The princess problem
I’ve just finished series one of Bridgerton. I’m far from alone; 82 million other households have also been transfixed by the love story of ‘It girl with a heart’ Daphne Bridgerton and the dangerously handsome, emotionally wounded Duke of Hastings. It should come as no surprise that in the middle of a national pandemic, when the majority of us aren’t allowed to go anywhere, and in the still-evolving aftermath of the Black Lives Matter movement, Bridgerton is an unequivocal smash hit.
At a surface level, it’s full of parties, dresses and people rubbing a lot more than just shoulders at the Ton’s hottest balls. All the things we aren’t allowed to do right now. And under direction by Shonda Rhimes, whose other huge shows Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal place people of colour in central roles (Doctor Miranda Bailey is my all-time favourite strong, nuanced, complex female character) it functions as a sort of wish-fulfilment fantasy of how things might have been if the African ancestry of Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz had been not only recognised but widely accepted, trickling down into wider society, including every corner of its upper echelons. If only. But in the sparkling dreamworld of Bridgerton, this conceit gives the space for irresistible performances from possible next-Bond Regé-Jean Page and talented Ruby Barker as the troubled cousin trying to marry her way out of trouble after her soldier sweetheart gets her pregnant and then – surprise surprise – goes silent on her.
There’s so much to love in Bridgerton and yet somehow it feels like a guilty pleasure. I’ve always been crazy for a period drama – I’m of the demographic for whom the name Mr. Darcy is synonymous with Colin Firth’s wet-shirted pond-dive, and I’ve read Pride and Prejudice many more times than I’ve actually been to Bath. But something about how eagerly I devour the flirting, the gossip and the gowns of Regency-era Britain makes me feel like a bad feminist. Why is there so much appeal in a drama set in a time in which men and women were so divided? In which women had no freedom and could be ‘ruined’ by the tiniest lapse of luck or judgement? In which those born into the lower half of society faced a life of hard labour and poverty while those at the top competed for the ‘prize’ of a wealthy, highborn husband before settling down to life in a loveless golden cage?
I wonder whether it’s because of my sneaking suspicion that I would have fared better then. So much is demanded of women now, and so far I’ve found my attempts to maintain my career after having children and getting divorced completely fucking exhausting in ‘normal’ times and in a pandemic? Impossible. I’ve learnt many things from Covid-19 but one of them is that I definitely can’t do it all with no childcare. For a moment there I wondered whether I wouldn’t have made a half-decent Duchess. I can play the piano, I love reading novels, once upon a time I used to be able to write. And if the Duke of Hastings really resembled Regé-Jean Page, well, where’s the downside?
The other night I paused for thought when my eight-year-old boy referred to Bridgerton as ‘your princess show’. I was tucking him into bed after allowing him to stay up late at the weekend and we companionably watched our respective screens together – he apparently populating a Minecraft farm with pigs, me (finger hovering over the pause button in case of unsuitable violence or nudity) continuing my Bridgerton binge. ‘Are you going to bed now too?’ he asked, ‘or are you going to carry on watching your princess show?’ To his eyes, there wasn’t much difference between the Disney films his four-year-old sister enjoys and the balls of the Ton as represented by Shondaland. I realised he wasn't far wrong, that I love a bit of princess-themed glitz and glamour as much as my daughter does. Should I know better?
Just what is the appeal of a princess – or a duchess, or a debutante – in a world so far removed from the days when our fortunes depended on our husbands? You’d think a divorced forty-year-old might show a bit more cynicism, or at least discernment at what she shows her little girl, who will grow up to occupy such a different world. But perhaps I’m overthinking it. Perhaps there’s no harm in a bit of delicious escapism. Or perhaps, despite all the evidence to the contrary, I still believe in love.