Brief ruminations on the Netflix period drama and ownership over the past
I am currently developing more thoughts on this subject to pitch to a media outlet!
In Shondaland’s first production for Netflix, Bridgerton, the hero Simon, Duke of Hastings strides arrogantly into the frame, arches an eyebrow in response to witty repartee, and his muscled, well-dressed physique sends ballrooms of fluttering debutantes into a swoon.
To audiences accustomed to a steady diet of period dramas—often Jane Austen adaptations shipped across the pond to Masterpiece Theater—and historical romance novels, this is a familiar figure. A figure frequently duplicated across dozens of romantic historical entertainment inspired by the likes of Darcy, Heathcliff, Maxim de Winter, Rochester, and more. Simon’s cravats are starched and tied high, his carriage erect, his arrogance intriguing, and his glances are suitably smoldering—so why is this figure immediately rendered alien when these familiar visual tropes are performed by a Black man?
History has long been a battleground over the power vested in who controls access to narratives about the past; however, when history is materialized in popular culture, this battle is obscured under the demands for “accuracy.” Furthermore, historical popular culture has developed visual codes across decades over who does and does not belong in the rarefied worlds of royalty, aristocracy, and the other sumptuous settings favored by period drama and historical fiction aficionados. And as seen by the continued racism and harassment faced by Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, this visual code has real world implications wherein what consumers envision of the past—and of fantasies about powerful, influential, elite spaces—through consumption of history-based entertainment transfers to opinions and assumptions about who should occupy the past (and these spaces) in everyday life.
Early reviews of the drama approached the series with the assumption that it was another Downton Abbey, or an “updated” period piece. Some early reviews did view it as a romance genre adapted and trotted out the stereotypes about “bodice rippers” that the genre has struggled to shake off forty years after its emergence as blockbuster fiction. The most vocal responses to Bridgerton have come from academic historians, a profession who has always had a contentious relationship with period dramas and other history-based entertainment.
Furthermore, the choice to make the fictionalized fantasy Regency setting include people of color (POC), a decision known in fandom circles as racebending, caused many scholars—particularly scholars of Haitian history—to decry the downplaying of slavery and colonialism, to discuss what changing the characters’ race means for the plot, and the erasure of Haiti and its own aristocracy in the early 1800s. Romance readers and writers also had their own conversations, many of which dealt with the issues of consent and translating Regency romance speak for audiences, not to mention the decades’-old debates about “accuracy” and POC in historical romance—and the sting of both Quinn’s rejection of POC in her novels on a panel at the 2018 Romance Writers of America conference and the backlash from Quinn’s readers when she revealed the casting of Regé-Jean Page as Simon.
As a history blogger, a museum curator, a longtime reader and writer of historical romance, a period drama aficionado, and as someone soon to wrap up a PhD in History, I stand at the intersection of these debates. In particular, I remember the massive popularity of ITV’s Downton Abbey (2010-2015) and the uneasy response to the addition of Jack Ross (Gary Carr) in season four. Ross was an African American jazz musician who briefly romances the rebellious Lady Rose Macclare (Lily James), and his presence created a flurry of responses about “accuracy” and the interracial romance aspect. It doesn’t help that as the series wrapped up, an esteemed British actor opined that the show was popular in the US because it lacked Black characters. Coincidentally(?), Jack Ross also happened to debut on Downton Abbey at the same time the BBC premiered its 1930s jazz-based period drama, Dancing on the Edge, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as bandleader Louis Lester (Mr. Selfridge also made an attempt to be inclusive in its final season, set in the 1920s, with the introduction of Tilly Brockless).
I used Edwardian Promenade as a vehicle to introduce viewers to the presence of Black people in interwar Britain and the influence of jazz ; however, the still-entrenched beliefs that period dramas—that the past itself—is the sole playground for white characters is entangled with the uses people make of the past, their anxieties about the present, and, to be frank, the way history is often weaponized in ways many don’t recognize except to understand that when they see the past, they attempt to see themselves. And current events have shown that this attempt has real-world implications, ranging from the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol building to the targeted harassment of prominent women of color.
In 2015, when a friend asked if I wanted to take part in an anthology about Armistice Day, I immediately said yes! At the time, I was struggling with my writing career—primarily because I had started to become uncomfortable with the notion that I would have to only write about white aristocratic characters in order to be published. I had already self-published a two-part historical saga about a British family on the brink of WWI, and as much as I loved the characters there was still a part of me that felt I’d given into the pressures of the genre. I am happy with my contribution to Fall of Poppies, After You’ve Gone, but it was written in an incredibly self-conscious vacuum. In that it was a moment to reflect on why historical fiction is so white, what do popular tropes and conventions mean for readers and writers, and what does it mean to insert POC into this? And as the sole woman of color contributor writing about characters who shared my background, the self-consciousness also included Representation—that old chestnut about having to be “the best” in order to prime readers to expect other authors of color to provide the same experience as a white author; mediocrity only supports the preexisting beliefs about “quality.” But overall, I also hoped that my inclusion was a strong argument that we were there too.
Ironically, this very argument is what causes so much uneasiness and disruption in Bridgerton. In episode four, a tête-à-tête between Simon (Page) and Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh) attempts to explain why Black and Asian characters exist in this Regency world by drawing on the longtime belief that Queen Charlotte of England was of African descent. Tracing this African descent uncovers the underwritten stories about the African presence in Europe before the 20th century, but it also asks if Africans did exist in the Regency period, did the transatlantic slave trade also exist? The handwaving over POC characters sits uneasily with the actual history of the early 1800s, while also contending with historical romance’s uncomfortable relationship with including POC—and the complete fantasy world that has been dubbed “Alamackistan” (which is why many ask why POC cannot be characters?).
Coincidentally, the first Lifetime fictionalized drama about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s relationship draws on this as well, with the movie ending with a scene of Queen Elizabeth II showing Meghan (Parisa Fitz-Henley) and Harry (Murray Fraser) a painting of Queen Charlotte in her palace. Bridgerton’s Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) swans about palaces and ballrooms in a variety of hairstyles that reflect Black textures, from braids to locs to afros, further cementing the visual aspect of her supposed African heritage. These visual cues are even more fascinating when taken with the various responses to the neat locs (and nose stud) of Meghan’s mother, Doria Ragland.
We were apparently there too—we are there—but how? And why?
Where to find me this month:
Tuesday, February 16, 2021 at 7 PM CST
“The Rites and Rituals of African American Society” - In Red at the Bone, the daughter’s cotillion might seem antiquated in the 21st century, but the event ties together family history and memory and provides a deeper look at African American traditions. I explore the history of the cotillion, the ideas around racial uplift, the Black family, and concepts of Black girlhood and womanhood. Hosted by Cook Memorial Public Library District.
Six-week class beginning February 18, 2021 at 4:15 - 6:15 pm (CST)
“Home is Memory: Black Women’s Material and Visual Culture” - From quilts stitched by enslaved women to sculptures of lynching victims to pop art about beauty and race, Black women from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries have turned to the arts and visual culture to articulate their resistance and to grapple with complexities and contradictions of “home” in the New World. This seminar introduces a range of Black women artists, who use art to respond to the currents of resistance at key moments in history – from “Ain’t I a Woman?” to Black Lives Matter.
Regular Rate: $190.00
Member Rate: $170.00