I watched the entire Bridgerton franchise so that I could text my friends back about it when they asked me what I thought of the show. Shonda Rhimes’s adaptation of Julia Quinn’s Times-bestselling romance novels is about eight aristocratic siblings, its premise a cotton candy-colored, warmed-over Pride and Prejudice. Having now inhaled both seasons, I have, to my horror, realized what the show is really about: dads.
Bridgerton gives us one big opulent spectacle of wet shirts and heaving bosoms: an orgy of very loosely Regency textiles and hairstyles, set on a guilt-free alternate historic timeline. It’s 1813, and very occasionally, someone will mention “the colonies.” The show’s liberal feminists and post-racial centrists just happen to live in a brutally sexist and homophobic patriarchal structure. Racism has been solved by a royal marriage. “We were two separate societies, divided by color, until a king fell in love with one of us,” Lady Danbury says in Season 2, which is loosely “inspired by” the real-life Portuguese wife of king George III who some historians speculate may have been part-African. Rhimes is channeling, in short, the American cult of Meghan Markle, African-American Duchess of Sussex, who some imagined would democratize the world’s most autocratic and eugenic institution. The show’s coronation of Charlotte — resplendent with an Afro — occurs against a backdrop of Alicia Keys’s all-women-of-color orchestra. In some parts of the world, off-screen, you can now purchase a Bridgerton “immersive experience,” The Queen’s Ball™ cos-play party. Back on the show, two women characters (Penelope Featherington and Genevieve Delacroix) chat about female entrepreneurship.
Underneath the liberal-feminist window-dressing, the show gives voice to an unmissably reactionary perspective: “Make Men Dads Again.” Bridgerton fantasizes about the girls restoring patriarchy for their own benefit. Guys must step up and take care of the rest of us as they supposedly once did. Queen Charlotte is an aggressive enforcer of the laws of primogeniture and patriliny, constantly barking at people to produce an heir, but she wishes she didn’t have to be the one doing it. Her life is spent attempting to soothe and groom her psychotic husband, George III, into a believable performance of neurotypical reliability as manly head of state.
It might strike some as funny that the dad-form is at its most desirable in a show where it is nowhere to be seen. That’s right: the Bridgerton community has no functional dads in it (yet). They are all either missing, mentally ill, delinquent, or dead –– Bridgerton himself, the best dad/husband in the world, died a decade before the show begins.
Where have all the good pops gone? How can we support their kind to rise again? Not unlike today’s “neo-masculinity” pundits (Jordan Peterson et al.), Rhimes and Quinn’s view of what’s plaguing our society is a crisis of dadlessness. In their feminist version, the proto-dads are whatever our plucky heroines manage to fashion with their bare hands out of the raw clay of their love interests. Still, Peterson’s incel army would surely be on board with this program: by marrying for love, while at the same time marrying for pragmatic reasons — an oddly recurrent miracle — we will bring dad back.
The second season is where this thesis has so far been most completely articulated. Anthony, the firstborn Bridgerton, is forced to step into his perfect dad’s shoes as head of household when he is just a teen, creating non-reproductive dadliness that is excessive and premature. Papa succumbed to a fatal bee sting just as they were returning from a game-hunting tête-à-tête (could such a small bug really slay the slayer of stags? It’s enough to make one’s own masculinity hypervigilant). With nightmare anaphylactic scenes, the bee makes a widow out of the heavily pregnant Mrs. Bridgerton right in her garden. This is why Anthony has never married. Now, he briskly concedes: he must find a spouse –– but minus the romance, please, for he intends to keep zealously putting siblings and Mother first. Look, this is trauma. This is neurosis.
The cure is Kate Sharma. You likely won’t believe how heavy-handed it all is when I tell you. Kate takes her own turn in the paternal shoes: a bee stings her right in front of Anthony, and she survives because she isn’t allergic. The two go stag-shooting, and Kate cocks a rifle, crouching next to him exactly where his dad used to. What we all want is Dad, apparently. Stage one therefore involves this therapeutic wooing in the female-Daddy mode. Stage two seals the deal: We girls (by which I mean Kate, Shonda, Julia, me, and you) gradually coach and coax the boy away from non-procreative familism. Slowly, he stops putting family first in the wrong way, and bingo: He weds for love, putting his new family first. The flow of dadding is restored to its proper direction (from men “down”).
The show’s solution to dadlessness chimes eerily with a youthful American trend: tradwifery. Over the last 20 years or so, the #tradwife subculture has responded cannily to the gendered division of labor (the “double shift”) by calling upon women simply to drop their paid work and tend only to the hearth. Even if participants can only afford to ape its aesthetics, what this trad-marriage movement seeks to reinstate is the 1950s middle-class, single-breadwinner, multi-baby household. A new self-described “reactionary feminism” has lately joined tradwifery — advocated by the British writers Louise Perry and Mary Harrington, with echoes of the resurgent conservative feminism of U.S. legal scholars like Erika Bachiochi and Leah Libresco Sargeant. On both sides of the Atlantic, such figures proudly propose to re-stigmatize sexual freedom and re-impose procreative marriage as the definition of virtue.
