Scene it: The constructive modernity of ‘Bridgerton’ should not have stopped at consent

A young women wearing a purple, silk dress stands next to a tall man wearing a green vest and black jacket. They both look up at something off to the side.
Regé-Jean Page and Phoebe Dynevor star in the first season of Netflix’s Bridgerton. (Courtesy: Liam Daniel via Netflix)

CW: Description and discussion of sexual assault

This article contains spoilers for “Bridgerton.”

If “Pride and Prejudice” and “Gossip Girl” were to have a baby, and then put the baby up for adoption on Wattpad, you would have “Bridgerton” in a nutshell: light on the plot, heavy on the smut and loosely historical. I’ve watched it twice, somewhat against my will, and could not help but enjoy it both times.

“Bridgerton” may be easy to consume, but it belongs to that category of TV shows that tries to slide in a few positive messages amidst Daphne and the Duke going at it like rabbits, which is why episode six came off as a little inconsistent with the rest of the show.

Arguably the only letdown of a such a delightful series, the unresolved rape scene in episode six is unwarranted for the otherwise deliberately modern take on a 19th-century society.                                                                                        

Clearly, not all shows can transmit positive messages, or else the landscape of visual media would be as bleak as a row of cookie-cutter homes in the middle of suburbia — appallingly appropriate.

That said, there is no denying that television continuously churns out social norms. Some shows purposefully take it upon themselves to impart life lessons to their viewers, and “Bridgerton” is a prime example.

Conversations covering female masturbation and pleasurable sex for women would likely not have been the norm in daily promenades around 19th-century English gardens. The same applies to the existence of somewhat “modern” race relations — that is, where race is acknowledged, but not a plot point, and Regency-era racism is not present, favoring instead racial integration with little explanation.

This deviation from supposed historical accuracy makes “Bridgerton” stand out. Personally, I like the discordance between the pretense of honor codes and the contemporary social attitudes: The costumes boast not-yet-invented glitter, and even the soundtrack sounds off with orchestral renditions of Billie Eilish.

With this modernity in mind, the fact that the writers of “Bridgerton” chose to downplay a nonconsensual sex scene sticks out as an error in the midst of such an anachronistically progressive backdrop.

The scene in question deserves some context. Due to her prudish upbringing, Daphne does not know the science of conception upon her marriage to the Duke, which was entered upon an understanding that the Duke could not have children. Daphne takes this to mean the Duke is physically incapable of producing children, when he is actually referencing a past vow he made to his father to not continue his family’s lineage.                                                                                                             

When Daphne, who values having a family, learns exactly how children are made, this discrepancy in understanding morphs into a feeling of betrayal. Instead of expressing her feelings, Daphne takes her betrayal into the bedroom, where she forces the Duke to ejaculate inside of her instead of pulling out before, as he usually does.

However, for the incendiary nature of this scene, no consequences truly came from Daphne’s actions — viewers were instead left with a feeling of “Did this really happen at all?” 

Even more confusingly, the show goes as far as to treat Daphne as the victim, implying that the Duke’s lack of communication, or “lies,” were what stripped Daphne of the right to motherhood, while it was in actuality a misunderstanding that Daphne mistakenly used to justify her attempt at a forced pregnancy.                                                                                                             

The familial drama is well-suited to this show, but the rape was not discussed in the least, much less referenced to as a rape at all, and the marriage between Daphne and the Duke comes out unscathed — a real fairy-tale ending.                                     

This noticeable lack of moral boundaries and the avoidance of a serious subject that was used to further the plot strikes me as deeply flawed for a feel-good series that makes such a point of purporting to do the right thing. Viewers are instead left with the concerning message that sometimes, rape does not affect trust dynamics between people: Rather, it can actually improve a marriage, and it is okay as long as a woman perpetrates the act. 

But, as we know, forcing pregnancy is not justifiable in any circumstance. The line of modernity should not have been drawn at consent. 

Television enforces social norms. TV shows, especially those like “Bridgerton” that intentionally choose to diverge from accurate historical representation in favor of modernity, should not sweep rape scenes under the rug if we do not wish to see the same in reality. Though television is not reality, it can be an amplified reflection of societal standards. Let’s reflect something positive.

Rorye Jones PO ’23 is TSL’s TV and film columnist. She relishes in dressing waist-up for Zoom class and often wishes she could watch “Breaking Bad” for the first time again. 

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