Bridgerton cast posing for Netflix poster

Bridgerton: Casting POC in Historical Fiction

Bridgerton, a Netflix series that has been viewed by over 82 million households, became the most–watched on the streaming service when it first came out. The book–turned–show takes place in 19th-century Britain, which has been fun for my British soul. I grew up in London right around the area where the show is based, so it was fun hearing the characters name specific streets and landmarks near my home. Since I’ve been in the United States for college and am living on campus, I haven’t been able to go home for quite some time; Bridgerton brought home to me.

The show follows members of the aristocracy during the ton season, the time when debutantes are presented to the court. The main storyline revolves around Simon Basset, the Duke of Hastings, and his courtship of Lady Daphne Bridgerton, the eldest daughter in a wealthy family. Bridgerton was a fascinating show, and though there’s much to be said about it, what stands out most is its innovative casting of people of color in a historical period piece. 

What’s so fascinating about Bridgerton's casting is that the black characters aren’t just minor roles or side characters. Instead, there are characters who are black members of the aristocracy, a big deal in and of itself, like the Duke of Hastings (the main male lead) and Lady Danbury (a major female character). Shonda Rhimes, the creator of the show, cast POC in roles from all walks of life and society: Madame Genevieve, the dressmaker and seamstress who makes all the gorgeous dresses for the characters in the show, is also a person of color. All of these characters add to the complicated caste system of 1800’s London and allow the audience to experience the depth of world–building in the show.

“We were two separate societies divided by color until a king fell in love with one of us. Look at everything it is doing for us, allowing us to become. Love, Your Grace, conquers all,” says Lady Danbury to the Duke of Hastings during a pivotal scene in the show. This conversation between the show’s two main black characters is one of the few times the show explicitly mentions race within the narrative. 

In my opinion, while I think Bridgerton was innovative with their casting, I think they could have done more to address the real racial issues of the time period. Instead, the show glosses over more serious considerations to present a compelling romantic drama. There have been few other period pieces in which POC have been leads. One well–known film that does is Belle, which follows a biracial woman in eighteenth–century England. However, Bridgerton and Belle are very different in that Belle tackles racial politics in a way that Bridgerton doesn’t give much attention to. Both cast POC very differently, but both models are interesting in their own ways.

Hopefully, the show spearheads a movement to cast more POC in historical entertainment, whether through color–blind casting or a conscious decision to make certain characters POC. 

Historically, there’s been debate over whether or not Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the queen–consort in Britain during the time period Bridgerton takes place, was of African descent. The show's decision to cast Golda Rosheuvel as Queen Charlotte shows their stance on the debate. Rosheuvel made a point to say “for me the importance of the way the show has been cast, is to put back into people’s understanding that there was an African presence at all levels of society in Britain at that time.” 

Something to note is that while Queen Charlotte is an essential figure in the Netflix series, she wasn't mentioned in Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton novels. Though some were nervous about how Quinn would react to the original character, she made her approval clear in a fan letter to Rosheuvel after watching the show. 

I think that Shonda Rhimes did an incredible job with Bridgerton. She really brought the book to life and was able to create an immersive world. There were definitely some steamy moments, so I wouldn't recommend watching it with your family; I made that mistake, and it was extremely uncomfortable! But overall, the glamour of London portrayed on screen was beautiful, as was the show's dedication to portraying all of the different people inhabiting the city.