This isn't a love story about Shonda Rhimes' Bridgerton, the production adapted from The "Duke and I" by Julia Quinn to the screen via Netflix. In fact, I may be one of the few people who was extremely disappointed in such a wasted opportunity for black characters to be elevated in their society.
For a long time I couldn't go a day on social media without seeing rave reviews about how compelling and diverse the show was. Perhaps the scenery was a bit beautiful but I had a hard time getting through it and an even harder time rooting for Daphne and Simon.
The problem for me is that so many people think the show transcends issues of race and is primarily focused on class; however, due to the casting, every black character in the show becomes subservient or must compromise their own honor or personal choice to provide either happiness or stability to their white counterparts.
The writers and producers of the Netflix version of Bridgerton seem to think that as long as the black characters can have titles such as "Duke"or "Queen" and have key "affiliations" that it makes it okay for them to still be dependent upon the acceptance of the white characters in order for them to be validated.
*Warning: Beyond this point contains specific spoilers*
Let's start with Marina Thompson. Actress Ruby Barker was cast to play a black distant cousin to the aristocratic Featherington family. Unfortunately her character is a bit typecast as a jezebel who gets knocked up by a white man who isn't there for her.
Her character has to depend on attending social events with the Featheringtons just to have hope of finding a suitable husband, and even then, when she sets her sights on someone, she is reduced to having to be a liar, too.
Furthermore, her jealous cousin Penelope pretends to be supportive until she discovers that the guy she wants for herself wants to marry Marina. No way does this black, "unworthy" girl get the man she cares for because Penelope makes sure of it.
Even when Marina receives a generous offer of marriage from her dead lover's brother to ensure that she will be taken care of, it is Lady Featherington who insists that she take the offer because it would help to ensure that her white cousins would benefit by the connection to Sir Phillip.
In the end, Marina's character was not "saved" by another black actor's character who was well to-do. Instead, her new husband to be was another white man that she now has to depend on and doesn't even care for.
Moving on to Simon's friend Will Mondrich, portrayed by actor Martin Imhangbe. Will's character is a family man who is talented and provides for them by fighting in boxing matches. He often spars with Simon since they are best friends and they navigate life challenges together.
The character Will was one of the characters specifically created for the show, so it bothers me even more that he is written to agree to sell his honor and throw a match in order to support the family of Lord Featherington (and make more money for his own).
While I think it is powerful to demonstrate that Will loved his family so much that he was willing to not give his best effort and to fool everyone who bet against him in order to adequately provide, it truly sucks to write a character who values his dignity only to have him be easily bought by the offer of a struggling white aristocrat. Why should this be the only option that Will has?
I believe the writers could have created a more clever way for him to have gained additional sponsors or utilized another skill to handle his responsibilities instead of turning him into another black man that resorts to criminal activity. I think his character deserved better.
Even if he did not borrow money from the Duke, as Simon suggested he would have offered, it would have been more rewarding to depict someone who was both physically dominate and more mentally savvy.... but instead, we get this.
Queen Charlotte and Lady Danbury almost came close to not being utilized for the gains of white society in Bridgerton, but even they fall into the trap. While I certainly do applaud and appreciate the acting contributions of powerhouses Golda Rosheuvel and Anjoa Andoh, even they existed to benefit the Bridgertons and the other white characters.
In the first episode of the show "Diamond of the First Water', we viewers don't even get to see one presentation of a non-white debutante to the Queen without a quick rush to the approval of Daphne as the best option. Why then, in the scenes leading up to it, are there so many nonwhite extras in the courtyard when the Bridgertons arrive to the castle?
In addition, we've seen several black guests at the many parties that Daphne and the Duke attend, yet none of them ever have a moment of significance.
Lady Danbury concludes that Simon should be with Daphne in order to solve his problems when there were likely other options for him? Not one mention of attempts with a person of color or any scenes where they even caught his eye.
We understand that the story is about Duke Hastings and Daphne Bridgerton but if the Duke's character is going to be morphed into a black character, to entirely dismiss race appears to appear colorblind actually feels like ignoring the color in the room when his only real interaction is with his best friend and mentor.
Lady Danbury was instrumental in basically convincing Simon that he needed to compromise who he was and his own beliefs in order to surrender to the beliefs of Daphne Bridgerton... I'll talk about this soon.
Lady Danbury consistently pushed the Duke toward Daphne as if he specifically needed her when she really needed him more. Even Daphne knew this as she constantly fantasized about him despite having a higher ranking Prince as a suitor. Or perhaps, Simon was easier to order around than if she would have married into King George's kind of royalty.
