Header image description: A banner showing the main characters of Bridgerton in a garden. Two of the characters are Black, while the rest are white. They all wear the dress of the 19th century British elite, indicating their elevated socioeconomic status. Image credit: Netflix
If you’ve been on Twitter since Christmas, you’ve definitely heard about Bridgerton. The show is the newest member of the Shondaland empire and is the company’s first production following Shonda Rhimes’ deal with Netflix. Bridgerton is notable because it’s set in the high society of 1813 England and, well, Black people are included in that society.
On the surface, Bridgerton seems like a pretty typical example of a type of nontraditional casting known as “colorblind” casting, where the race of an actor is not necessarily considered in auditions. Well-known examples of “colorblindness” on the stage and screen include Hamilton: An American Musical, Riverdale, and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella (the 1997 version with Brandy).
Each of these productions does “colorblindness” differently. For Hamilton, the only aspect of race considered is that all of the main characters — except for King George — are intended to be nonwhite. In Riverdale, characters that were white in the Archie comics — such as Veronica Lodge and two members of Josie and the Pussycats — are played by nonwhite actresses in the show. In the 1997 Cinderella, it seems as if race was fully ignored in the casting process.
People have expressed a myriad of problems with “colorblind” casting. Obviously, racists don’t like it because they’re racist, but we can ignore them. Historians worry that nontraditional casting leads to misunderstandings of history and papers over historical racism, while many nonwhite people note that it often feels contrived or forced, that it can be dangerous to ignore race, and that this style of casting often seems to absolve production companies of social responsibility in regards to race.
Personally, I like a good “colorblind” production — emphasis on “good.” In my opinion as both a history buff and a nonwhite cultural critic, it can be fun to see a period piece with Black people in corsets and French-style military uniforms, type 4 hair done up in fancy, intricate styles. It’s fun because the audience is able to forget, even if just for a moment, the way nonwhite and specifically Black people have been excluded from so much of society. To me, it’s a respite from the status quo of lily-white productions of classic or historical tales. “Colorblind” casting doesn’t imply that race and racism don’t exist; it’s merely a twist on what is typically done.
In my opinion, Bridgerton does not do the whole “colorblind” thing well — at all. Here’s the thing: any type of nontraditional casting is pointless if it just reinscribes stereotypes. And the show in question unfortunately does just that.
In the world of Bridgerton, most dark-skinned actors portray side characters and/or servants. One exception (kind of — he only appears in episode two) is the late Duke of Hastings, Simon’s father, who is played by a dark-skinned actor; he is pictured on the right here. However, he is irredeemably ableist, cold-hearted, and downright mean; all in all, an undeniable antagonist. The other exception is that Lady Danbury, a protagonist, is portrayed by a darker-skinned actress. All of the other Black main characters — Simon, Queen Charlotte, Marina Thompson, and Madame Delacroix — are played by light-skinned actors.
That’s all to say that Bridgerton isn’t really “colorblind.” Sure, it ignores race in terms of historical accuracy, but it certainly doesn’t ignore color — that is, skin tone. When nontraditional casting only uplifts the more privileged in a marginalized group — in this case, Black people who are privileged under colorism — it only serves to reinforce ideas about who is acceptable in that group.
Bridgerton further undermines their “colorblind” world when they inexplicably decide to explain why the racial mores of the show are so different from what we know was historically the case. In summary, Black people have been included in the high society of 1813 London because King George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte, is a Black woman. Somehow, by marrying Charlotte, the king integrated England, made interracial marriage and procreation okay, and totally destroyed racism, all in one fell swoop. If you can’t tell by my tone, their “explanation” doesn’t make sense at all.
Does Netflix think their Black viewers are Boo Boo the Fool?
It’s been fifty-six years since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 here in America and us niggas are still dealing with the same old shit. Does Shondaland really expect us to believe that in the fifty-two years between the marriage of George and Charlotte and the setting of the show, none of those hoity-toity crackers even blink twice at Black people thinking they’re equals? Attitudes do not change that quickly, and if you think otherwise…well, you’re probably white. (It should be noted that Chris Van Dusen, the creator and showrunner of Bridgerton, is a white man.)
If you’re gonna do nontraditional casting, you might as well go all out. It doesn’t have to make sense and it definitely doesn’t need to be explained — that’s kind of the point, tbh. If y’all ignored race in the casting process, then let your viewers (try to) ignore race while watching your show. We can bond over our collective thirst for Regé-Jean Page (Simon) without you bringing up racism, please and thank you.