TWSS’s Senior Editor, Kim, reports on the second season of Bridgerton and the significance of the representation of Indian culture and the lives of the Sharma family on screen.
Bridgerton’s first season took the UK (and middle-aged women everywhere) by storm with its raunchy romance set in a seemingly post-racial Georgian England. The Queen of England is a Black woman with hair as extravagant as the balls she throws, and scandals of ‘the Ton’ are circulated by the anonymous writings of Lady Whistledown, akin to a nineteenth-century Gossip Girl. Despite the tall order, season 2 of Bridgerton did not disappoint. In fact, I’d say it outdid the first and has set the bar high for period pieces to come.
This season introduces a new family, the Sharmas, from India. Kate and Edwina Sharma, along with their mother Lady Mary, journey to London in the hopes of securing Edwina a match. Viscount Anthony Bridgerton, the eldest son of the Bridgerton family, is determined to marry and upon his search for the next Viscountess, finds himself in pursuit of Edwina, while trying to stifle his burgeoning feelings for her older sister, Kate, who decides early on that she loathes Bridgerton. After more than a few lingering stares underpinned by serious sexual tension, an incident with a bee, a husband-to-be left at the altar, and a head injury, Kate and Anthony finally surrender to their feelings. A classic ‘enemies to lovers’ trope… What’s not to love?
It’s not the frustrating denial and eventual acceptance of Kate and Anthony’s feelings that gives this season its strength in plot and character development – it’s the depiction of the utter desirability of a dark-skinned Indian woman, something even Bollywood is yet to accomplish. Edwina Sharma is proclaimed the season’s diamond by the Queen; she is the epitome of every eligible bachelor’s desire in ‘the Ton’. It was so refreshing to see that the beauty of Edwina and Kate was never called into question at any point; there were no stinging remarks about their darker complexions which may be expected in Indian families, television, and film.
As well as this, Bridgerton’s second season celebrates and incorporates beautiful and ordinary aspects of Indian culture. Edwina refers to her sister as ‘Didi’, a Hindi term for older sister; Kate is seen to be making and pouring her own chai after expressing a distaste for English tea; the Sharmas perform Edwina’s haldi ceremony the night before her wedding; and my personal favourite, the string quartet version of Khabi Khushie Khabie Gham, the theme song to one of the most iconic Bollywood films. The portrayal of Indian culture is in many ways nonsensical: Kate calls her younger sister, ‘Bon’, a Bengali term of endearment even though the family speaks Marathi and Hindustani. But the amalgamation of various Indian cultural practices allows for a fantastical escapism for brown audiences to enjoy, seeing glimmers of their own culture peppered throughout the series. Even just the portrayal of Kate as a headstrong woman with the pressure of her family’s happiness and fortune on her shoulders serves as a nod of respect to one of the great pillars of every Indian family – the eldest sister.
To see these little everyday practices of our culture portrayed in this way is nothing short of wholesome and makes me wonder why it has taken so long. This week was the 20th anniversary of Bend It Like Beckham, pretty much every Indian girl’s first glimpse into seeing ourselves in British film, even if we didn’t play football. But in twenty years not much has changed; that’s why this season of Bridgerton feels like a breakthrough. The drops of Indian culture embedded within the outfits, from the jewellery to the design of the Sharmas’ dresses, show that we’ve come a long way from the outfits of Parvati and Padma Patil at the Yule Ball in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (every Indian girl’s fashion nightmare).
Despite these cultural additions, the show still very much takes a colour-blind stance in its depiction of Georgian England. The first season of Bridgerton portrayed a seemingly post-racial London high society, with only one reference to race: that King George’s marriage to a Black woman, Queen Charlotte, was a turning point for people of colour to be accepted in upper-class circles.
The glaring controversy is obvious though. Should we depict Georgian Britain without the scars of slavery, imperialism, and the scientific racism that was used to justify both practices? I can see why this is problematic and might foster ignorance. But from the point of view of someone who enjoys period dramas and has only ever seen white women be the objects of affection and have their chance to run around in big dresses at balls and through fields against the backdrop of a timeless love story, it’s nice to see a brown woman take this place – and a dark-skinned brown woman at that.
Bridgerton doesn’t play by the historically accurate rulebook. String quartet versions of thank u, next and Wildest Dreams can attest to that. At the end of the day, it’s a rom-com in period dress. Period pieces, especially now, are forms of escapism. They don’t always and don’t need to commit to historical accuracy, because really what we want to see is romance, fashionable eye-candy, and glamour. Even so, this colourful depiction of English high society isn’t far from inaccurate. Albeit a minority few and usually under the patronage of the royal family, noble people of colour did exist in upper class English society during the nineteenth century, such as the many colonial godchildren of Queen Victoria. But that’s another article in itself.
The representation of people of colour in period films and television doesn’t always have to be heavy, showcasing the realities of colonialism, slavery, and racism. These stories do matter, of course, and should not be overshadowed, but it isn’t the role of a swoony rom-com based in the nineteenth century to address such topics. Bridgerton is about escapism and romance; it isn’t responsible for addressing the blemished history of nineteenth century Britain.
Ultimately, we should all be able to enjoy the show and get the opportunity to see ourselves represented as the object of a Viscount’s desire. But representation is about more than just colour, it’s about culture too. Bridgerton very easily could have plonked two Indian characters at the centre of its second season and not incorporated any Indian culture, taking a colour and culture-blind approach. This sort of representation, I’d argue, counts for little more than tokenism. Bridgerton went further and showed us what real representation looks like. Its portrayal of Kate and Edwina as the object of Viscount Birdgerton’s desires and the diamond of the season, respectively, feels like a breath of fresh air, a moment where South Asian girls in Britain could think to themselves, ‘finally, our time has come’.
I hope this sets a precedent for more period pieces to come. There are ways to include people of colour and their cultures into these films and shows without typecasting them as down-trodden characters, poor and victimised, or disregarding the intricacies of culture. The creators of Bridgerton made the active decision to have two Indian characters at the front and centre of this season’s main plot, and they made the effort to embrace and celebrate their Indianness. They’ve shown that it is possible to pursue a colour-blind agenda, to make modern audiences feel seen, while celebrating cultural differences.