Swiving the Imperialist Prom King

Fine. Everybody’s a poca madre culture critic and has a think piece about Bridgerton. I’ll jump on the bloody damn band wagon. Sheesh. CN: many swearing, very curse, such crass. wow.

Adjoa Andoh ruling the side eye

In sum: if you accept it’s basically no different than Beauty and the Beast or Star Trek, and you like heteronormative romance, it’s pretty fabulous. It’s also fucked up. Unfucking fantasy, particularly if it’s fantasy about fucking isn’t easy. If you don’t know Regency romances are about as reality-based as Lord of the Rings, and just as imperialist, then what the devil are you even doing? Just slag off and watch some depressing Gerard Depardieu flick about coal miners getting TB. Or don’t, just say you did and watch Jingle Jangle instead. But also, what in the name of Satan’s bawbag is wrong with big budget TV costume designers? Do they not have internet? Are they just really superbasic McMansion crafters who think Joanne Fabrics is where it’s at? I have Questions!

Now, for my opinion credentials: I watched it because some people whose opinions I value got excited about it. I have not read the original books. I have read a metric fuckton of romance novels in my time (historical and contemporary). These include the grandmaw of the Regency genre–Georgette Heyer, starting about the time I started being able to read a full novel, so I’ve been reading/re-reading her work for close on 40 years. Also some hella mediocre/creepy/depressing stuff that called itself “romance”; and a sludgepond of the 70s and 80s stuff where all the male protagonists are rapists.

Georgette Heyer started writing in the early 20th century and her books were incredibly researched, dense with detail, and pretty funny. But chaste. You can barely detect that her characters might have had sex, even if they are actually married. She was also hella racist, classist, and anti-Semitic. And if she messed up on any detail of Regency upper class London, Bath, Harrowgate, or the Napoleanic wars (waltzing, Beau Brummell, Almack’s, governesses, men’s clothes, footmen’s habits, women’s hair products, Lord Wellington’s personal proclivities, etc), we’re all hosed because no other author has done any research since.

Contemporary Regency authors put in all kinds of other stuff: explicit nooky, mostly, but also characters dealing with “modern” issues like PTSD. Here’s the thing though, a Regency romance hasn’t been “realistic” since Jane Austen wrote them during the actual turn of the 18th/19th century. Otherwise everyone would be dead of scarlet fever or small pox, no one would have teeth, the Reformed Rake heroes would have syphilis and give it to their wives and children, and everyone’s lace petticoats would have piss and menstrual blood on them. (if you don’t believe me, read about how women relieved themselves at places like the opera).

Do you want to read a soothing, feel-good book about gingivitis, cholera, and chancres? Do you want stray human or canine teeth in your food? Heavy metal and animal feces in your cosmetics? No? Why are you even living? Seriously though, if you’re going to read a book about even a fictional human living in the early 19th century, and you actually like humans and want the story to feel good, it’s gonna have to come with a thick layer of fantasy. I don’t know about you, but I don’t sit around calculating how many of the Regency romance heroines likely died of childbirth complications within a decade of the happy ending in the last chapter. Before the 20th century anyone who wasn’t a rich white man was pretty much rogered in the nose with a poker. The best the 19th century had going for it was science and medicine had improved beyond that of the middle ages, and public health was probably as good as it had been since the Romans, unless you lived in a city.

Death & Filth (Georgian England)

The historical romance genre is starting to lose the brand of being “trash” because that was code for “women read it”. But it’s not ever going to be a balanced diet of high fiber food either. It’s ice cream, or baguettes with brie. Some people like their ice cream with a sprinkling of space dog fights and cute baby aliens. Others like a waltzy, man-candy syrup on theirs. (I like both). The question is how much white supremacy do you get with your ice cream. Some white supremacy is like the milk in the ice cream: you want ice cream, you get colonialism. You take it out, and you get some chalky shit and you should just give up and eat pie. Which is fine. Pie is excellent and milk makes some people puke. On the other hand, ice cream is better with high quality ingredients: just say no to high fructose corn syrup and guar gum. Bring on the real vanilla beans.

Some people criticizing Bridgerton are saying some stupid shit like “we shouldn’t have black people in historical dramas about upper class London. This is just wokeness taken too far.” (seems to me “woke” now gets used the same way “PC” did in the 1990s, which is a pity for any number of reasons). That makes about as much sense as saying “Idris Elba can’t be Heimdal” or “elves aren’t black”. Um… anything past “Elves are” can be pretty anything we want. Because normally elves aren’t. At all. We stop there.

The more complicated critique is “this story is fucked up because switching out the scorchingly honkey upperclass arsehole for an extremely hawt pigmented arsehole doesn’t address the whole fuckery of the English Imperialist upper class who derived their wealth from the rape and pillage of India, Africa, the Caribbean, and most of North America.” Well, yes. Strictly speaking, that’s true. But that’s a “I just can’t hang with ice cream” argument. That’s a legitimate position. Should humans really be eating so much dairy? Probably not. Is dairy production horribly bad for the environment and cruel to the cows? Usually, yes.

