Feminine Constructs and Feminism in a Traditionally Feminine Product
TORI S. BARENDREGT | REPEAT OFFENDERS
Warning: This article contains spoilers
Season 1 of Bridgerton dropped on Netflix in Australia on December 25th 2020 and blew up around the globe, ranking #1 in 83 countries according to Netflix. It is a romanticised period piece set in regency England inspired by Julia Quinn’s early 2000 novel series. The tone of Bridgerton is not too dissimilar to that of a Jane Austen novel in regard to dated female-life revolving around courtship, finding a husband, and starting a family (although a lot more sexually explicit). There is a lot to be commented on about this first season, but I am interested in reviewing how it depicts its female characters and femininity and what commentary it has to offer on traditional feminism.
Season 1 of Bridgerton closely follows the first novel in Quinn’s series, The Duke and I. It is set in Regency England in Grosvenor Square with a particular focus on the social season of the ‘ton,’ that is, the time in the year where the ton’s eligible young women enter the marriage mart, courting with the ton’s eligible bachelors in the hope of securing themselves a husband before the season’s end. The women of this world aspire to be ladies, preparing their entire lives for this moment, training in what can be called the ‘art of femininity,’ practicing their posture, curtsies, flattery, and beauty. The first season thus follows the eldest Bridgerton daughter, Daphne (played by Phoebe Dynevor), in her exploits in this world.
We understand that feminism is a desire for equality among men and women, perhaps poignantly characterised by the value of the second-wave. One aspect of this was the publication of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Frieden which brought around the idea that women could offer more than just being wives and mothers and raising a family. A traditional feminist would thus be one that aspires to an education and a career, something more than finding a husband and settling into domesticity. This, however, is very different to the content in Season 1 of Bridgerton.
There is hint of a feminist voice in the disembodied voiceover of Lady Whistledown’s satirical-sounding gossip (voiced by Julie Andrews). Andrews’ posh English accent provides the perfect tone of superiority and amusement over the eligible women’s desperate clamouring for approval and attention, be it the queen’s or the suitors’. In her commentary, she uses a variety of phrases that prompt a slight self-satirical view of the content of this series as she addresses the conduct of the women of the ton who are “Thereby avoiding the dreadful dismal condition known as ‘the spinster’,” (it must really be heard in Andrews’ voice for the desired effect). The ton is obsessed with the happenings of the social season and Lady Whistledown’s gossip in part pokes fun at them, especially to a modern-day feminist-informed audience.
The most typical depiction of a feminist in the series, however, would be the character Eloise (played by Claudia Jessie), the second Bridgerton daughter and the fifth Bridgerton child. Her first line in the entire season is a complaint about the frilly dress she is forced to wear at her sister Daphne’s debut to the queen. She quickly demonstrates that she is not at all lady-like through her uncomposed walk and yelling through the house. Although she is highly engaged in Lady Whistledown’s commentary on the social season, amused by her writings, she is more fascinated with her autonomy and agency than anything else. She herself is more interested in her education and becoming independent and self-autonomous. She believes university is an accomplishment as opposed to gaining the attention of a man because she may possess a pretty face, repeatedly expressing her disgust at marrying. She compares the behaviour of the women around with an artful metaphor to birds: “I have never understood the fashion for feathers in the hair. Why would a woman want to draw more notice to the fact that she is like a bird squawking for a man’s attention in some bizarre ritual? … Why must our only options be to squawk and settle or to never leave the nest? What if I want to fly?”
As her sister progresses through the social season, appearing to grow closer to a certain eligible bachelor and on the cusp of marriage, Eloise expresses her desire for Daphne to stay on the marriage mart so that she might not have to enter. But Eloise is not the leading-lady and the season does not follow a main plotline that focuses on her struggle against her mother’s wishes and breaking free of the social tradition to successfully pursue higher education, proving that women are more than just wives and mothers. And so, how can Bridgerton be considered feminism in this light?
Often, traditionally feminine things are considered frivolous and trivial and they are not given much attention, thought or value. Things like fashion, gossip, and romance are eye-rolled at and cast aside as inconsequential, and girls who like these things are often chastised and ridiculed for their interests. Such expressions of traditionally feminine things can broadly be considered anti-feminist or at best non-feminist as they can be seen as ignoring all the hard work feminists have put in for women to be considered equal. Bridgerton itself falls into this category but through its textuality, it offers a pro-feminist commentary on these things.
