This article deals with themes of sexual violence.
Like many other adorers of romantic period pieces, I binged the entirety of Bridgerton on Christmas Day. Subsequently, I devoured the eight books of the series. The Bridgerton series is lighthearted, sensual, sumptuous, and effortlessly easy to binge read, a diamond in a genre so often filled with poorly written Victorian smut. Bridgerton, a collaboration between Shonda Rhimes and Netflix, is a modern adaption of Regency-era England laced with scandal, promenading, lavish courtships, and racial equity. The depiction of race in Bridgerton presents the heavily intolerant Regency period as one that is far beyond the 21st century in its depiction of race.
The eight hours of Jane-Austen-meets-Gossip-Girl has its fair share of rumors, ballrooms, and scheming among the upper echelon of London society. The show revolves around the abnormally gorgeous Bridgerton family where all eight siblings are said to look shockingly alike — it was absurdly difficult to differentiate the brothers for the first few episodes. The first half of the season focuses on the debut of Daphne, the eldest daughter, to society as she hopes to find a suitable husband.
Despite her striking looks and powerful family, Daphne struggles to find suitors due to the overprotective nature of her brothers. She makes an arrangement with Simon, Duke of Hastings, that they will fake an attachment to each other for both of their benefits: suitors will be attracted to her, and society women will see him as not being an eligible match. Unbeknownst to Daphne, Simon has made a vow to himself that he would not marry and not sire children to spite his heir-obsessed, deceased father. Since his abusive father cared more about the dukedom than anything else, Simon swears the family line will end with him.
Initially, this ruse is successful for both of their endeavors. However. the Duke is sarcastic, sexy, and mysterious, so Daphne — and the viewer — cannot help but fall in love with him. After numerous outings together, kissing (just once!), and a duel, Bridgerton set the standard for what I expect a man to do to win my affection; the pair are hastily married. After their marriage, Daphne experiences intimacy for the first time, beginning a secondary storyline about sex positivity. However, both the television adaption and the original books fail to reckon with its characters’ actions, glossing over sexual assault as something acceptable, and even romantic.
In Bridgerton relationships, consent is only needed from the woman, romanticizing assault.
The first season of Bridgerton closely follows The Duke and I, Julia Quinn’s 2000 novel that begins the series. The most controversial scene of the book involves Daphne raping her drunk and sleeping husband in order to inseminate her. In the wake of the #metoo movement, this scene has been altered in the on-screen adaption, but the message remains the same.
In the show, the action is less explicitly non consensual. Instead of a blacked-out Simon, he is completely awake and consents to the sex he and his wife are having. However, she forces him to inseminate her after he has said no numerous times. The on-screen version of this scene still lacks consent. The series creator, Chris Van Husen, and the creative team’s attempt to rewrite the scene is just as problematic as the original and is never truly dealt with on the show.
Van Dusen referred to the first season as “the education of Daphne Bridgerton.” According to him, that theme explores the lesson of consent. Yet, Daphne never truly learns this lesson. Simply, she informs her husband that he is not his father and he forgives her. As a result, he immediately changes his mind about not wanting to have children and gets Daphne pregnant. In the end, Daphne gets all that she desires: a happy husband, children, and a life of perfection. The assault she performs is not referenced; consequence is never dealt out for Daphne Bridgerton.
The assault of the Duke is framed as a violation of trust between two consenting adults, not as a violation of consent. It’s strange for Van Dusen to view this scene as Daphne’s education on consent after there are previous occurrences in which Daphne discusses consent. Nigel Berbrooke — her former fiance — attempts to assault her in a garden since she is his property. After numerous prior pleas from Daphne for her brother Anthony to call off her engagement to Berbrooke, it is only after she tells her brother of the potential assault that he agrees. In addition, later in the series, Simon kisses Daphne when they are not married leading to a duel between him and Anthony. This extreme action is taken because the latter believes that Daphne was unable to consent to a kiss from the Duke, solely because she is a woman. Both Anthony and Simon are willing to die to maintain Daphne’s sense of purity; death is the punishment for what is viewed as a lack of consent. It is only when a woman violates a man that the issue is not viewed as a serious threat.
Bridgerton fails to address the importance of informed consent.
None of Daphne and Simon’s sex scenes are consensual — and there are many. His vow to never have children, and his refusal to tell Daphne about this vow is the center of the latter half of the series. Simon deliberately tells her that he “can’t” have children, not that he “won’t.” Daphne’s lack of sexual education — as the Duke is the primary source for her information — leaves her in the dark about the possibility of pregnancy. By telling her that he is sterile when he is not, Daphne is never given informed consent as she is never told the accurate consequences of sex with the Duke. The pull-out method which he uses and informs her is the proper end to intercourse is anything but an efficient form of birth control, and she was unaware of the possibility of pregnancy after their encounters.
It is an active choice to give Daphne false information and to never tell her the truth. The Duke’s use of “can’t” signals a very different meaning from what he truly means. Simon lies by omission to Daphne prevent her from ever giving informed consent to sex or to their marriage.
Daphne is betrayed by Simon and is never able to give consent. Determined to find out whether she was lied to, Daphne takes control during intercourse and prevents her husband from pulling out, despite his pleas for her to get off of him. The only way she learns of his deception is through raping him.
Simon wants to end their marriage after she stealths him. However, Daphne is painted as the victim for the rest of the series. It is his betrayal that frames the remainder of Bridgerton; she even discusses the lack of informed consent from his use of “can’t” rather than telling her the truth. Yet, Bridgerton does not reference how Daphne realized Simon’s duplicity through a non consensual act of her own. He feels betrayed by her, but her rage takes center stage: Simon must give up on his vow for the marriage to work.
Bridgerton never discusses Simon’s rape again, pushing it aside as a necessary means to find out about Simon’s lies. Neither are excusable, yet her actions are meant to be justifiable since apparently one can only remedy a lack of consent with more non consensual activity. Simon is victim-blamed for his own rape due to his own prior actions, diverting the blame from the woman who was violent against him.
Instead of discussing what occurred, Bridgerton concludes with both Daphne and Simon forgetting about what occurred. Their trust issues are never delved into and the viewer is expected to believe that the ends justified the means.
Bridgerton is the product of a genre dependent on scandal, racy exploits, and affairs. As a result, the actions within it are accepted, if not desired, by providing its characters with their romanticized happy ending. For a show that decided to modernize many of its elements — race, eating disorder culture during the regency, and emphasizing the power of the queen —, it was a deliberate choice to keep the spirit of the rape scene. Simon and Daphne are viewed by society as the perfect couple; at the end of the series, the audience is expected to feel the same. However, the only way Bridgerton is able to successfully present this image is by ignoring the deception and lack of consent between the pair, creating a story heavily out-of-touch with reality and the discourse about sexual violence.