Bridgerton and the allure of the not so good old days

Sunday, January 31, 2021 - 3:08pm

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Illustration by Katherine Lee

“What? That’s it? I want more!” I thought to myself as I finished the last episode of the new Netflix hit, “Bridgerton.” Netflix’s most-watched series ever revolves around the eight close-knit Bridgerton siblings. Viewers get to know these characters as they look for love during London’s high society “season,” an annual time when elite families would host formal events to introduce their children to society and find them a suitable marriage. 

Eight episodes of pure fantasy. I binge-watched episode after episode and dreamt of being a part of high society London. “How fantastical,” I thought, wearing one-of-a-kind, uniquely beautiful dresses designed specially for you, attending balls, dancing with the hopes of finding a husband. And if you’re lucky enough, like the main character Daphne, you’ll stumble into a marriage with a husband you actually love. Then there is the morning after the ball, which was another social gathering in itself. The spectacle consisted of sitting in another elegant dress, drinking tea and having pastries with the expectation that potential partners bearing gifts and conversation would walk through the doors in an attempt to charm the woman they were after. 

I couldn’t stop talking about the show with any friends of mine who had watched it. Maybe it was because I don’t watch much television other than the occasional “That ‘70s Show,” or maybe it was because I was so bored over winter break that I didn’t really have much else to talk about. Either way, I realized I was not alone in my obsession — “Bridgerton'' had taken the internet by storm. Whenever I opened Instagram or Twitter, the memes, videos or tweets shared a common theme: a desire to be a part of the phenomenon. My friends even sent me TikToks with millions of views of women simply obsessing over the fashion, balls and sex displayed on screen. Viewers ate up the allure of English high society — dress in elegant ball gowns, have tea and find a Prince or a Duke as a husband.  

The overwhelming desire to have a relationship of the kind depicted throughout the series and the glamorization of beauty so prevalent throughout the show seemed to dominate social media and the texts I received.

However, after days and weeks of giving into my infatuation, I decided to take a step back. I started questioning what exactly was so fantastical about the series and what provoked my envy of female characters destined to a life of housework and tight dresses with corsets worn to please men. The beautiful gowns that I was so jealous of were merely used as an attempt to catch the eye of a potential husband. The show reeked of female oppression. 

What exactly was I glorifying? 

1813 London: a time period known as Regency-era England, defined by the reign of the Prince of Wales who took to the throne when his father King George III was deemed unfit to rule due to madness. “Bridgerton” highlights the notorious social aspects of this period — the social season, also known as the marriage market, high fashion, politics and gossip. Unsurprisingly, this social season was exclusive to the upper class, the rich and the aristocratic individuals who lived their lives comfortably distant from the class struggles of the period. This gap in the hierarchy of society was so cosmic that social mobility was virtually unknown — the upper class was not in reach of the lower classes and vice versa. Notably, of this era, a woman’s social standing depended on her reputation, which could be easily tarnished. 

“Bridgerton” shines light on the fragility of a woman’s reputation — one that could be so easily destroyed. For example, being seen alone with a man, even if in a purely platonic capacity, could lead to irrefutable damage. In the show, Daphne and Simon, the main relationship of the series, get caught kissing in the garden at one of the season’s balls. Having been caught, and not wanting to ruin Daphne’s honor or destroy her purity (the men of the time period really bought into the idea of tainted goods), they had no choice but to marry. Why does the internet glorify a marriage not born of love, but of societal pressure and oppression of women? Despite the fact that Daphne and Simon ended up being in love after all, their marriage was born out of dread, with Simon almost risking his life in a duel before succumbing to marriage with Daphne. There is nothing glamorous about a 21-year-old woman having a choiceless choice: having to choose between being exiled from society or marrying a man who would rather die than take the title of her husband. 

Predictably, this was not the only instance of female oppression in the show. Eloise, one of the sisters in the Bridgerton family, struggled with not being able to pursue her own passion. Eloise understood the sad reality that as a woman, she simply did not have the freedom to do as she pleased, focus on her studies and pursue a career. Eloise was destined to the same life as her sister, Daphne.  

The overwhelming female oppression throughout the show drove me to questioning my own thoughts. I realized that maybe I was just craving a good period piece to take me out of reality. Maybe I was dazzled by the elegant dresses because I haven't worn anything but sweatpants this past year. Maybe it was because I couldn’t remember the last large social event I have been to. Or possibly, the most overarching reason is because it painted a perfect, aesthetically pleasing, gift-wrapped-with-a-bow-on-top picture. 

It was a reconstructed depiction of the Regency Era for viewership, and I couldn’t blame the producers for doing so. After all, that is what creates the entire allure. When a show is romanticized to such a large extent, it is easier to look past the larger social issues at play. Despite the fact that the series showcased class distinctions, women’s inequality and female prejudice, Bridgerton made sure the real issues during this era did not overshadow the romantic interests in the series. Would the show be as popular if the steamy moments and the complexities of relationships was not at the forefront? 

I started to realize how enthralled I had become with the material aspects of historical pieces, rather than the greater historical themes. I started thinking about how lost I got in the fashion of  “That ‘70s Show,” the coming of age, sex, drugs and music, that I completely overlooked aspects of the the 70s that made the time period so notable. Yes, the 70s was an era of fashion (bell bottom jeans), disco and political change, but it was also a period filled with economic struggle and racial tension

Upon further research, I realized this phenomena is common with a handful of period pieces, whether it be obsessions with those of a similar aesthetic like “The Crown” or “Pride and Prejudice,” or even infatuation with problematic eras like the 1950s as seen with the “Mad Men” fandom.    

While many period pieces do not entirely ignore or turn a blind eye to the more relevant themes and difficulties of a time period, they do tend to draw a picture of enchantment, charm and nostalgia in an effort to let their viewers blissfully escape the present. Yet, even with this escapism, it became clear to me that despite my intentions to be culturally and socially aware, I very easily fell into the trap: I glorified a time period without taking the implications into account of what that actually means. 

I don’t know how our present is going to be written in history textbooks. I cannot speculate how the story of this time period will be told. Knowing that there is no singular moment that will define this period, I can only take guesses at what will be the defining moments of this era. However, I think the question of whether or not a time period should be glorified at all, and to what extent, is important. The answer is unclear, but for now, all I can say is that I will enjoy these period pieces with more recognition for what it means to glorify a specific part of any given time period. I will continue to appreciate the elements that make a period piece so captivating, while consciously stopping myself from longing to be a part of them.