The Modern Relevance Of Feminism In 'Bridgerton'
Like 63 million other people, I quickly fell in love with Netflix’s period drama series ‘Bridgerton’- caught up in the stunning 1800s outfits, regal settings, and a fanfiction-worthy enemies-to-lovers trope. The central storyline follows society’s most prestigious families presenting their young debutantes at the start of a season dedicated to arranging a marriage that will hopefully further their position in society. Daphne, the eldest Bridgeton daughter, and Simon, the Duke of Hastings, agree to pretend to court so that Daphne can attract new, jealous suitors, and Simon can have respite from the desperate women trying to persuade him to propose. The surprisingly self-aware discussions of various feminist issues that take place in the show remain relevant 200 years later, and highlight many problems facing women in the modern day.
Daphne Bridgerton, the main character, is an endearing blend of gentle and headstrong: she believes in finding love and dreams of a fairytale wedding, yet she is also willing to voice her opinions no matter how unpalatable it might be to the men in her life. Just before she (deservedly) decks antagonist Berbrooke so hard he falls to the ground, she informs him that they will not be marrying. She doesn’t offer an explanation, or suggest an alternative solution that might suit them both, or apologise for not doing what he wanted: she simply tells him exactly what she is going to do and leaves no room for him to argue. For me, this spoke volumes about the way many women in the 21st century continue to downplay the impact of their language. Part of my linguistics course at university teaches us about ‘hedging’, which is the act of including language in your speech to deliberately seem less authoritative and certain; for example “I think X could work better than Y'' instead of the direct route of “Y is not a good idea”. This is something I often catch myself doing, and if I’m saying something I know for certain then I will often realise that I’m hedging and then repeat myself- this time with confidence. Daphne’s adamant refusal to marry Berbrooke, such as when she says “you will never be my husband, I will never marry you”, is inspirational in it’s powerful simplicity. It shows that women don’t need to brandish swords to be strong, and that the simple act of believing in yourself and standing up for what you feel passionate about is one of the most powerful acts of all. Throughout the show she continues to voice her opinions even when the men are instructing her and informing her of what her future will look like, so her constant conviction is, to them, irritating and pointless. She continues until she gets what she wants, no matter how many times her brothers and betrothed tell her no. It may not be groundbreaking, but it is important.
Daphne’s younger sister, Eloise Bridgerton, is openly vocal in her feminism. Although she is not expected to seriously pursue a marriage until joining adult society at the debutante the following year, her family and friends constantly question why she is not more interested in securing a proposal. The comments are continuous, but so is Eloise’s most popular response: she wishes to live a life that fulfils her- which happens to be writing and attending university, instead of starting a family. This topic is something that women have encountered for generations, and a fulfilled life outside of having a family is something that patriarchal society tries to tell us makes no sense. How can a woman feel fulfilled without a marriage! How can a woman live a happy life without having children! Well, the answer is simple. Every person is different and, consequently, what fulfils them varies greatly too. The beauty of feminism and Eloise Bridgerton’s views is that there is a recognition that some women do aspire to be a wife/mother, and some don’t. Both options are valid and both options should be celebrated in equal measure. Eloise understands that Daphne wants to marry for love and start a family, and even though she initially criticises her for having ‘low aspirations’, she later realises that Daphne would be equally as happy with a husband and children as Eloise would be with a degree and writing career. Even in the 21st century there is societal pressure to marry and have children, experienced through the ever-present “when are you going to settle down?”.
A third issue that Bridgerton raises is the perspective of a woman based on her sexual activity. The women debutantes in the series are expected to be virgins until their wedding night, and Daphne is anxious to avoid speculation when she is alone with a man in case it raises suspicions about her reputation. Nigel Berbrooke, the show’s most prominent antagonist, makes vile comments in episode 2, stating that if Daphne and Simon have had sex before she is married, Daphne is now “damaged and not intact” (it’s easy to see why we were all so happy when Daphne knocked him out). Although to a slightly lesser extent in our society, it’s still astounding to see the differences between how men and women who may have identical sex lives are viewed by their peers, both set within Bridgerton and also in the modern day. For example, if a man has a lot of sex then at worst he will not be viewed as ‘lesser’ of a man because of it, and at best he is actually viewed more admirably. This could not be further from the truth for women, and the discussions of reputation and expectation that are had by the Bridgerton characters still hold a reflection of modern conversations. On this topic, it is uncovered that one of the characters, Marina, is pregnant and that the father-to-be is absent as he is fighting a war in another country, and this damages her social standing almost beyond repair. Any potential partners are then not willing to marry her, and the attendees of the debutante balls no longer wanted anything to do with her. Teen mums and young single mothers are often stereotyped as irresponsible, which, in my opinion, detracts from the monumental task they have of raising a child alone. If anything, single parents- regardless of their age- should be commended for their strength. Once again, Bridgerton reflects our society when it focuses on how a single parent situation is not the ‘expected’, instead of the bravery it may require.
The feminist issues raised in the show have, unfortunately, transcended Bridgerton’s era and continued into ours. The representation of single mothers and society’s perception of sexually active women is largely still accurate today, and shows the long road we have ahead to correct this. However, if there should be two central messages from this beautiful show, let it be these: you are always entitled to speak up for yourself and be heard, and only you are responsible for deciding what fulfils you. Let nobody else decide this for you.