Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that there are only six types of romantic stories to be told, and when readers open a romance novel, they want to find one or a combination of these six. They are: Enemies to Lovers, Childhood Friends (sometimes called Friends to Lovers), Slow Burn, Trapped in the Same Space, Forbidden Love, and Fake Relationship. If the plot of the story doesn’t revolve around one (or more) of these tropes, chances are the story isn’t a romance. And don’t forget, the story must also end with a Happily Ever After! These are the understood parameters of the genre. More or less. This is art, so there’s always room to wiggle. But when an audience comes to a book or show or movie—let’s just say, when they come to a romantic narrative—they are doing so because they expect certain things. Romance is one of the most dependable and predictable storytelling genres because of these tropes, and it delivers dopamine hits to its (primarily female) audience in a way that keeps them coming back for more.
This is why I think it’s so important for romances to be about far more than just the tropes. The tropes are useful for bringing people back again and again; they are the comfortable framework for audiences to sink into. There’s no chance-taking in cracking open a romance—in other words, the audience has their guard down and is receptive to whatever the story wants to tell them. So the writer of a romance has a great opportunity to put before their audiences all sorts of topics for consideration. To tell a shallow story, or to tell a great one. Or to merely ask us to think.With Bridgerton, viewers show up for an uncharacteristically steamy Regency romance that delivers on the tropes but also delivers a thoughtful exploration of female agency in male-dominated Regency England.
I have long held a soft spot for Regency romance, but I will clarify that I am far from being an expert in the subgenre. Romance is not my go-to, and nearly all my exposure to Regency has come from reading (and watching) Jane Austen, whose stories are so filled with witty societal commentary that I sometimes find it difficult to think of them as romances at all. But with the centering of the romantic conflict driving the plots and the existence of the tropes, Austen’s work falls solidly within the romance genre. Her work is Regency because it is a type of romance set in the Regency era in England—the height of Georgian architecture, sculptured gardens, and the last gasp of a chivalric past where gentlemen and ladies were expected to act certain ways to avoid dooming their reputations (and families and marriage prospects) forever. It was an era of distinctive injustice between people groups and imbalance between the sexes where a single misstep could ruin a person—particularly if that person was female.
What makes Regency so appealing as a romance genre is just this imbalance and the natural tensions it creates. Set in an era where unmarried men and women were not allowed to be alone in the same room together without causing a scandal—let alone kiss—every look, gesture, word, or brush of the hand feels like a taut bowstring of suppressed desire. The mere era in which these stories are set can turn a hand-flex (thank you, Pride and Prejudice!) into a steamier scene than a bodice-ripping roll in the hay.
But some Regency-set stories say, “Why not have both?” Enter the Netflix original show Bridgerton, which had massive success on the streaming giant when it debuted in December of 2020. The series was so big, Netflix reported in January that it had streamed to 82 million households within the first 28 days to become their most successful original show ever. With Bridgerton, viewers show up for an uncharacteristically steamy Regency romance that delivers on the tropes but also delivers a thoughtful exploration of female agency in male-dominated Regency England.
Part of the success of Bridgerton with viewers is that it contains not just the tension of the Regency set-up, but plenty of bodice ripping as well, which apparently many of the romance fans wanted to see. It’s a very great quantity of bodice ripping, in fact. It earns its TV-MA rating, so if you’re considering Bridgerton as a fun watch with your YA-romance-loving teenage girls, maybe skip on over for a rewatch of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, instead. Bridgerton is not for the kids, but it does know its audience, and it has plenty to say to them—whether married or single—about the challenges specific to being female in a male-dominated world. For viewers looking for the specific escapism that only romance stories provide, Bridgerton does provide that, and it does so in spades.
