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'Bridgerton' is the latest example of TV retelling history
01:48 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Kate Maltby is a broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom on issues of culture and politics, and a theater critic for The Guardian newspaper. She is also completing a doctorate in Renaissance literature. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

“Bridgerton,” the first TV series made by Shondaland for Netflix, hit both Britain and the USA on December 25, 2020. A period drama set in London of 1813, the show is based on bestselling American novels, and offers a vision of Britain as only Americans could see it. Yet Brits, as enthusiastically as American viewers, have lapped up this soapy fantasy.

Kate Maltby

The show was lucky with its launch date. By late December, America was reeling from post-election crisis to pre-inauguration crisis, its citizens desperate for escapism. But on Christmas Day itself, Brits were in particular need of the magic “Bridgerton “offers. Five days earlier, Prime Minister Boris Johnson had abruptly canceled the nation’s promised Christmas relaxation of quarantine regulations. Young people living in London were disproportionately affected, prevented by overnight changes in quarantine zoning from traveling to their families outside the city. So instead of turkey and charades, Britain’s millennials kicked back with Netflix.

“Bridgerton” offers viewers eight hours of candy-colored entertainment. (For some Brits of my acquaintance, that eight hours constituted their sole Christmas Day activity.) The story of Daphne, a beautiful debutante in Regency London, this is milquetoast Jane Austen fan fiction. There is some weeping and wailing about the possibility of spinsterhood or scandal, but nothing disquieting happens for long to anyone we care about. The chief crisis of our heroine’s life involves her having to choose between a Prince and a Duke.

Phoebe Dynevor as Daphne and Regé-Jean Page as Simon Bassett in 'Bridgerton'

Like the heroine of a fairy tale, Daphne is introduced from the opener as the fairest in the land, singled out by the Queen “of 200 young ladies” as the winner of the debutante beauty pageant, and declared “the incomparable” by the anonymous gossip columnist Lady Whistledown. She will face challenges – both these fairy tale deities will temporarily withdraw their favor – but we know that beauty and charm will always win.

Across the street we meet an evil stepmother, Lady Featherington, who primps up her two charmless elder daughters in lurid feathers and belittles her intellectual youngest, Penelope. We know, as surely as we know that only Cinderella’s foot will fit the glass slipper, that these ugly sisters will end the season unmarried.

At times of economic pain, big media sells us fairy tales. The 1937 Disney film “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” released to wild success during one of the worst years of the Great Depression, is regularly cited as an example of this phenomenon. When the theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer coined the term “culture industry”, they were writing about the ways that big corporates shape our imagination: the Walt Disney Company sold the song “Some Day My Prince Will Come” to millions of young working class women struggling for a better life.

Adjoa Andoh as Lady Danbury in 'Bridgerton.'

For women in 1937, that better life meant marriage and a male breadwinner. Like “Snow White,” “Bridgerton” finds British and American viewers at our most despairing. Like “Snow White,” it peddles dreams to a target audience of working class women. Some of the cast and crew of “Bridgerton” have tried to claim progressive credentials for their show. Certainly, its racially diverse casting is to be applauded: a major step toward black British actors finally getting a chance to play the great period drama roles they deserve. (Adjoa Andoh, for example, was born to play a Regency Grande Dame). But the happy-ever-after “Bridgerton” sells to its female viewers still consists of marriage and men. This is “Snow White” with added orgasms; social conservatism dressed up in progressive breeches.

Why audiences can’t get enough of the land of Austen

As for breeches and orgasms, why does the Regency world carry such appeal as a period backdrop? There is something culturally specific about this era which is deeply ingrained in contemporary female fantasy. The “Bridgerton” TV series is based on Julia Quinn’s bestselling romance novels of the same name. The eight stories which follow Daphne and her siblings form only a part of the expansive Quinn universe. Her devoted fanbase has produced a rich and varied archive of its own fan fiction, much of it more nuanced and perspicacious than the frothy show you’ll find on Netflix.