Bridgerton: The Next Wrong Thing in Misogynist Television


Why can’t we have nice things? Because the porn industry has infected media, that’s why.

I have read several of Julia Quinn’s fanciful romance novels. They contain entertaining and sympathetic stories about the economic and social pressures on gentlewomen of early 19th century Britain. The females are creative, courageous, intelligent, and honorable. The males are… well, they are somewhat sexist, of course, but no more sexist than most men I know. The books do a mediocre job of challenging gender roles or stereotypes (especially in their cookie cutter portrayals of male heroes), but they directly challenge overt sexism and misogyny. Quinn calls herself a feminist.

Enter Chris Van Dusen, the male creator, producer, and showrunner of Netflix’s Bridgerton series, based on the Quinn novels. Van Dusen previously helped write the show Scandal, a series about sleazy misdeeds by politicians. He apparently decided the Bridgerton stories needed less clever humor and more sleaze, the “Game of Thrones” approach of dehumanizing females as callously and violently as possible and calling it entertainment. Van Dusen’s men do not simply eye women “appreciatively” (ugh) or have mistresses before marriage. Instead, we watch them rutting anonymous females against trees in public parks, while checking their pocket watches (so original, Mr. Bond), engaging in threesomes with seemingly eager anonymous women at orgies (those women do not have lives or identities that matter), repeatedly painting anonymous nude female models (we actually started a drinking game for every time the show depicted bare female breasts), and speaking cruelly to sexual partners, mistresses, and family members. Van Dusen also makes the female characters less likable — far more selfish, catty, scheming, and shallow than they are in the books. Maybe that’s how he justifies abusing them.

Some shows depict good sex. Outlander does a great job portraying the sex between Claire and Frank, and between Claire and Jamie, as mutual and balanced, similar to the Outlander books. Five episodes into Bridgerton, I gave up, uninterested in trying to like these disgusting men enough to be somehow glad when they end up marrying these shallow women. I’m done watching Bridgerton, and I encourage anyone interested in Regency romance fun to read the novels instead (with the caveat that the novels are, as I said above, still sexist and problematic). I also recommend Courtney Milan, who is just as fun but more feminist and anti-racist; and Mary Balogh and Grace Burrows, who are not as humorous as Quinn but offer more emotional depth.

In stark contrast to the terrible, pornified sex in the Bridgerton TV series, which ignores foreplay in favor of lots of hard thrusting in different settings, consider this passage from a 1999 Julia Quinn book:

“James’s fingers trembled as he brought them reverently to the smooth skin of her temples… ‘I’ll be gentle,’ he whispered, barely recognizing his own voice. ‘I will never hurt you. Never.’

She trusted him. It was a powerful, soul-changing gift.

<descriptions of intimacy>

…He looked up at her face, needing to see her expression, needing to know that she loved his touch…

<descriptions of intimacy>

…His hand traveled farther along her leg, moving to the softer skin of her inner thigh. She stiffened, sensing that she was nearing the edge of something, traveling to some secret place from which there was no return.

James lifted his head to look at her. She had to blink several times before she could even focus on his beloved features, and then, a rakish smile adorning his lips, he asked, ‘More?’”

Most of the book develops the relationship of the characters. This short scene showcases the way their love, trust, and mutual respect flow through every word and touch, after 274 pages of gradually building attraction, affection, and sexual tension. This first intimate episode involves James pleasuring Elizabeth with his fingers. That’s it. He places no importance or necessity on his own orgasm. He is grateful that the woman he loves is willing to grant him the privilege of pleasuring her. The only other intimate scene appears much later, ten pages before the end of the book, when the characters make love in an equally tender, consensual way.

Sure, the books are problematic, with several kinds of benevolent sexism (such as overprotectiveness and idealized gender roles). But compared with most of what passes for media nowadays, what a relief to escape the degrading dehumanization of our porn-saturated culture, which encourages males to treat female bodies as “cum dumpsters.” Oh, have you not heard that disgustingly common term? Then you are blessedly sheltered from the epidemic of misogynist sexual violence in our world.

Men need to stop taking reasonably good female-authored stories and infecting them with the poison of porn culture. Men need to stop making shows in which female bodies are portrayed as commodities to be used and discarded by privileged males. Male directors need to stop trying to “fix” so-called “chick lit” and “chick flicks” to conform them to the norms and values of a violent male gaze. Men need to treat books written by females, for females as a gift, to help them learn and understand how they can help deconstruct sexism and misogyny in our world. (Note: I have a separate post in mind about the internalized misogyny of females in the entertainment industry. Porn culture has successfully groomed females into normalizing misogynist violence, such that female producers/writers are complicit in the violence against us all.)

