The ‘Whites’ Who Loved Me: Interracial Romance, Hollywood, and Bridgerton’s “Post-Racial” Fantasies
Whilst Bridgerton fans shipped Kate and Anthony as #Kanthony, we also must consider how the Netflix show fits into a wider dominant media culture that situates Black and Brown people in interracial relationships only as worthy of love when in proximity to a white person and white families.
NB: The use of “whites” in the title is intentional and for effect— it is a response to the number of people (but especially white people) I see using ‘Blacks’ in academic writing. We are human beings — Black people. Stop calling us Blacks! I also know this is something I have done in the past. Being Black does not mean we do not make mistakes. You will not find me going back editing it out past work, but leaving it and using it as an example of growth by learning.
This article is also more autoethnographic than anything else!
Seeing as we have now had two seasons of Bridgerton, I believe that is sufficient time to comment on how it follows in the footsteps of other Shondaland productions — including the ABC series Scandal as it is a textbook example of the white-centring interracial relationships on prime time television. Particularly the on-screen relationship between Fitz Grant and Olivia Pope revisits how whiteness continues to discipline Black people, in this case it’s the ‘disciplining’ of Olivia Pope. Shondaland is no stranger to the centring of romance arcs around white feelings and emotions when producing interracial relationships, but it must be acknowledged that even in superficial diversity — the inclusion of Kate and Edwina Sharma in season two of Bridgerton validated many dark-skinned South Asian women (important).
That being said, Bridgerton is not an anomaly, but part of an American film and television complex in Hollywood where whiteness dictates who is worthy of love on screen. Such programmes include Master of None, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Girlfriends, Dear White People and Modern Family — which ‘legitimise’ the desire of Black and Brown people as only possible in proximity to a white person — accredited their ‘human status’ via affiliations with ‘white others’.
Building on a previous essay which discusses whiteness more generally amid Bridgerton’s families, this article considers the role of the whiteness of interracial relationships in the Netflix show and the wider industry. In the wider social context, I also saw Good Luck to You, Leo Grande which (un)arguably fetishises Black male bodies to accentuate white womanhood.
Jeanine Abraham writes:
“Writer Katy Brand basically treats Leo as Miss Nancy’s human sex toy, glossing over her position of power as she exoticizes Leo. Why is it that the entertainment industry has completely normalized exoticizing men of color as an object of sexual pleasure for white women of all ages?”
Following season one of Bridgerton, I was challenged at how it positioned the inclusion of Black characters as progress when in terms of numbers, they are still few. These were Black individuals moving through white spaces much in the same way Nirmal Puwar writes in her 2004 book Space Invaders — as there are no Black communities, but there are Black individuals left to navigate spaces that we have been historically and conceptually excluded from.
Moreover, from day one seeing Lady Danbury playing matchmaker for white families, I saw how the inclusion of Black debutantes is only accepted, should their ‘desire’ (for lack of a better term) be for a white person. Though, the inclusion of these characters may be a trojan horse for for more ‘diverse’ period dramas in the future — as the success of Bridgerton and possibly Sanditon may be what gave us a ‘diverse’ Persuasion — we must ask how, even in a ‘post-racial’ fantasy, why is it still possible for white people to dominate?
In her book ‘Good White People’, Shannon Sullivan writes:
“As long as both white master and [B]lack slave observed the appropriate rules of address and gestural codes of behavior — etiquette is a code that binds both the dominant and subordinate, after all — then significant social distances could be maintained in the midst of intimate physical proximities.”
Yet, the inclusion of Simon and Marina in season one (played by light-skinned Black actors) not only raised issues of colourism, but also as they eventually went on to get hitched to white people — raised issues of Black desirability accentuated only by its proximity to whiteness. This is compounded by the numbers of interracial relationships in other shows that are necessitated by white people. As Nylah Burton writes, “Media commonly makes the mistake of portraying interracial relationships with white people as shining examples of racial progress [and] assuming interracial relationships between people of color are devoid of any need for progress, or even learning.”
Season two interrupts the Black-white binary and introduces audiences to Kate and Edwina Sharma. Nonetheless, under global colonial whiteness, Black and Asian people exist on different levels of the hierarchy, also considering other markers of difference including gender and caste. Kate ends up married to Anthony, with Bridgerton reinforcing the Great White Hope of interracial relationships on mainstream television.
In a Tik Tok video clinical psychologist Dr Han Ren discusses why attraction may not be accidental:
“It’s just my preference” or is it?? We don’t talk about this enough, but racialized s*xual capital and politics are very real, especially in multiracial societies. There’s power and access on both sides of the pairing” — Dr Han Ren
Every time people praise Bridgerton for its ‘diversity’, I am reminded how the ‘the diversity’ ended up being married into white families and thus ‘embodied property’ — as Aileen Moreton Robinson discusses in her 2015 book The White Possessive. Though Bridgerton was hailed as a landmark show, I am uncertain if it does anything different to others that also position white-centred interracial relationships as progressive. If Bridgerton aimed to do anything provocative, it would have been more useful to have been a Wakanda-esque regency fantasy world with a token white character (heck, Black Panther even has a token white man in Everett K. Ross played by Martin Freeman).
