Regency-era bodice ripper-turned-Netflix sensation “Bridgerton” brings sex and drama into the stuffy and proper world we know from the novels of Jane Austen.
It’s hardly presumptuous to assume that Miss Austen would be absolutely scandalized by the Shondaland rendition of her era. While some of the vestiges of true Regency era decorum are observed, the characters get up to a lot more mischief (and raunchiness) than would have likely happened in real 19th century England.
But one scandalous truth remains the same as much today as it was then: the bad boy gets around. In season one, we were asked to fall madly in love with the Duke of Hastings (played by the dashing Regé-Jean Page), a self-proclaimed “rake” who has sworn off marriage but not the bedding of respectable ladies. It is, however, when he enters into a scheme with the lovely but naive Daphne Bridgerton that he finds all his plans upended.
The Duke of Hastings and Daphne Bridgerton
In season two, we follow Daphne’s elder brother Anthony in his quest for the perfect young girl to fill the role of his viscountess. Like the Duke, Anthony is a serial womanizer who’s had several sordid affairs, including a recent, rather messy one with a talented opera singer. He also enjoys frequenting the local brothels.
Both men find their wilder ways tamed upon meeting their future wives. The Duke renounces his bachelor days for marriage with Daphne, and Anthony finds himself drawn away from the “safe” choice of Edwina Sharma and instead toward her tempestuous older sister Kate. Spoiler alert, they too end up married by the end of season two.
Anthony Bridgerton and Kate Sharma
Fans have been captivated by the show’s brilliantly colored costumes, the illustrious balls, and the explosive chemistry between the lead couples. And while one must admit that Bridgerton has been very successful at bringing a certain feistiness to a notoriously stuffy period, they’ve fallen into a troubling pattern with their leading love stories.
The Bad Boy and the Sheltered Princess
“Titled, chaste, and innocent.” This is how professional gossip Lady Whistledown describes our heroine Daphne Bridgerton as she enters her first social season in search of a husband. Daphne, like the other young women of the ton, has no idea that sex exists, let alone how it works. This is a trait that is highly valued in their marriage market, for women at least.
It seems that the standards for men are drastically different. Daphne’s older brother Anthony is not thrilled when the Duke begins to court his sister, because he knows exactly what the Duke gets up to in his free time. Hint: it involves a lot of brothels. Anthony himself enjoys the company of several mistresses, including a drawn-out affair with an opera singer whom he later dumps in the name of duty to his family.
Anthony with his mistress, the opera singer.
So, in Anthony’s eyes, the Duke is an unsuitable match for his sister because of his sexual exploits with loose women. Yet when Anthony is out to find his own bride, he believes he deserves nothing but the best as his future wife: “If my children are to be of good stock, then their mother must be of impeccable quality. A pleasing face, an acceptable wit, genteel manners enough to credit a viscountess.” Sounds like a recipe for true love.
It’s true that throughout history men have been allowed much greater degrees of sexual indiscretion than women ever have. After all, it’s only if the woman cheats that the parentage of her children can be called into question. But the use and abuse of low-class women to satisfy the sexual urges of upper-class men, without any guarantee of marriage or financial support should their affair end with an illegitimate child, should be problematic to everyone.
When one Miss Thompson becomes pregnant out of wedlock, the show attempts to blame the patriarchal society, and not the man who used her and then abandoned her to disgrace. To be sure, Regency society was incredibly harsh against unwed mothers. But there were strict rules in place to protect young women from this dreadful fate, and yet many upper-class gentlemen were happy to take advantage of less powerful women in order to satisfy their own urges.
The show attempts to present Anthony's and the Duke’s sexual indiscretions as part of their “bad boy” allure – they’re tortured, trapped either by familial duty or, in the Duke’s case, a rather justified set of commitment issues. But there is no accountability for their behavior towards these women. In one episode, we see Anthony spending night after night with a parade of prostitutes as an escape from his duties as viscount. But no one seems to stop and ask, what happens to those women afterward?
Instead, we’re asked to forget those distractions in order to focus on their real love stories, the ones with the respectable, chaste heroines who have saved themselves for marriage. In fact, we’re even asked to be concerned about how the men’s behavior towards both Kate and Daphne may compromise their reputations. Too bad that concern was not extended to any of their earlier sexual exploitees.
We Fetishize Sexual Experience in Men While Fetishizing Chastity in Women
We’re not only asked to forget these men’s degenerate ways, but even to find them sexy. The show seems to enjoy the tired trope of the experienced man showing an inexperienced (or, in this case, virginal) woman the ways of love. Fifty Shades of Grey, anyone?
“Do you even know the ways a lady can be seduced? The things I could teach you..." whispers Anthony to Kate, as he tries to warn her it’s best for them to stay away from each other. A sexy line, to be sure, but one has to wonder, is going out and working your way through every woman in the brothel the only way to seduce the woman you plan on marrying?
The Duke seems to think so. He confidently tells Daphne that “If I were truly courting you, I would not need flowers, only five minutes alone with you in a drawing room.” Remember, these lines only work on women who are naive and chaste, not worldly and experienced. And yet we’re supposed to find these exchanges steamy and romantic.
A true gentleman treats every woman with the respect he will afford his future wife.
This is not an argument that we want to see women working their way through an equal number of men on their way to finding love. Instead, we should be asking why the only men we’re allowed to find attractive are the ones who have had the worst behavior. Why should these men, who have used and thrown out dozens of women in their time, be rewarded with women who are virtuous?
Do Daphne and Kate not deserve better than men who only came to realize the error of their womanizing ways when they met their future wives? Anthony clearly knows that his own behavior is unacceptable for a husband, which is why he’s so harsh with the men Daphne is allowed to court. Yet it doesn’t stop him from continuing that behavior until he decides he’s fallen in love with Kate.
When is the last time you can remember a male character who is celebrated for his restraint? No, what makes a man dashing, apparently, is his penchant for preying upon powerless women. For all the show’s assertions that its leading men are gentlemen, their behavior leaves a lot to be desired. A true gentleman treats every woman with the respect he will afford his future wife.
We don’t need to marry men who have slept with dozens of women in order to have good sex with them. Virtuous women deserve better than the reformed bad boy, no matter how sexy romance novels may make it look.
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