Lights, camera, casting: Unpacking race and representation on ‘Bridgerton’

Three actors sit
The second season of “Bridgerton” focuses almost entirely on a pair of sisters of Indian origin, Kathani “Kate” Sharma (Simone Ashley) and Edwina Sharma (Charithra Chandran). (Courtesy: Liam Daniel/Netflix)

This article contains spoilers for “Bridgerton.”

Since its release in December 2020, “Bridgerton” has been consistently applauded for its inclusivity and diverse racial representation of characters. Though the show is classified as a historical romance, it never aims to be historically accurate to the regency era. Rather, producer Shonda Rhimes and creator Chris Van Dusen took Julia Quinn’s book series of the same name and reimagined its characters in a post-racial British society.

The Netflix original series is set in an alternate era where a racially integrated London exists. Here, people of color are included as members of the “ton” (or the high society) and often have titles granted by the sovereign.

As most 19th-century period dramas are overwhelmingly white, Rhimes and Van Dusen focused on casting many BIPOC as main characters who play historically white roles.

Most notably, the second season of the show focuses almost entirely on a pair of sisters of Indian origin. Kathani “Kate” Sharma and Edwina Sharma are played by Simone Ashley and Charithra Chandran, respectively — two British-Indian actresses of Tamil descent.

But while the cast includes an overwhelming representation of various races and ethnicities, there is little to no discussion of racism or race relations.

In an interview with The New York Times, Van Dusen said the idea that “Bridgerton” exists in a fantastical color-blind realm would imply that “color and race were never considered, when color and race are part of the show.” 

Spoiler alert: The show fails at doing that.

“We were two separate societies divided by color until a king fell in love with one of us,” Lady Danbury says to the Duke of Hastings in season one. “Look at everything it is doing for us, allowing us to become. Love, Your Grace, conquers all.”

Except for this comment and a fleeting reference to slavery later on, the show falls short of Van Dusen’s claim that “color and race are part of the show.” Sure, “color” is a part of the show as actors of color stand at center stage, but “race” is most definitely not.

Season two aims to overcome the shortcomings of the first installment, but, while its efforts are admirable, it fails to stand up to Van Dusen’s claims.

The eight-episode season includes zero mention of race — not even a few passing comments like in season one — but attempts to highlight the Sharma sisters’ Indian culture.

Edwina calls Kate “didi,” an affectionate term for older sister in Hindi, and both sisters refer to their late father with the Tamil word “appa.” Kate massages coconut oil into her little sister’s hair, and both Kate and their mother rub Haldi, or turmeric paste, on Edwina in preparation for her wedding. Even the background score includes a cover of a well-known Bollywood song, “Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham.”

But are these scattered references to Indian culture in the second season enough to compensate for the lack of discussion of race in the post-racial world put forth?

Well, not quite.

The groom and bride face each other at a wedding with puzzled looks.
“Bridgerton” producer Shonda Rhimes and creator Chris Van Dusen prioritized casting many BIPOC as main characters in historically white roles. (Courtesy: Liam Daniel/Netflix)

As two Indian girls, we appreciate the inclusion of such language and traditions in the show, but diverse casting without substantial discourse on culture and race is simply not enough.

In just about every other mainstream show, Indian characters are mocked or tokenized, but in “Bridgerton,” the Sharma sisters are given a plot that is not just about their “otherness” — something that a lot of POC characters don’t get. The show appropriately, and somewhat authentically, incorporated parts of their culture without making it their entire personality. 

However, it is problematic to imagine such an unrealistic, utopian society as this one, especially when there is no thoughtful discussion of the deviations from the historical accuracy of the regency era.

Period dramas often underestimate the presence of people of color in earlier centuries, portraying the society as whiter than it likely was, according to Hannah Greig, a historian who was a consultant on “Bridgerton.”

But while this show includes POC characters, we must consider at what point historical inaccuracy in “Bridgerton” is what should be valued. By creating a post-racial world and not talking about race, “Bridgerton” puts forth a form of ignorance towards the trauma faced by BIPOC.

As per colonization and slavery, people of Indian or African descent have been a recognizable component of British society. However, they suffered ostracization and were outsiders who could not truly assimilate into society.

By ignoring this exclusion, “Bridgerton” eliminates the hardships that people of color in power and in the working class would have endured.

The show takes place in an almost alternate color-blind historical universe, but it doesn’t completely stick to this story, with a few passing comments on race and references to culture. That inconsistency complicates interpretations of the show.

For “Bridgerton” and any future historical dramas, diverse casting is crucial. However, there should either be an acceptance that such shows present a hypothetical society that does not consider race at all, or there should be a thorough discussion of race throughout. “Bridgerton” brings up race briefly, but it fails to fully flesh out the complexities of race relations.

TV shows and movies in mainstream media must take lessons from “Bridgerton.” They should be encouraged to include diverse casting, but this cannot come at the cost of ignoring systemically racist and oppressive structures. This cannot come at the cost of ignoring history. 

Anuradha Krishnan PO ’24 is TSL’s diversity and inclusion editor and, along with Sridha Chadalavada PO ’24, spends way too much time listening to Bollywood music and trying to recreate “hook steps.”

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