In the book Inequalities of Love, scholar Averil Clarke uses ethnographic interviews and data from national surveys to explore the challenges degree-educated Black women can have when seeking love, romance, and marriage in contrast to their white and Hispanic peers. Now, Bridgerton fans are swooning over Kate and Anthony as #Kanthony on Twitter —just months after Simon was sexually assaulted by his white wife before marrying her and fathering their child! Make this make sense. This still has not been resolved.
With the existence of race and coloniality in the Ton, and Simon (a Black man) sexually assaulted by Daphne (a white woman), he may represent what Dr Ren called “sexualised racial capital” where Simon is written as the symbol of capitalism — almost as an Austen-adjacent Darcy stand-in. At the same time, Marina was stigmatised from the get-go by Lady Featherington — being pregnant while Black, the microaggressions were evident. Lady Danbury was also constructed as the Mammy. And though the showrunners were criticised on elements of South Asian representation, what remains unclear is the future and if Bridgerton will have any Black leads. Further, to the presence of rampant anti-Blackness starting in season one and pervaded into season two.
For all its flaws, the first season of ITV’s Sanditon, however, did something Bridgerton has still failed to do — show Black love on screen with its lead characters (Will and Alice Mondrich are at the fringe). With Sanditon’s Georgiana Lamb and Otis Molyneux, the show did something many period dramas peddling ‘diversity’ have not. The first season of The Spanish Princess on Starz is also a contender in its representation of Black Tudors in love in Early Modern England — and if the Bridgerton showrunners wanted to depict Desi women, where are the Desi men? Bridgerton is a show that has used the popularity of D&I to garner record viewing numbers and it has worked par excellence, while at the same it is a white show pretending to be a diverse.
In their article ‘Decolonising Desire’ academic Dalia Gebrial considers the “colonial scripts” that write people into and out of being lovable:
“Embedded within the constituent discourses of love — of desirability, emotional labour, support and commitment — are codes of social value assigned to certain bodies; of who is worthy of love’s work. The labour of decolonising these representative paradigms is structural, and involves addressing their material histories.”
With Bridgerton season three reportedly following Penelope and Colin, I wonder if a project that originally hooked people on the grounds of ‘racial diversity’ will eventually just become white. And with the ongoing assertion of whiteness as the rubric of being ‘lovable’ in American films and TV, Bridgerton has largely reproduced that effect — even if by through the inclusion of Black and Brown faces, showing how proximity to whiteness can do harm.
For us Black and Brown people that have grown up in Britain and the US, seeing characters that look like us loving each other on screen in all parts of their humanity — is a drop in the ocean of what it needs to be. Though, to varying degrees even as far as superficial visibility — the late 1980s up to the early to mid 2000s seemed to do more for me. While I am 1995 child, I grew up watching shows like That’s So Raven and The Proud Family.
While things like Black-ish do talk about ‘Black issues’, it still feels like a series tailored to the delicate sensibilities of the white people who do not have any Black friends!
In a British context, my parents’ generation tell me about Desmond’s which was released in 1989 and can be watched on BritBox. HBO’s Insecure is another example of depictions of Black intimacies. However, in a 2015 article, Kavita Bhanot writes that “The concept of diversity only exists if there is an assumed neutral point from which ‘others’ are ‘diverse’.” That default point is white. Yet, this may include language. Whilst I do grant that if us westerners broaden our horizons to things like Nollywood, Bollywood, and films and TV not in the English Language, the possibilities are limitless. Though it would be unfair to say all westerners (speaking about the US and UK) only view western media, a review of yearly film lists from UK and US sites is revealing!
These lists reveal what these big institutions view as important — largely UK and US films with an over-representation of white people in front and behind the camera. So, the colonial whiteness of media is revisited in the recentring of the English language as the norm.
Whiteness is necessitated in many ways. By the by, whether we like it or not, interracial relationships on screen continue to be almost exclusively upheld by a ‘need’ for a white person, asserting the role of whiteness in the possibility of love for Black and Brown individuals. Pertinently when Black and Brown love on-screen within white nations is lacking. Numerous films and television shows that get made in Britain and the United States are situated in what Ghassan Hage writes about as ‘fantasies of a white nation’. This is what makes films such as If Beale Street Could Talk and Moonlight (both by Barry Jenkins) so important — when leading white characters are absent from the story.
Moonlight — about the lives of Black gay men (additionally dark-skinned men) and Beale Street based on the James Baldwin novel featuring Black families being unapologetically Black — would we ever get that at blockbuster level, not on the independent screen? If we see how much diversity is contingent on profit and not ‘because it’s right’, there will always be a business case for Diversity & Inclusion in media to be made. Netflix’s Bridgerton is probably the closest a period drama has gotten to blockbuster status, and it shows.
