By Sumaiya Ahmed and R. Mir
*Warning: contains spoilers*
"You have no idea what it is to be a woman, what it might feel like to have one’s entire life reduced to a single moment," Daphne Bridgerton (played by Phoebe Dynevor) says to her eldest brother, Anthony (played by Johnathon Bailey), in the first episode of Bridgerton. Set in 1800's London high society, Netflix's adaptation of Julia Quinn's popular novels excels in portraying life for women during the Regency era and the overt power of men. When the show starts, it is the Season, where young women are pitted against each other to win the heart of some of the most eligible bachelors, for marriage, reputation and family honour. Sound familiar?
For girls of South Asian culture, the path of traditional marriage laid out for us by default mirrors that of Daphne and the ladies of Bridgerton. Being raised to think marriage and childbearing are our sole purposes, being prepped and primed to learn marriageable skills, carrying the burden of your family’s honour. We know times have changed, as we’re currently witnessing the slow but steady dismantling of patriarchal traditions within marriage alongside the acceptance of feminist thought within South Asia. However, some things are so set in stone that chipping away takes decades and it feels like we’ve gotten nowhere.
Despite completely different contexts, cultures and time periods, Bridgerton reflects some of the patriarchal norms we have in South Asian culture, with the same challenges in marriage, sex and autonomy.
To choose or to be chosen
We can deconstruct Bridgerton into brackets, from the way women are viewed and treated to the way men make decisions for women. The show is currently adored for the eye candy on screen and the steamy sex scenes, as well as the Regency-era's very own version of Gossip Girl, Lady Whistledown. But if we take all that away, we're left with men controlling women, sexism and internalised misogyny. In the very first episode, Anthony tells Daphne he's found her a suitor - Nigel Berbrooke (played by Jamie Beamish), a man decades older than her, with an extremely questionable personality. Naturally, Daphne is furious, telling her brother she wanted to make that choice herself; after all, she would be the one spending her life with this person. Throughout the show, the Duke of Hastings, Simon Basset (played by Regé-Jean Page), the aforementioned eye candy sending Twitter into a frenzy, and Anthony continue to try to make decisions for Daphne, alluding to them believing she is not capable nor knowledgeable enough to make her own life choices. The women in the show, from Daphne to her younger sister, Eloise Bridgerton (played by Claudia Jessie) to Queen Charlotte (played by Golda Rosheuvel) and Marina Thompson (played by Ruby Barker) are painfully aware of their lack of options available to them in life, that they are simply to go from one man to another. This speaks volumes about the way women during this time, and even today in many societies were viewed: as objects to be controlled.
This lack of autonomy is a frustration felt by many South Asian women, who are at the behest of others making decisions on, well, the most important aspects of our lives. The expectation that “elders know best” is imposed on women, resigning them to the backseat of the marriage process whilst brothers and fathers often do the talking, meeting and deciding. And of course, once we get married, the ultimate “who knows best” podium is inevitably gifted to either our husbands or our mothers-in-law.
Lack of control goes hand in hand with a lack of trust - daughters are reduced to a check-box list of marriageable qualities and not trusted to find a suitable match for themselves.
In a culture that has a heavy preference for an arranged marriage, rather than so-called “love marriages”, choices are often made based upon both sides meeting certain criteria set by the families, rather than what a bride-to-be desires for herself. Marrying off a daughter, or from the woman’s perspective, “fulfilling her duty”, is often a process that oversees the transference of control from fathers and brothers to husbands and the new in-laws. Where do women get a say? Maybe in what colour saree we want, or what hairstyle to have on our big day. (Let’s be honest, both of these get decided by the mothers-in-law as well.) Who knew the ladies of Bridgerton were so relatable to Desi girls?
Let’s talk about sex (or not)
As well as the issues of control and autonomy, sex has always been a taboo subject in South Asia for a number of religious and cultural reasons. It’s considered the big step into married life, womanhood and motherhood alike, but a lot of us take that step metaphorically blindfolded. Knowledge on all things sex - learning about our reproductive organs, contraception, consent, various sexualities, and frankly just what to do, isn’t readily talked about in the home or in schools, relegating our education to gossip magazines and forbidden corners of the internet. Sex education is not part of public school curriculums in India, only private schools so far have the option to include it but it often goes without. Particularly for women, the topic of sex is draped in a coat of shame and considered inappropriate, with a woman’s supposed duty to have children juxtaposed to the lack of sexual education and understanding of consensual, safe practices. We see the significant absence of knowledge regarding sex education in Bridgerton in one particular scene, Eloise wants to know how a woman can become pregnant if she is not married, but their mother stops her brothers from revealing anything. On Daphne's wedding night, her mother skirts around the topic of sex, not telling her she actually needed to know, even by her own mother’s standards, as a now-married woman.
Even talking about sex was a taboo for the women in the 1800s, an issue continuing even in the 21st century, limiting women from understanding the way their bodies work, the importance of setting boundaries and most importantly, consent.
The lack of sex education has consequences beyond Daphne not knowing what to do after getting married, manifesting into the dangers of rape culture, something that is reflective in the high levels of sexual violence we see in South Asian countries today.
