I introduced my partner to the term “bodice ripper” last week. Oddly, as a straight male, he’d never heard it but the rise of Bridgerton (before the whole, attempted coup thing) finally gave him a reason to learn it.
While the latest Shondaland juggernaut is based on an extremely popular romance novel series, many men are ignorant of this entire portion of our culture. After all, it doesn’t fit within our society’s narrative that declares men are the only ones who seek out sexual content (see the conversation around porn). While we women and femmes allegedly have no sexual desires of our own.
In fact, romance novels makeup about a third of all books sold and women buy about 85% of them. Many of these books are described as the aforementioned “bodice rippers” and I’ve been wondering why we set so many of these stories in the past.
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It could be the actual bodices. The costumes in Bridgerton are delightful and the shot of Regé‑Jean Page’s Duke Simon Basset expertly unfastening his beloved’s laces is extremely hot. There’s something about taking the time to get through all that material that builds both the suspense and romance of the moment. Not to mention freeing the female body from its restrictions, be they physical like the corset or societal like the concept of modesty.
But I suspect it’s not just the mechanics of the clothing that makes these period pieces appealing — it’s also the ability to look at our own sexual politics from a safe distance. In our culture, talking about sex can be like looking at the sun — you’re never to do it directly. Instead, we use metaphors and innuendo because really getting into the details — well, it can be awkward (just as the Bridgerton matriarch) and unsexy (see HBO’s Tell Me You Love Me).
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Take the issue of sexual knowledge. A lot of Bridgerton’s plot is powered by the ignorance of Phoebe Dynevor’s Daphne Bridgerton. She doesn’t know what sex is. She doesn’t know where babies come from. She doesn’t even know that her body can be a place of sexual pleasure. And she’s not alone — her sister and peers are equally in the dark. This starkly contrasts with the Bridgerton brothers who have plenty of access to carnal knowledge. This double standard may be historically accurate but let’s not think it’s entirely out of date. Remember the debates about “abstinence-only education” (as if there’s any such thing)? What do you think that’s about? And the whole cultural conversation around the prevalence of porn versus the lack of conversation around romance novels? Doesn’t this just reinforce the idea that straight men have the right to sexual knowledge, even when damaging, and the rest of us do not?
Bridgerton may invite us to put ourselves in its elite character’s shoes but even after reimagining the racial politics of the era, it’s worth remembering that most of us would not be Dukes or Duchesses, Viscounts or their families. We’d be the servants and maids, the workers who made these cloistered privileged lives possible. And these women do have sexual knowledge — just like Daphne’s lady’s maid knows the birds and bees well enough to explain it to her mistress and the opera singer Siena Rosso and dressmaker Genevieve Delacroix manage to know plenty about sex without getting married.
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So while today’s Daphne could just Google her question, it’s not like her experience is totally foreign today. Right now, our society still controls access to sexual knowledge and debates appropriate narratives of desire. Hell, we’re still not sure what meaningful consent is, arguably the most basic building block of sex. In the time period when Bridgerton takes place, a wife was her husband’s property and had no rights to sexual agency. Legally, there was no such thing as marital rape. A man could divorce a woman for infidelity alone but a woman could not do the same. In those circumstances, could Daphne meaningfully consent? What about when you add in her ignorance about how sex works?
The matter’s only complicated by the false and dangerous narratives around Black men’s sexual interest in white women. By our culture at large, we’re primed to see Simon as the aggressor and Daphne as the victim. She’s the innocent and he’s the dark, in more ways than one. There’s some of this in Bridgerton but it’s not the driving force. Instead, Daphne and Simon’s relationship is played as erotica, not something aspirational but certainly something sexy. And to find any satisfaction in that, as so many viewers including myself do, you have to believe she’s consenting. But can Daphne rape Simon? There’s a debate raging on that question about their second-to-last sexual encounter. You know the one where she gets him to cum inside her against his wishes. It’s certainly nonconsensual sexual activity — but is it rape?
In the books, he’s too drunk to consent and the line is clear — she rapes him. But in the show, Simon enthusiastically agrees to the sexual activity, just not how it ends. And arguably, Daphne’s been too naive to consent to pulling out all the times prior — she literally doesn’t know what it means. I’m struck by the fervor of arguments on both sides, both saying the other is making light of rape either by refusing to acknowledge it in this case or by expanding the definition so much as to reduce the seriousness of the crime.
I think anything approaching rape is wrong. The show does a disservice by ignoring Simon’s feelings of violation. Instead, it focuses solely on the ways Daphne has been wronged. And Simon did not do right by her but that does not excuse her actions. I guess the problem with the sexual politics of Bridgerton, like our sexual politics today, is that they are unequal. We’ve set up all these barriers to not just creating and maintaining equal relationships but even just understanding what such a thing is. We pretend to not understand consent when we clearly know right from wrong and we dramatize those moments for kicks.
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I find nothing aspirational in Bridgerton’s leading romance. Yes, Regé-Jean Page is stunningly attractive (here’s hoping he’s the next James Bond) but I do not want to be in Daphne’s shoes for a moment. She’s a piece of well-adorned chattel with little room to make her own way in the world. Her sexual awakening comes from a man enlightening her that masturbation exists (a bit I found more cringe-worthy than hot). And then she begins having actual sex without any understanding of what the thing is or how it works. No thank you.
But I did like Bridgerton, watching the whole thing in two sittings over two sleep-deprived nights. So while I don’t want to be Daphne (I’m actually a bit uncertain over whether I even liked her), I did like visiting her world. It wasn’t just the costumes, the culture, or the intrigue. It was what Bridgerton has to say about my world, about what we understand about sex, gender, and race, and how we can imagine alternate ways of understanding them. So bring on season two and let it be free of consent issues!