Romance, at its core, always offers its audience a fantasy. And Bridgerton is overt in doing so. Set in a fantastical Regency era that imagines an England where “love (has) conquered all”—healing all racial divides—the show is a beautiful tapestry of people of all races holding all ranks of nobility. Music played at balls often is a Regency-imagined version of a modern pop song, and the outfits characters wear throughout frequently have modern embellishments. In other words, there are aspects of the story we are not meant to take as historical truth—and in doing so, the writers cast other aspects of the Regency era into sharper relief. Most notably, what sort of agency women held at a time when nearly every aspect of their lives was ordered and determined by men.
An adaptation of The Duke and I, book 1 in Julia Quinn’s best-selling Bridgerton series, it tells the story of Daphne Bridgerton and Duke Simon of Hastings as they scheme together to survive—and thrive, according to their own machinations—during the social “season” in London. The two protagonists fake courtship to take the marriage-averse Simon off the market and to make Daphne more desirable to all the eligible suitors in London, but in classic enemies-to-lovers fashion, they end up falling in love. Simon, however, is a product of a terribly abusive father, and as a way of ending his father’s line, he took a vow never to wed or have children. Thus he breaks off the fake courtship with Daphne and breaks her heart in the process. He intends to leave London for good, but a moment of unchaperoned passion with Daphne means he must marry her, or she will be ruined forever.
Their resultant marriage sets up a further examination of female agency within the power structures in marriage—where a girl becomes a wife and head of her own household, but remains subject to her husband’s rule of her own self. When a woman’s only agency is bound to her performance of a particular role—in the case of Regency England, that of wife and mother—what happens within a marriage when aspects of that role are denied to her (even where love exists between husband and wife)? Simon and Daphne’s marital struggles have dire consequences that showcase the injustices of their uneven world. Love alone doesn’t, actually, conquer all.
Bridgerton could have rewritten this aspect of Regency England, too. It was already a fantasy—it had already dissolved racial tensions and brought in modern elements and otherwise painted a fantastical portrait of the era. But by maintaining a more truthful male/female status quo, Bridgerton asks the viewer to consider imbalances that existed not just back then but that persist to this day. What options are left to women, even rich and powerful women, when they are viewed as nothing more than objects of sexual desire and the fulfillment of male longing? When their agency is defined by a role they must fill?
Because although we live in an era where women enjoy equal legal status with men, disparities between the sexes still exist—sometimes disparities that are baffling in their scope. I couldn’t help thinking of the troubles of world-renown pop star Britney Spears as I was writing this. She is currently embroiled in a legal battle to reclaim control of her life and fortune, as she’s been stuck in a conservatorship that is controlled by her father since 2008. Her court testimony is shocking and saddening. How could it be that in our current world, a 39-year-old woman like Britney Spears could have so little agency over her own life that she can’t even go for a car ride with her boyfriend? That she can’t decide to have another child? That she’s forced to perform or be sued? As many people have pointed out, a male pop star would not have ended up in the same situation.
How do women cope in unbalanced worlds? Regency romance often examines this question, and in such a way that we can take away our thoughts for later to turn them over and apply them to whatever our particular situations may be. There’s a reason people still read the great romantic works of Jane Austen, and it’s not because of the tropes. (Although we cannot deny the power of those tropes in getting people interested in her work, and in bringing them back again and again.) The enemies-to-lovers romance of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet makes for an engaging and fun story, but the trope that invites people in acts as a gateway to consider Austen’s commentary on high society in Georgian England. If there was nothing but fluff to Jane Austen, people would have forgotten about her long ago.
I’m not suggesting that Bridgerton is akin to a Great Work like Pride and Prejudice, but the popularity of the show piqued my curiosity enough for me to watch it and find that the reason people flocked to the program had less to do with the lack of clothing in some of the scenes, and more to do with the poignancy and depth with which it treats its themes and honors its primary audience. A story should always honor its audience, and Bridgerton pays good care to lovers of romantic stories while also inviting a deeper understanding of a struggle common to women. A well-written story knows what it is and then acts as a gateway to a bigger conversation, and that is what Bridgerton does.