People sometimes compare romance novels to pornography. Utter nonsense. Pornography has become primarily a tool for rapists and traffickers to sell videos of torture, incest, and child abuse. There certainly are some romance novels that include dehumanizing, degrading sex (and fifty shades of abuse). But most popular romance authors are popular because they do the opposite: they depict likable characters who grow and change in compelling ways, and whose sexual intimacy develops from their attraction to each other as whole beings: emotional, spiritual, intellectual, and physical. Their lovemaking often appears at the end of a long process of developing trust and affection. If people want to sneer at that pattern as formulaic, well, <shrug> ok, but why sneer at such a wholesome, healthy way to live? Why sneer at people who read sweet, feminist stories?

People sneer for the simple reason that anything written for and by females is inherently “uncool” in a misogynist culture such as ours. Heaven forbid anyone admit they like the wonderfully feminist movies Frozen, Frozen 2, Moana, or Star Wars 7-9. The song “The Next Right Thing” would be widely considered a work of genius had it been sung by and for men in some sort of male-centric movie about a male hero finding his courage in times of crippling grief and adversity. Instead, people seem eager to outdo each other in making sure everyone knows they don’t like “that sort of thing.” Romance novels. Disney movies with female heroes. Oh, the horror. If they can’t be made “edgy” by injecting violent misogyny, better never admit how good they are.

Frozen 2 is one of the best movies that has been made in my lifetime. Thank goodness Kathleen Kennedy seems to have Disney on a roll with these great ecofeminist films. So I am going to give all these hip, edgy, misogynist shows a miss, and look forward to more truly good quality content. Think I’ll grab a romance novel to read while I’m waiting. Recommend any?

Trelawney Grenfell-Muir teaches courses about Sex, Dating, Marriage, and Work in the Religion and Theological Studies Department at Merrimack College and about Cross Cultural Conflict in the Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, and Global Governance at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A Senior Discussant at the Religion and the Practices of Peace Initiative at Harvard University, she holds an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology with a concentration in Religion and Conflict, and a Ph.D. in Conflict Studies and Religion with the University Professors Program at Boston University. She currently writes articles, book chapters, and liturgical resources about feminist, nature-based Christianity.



Categories: Feminism, Fiction, Gender and Sexuality, General, misogyny, Women's Voices

Tags: , , ,

23 replies

  1. I haven’t watched it and after your review, won’t. I do wonder about Shondra Rhimes as executive producer whom you don’t mention. I did stop watching Scandal because it was too sleazy and too forgiving of violence.

    “The show’s popularity helps validate Netflix’s costly move to lure Rhimes away from her longtime home at Walt Disney Co. It committed more than $100 million to persuade Rhimes, the creator of “Scandal” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” to join the company. She serves as executive producer of “Bridgerton,” which is based on novels by Julia Quinn about the eponymous family’s efforts to navigate London high society. The show was created by longtime Rhimes collaborator Chris Van Dusen.”

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yeah, I always run out of room! I have a post in my head about the internalized misogyny of females in the entertainment industry, and that rant will definitely be written at some point.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for this post.

    I had a small hope after the disgrace of Harvey Weinstein that the integration of degrading pornography into drama would taper off.

    About two years ago I canceled my Netflix subscription because so much of what they offer integrates pornography as much as possible. I can see why that cooperation would want to make the huge profits porn brings, but it is a serious problem for our culture.

    Again, thank you for this essay & more power to you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Ali! I agree. And the sad thing is… people who are really into porn won’t care about these shows with their “soft porn”… they won’t entice the porn crowd. Instead, they’ll just keep grooming other viewers to normalize porn. They are helping the porn industry but not getting any help from it. They are grooming viewers to be very bad at sex, but not adding to their viewer base, IMO.

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  3. Thanks for writing so forcefully about what’s wrong with so many TV shows and some novels. I used to like Murphy Brown and Designing Women, but that was back in 90s. I quit watching most TV because it was, yes, offensive. And mostly boring. So I haven’t seen anything you mention. For which I’m glad. I spend my evenings after the PBS Newshour watching DVDs, mostly musical theater. No rutting, no pornography, very few bare breasts. (In fact, outside of Hair, I can’t think of any bare breasts in a Broadway musical, not even in Gypsy.)

