Last night I tried to watch not one but two television shows that had come highly recommended. And in both cases, I turned them off after a few minutes.
Bridgerton is a Regency romance series based on some bestselling novels by Julia Quinn, all about aristocratic families’ efforts to marry off their daughters. (I have not read the books.) This Netflix show has received a lot of publicity due to its unconventional casting. Several members of English high society are played by Black actors, which has been both widely praised and widely reviled. Personally, I was intrigued to hear that Queen Charlotte would be played by a Black actress. Historians cite evidence that she was descended from a Black branch of the Portuguese royal family, but I’d never seen her portrayed that way before. I find the idea refreshing. I didn’t watch long enough to get a sense of how the other characters of color were handled (apparently they were not described as Black in the books) so I can’t comment on how I feel about their casting.
I’ve noticed on Facebook that anyone who objects to historical inaccuracies in Netflix’s Bridgerton is immediately called racist by other users, despite having said nothing about race. As I said, the color-blind casting was not my reason for turning it off. It is true that Regency England had residents of African descent, though our popular culture tends to ignore them. I hesitate to claim that Regency England had Dukes of African descent, but I can’t say for sure that it did not. And as I admitted earlier, I didn’t watch enough to have an opinion on how well that character works.
But I do have an opinion on the historically inaccurate clothes, hairstyles, and demeanor of the upper class as portrayed in the television series. In reality, outbursts of emotion were frowned upon and would have brought disapproval from those within hearing, yet they are everywhere. Tiaras were worn only for evening events, and only by married women. Upper-class ladies were trained to have impeccable posture and did not drape themselves over chairs the way we might today. And sex was often extramarital but always discrete. The strict rules of conduct for people in that society would preclude having sex in public — outside against a tree and in view of the servants, on a staircase, or pretty much anywhere else when the mood strikes, as it apparently does ALL the time in this show. And there are so many other moments that were just wrong for the aristocracy of Regency England.
Of course, every period has people who ignore the rules of decorum. But they would be the subject of gossip and scandal. On Bridgerton, nobody seems to notice or care. (Yes, there is a scandal sheet in the show that calls people out for some offenses, but only when it’s a plot point; the wardrobe inaccuracies and modern-day demeanor are completely ignored.)
I know a lot of people are enjoying this series, and I don’t fault them for that. But every inaccuracy leaves me rolling my eyes. I am not a person who can ignore such errors and just be entertained. I love historical fiction because of the chance to immerse myself in a time period. These characters are not Regency characters. They are modern characters in elaborate costumes and sumptuous homes. And when they don’t act as Regency aristocrats would, I am pulled out of the time period and out of the story.
The other program I tried to watch and quickly gave up on was the movie Prom, also on Netflix. I love the premise of this one. It’s a musical about the backlash that ensues when a high-school girl wants to bring her girlfriend to the prom. But the very first scene played on outmoded stereotypes that pissed me off. Why does Hollywood always vilify PTAs? This scene shows sour-faced parents at a PTA meeting who vow to cancel prom if they can’t keep same-sex couples away from it. Since the national PTA’s platform includes nondiscrimination against LGBTQ students, a PTA that tried to do this in the real, non-Netflix world would lose its charter. And the principal is in favor of allowing same-sex couples. He doesn’t work for the PTA. Why doesn’t he have the school put on a prom without the PTA’s help?
Then we move to Broadway, where the incredible Meryl Streep is playing an actress on opening night of a musical called Eleanor!, based on the life of Eleanor Roosevelt. In the little bit I saw, she was wonderful. But the actor who is in the role of FDR is played by James Corden, who portrays the gay actor using every offensive stereotype there is. When bad reviews shut down their play after one performance, they and their actor friends decide to find a cause to champion, to prove to the world they are not the vacuous, self-centered performers they so clearly are. Someone learns about a prom that’s been canceled in Indiana in order to keep out a same-sex couple, and they decide they’re traveling to Indiana to bring publicity to the injustice.
That’s about as long as I lasted. I would have loved to see a more nuanced, more realistic, and less campy version of this story — yes, even in a musical. But clearly that is not what Netflix is giving us.