You can take a principled stand and say, “all ice cream, no matter how tasty, no matter how organic, is just bad,” and you will only eat cookies. Or you will abjure dessert forever and eat nothing more decadent than oatmeal sweetened with honey because all cane and beet sugar is a product of labor exploitation and hastens global warming. That’s all fine. But let’s be clear that’s what you’re doing, especially if you’re saying other people should do that too. Giving up dessert isn’t simple, but it’s a rational argument. I’m weak though, and I like ice cream. Bridgerton is like ice cream that’s really raised its game. I grew up with Kroger store brand ice cream that came in five flavors, max. And it was in waxed cartoons so you know there was paraffin in that ice cream. But I scraped the seams of those waxed cartoons to get the last bits of chocolate. The 21st century is shitty and scary in many ways, but I’m glad I can get artisanal ice cream and gelato.

Back in the day us pigment-advantaged folks got Uhura, Sulu, and Lando Calrissian. And that was pretty much it. “Diversity” was having both a Russian and a Scotsman, plus actual aliens coded as Asians (and/or Jews). And don’t even get me started on C3PO and jawas. Now there’s Luke Cage, Black Panther, and all kinds of crazy stuff like whatever Daniel Dae Kim was doing in the Hellboy remix. Bridgerton is like the live action Mulan. It’s a fucked up fairy world with lots of CGI, beautiful people doing crazy things, and it’s got all kinds of unsavory oligarchic, genocidal imperialist commercialization happening both behind the scenes and right out in front. But thank you brown baby Jesus, at least it’s not a frickin Aryan wet dream!

We can only purge the shit in our stories so much. Star Trek wanted to be progressive, but it was colonialist and neoliberal (and Kirk was gross about women). Princess Leia kicked ass, but then we got Jar Jar Binks. Some people want Henry Cavill brandishing his sword, some people want Daniel Craig leaping out of airplanes without ever ending up in a wheel chair (or even getting hearing damage). I won’t yuck their yum, but medieval fantasy has imbedded crusader imperialist tropes and James Bond is inseparable from its history of misogyny, red-baiting, and british colonialism. It would be great to de-colonize fantasy, but it’s hard work, and I’m not rugged enough to give up all dessert (except maybe Avatar: the Last Airbender) until we do.

Having the queen and the dukes and the viscounts be black is no more fantastical than the characters being depicted with clean hair, or any woman (even just upper class women) ending up safe, sexually fulfilled, economically secure, and regarded as humans by their partners. Because that’s what the genre is largely about. A lot of heterosexual women still fantasize about that. Men’s fantasy genres going way back (Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert Heinlein, J.R.R. Tolkein, Lovecraft) were written by white men who enjoyed class advantage at least to the extent of having education and leisure time. The material and sexual worlds in 20th century fantasy don’t reflect the inner landscape of people who inherently worried about starving and being raped all the time. They reflect the minds of the rapists. Meanwhile, women were concocting a world where *not* ending up like Fantine in Les Mis was #goals.

So I enjoyed Bridgerton. I liked switching out the faces in the dream world, but otherwise taking the concept of a ridiculous world of horses, carriages, and fancy dress balls and running with it. Honestly, I had no idea that casting BIPOC actors was innovating away from Quinn’s text, because romance authors are doing some wacky shit these days. The only beef I had was when they tried to “explain it” into the story with the Queen (there’s actual historic context there, which is too complicated to get into, and only makes the gaffe stupider anyway). It’s like some poorly executed attempt to break the fourth wall. Just play it straight, for fucks sake.

That leaves me with the thing I really, really didn’t like: the women’s costumes. Every single costume on the core female characters (except for the four who were supposed to be tacky AF, and the one who was tragic relief) was cheap. Like, taking-short-cuts, no-excuse, phoning-it-in cheap. Maybe the budget was less lavish than it looked? But how bad would the budget woes have to be for their female lead to look like Grosse Pointe mother-of-the-bride meets homecoming queen? Every. Single. Time. Weird scratchy pastel jacquard? Check. Flammable dollar store net overskirt? Yep. Plasticy prefab sequin appliques? Right here. Prom-ready tiara with polyester flowers? Gotcha covered.

I’m not a costume nerd. If anything, I’m a wannabe costume nerd. And like everything else, this isn’t about Historical Accuracy at any level. Historical Accuracy fetishists can have a go at BBC Jane Austen films, played straight. Historical Accuracy lightweights can complain about Tudors using obvious pleather. I’m not griping that Bridgerton doesn’t have 1813-appropriate, carefully considered knits like Outlander. Or even that they get the arrangement of the chemise and stays wrong. I’m more complaining about the costume team not doing some Game of Thrones style wacky embroidery that takes weeks to make and is on screen for 15 seconds (plus publicity stills). Hellllooo people, have some fun! Take your wisteria purple fantasy world and put real lace on it. You can keep the Regency fashion conventions–it’s one of the most consistently recognizable silhouettes going. I’m not asking you to give up your fluffy Disney pastel palette. I’m just suggesting cut your patterns with some reasonable complexity. Invest in some trim that actually says “luxury”. Why the everloving fuckity fuck do all your overdresses and accessories look like you got them from the prom and bridal section of Fabric Depot? Use top stitching, for the love of gawd and little fishies.

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