Early in the show, we see an attempted sexual assault, from Nigel trying to force himself on Daphne. After her brother finds out, from Simon, and asks Daphne why she never told him, she bluntly says, "Would you have believed me? Did you only change your mind about Lord Berbrooke because another man told you the truth?" Women, during this time, were treated as if they existed merely to fulfil specific rituals as rights of passage. They were a lovely decoration. for a man's sexual gratification: A man could have sex with whomever he wishes before marriage and get away with it, but the woman must remain a virgin, no matter what. The conduct towards women who engaged in premarital sex was largely negative, as we see in how others in Bridgerton reacted to the news of Marina Thompson's illegitimate pregnancy. In today's day and age, we can see the way reporting sexual assault impacts both men and women, from women being shamed and their attempts at seeking justice brushed aside in the name of false claims or wanting attention, to men being protected and absolved of guilt. Many women fear not being believed when speaking up about sexual assault, continuously being faced with objectification and dealing with misogyny constantly.
Over the last year alone, numerous sexual assault cases have caused outrage in South Asia, with public outcry rising highest in response to most notably the Hathras case which saw the raping and murdering of a young Dalit woman, and the gang-raping of a woman in Pakistan in front of her children near a Lahore motorway (we struggle with the fact that these are real sentences we have to write, take a moment with that). Despite such outcry over how these cases were handled by authorities, victim-blaming was rife, with the same cultural expectations and misogynistic excuses for sexual violence being used to warp the narrative that it was somehow each woman’s own fault.
So here we see the constant paradox of patriarchy: giving women no autonomy over marriage decisions, but giving them all the blame for sexual violence, something Bridgerton highlights expertly.
Another danger resulting from lack of sex education is portrayed through the storyline between Daphne, who wanted children, and Simon, who didn’t. While Simon had lied, in's lie was one that he made, suggesting he could not have children, rather than what telling the truth was: honestly voicing that he did not want to (having made a vow to his dying father and all), this doesn’t invalidate the importance of his consent as well. Coupled with Daphne's gap in knowing what sex is and exactly how babies were made, he was able to get away with it, until Daphne found out. Here is where there became an issue, where she, for the first time, took over the reins during sex and then coerced him to ejaculate inside her, against his will. Understandablyingly, the Duke of Hastings was horrified, not having consented to this. From this moment, their relationship turned sour. This scene illustrates in precise terms how Bridgerton shows us is how keeping the importance of sex, the sensations and the process, is used as a way to exert control over another and a way to hold onto power. However, the scene is trivialised and brushed over in the show, drawing a line of confusion whether it ought to be considered actually counts as rape, as Simon consented until Daphne took control of his ejaculation.
During the time period in which this was set, the question around consent was nonexistent, as due to being married, Simon had ownership over Daphne. Watching it unfold, or reading about it, from a 21st-century lens starts a much-needed conversation on the way marriage, sex and women (and in this case, men) were treated regarding consent. India is one of 36 countries in the world where marital rape is not a crime, contributing to the long-held idea that certain acts are automatically consensual by virtue of being married, and forcing lines to be blurred on what “counts” and what a partner should simply accept. Now, whilst we are aware of the implications of Daphne's actions, especially in the era of #MeToo, understanding instances of sexual assault and raising the topic on consent is vital, to ourselves and others safe.
In comparison to today, as a society, we have come to an understanding of what counts as consensual sex, and understanding what falls under the umbrella of rape: from coercion to silence and intoxication, to an outright no.
The fact the show failed to focus on the assault was damaging and concerning, speaking to the way it is often dealt with even in today's day and age, and further normalizing this dismissive view of consent. Consent is the one thing that shouldn't be considered to be morally grey, as it can be removed at any point, from either person (even if it's in the midst of intercourse).
Saviours of the show
Despite Bridgerton’s oversights, the show did get some things right. Just as we can draw parallels between the patriarchal culture in Bridgerton to our own, we can also relate to the female characters who depict the changing of norms and reclamation of agency. Eloise is a stark contrast to the expectations of accepted womanhood, as she does not desire marriage and instead, wants to go to university. She is a depiction of modern feminism, eager to learn, with a thirst for change and to fly the nest, traits which are becoming normalised in South Asian culture as women and young girls continue to break the barriers of stereotypes. Whilst Daphne is eager to embody the societal expectations placed on her and dreams of being a wife and mother, she is strong and opinionated, standing up to her brother, the Duke and even giving Nigel a mean right hook. Despite following the traditional path without complaint, is aware of her agency and her right to choose a suitor on her own terms, and even calls out her mother for not preparing her for sex.
True understanding of feminism is accepting Daphne's aspirations of being a wife and motherhood, but in a society demanding that this be the only path for a woman, it must be questioned.
Compared to the 1800s, society has come a long way, however, there is still this presupposition of women adhering to these norms and values, lest they be faced with judgement and shaming. The show provoked this conversation, exploring the very identity of what it means to be a woman and gender roles. Recognising these issues in South Asian culture tells us what we all already know - the patriarchy is still alive and well - but that doesn’t mean women can’t take it down in our own way.
About the author
Sumaiya Ahmed is an opinion and sex-positive writer, aiming to break down the boundaries of cultural stigma and shame attached to mental health and sexuality within the South Asian culture and bring marginalised topics to light. IG @sumaiyaahmedwrites