    Although I have edited romance novels, I’ve never read one for “pleasure.” As an editor for 20 years, I’ve seen male authors insert sex scenes into otherwise interesting tales. I asked a friend why men did this, and he told me, “Because they can.” One book I edited turned into soft porn. It made me giggle.

    Down with misogynists TV shows and movies!!!

    Liked by 3 people

    • I never watched Scandal, either– I have a lot of trouble finding TV shows I like. I did like Downton Abbey, though. I had hoped Bridgerton was more like that. Maybe if he had directed it! Tallessyn reminds me that Courtney Milan is a very feminist author. If you ever decide to read one for your own reading pleasure, you might start there. I have mostly switched to the fantasy genre in recent years, but when I really need to relax, nothing works like a good romance! :)

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  4. Men continue to get away with this stuff because, as Barbara succinctly states one man told her – they can.
    I haven’t read a romance novel in at least 35 years and don’t plan to and I don’t have a television so I know nothing about anything. I do have Netflix but watch the same shows (none of them dramas – I not only have problems with the sex stuff but I can’t tolerate any form of violence) until they put me to sleep. I do listen to Public Radio that has wonderful stories every Sunday. In a culture that supports a crazy president and his misogynist/nature hating agenda never holding him accountable and then cries” shock” when he incites a violent riot at the capitol ANYTHING is possible.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Yeah, well said. I read romance novels 35 years ago, and… they were terrible. I am glad they have changed so much! I find them relaxing, which is always helpful in these insane times. I have moved more into the fantasy genre these days, but I am thinking of getting back into reading romance. I haven’t been able to read as much fiction post-Covid because my nerves get too agitated when I read anything violent. But I had no trouble zipping through the old Quinn novel I had on my shelf to refresh my memory about her writing for this post. Stories shape culture as well as express it… stories matter so much, don’t they.

      Liked by 4 people

  5. Thank you for this wonderful post. As you know, Courtney Milan is my favorite feminist novelist. I didn’t care about the GoT books, so their pornification didn’t feel so personal; I’m disappointed that Julia Quinn allowed this to happen. I wish she would read this post and CHANGE the future seasons, should they make more, to keep the diversity and beautiful costuming, but be more like the book (fun, funny, feminist) and less like GoT (violent, misogynistic, formulaic). I’m with you; not going to finish the show, and now I’m re-reading Milan to wash the taste of the show out of my mouth!

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    • Thanks for reminding me about Milan. I haven’t read as much of her work, but this seems like a great time to find a few more! I agree about how when it’s something you love, it feels more personal. And I agree, they did a great job with certain things… just not what mattered most.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I had not seen Bridgerton yet and now I will probably skip it. The misogynistic sex is why I stopped watching The Great pretty quickly; it is pretty gross all the way around.

    I’m curious about Bridgerton producer Shonda Rhimes and her take. Hasn’t she had enough success that she could make changes?

    Liked by 2 people

    • I will skip The Great, then, which I’d never heard of, but now I know to avoid it. I will look into Rhimes more for a follow up post about the internalized misogyny of females in the entertainment industry. Far as I can tell, there are outliers (such as Gina Davis) who are trying to fight this issue, but most women have become so groomed by porn culture that they just don’t know any better.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks for this insightful post. I’m always amazed that the popular media is so unable to see beyond their own attitudes about what is, as you say, “cool”, which rarely includes honest portrayals of women, especially by women. Like a lot of others who have commented, I stopped reading bestseller fiction or watching most commercial television or movies a long time ago. What is clear, if those who control what media is made and distributed would just look, is that works by and for women are profitable. In fact, women in the US control more wealth than men. The recent remake of Little Women, the Gilmore Girls, the Golden Girls, etc. show that work that is not exploitive of women is popular. All this is even more true for older women, who also control a lot of wealth but whose stories are neglected, just as older women are themselves in our society.

    Liked by 3 people

    • That’s a really great point you make about older women. I think my favorite part about Moana is the grandmother. I want more female elders with stories of their own. That is also what I loved most about the recent Star Wars movies 7-9. To me, the elder Leia was clearly the superstar of those movies, even though they took the narrative arc of her passing the torch to a young woman. Leia was the most powerful character by far, and the hero of everything, and that was exactly what I wanted from this amazing wise female elder.