This brings me back to Queen Charlotte, by whom Prince Friedrich even came into the picture. The Prince is the Queen's nephew by marriage to King George III (in the show). The Queen tells Simon as he pleads for an expedited marriage to Daphne (because Daphne decided for both of them) that friendship is the foundation for love. She alludes that this is how she came to marry the King.
Had it not been for the marriage to the King (in the show) Charlotte would not be in such an elevated position, We get a glimpse throughout the show of her carrying the sadness of the King's illness as she tries to exert influence over the marriages in the kingdom as well as working to shut down Lady Whistledown's column, but she seems to have very little power (like Queens in real life).
During the rest of the show, for her to have such significant title, we learn very little about her in this first season. She is used merely as a symbol. Even her attempt to match the Prince with Daphne fails. It seems that the only person to fear her is Eloise because she could not uncover Whistledown's identity as the Queen commanded. The Queen even allowed herself to be "kicked out" with the others at Simon and Daphne's ball!
Last, my biggest issue with how the black characters were compromised and sacrificed to the white characters of the show... Duke Hastings himself. Watching the unfolding events from episodes 4-8 felt degrading from time to time.
The way the character Simon is written for Rege-Jean Page to compell us is overly simplified and not developed at all if you look past appearance. Even once we unravel the understanding of why he has made a vow to himself to not have children and why he hates all his father represented, everyone around him did nothing but work to strip him of his beliefs and his own choice.
He was only acceptable if he catered to the desires of Daphne, Lady Danbury, and even Daphne's brother Anthony, who himself is full of flaws. The Duke is basically reduced to being Daphne's sex toy because they rarely have any real conversations or anything in common. Even in getting married, she decided for both of them because she wanted Simon for herself instead of possibly losing him in a duel with Anthony and to save her own reputation.
Daphne accepted no responsibility for her part in their troubled marriage. She blamed her mother and she blamed Simon. His word as a man was not enough and was not solid for her. She and others took every opportunity to guilt him for not wanting children or not wanting her in the traditional way. It was Daphne who told him she would live on his terms just to trap him but she later wanted everything on hers.
Simon was very clear at the beginning of their ruse that he would only participate if she understood there was to be no marriage or real result from the encounters. Daphne also took it personal when Simon decided that he wanted to leave London early because she decided to entertain Prince Friedrich. Daphne made everything Simon chose about her rather than being allowed to choose for himself.
Daphne blamed Simon for knowing that she wanted children but she also knew that for him it wasn't optional, despite the reasons. She immediately decided that she deserved for him to adapt to her instead of for her to adapt to him. Much like the white men who felt entitled to the black women they desired years ago, Daphne rapes Simon in order to get herself pregnant, knowing he was against it.
From that moment on, Simon went from perceived as broken because he did not want to marry to broken because he didn't want children. Why did he have to be considered broken at all? Daphne further goes through his private things and discovers the reason behind his disdain for his father and his lineage. Rather than support him in understanding, she uses it against him and decides that Simon choosing his vow to himself is less important than choosing to love her.
Lady Danbury is also responsible for suggesting that Simon needed to put his pride aside following being repulsed by Daphne's act of forcefully getting pregnant. Even if they felt that Simon was making a mistake by keeping his vow to himself, it was still his to own. At the end of the season when he finally gives in and gives Daphne a child, for me, it wasn't a celebratory moment. I saw a man that only appeared to have chosen for himself but was actually just a means to an end. Someone who was used to fulfill the story of another.
As viewers, we never really get a moment where it seems Daphne and Simon are meant to be. The whole season there are only love scenes that go on entirely too long between them. Daphne's allegiance was to her own fairy tale concept of marriage and Simon, until the end, only had allegiance to his inner vengeance.
The show should be celebrated for its diversity but it is hardly a triumph in the elevation in status for the black characters who were substituted in place of the white ones in the book. In the roles as cast, the black characters still end up bowing and playing in service to the white characters of means. There was no true triumph for Will, the Queen, Marina, or even Simon, who was basically shamed like a woman who doesn't want to hunt down a husband and get pregnant.
We all know now that there will be a second season. We don't know which stories will continue to be told or how much will be changed from Julia Quinn's additional books, but I do hope that any future character changes for racial inclusion will contain castings and stories that do not continue the tradition of tokenism, and further attempts to cover it up with a fancy costume.
No doubt that Bridgerton will continue to have a following and it is wonderful that more actors of color will have opportunity to be seen. It would just be nice if seeing most of them didn't feel like they are invited to perform but must enter and exit out the back for the select audience of patrons.