This article contains mentions of rape and sexual assault.
On Christmas 2020, American TV mogul Shonda Rhimes presented a new Netflix series called Bridgerton, which within a month became the biggest show ever on the OTT platform. Rhimes, who is responsible for some of the most popular shows on television including Grey's Anatomy, Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder, brought her usual charm to the period piece. Needless to say, everyone was quickly obsessed.
Created by Chris Van Dusen, Bridgerton is set in Regency-era of London. It tells the story of the powerful Bridgerton family, with special emphasis on the gorgeous elder daughter Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor), who has debuted in the "marriage market." The queen calls her the most promising debutante of the season, but soon she finds that her suitors have dried.
On the other hand is the gorgeous Simon, the Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page), who for personal reasons doesn't want to get married. So, to get nosy relatives off their back, they start a 'fake courtship' and soon fall in love.
Bridgerton checks all the boxes for being a mass-entertainer. A lot of people went in because it was a period drama, many others hailed the diverse casting of the show. Bridgerton also boasts of an extremely handsome cast, with lead actor Regé-Jean Page becoming the new internet boyfriend. It is safe to say that we saw the success coming, but we are not so sure if the show actually deserves it.
Ever since the show released late last year, many publications called it out for two major reasons. First it was accused of race-baiting. In many interviews, creator Chris Van Dusen said that Bridgerton would address race. He said that despite being set in Regency-era London, the fact that many actors were People of Colour, was not due to 'Colorblind Casting,' as apparent in cases of Enola Holmes or The Personal History of David Copperfield. However, the show was accused of not keeping its promise because only a small scene was dedicated to the issue.
The second issue, which we will be addressing too, was the case of the sexual assault scene that happens in the 6th episode.
To give a context, after falling in love and being caught in a compromising position (for that time), Daphne and Simon hurriedly get married under the condition that they cannot have children. Simon tells Daphne that he cannot give her children and she assumes that it is because of a physical inability. It is, however, a vow he has taken to end the Hastings line as vendetta against his abusive father.
Daphne, as with most women of that time, is taught about sex by her husband. So after months of passionate sex and seemingly blissful Honeymoon phase, Daphne realises that Simon is actually consciously not letting her get pregnant.
Daphne hatches a plan to trick Simon into impregnating her. Here, the show takes a different turn from the book, The Duke and I by Julia Quinn, on which it is based. In the book, Daphne takes advantage of a drunk Simon by seducing him, which clearly demarcates that a violation of consent has happened. However, the series takes a different decision, and frankly, messes things up to an uncomfortable degree.
In the show, Daphne and Simon have consensual sex but Daphne takes charge, which prevents Simon from 'pulling out.' What's more disturbing is that when Simon realises what she is up to, he asks her to stop twice, but she doesn't. What the show fails to do this is to mention that this, in fact, is a rape-scene. In Netflix's Content Rating and Warning, 'sexual violence' is mentioned for the episode but not once does the show's storyline describes it for what it is. It is, instead, shown as Daphne's revenge from Simon for lying to her.
What clearly is a rape scene, is brushed off as an explosive fight between our two protagonists. Simon is then shown to be angry at Daphne for trying to break his vow, not because she sexually assaulted him.
It is interesting to note how different the consequence of the show would be if the genders were reversed. This wouldn't fly under the radar and neither would the makers show such a thing. Another reason why this went unnoticed because people went on and on about how good looking the character of Simon was. Since a lot of people fetishized the character, it was easier to look past what happened to him.
This sexualisation happens to female characters all the time. However, we have come a long way from romanticising abuse against women on screen. It is even more concerning because male victims of sexual abuse are most often made fun of and not taken seriously.
According to Netflix, 63 million households in the world have watched Bridgerton. That constitutes an alarming rate of people who might not understand the importance of respecting one's consent. If it is not an enthusiastic yes, it is rape. Consent can also be taken away at all times. This means, if a couple start having consensual sex, one partner can ask the other to stop, and they must. Otherwise it is rape.
It is also rape when one partner commits an act which was not agreed to previously by their partners. Hence, stealthing, where a person removes their contraceptive devices during sex without telling their partners is also rape. A person can also rape their wives, husbands and their romantic partners. The notion of rape being a violent situation committed by strangers, is frankly a dangerous one. It happens, but it is not the only form of sexual assault.
When an extremely popular show like Bridgerton makes a conscious decision to underplay a sexual assault just so the protagonist can have their 'happily ever after,' they throttle the voices of millions of sexual assault survivors, be it women, men, trans folk or gender non-binary people, who are discouraged from speaking up due to various reasons. In a way, Bridgerton is gaslighting survivors and victims of sexual violence, just like Daphne did to Simon by telling him it was his own fault for lying to her.
The show will obviously be renewed for another season with the producers tasting bigger success than they anticipated. However, it is up to us to talk about things like these.