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  8. Perhaps I’ll be the voice of dissent here. I just finished watching the last episodes of Bridgerton the other night. While I too, was horrified by the violence and sexism in Game of Thrones, I didn’t feel that the ‘bad’ sex (or the minimal violence) in Bridgerton was on the same level. I realize that I am inculcated into the same patriarchal and pornified culture that I am willing to overlook the ‘formulaic’ thrusting sex often seen in TV shows, but Bridgerton had its good qualities too.

    By the end of the series (I don’t know if there are more seasons), I saw how women, using their intelligence and especially their emotional intelligence, navigated a world in which they seemingly had little power, but in actuality could dramatically change the course of their own lives and the lives of those they love. I was very satisfied with the series and the ‘formulaic’ happy ending.

    I saw more kindness of women toward each other and their families while navigating difficult situations than I saw of the cattiness described above. For many ‘catty and scheming’ storylines or dialogue, there was often a counter-point that showed a kind and gentle response or resolution.

    There were also very tender moments in some of the sex scenes, and it was after a build-up of trust and honesty with each that they occurred, so was a good juxtaposition for the gratuitous thrusting seen in earlier episodes.

    I loved the series and will continue watching if there are more seasons. I loved the integration of people of color at all levels of society and how (even minimally) that was addressed. There was a lot to like, I think.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I agree that there is a lot to like, and I certainly never meant to imply that it is as bad as GoT – I have never watched even one episode of GoT because of what I had read about it. I watched almost 5 episodes of Bridgerton because there was a lot to like about it – some of the good parts of the books were included, and they *tried* to address racism, though their success about that attempt is getting mixed reviews (I think they did a much better job than Hamilton, at least). I guess different people have different levels of tolerance for misogyny of different kinds. My tolerance for misogyny is getting lower as I get older and become an increasingly worried parent in this scary world.

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  9. Because of your post, I checked on Julian Quinn novels in my library. I checked out FIRST COMES SCANDAL. Eager to read it and evaluate it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t remember much about that one, but I did read that series years ago. I’m curious to know what you think. As Tallessyn says, Courtney Milan is also very funny and is noticeably more feminist than Quinn, so you might check out one of her books for comparison as well. Enjoy!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Great rant!

    I do my best to avoid most pop culture that has to do with sex, finding sex scenes triggering.

    I have noticed though, how women present themselves, for business, in ways that seem very sexual to me. I wonder if I am just old or becoming a prude in my old age.

    Yesterday I watched a FB live video that a friend did for her new body care business. Her cleavage was front and center of the screen, and her dress had an open lacey slit down each sleeve. I really felt like I was supposed to be on a late-night date with her. I know this is not how she sees herself nor does she need to do this to sell bodycare to women, or men. She has great integrity. But this is how she presented herself.

    And I see head shots of female coaches with bare shoulders and boobage, and again I know they are not selling themselves for sex in any way. My conclusion is that our society has so brainwashed women into believing that we must present ourselves as a sexual feast for the male libido that we tkae it as normal to present ourselves this way.

    I know the feminist arguments about we should be able to show as much of our bodies as we want, any way we want. but in a sexualized rape-friendly culture I think it becomes dangerous, not a freedom.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for saying this. I agree with you 100%, very well said. I notice it with newscasters and meteorologists. The men are all in suits. The women are in skin tight dresses. Have you seen the documentary Miss Representation? It is EXCELLENT. It makes the point that when females are portrayed differently from males in this way, it becomes obvious that the female body is the product being sold. (Or one of the products being sold – a commodity.) I hate the double standards so much. Why aren’t the men in skin tight, skimpy outfits? Because they are there selling their expertise, their professional value. Females are expected to sell both their expertise and their commodified bodies to please the male gaze. It is very violent.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Hi Trelawney, I always learn something and have gain something to muse on from your posts. I haven’t seen any of the shows referenced nor read any of the books (I did read Outlander a very long time ago – or at least so it feels) so I can’t comment specifically except to say UGH! How much does popular entertainment reflect and show us what our country’s and our world’s values are. more UGH!

    You had mentioned Frozen 2 before and it is on my “to watch” list but I don’t have the services that play it so I haven’t been able to see it yet. I will add the authors you mention to my reading list: Courtney Milan, Balogh and Grace Burrows. Thanks.

    Like

  12. Thank you so much for masterfully articulating exactly what I was picking up on [after watching the first episode].
    I will not be continuing, especially after reading your words (I don’t want to take in/advance any more of that toxicity).
    I too will continue to put my mind and heart in the earth-based empowering narratives like Moana and Frozen 2.
    I look forwarding to reading more of your work.
    Thank you, sister <3

    Like

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