Content warning: Contains description of a rape scene.
Trey-Daniel Kyeremeh examines racial and gender dynamics in Shonda Rhimes’ latest Netflix hit.
I watched all of Bridgerton in one night. As a fan of Shonda Rhimes, no convincing was needed to get me to watch this highly anticipated drama. Besides, it was something to pass the time. While I enjoyed the series, it left me with the bitter taste of disappointment. What struck me was the scene of marital rape in Bridgerton’s sixth episode. We must ask, what are the implications of this act? Of its handling? Most importantly, how does the volatile nature of the character’s gender and racial identity shift the dynamic of the relationship between the two characters?
In episode six of Bridgerton, Daphne finds out that Simon, the Duke, can have children but refuses to — this knowledge is gained without any understanding of why he would make this choice. Thanks to a miscommunication, she had previously believed that he was infertile. Daphne responds to this revelation by forcing Simon to inseminate her during intercourse. She positions herself on top of the Duke to prohibit him from pulling out before he ejaculates, as he plans to. While this is not the sort of violent rape scene we have grown accustomed to on television, her actions constitute rape nonetheless. The issue at hand is that the series ends with this couple portrayed as the picture of true love and romance. Daphne, the rapist, does not have her actions addressed, let alone ever apologising for what she’s done. Instead, her character carries through the series standing firm on the concept of pseudo-righteousness.
Daphne seems to be excused from taking accountability for the overt act of rape. In fact, her deliberate, premeditated actions are almost glamorised. They are framed as a form of socio-political autonomy or reclaiming of power, in a gendered society. When watching the show, I did not share in Daphne’s misunderstanding of the Duke’s intentions. It seemed explicitly clear why he did not want children. I found it interesting that I, as a watcher, and she, as a listener, could understand different things from the Duke’s speech. But watching her execute her plan was bewildering.
Firstly, I was trying to comprehend if someone could really force you to impregnate them. Then I had to ask whether such a far-fetched retaliation was a legitimate reaction to being misled. Perhaps it was for dramaturgical purposes that the brash and talkative characters skipped a conversation and jumped to something as awful as rape. However, that is how abuse works — forcing another person to endure extreme actions. Daphne’s actions reflect her sense of entitlement to Simon and to having his children, an entitlement which also allows her to justify forcing him into a sham marriage. This reasoning reflects an unhinged character, no? Daphne should be finished. It is notorious that white women are portrayed with such a level of innocence and fragility that when they commit such vindictive crimes their actions are somewhat dismissed. Her innocent apparel and her frequent comparison to a diamond feels cruel and insulting.
This notion of her criminality raises questions of what perceptions would be if the character’s sexes were reversed and it was the Duke who used his strength to dominate Daphne and force himself on her. I don’t make this statement lightly and do not attempt to ignore the realistic and intrinsic relationship between biological sex and strength or muscle mass. Nor how prevalent gendered violence is; especially in the form of rape. But I make this claim on the role reversal because the Duke is a Black man in Shonda’s take on Julia Quinn's novel, a deliberate casting shift which has real ramifications, fictive or not. Men are often silent victims of sexual violence because of toxic masculinity and gender roles. Black men have the nuanced experience of suffering in silence whilst constantly being portrayed as animalistic sexual predators. Black men are often brutalised and dehumanised to a point where they are constantly scapegoats for sexual violence, from the inception of The Birth of a Nation. And racial legislation, specifically in the US, makes Shonda and Netflix’s choice of presentation both dangerous and callous. The end result of their entanglement is that a Black man, who to an extent has been honest and transparent about what a relationship with him would look like, has been victimised, assaulted, and has had his pain made redundant and ignored. This is a presentation of a Black man that ignores his humanity and strips him of being an empathetic character. The Duke seems to be a victim of abuse from the moment of his conception.
Other characters, such as Marina, have both their oppressor and saviour take the form of White people. All the dark-skinned men have light-skinned wives. Black characters with substantial roles are left to light-skinned actors with phenotypes that compliment Eurocentric beauty standards. The idea of melding 19th-century London with a post-racial society falls flat when it is portrayed as white, pale, and light. I couldn't help but feel pushed to the side. The colourism was loud. The silence from dark-skinned characters was loud. It all just looks like pleasing the coloniser. These (possibly subconscious) mistakes should not be slipping through the cracks anymore. I feel forced to reconcile being let down by Shondaland with having to be content with any presentation of diversity.
How is it that Daphne finishes the series with everything: riches, a husband, title, land, and now a baby boy? The privilege of it all is choking. It is dangerous to present rape without any acknowledgement of it as that. Black audiences particularly are going to be left both frustrated, devastated, and expectantly disappointed. As my friend who watched Bridgerton said to me: “A White girl with blue eyes and a pointy chin soaking up all the happiness in his/the narrative? Groundbreaking.”
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