Did the novelist and screenwriters who created the Bridgerton Extended Universe read early drafts of Feminism Against Progress (by Harrington) or The Rights of Women (by Bachiochi)? Inquiring minds want to know. These recent texts from self-described feminists preach re-criminalizing prostitution and porn while promoting whore-stigma, slut-shaming, and chivalry. They sometimes freely admit that marriage is, to quote Louise Perry, “a method used by men to control female sexuality.” In the final sentences of Perry’s The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, she cheerfully admits that marriage “does do that, of course.” But trying to supersede the private household or even mitigate the sexual double standard is the worst kind of foolish utopianism. Sexual tradition might be a bummer, but it’s based on evolutionary psychology’s immutable truths. Where left feminists “go wrong is in arguing that there is any better system. There isn’t.”
Marriage on Bridgerton is discussed with striking materialist-feminist candor: as a life-or-death matter for debutantes, for example; a virginity racket; a truly unjust gender imperative that imprisons women in the private sphere; or, as a form of infantilization barring them from politics, creativity, intellectual life, and the public. Nonetheless, all the marriages we see turn out very happily. Again and again, we are told of how blissful Mr. and Mrs. Bridgerton were: their relationship is the aspiration spoken of in the opening words of the show. Listen, despite it all, the show whispers: marriage is unequivocally the best thing for women. It’s simply the necessary technology –– for the children.
Biological parenthood is self-actualization here, almost a duty. Children are beloved property. And every baby has one mother and one father, maximum. That’s nature, honey. Season 1, if you recall, was obsessed with sperm. Major plotlines revolved around helping young men escape a fate where they wouldn’t be anyone’s genetic father. Colin thinks he could marry a poor mulatto cousin who is already pregnant with another man’s seed. Silly Colin, he thinks he doesn’t care that the child isn’t his. But the closest figure we have to an avatar inside the show (Lady Whistledown) soon helps him understand that he bloody well should care. Meanwhile, Daphne-and-the-Duke, the much-trumpeted and gushed-over central romance, quickly degenerates from mutual friendship and solidarity into a vision of married life as just one thing: a battle between the blonde’s putative entitlement to be a biological mother and the rake’s self-hating refusal to cum inside her (a refusal she’d assumed was an inability, and now, knowing better, sees no reason to respect).
Bridgerton’s premise is that the Duke will naturally want to break his vow not to procreate as soon as he heals from his childhood trauma. Ghoulishly, the show enlists us in a battering-down of this man’s boundary. Daphne deserves to get what she needs out of the marriage, doesn’t she? In one scene, she climbs on top of her husband and rapes him, ignoring his distress. This was not nice of her, the show concedes, and she miscarries afterwards, as punishment. What the Duke needs is for Daphne, the family-oriented girl from the large and loving family, to rehabilitate him away from his accursed state and turn him into a dad. She must do this patiently, by, for example, reading the unopened letters he sent to his father as a child (again, stepping in as his father, therapeutically). Daphne turns the Duke into a self-respecting man who doesn’t pull out before he’s climaxed near a uterus. She conceives again, and a baby appears. The rebel is domesticated and becomes a dad. The end.
God help me, but I was moved by Bridgerton, and that’s what scares me about it. I identified with the Duke, whose name is Simon — the traumatized refugee from the nuclear family — and felt a strangulated pleasure watching his forcible folding into a bio-family. At one point, I too wished to never have children of my own, and I exhaled sharply in the first episode of the show as Simon, not yet a duke, explained that his father was fixated on his bloodline and madly proprietary about it, barely caring when his wife, Simon’s mother, died in childbirth, since the male baby survived. The principle of that man’s own biogenetic survival was more important to him than his actual child. I had written the very same thing in my first book, in an anecdote about my own father’s attitude to progeny. And while I might or might not have kids –– having realized that spiting my dad is a terrible guide to action –– Simon doesn’t get to stay loyal to his palpable rage once he inherits his father’s title. In the second episode of the season, I gasped again. Simon comes to his father’s deathbed and spits in his face the most violent possible words he can think of — a solemn vow: “I will never sire an heir. The Hastings line will die with me. Are my words clear enough for you, Father? Speak, you monster!” I have never before watched a scene like this one, of retribution by a child against an abusive father on TV. That Bridgerton makes this righteously patricidal scene a mere step on the way to a reconciliation with a conservative reproductive order is a testament to this show’s evilness, and its genius.
Sophie Lewis is a writer and independent scholar living in Philadelphia. She is currently at work on a book entitled Enemy Feminisms (forthcoming with Haymarket). Her first two books, both published by Verso Books, are Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family (2019) and Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation. She teaches short courses on social and critical theory at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research.
Photos: Liam Daniel / ©Netflix / Courtesy Everett Collection