beginning of the series, it was established by Queen Charlotte that Daphne was the season’s Incomparable, or otherwise known as, royal England’s belle of every ball. From this moment on, the audience knew exactly what was to be expected of Daphne — pure and respectful. Though, for the entirety of the season, we soon find out that the trials that lay ahead question her regal position. From scandal, to indecency, to betrayal, Daphne’s rollercoaster of a love life kept me on my toes. 

The overly saturated tones, and beautifully placed props throughout the storyline was incredibly enticing. The show felt like a break in the mold; personally, when I watch historical fiction, the color-grading is more in the gray-scale, or is warmer with a sephia shadow. These color-grading techniques are to showcase the shows or film as an older tale from the timeline, in order to separate it from a modern storyline. As we all know, color in film grew in saturation over time, so when over-saturated colors and glamorous props were intertwined, I felt myself attracted to the beauty of the scenery. When I would watch Bridgerton on my lonely couch, it felt as though I could walk onto the ballroom stage and dance along with the characters (but of course, I was on the other side of the screen). The color-grading differentiates this show from the rest of royal, historical fiction in the most magnetic way possible.

Now, everyone loves a good gossip story, but when it comes to the beauty and regal essence of the show’s costuming, it can’t be beat. It’s known that in the early 19th century, if a lady wore the same dress again, her social status would go down the drain. For Daphne alone, actress Phoebe Dynevor wore over 100 dresses throughout her debut act in season one. For the entirety of the season, there were over 7,500 handmade costuming pieces. From the sheer amount of those numbers, someone who has not seen Bridgerton could simply understand from a bird’s eye view the immense detail that went into the show’s prominent introduction to Netflix. The beautiful dresses accurately detailed the period’s popular trends: soft, lightweight fabric gathered just under the breasts, with a low square neckline, and short, puffed sleeves with a low shoulder line. Not only was the early 19th century known for this distinct style, corsets were all the rage. The newest collections of today feature these very trends: corsets and low square necklines. The coincidence of recurring fashion trends could have a play in the show’s admiration, but the escapist essence of Bridgerton has viewers like me watching episode after episode. 

The fashion taste of the trending show is breath-taking, but when it comes to the diversity and inclusive attempts made, the show severely lacks. When one of the brothers comes across his guy friend having sex with another man, he obviously is confused and asks his friend at a later social event, secretly, about the event. The conversation was short, and reflected to me (the viewer) in a rather homophobic way. As much as I appreciate disrupting the mainstream heteronormative narrative and have shows include themes of homosexuality, the emptiness within this conversation is disapointing and homophobic. If anything, this exact moment is a visual representation of queer-bating. The act happened and was oddly cut short — the writers behind the adaptation should’ve concerned for a sub-plot on an LGBTQ+ narrative in order to be more inclusive, and simply follow that sexual occurrence. That would’ve been a beautiful and unique love story. I understand that heteronormativity was a heavy, toxic tradition of the early 19th century, but if we don’t capture the issue of homophobia head-on then the new Hollywood ideal for diversity inclusivity fails. 

This issue follows into other areas, like how there is a lack of racial equity and diverse discussion within the show, which leads to an unhealthy, false belief in diversity. POC actors are put into positions of an either “escapist” ideal, or inactive discussion on racial equity. The show fails to mention the individual obstacles POC characters go through in their daily life, which seems escapist in theory, but doesn’t promote progress when reflected into our racist, institutionalized society. The show discusses racial issues somewhat, but does not follow up on them throughout the show’s entirety, which is an example of race-baiting. Some may say “not everything is about race,” while actually, that is the very issue with how this discussion of diversity and inclusion is being handled in mainstream, white-washed Hollywood. The early 19th century, which the series is focused on, was structured on racial prejudice, in the form of the self-governed superiority of the white Europeans over people of color, was extremely orthodox. 

Now, there are multiple avenues as to why Bridgerton failed at being a show with diversity. For one, the show lacked in Asian representation. Asian actors were casted into the background, as if it was decorative. If anything, Asian characters were stereotypically constructed as the “chatty” character within the narrative, with no sub-plot of their own. We see this lack in representation and accurate cultural backgrounds with Black actors, considering they sort of revolve around the White main characters, with no sort of community or storyline of their own. Not only is there a lack of representation for POC, but we cannot ignore the blatant colorism within the cast. Colorism, as Merriam-Webster defines it, “prejudice or discrimination especially within a racial or ethnic group favoring people with lighter skin over those with darker skin,” which is exactly what we see within Bridgerton. The producer claims to collect a diverse cast, but when it comes to characters with speaking roles, light-skinned Black people are put onto the stage. There are three dark-skinned people out of the eight Black people within the group, two of them being men (one older, one younger) and one of them being an older woman. When it comes to this, it’s clear that casting had a major divide: light-skinned Black or bi-racial Black women and dark-skinned Black men are more favorably casted. With stereotypes being that Black dark-skinned women are seen as the more wise, older characters, while light-skinned Black women are put into the youthful position, living out their life however. From here, we can surely notice this erasure within Bridgerton. Lady Danbury (played by Adjoa Andoh), as a dark-skinned Black woman, is given the role of the single old and wise female figure who takes over the parenting for Simon. The dark-skinned Black men in the show are given very divisive roles: Will Mondrich (played by Martins Imhangbe) is the lower-class, boxer-fighting, helpful and wise best friend to light-skinned Duke of Hastings, Simon Basset (Played by Regé-Jean Page); The previous Duke of Hastings (played by Richard Pepple) is the abusive, manipulative, traumatic father who scars Simon for eternity, and that is all we know. Dark-skinned characters are constantly given a psychological and emotional battle due to white-washed, racist ideals, conforming the narrative to be negative or neutral rather than a positive one (which is given to light-skinned characters). As much as the show Bridgerton was extravagant, it failed to imply a diverse and inclusive cast and storyline it falsely showcased in the media. This show is purely a mask to history; there is a beautiful, magnetic appeal to the front, but beneath, there is a lack in representation and an immense stereotype of ethnicities and skin tones that in turn shows its true colors as a racially-divisive anti-fairytale.

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