Netflix’s Bridgerton: why the Shonda Rhimes series is so much more than “Jane Austen with lots of sex”

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In Netflix’s Bridgerton, sex isn’t just about naughty titillation (though dear god it is hot): it’s about freedom, identity, and a delicious exploration of self.

It takes less than three minutes into the first episode of Bridgerton to be treated to our inaugural sex scene, namely a couple enjoying a knee-trembler up against a tree while a bemused footman averts his eyes and holds the bare-bottomed gentleman’s horse. (The horse looks positively sanguine about all the orgasmic moaning.)

In fact, over the course of the series’ eight episodes there are many, many more sex scenes featuring locations ranging from, a staircase, a rain soaked folly, a stunning stretch of lawn, and one very ingenious use of a ladder.

This is the raunchy handiwork of Shonda Rhimes, whose adaption of Julia Quinn’s period Bridgerton novels (long pegged as ‘Jane Austen with sex’) hits Netflix today, marking the veteran showrunner’s debut outing with the entertainment giant.

Bridgerton: Phoebe Dynevor as Daphne Bridgerton and Regé-Jean Page as the Duke of Hastings.
Bridgerton: Phoebe Dynevor as Daphne Bridgerton and Regé-Jean Page as the Duke of Hastings.

At first blush, the books appear to firmly occupy Austen-lite territory: the courtship rondes of the aristocracy during the early years of the 19th century, all Empire waists and longing looks across packed Mayfair ballrooms.

Quinn’s stories follow the lives of the Bridgerton clan – a sort of Regency-era Von Trapp family, except they trade witty barbs and bon mots rather than gather around the guitar for chaste singalongs. The author, over the course of eight books, assiduously charts the romantic fates of the Bridgertons in the London marriage market.

However, where the novels depart from standard bonnet territory is that they are sexy. Very, very sexy. In between the requisite swooning we are treated to plenty of consensual ravishings of debutantes on velvet sofas and dashing breaches-clad rakes ushering women into libidinous joy again… and again… and again.

Yes, it is fun and a bit silly but make no mistake, Bridgerton – both Quinn’s novels and the Rhimes-driven small screen version – is far more subversive and interesting than it might first appear.

Sure, the actual storyline hauls out plenty of shopworn tropes such as the two central characters, Daphne Bridgerton and the Duke of Hastings, hating each on sight (my, surely they could never end up falling for one another…).

But, what makes Bridgerton a decidedly feminist TV project is how it handles all that sex, explicitly reclaiming female pleasure and making it central to the narrative. The women in this universe, at least once someone finally explains the marital act to them, are allowed to enjoy it without even the tiniest hint of shame, embarrassment or self-consciousness.

Phoebe Dyvenor as Daphne Bridgerton
Bridgerton: Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) makes her societal debut.

In both Quinn’s and Rhimes’ hands, sex isn’t just about naughty titillation (though dear god it is hot): it’s about freedom, identity, and a delicious exploration of self. And watching one particular character revel in her discovery of sheer carnal delights, including masturbation, not only makes for great viewing but also makes a great point about female desire, too.

When this project was first announced in 2018, pulses raced, temperatures skyrocketed and eyebrows shot up over Rhimes’ choice of source material. The multiple Emmy-winner, after all, made her name with Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder, all shows which are driven by unabashedly strong female characters, not a demure parasol twirl or coquettish giggle in sight. 

In Rhimes deeming the romance genre as being worthy of lavish big-budget TV treatment, then, it feels like she is making a statement about which stories deserve our attention.

The entire category of romance is still generally dismissed as the literary equivalent of the Big Mac: devoid of substance and to be consumed in guilty secret. It is looked down on, a fact that is rooted in a deep vein of literary sexism.

As a class of popular fiction it is still judged and written off as brainless pap with no merit or worth. Whereas other more masculine sorts of popular fiction such as crime and thriller writing are now viewed with far more literary credibility, romance has never been able to shake off the stigma or it’s third rate status.

Simon and Daphne in Bridgerton on Netflix
Best erotic films and TV: Bridgerton

Romantic fiction and what would now be disparagingly termed chick-lit has been derided for centuries. In 1792, Mary Woolstencraft in Vindication Of The Rights of Women implored her readers of romance novels, “I advise my sex not to read such flimsy works” suggesting insead she wanted to “to induce them to read something superiour.” (Jeez Mary, after a 18-hour day of scrubbing and cooking and trying to stop one’s dozen children from dying of typhoid, you’d think a woman deserved a moment or two of escapism.)

However what is really happening when romance novels are wholesale discounted isn’t just about intellectual snobbery but people (read: often male critics) discounting novels that put female gratification, joy and happiness at the centre of the narrative.

Bridgerton, in its grand, wholesale repudiation of that thinking, is making a clear-cut political statement.

At its heart, what Rimes’ Bridgerton is about is owning pleasure, both that of the characters and us. In her choosing to lavish her production company’s attention (and tens of millions of dollars) on what might condescendingly be termed bodice-rippers, she is making a full-throated statement about female pleasure and our right, as viewers and consumers, to unabashedly indulge in it.

During one particularly erotic, rain-soaked assignation later in the series, one man whispers to his paramour, “Do you like this? Tell me what you want.”

With Bridgerton, Rimes is doing just that by telling the world exactly what she wants to finally see on the small screen.

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Images: Netflix

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