The first season is all about Daphne’s story, her personality, feelings, and ambitions. Daphne has been preparing her entire life to enter the marriage mart and is the polar opposite to Eloise. On her debut to the queen, she was declared the season’s “incomparable,” indicating the success of her training in the ‘art of femininity.’ She quickly establishes herself as ‘boy-crazy,’ completely embracing the role society has laid out for her, obsessed with socialising, charming, and securing a husband. Unlike Eloise, she does not complain about the social engagements and is excited by new dresses and male callers. Her entire life has been about marrying, having children and becoming a mother. This lead character is not what we would identify as a typical feminist.
However, although a complete lady and happy with it, Daphne is far from being a quiet, subordinate, ignorant woman completely at the whims of the patriarchy. Just because she embraces her role does not mean that she is unaware of the restraints placed on women in her society when she states that “I cannot simply declare I do not wish to marry. I do not have such privilege.” But she believes in true love and will not marry just any man just because her eldest brother Anthony, the head of the Bridgerton family (played by Jonathan Bailey), has arranged it. She refuses the proposal of an undesirable suitor and when he makes inappropriate advances on her, she retaliates with a swift punch to his face. She is not easily impressed by a man simply because of his station but requires him to possess the same manners she is required to display.
Dynevor’s character also explores the female gaze, a concept not unfamiliar to second-wave feminist discourse. The women of this society are kept in the dark about their sexuality and this is no exception for the Bridgerton girls. Dynevor and the other female cast members must be praised for their convincing acting of innocence and cluelessness. They do not even have the slightest clue of basic reproduction. When Eloise’s best friend, Penelope Featherington (played by Nicola Coughlan), learns that a young maid under her mother’s care has fallen pregnant out of wedlock, they are baffled at how this has happened and are fearful that it may happen to them, believing marriage is required to have children. For Daphne, she desires children although she too does not know how it happens.
These things are not kept from girls forever and as Daphne’s emotional connection grows stronger with the Duke of Hastings (played by Regé-Jean Page), she experiences her first physical attraction to a man and wonders about the physical component of marriage. The Duke himself explains masturbation to her and when Daphne explores this in the privacy of her room that night, she experiences her first encounter with female sexual pleasure and desire as the scene is intersected with cut-shots of the man she lusts after. After her marriage, this desire is not shadowed and though the second half of the season is more focused on the complexities of her marriage and relationship, it is not devoid of a variety of steamy sex scenes.
But the question is, if Eloise and Daphne are polar opposites, does this mean these two types of women are mutually exclusive?
The mysterious character of Lady Whistledown can answer this question. Up until the eighth episode, Lady Whistledown’s true identity is unknown despite Eloise’s attempts to uncover her. No one knows what she looks like, what her age is, what her occupation is, whether she is married, single or widowed. Nevertheless, despite her facelessness, Lady Whistledown’s approval is most sought after, a particular achievement for a woman of this society, even if it is in the ‘frivolous’ lives of women. Lady Whistledown is not immune to critique, though. She is often called a “sandalling mongering writer” or names to that effect but only by those she insults in her writing and she herself recognises that “a scribbling woman is the most canine.” But through her intermittent voiceovers, she demonstrates the power of women, especially female gossip and scheming. And though the ton is filled with strong women, none quite have the ability to affect people’s lives as Lady Whistledown. Everyone is desperate to know what she has written about the previous day’s social event. Lady Whistledown’s word is law, maybe even more so than the queen’s.
At the end of the last episode of the season, Lady Whistledown’s identity is revealed as Penelope Featherington. Though there are many unanswered questions as to how this is possible, this reveal reconciles the two types of women embodied in Eloise and Daphne. Before we know Penelope is Whistledown, she is seen reading a book when her mother tells her to stop and study her miniatures (the season’s eligible bachelors). She further expresses a desire to sit out this social season, offering a desire to focus on her studies like Eloise. However, it quickly becomes obvious that she has eyes for a man, Colin Bridgerton (played by Luke Thompson), who is a bit on the young side (for a man of this time) to be settling down and looking for a wife. This is indicated by his desire to travel and his pending tour. And when Colin takes an interest in another young lady, Penelope’s distress is clear. She is, as Lady Whistledown puts it, one of the “marriage-minded misses” and considering she is Lady Whistledown, it offers an interesting perspective on all the previous satirical commentary. However, what this resolution of two characters hints at is that a woman can possess both traditional feminine interests and education and authority.
There is a lot more to be commented on about the first season of Bridgerton, about feminism, the patriarchy, masculinity, race, responsibility, social class and rules… but alas, it would be impossible to fit them all in this article. Instead, what I hope I have offered about Bridgerton, or at least the first season, is this: Bridgerton explores different types of women and, through this exploration, opens up to the idea of a feminine feminism, one that recognises that there are traditional feminists who desire education and career above all else, but there are also feminists who have traditionally feminine interests, who want to be mothers and have children… and that is okay.