In terms of thinking more critically about D&I, scholar Anne McClintock’s Imperial Leather may go some way in depicting how wider debates were useful in selling Bridgerton to non-period drama audiences, especially those who were not period drama fans — the many Black and Brown people who joined a fanbase that is overrepresented by cis white women. As far as season one, Black actors were used to sell Bridgerton (commodity). In effort to ‘do diversity’ with the introduction of Kate in season two — like Simon — was treated as an extra to white families. So endemic is “commodity racism” to media, I think Bridgerton was only criticised for it because it positioned itself as a post-racial — while at the same time discussing inheritance structures that are inherently built on capitalism, colonialism, and white supremacy.
Period dramas routinely have failed to include Black and Brown potential audiences due to our exclusion from these texts. Season one of Bridgerton was a first for many. However, there is history: season five of Poldark received racist backlash for its inclusion of historically accurate Black character Kitty Despard. Through characters like Jocasta Mackenzie, sub-sections of the Outlander fandom also caused trouble when the Outlander showrunners wrote in Scotland’s role in racist colonial enslavement. Yet, if you go to Scotland you will see colonial statues and streets named for enslavers.
Also, the casting of actor Sophie Okenedo as Queen Margaret in season two of the BBC’s The Hollow Crown in 2016 received racist backlash. The scandal known as #PineappleGate in the Sanditon fandom is also worth a look, as well as criticisms of having Black characters in the Netflix adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion. Racism amid wider period drama discourse is not an anomaly, and conversations around race and Bridgerton do not come divorced from a wider social context within period drama fandom.
In her journal article ‘Notes on a Scandal’ on racism and social media in the Sanditon fandom, journalist Amanda-Rae Prescott writes
“Bridgerton’s premiere … on Christmas Day 2020 changed the media environment and also revealed new divisions in Austen and Austen-adjacent spaces. The promo photos of Regé-Jean Page as Simon, Golda Rousheuvel as Queen Charlotte, and the other Black supporting actors quickly resulted in the “historical accuracy means no BlPOC actors in traditionally white roles” racists rushing to trash the series. […] Bridgerton’s depictions of sex and the rejection of key aesthetics of previous Austen adaptations also made the show a target for white period drama traditionalists. Bridgerton fans in Austen and Austen-adjacent spaces were forced to either make separate spaces for discussion of the series or join existing Bridgerton fandom spaces.”
These wider criticisms from period drama racists — in some cases they are out and out white supremacists — come separate from my criticisms and those of other people on the white-centring of interracial relationships in the Netflix programme and wider industry. Whilst it is important to depict interracial relationships on screen, why are they mostly white-centring? As I wonder Britain today, the country I know appears even more Mixed-Race than when I was a child. Now, I see more Black and Brown people from ethnic minority groups in my community and others with mixed families.
The Blindian Project — which was constructed to build solidarity between Black and Brown communities, and normalise interracial Black and Brown relationships — is an indicator of what need to see more of on our TV screens.
With interracial relationships on television screens still necessitating the participation of a white person, it reminds us that as John Hartigan Jr writes in Odd Tribes: “… white people are ‘racially interested and motivated’.” It tells us whiteness must be discussed always, even in the politics of love on and off screen. With the breadth of romance on screen still necessitating white people, there is a problem that in a dominant culture of white supremacy it says: ‘Black and Brown people are incapable of love, unless when a white person is present, or if this text is a ‘race show’ or ‘race film’.
The late scholar-feminist bell hooks in her 1994 book Outlaw Culture described love “as a practice of freedom.” In my 2021 journal article ‘National Trust in Jane Austen’s Empire of Sugar’ , I discuss how the relationship between Sanditon’s Georgiana Lambe and Otis Molyneux interrupts nineteenth century white patriarchal inheritance cultures known as primogeniture. For Bridgerton to ‘include ’Black and Brown characters into this regency world without explicitly talking about race, is irresponsible — all while there are references to race and coloniality throughout.
Like in our critiques of white supremacy in other spaces— such as education and criminal justice — film, television, and media are other branches of this racist tree that holds sway on the ability for white people to see Black and Brown people as full humans. And white backlash to the last season of This is Us reminds us that many white people still do not see Black people as human — so not only do the stories we tell matter, but also how they are framed.
Adopted by white parents Jack and Rebecca Pearson, and growing up with his white siblings Kate and Kevin, and other white people — also going to a white private school — it would have been all too easy to have given Randall a white spouse. Meanwhile, Netflix series Lupin was criticised for its misogynoir via its exclusion of Black women. In its exclusion of leading Black women characters, Bridgerton, through its over-representation of white people and lack of leading Black women — is implicated in misogynoir.