I have been writing various versions of this post about romances and race for a while now. Probably since 2018. It started out as a sort-of review of The Power of One… there were also some additional thoughts that arose out of my review of Palm Trees in the Snow – which is, like the Power of One and Bridgerton, also a book-to-film adaptation. Then, the first season of Bridgerton was released at the end of 2019. I noticed that the things I wanted to say about the utilisations of cinematic portrayals of romance in both adaptations from book to film, were also being borne out in the adaptation of the Bridgerton novels… and even more so, as the adaptation adopted a counterfactual historical lens to depict a somewhat raceless picture of the past. However, so as not to conflate my gripes with adaptation with my gripes about race, representation and alternative histories, I have decided to focus in this particular post on the latter and consign the former to a different post. As always, watch this space for the other post… coming soon. Touch wood.
First off, I think it is important to state quite clearly and emphatically, that this post is not a critique of romance movies or books. I am a massive fan – of both the genre and of Bridgerton. Romance is about the only genre of artistic expression, where, to a large extent, the women characters are relatively safe, especially by the end of the story. In other words, the predictability of the genre and its strict reliance on the Happily Ever After trope means that we are unlikely to within them suddenly happen upon a rape, sexual assault, or decapitation scene. Sometimes this escape from the horrible reality of our patriarchal world is necessary and welcome.
Nevertheless, using Bridgerton as my lens at the nexus of race, romance and history, in this post, I would like to remark on how meanings are made of the dislocations and interconnections of the here and there, the now and then, and how both of these are then fed into the feelings that are ignited, especially when the genre is used to make a commentary on racial injustice and the possibilities beyond.
*Please note: This post contains a few pivotal spoilers from Bridgerton and The Power of One*
A Spivakian Critique of Netflix’s Bridgertonian Representation
The main plot device of the televisual adaptation of the Bridgerton series is its representative and racially diverse cast. This has been hailed by some as a huge win for representation. Nevertheless, despite this hailing, from viewing the series it is not entirely clear exactly what its diverse representation is meant to signal. Is it colour blind casting? That does not seem to be the case, as the series clearly acknowledges that the characters belong to different races who used to be divided and hierarchised dependent on the whims of societal power. This conversation from Season 1, Episode 4 illustrates that point:
Lady Danbury: We were two separate societies, divided by colour, until a king fell in love with one of us. Love, Your Grace… conquers all.
Simon, Duke of Hastings: I believe that remains to be seen. The king may have chosen his queen. He may have elevated us from novelties in their eyes to now dukes and royalty, and at that same whim… he may just as easily change his mind…
Alternatively, does Bridgerton’s representation signal a move that is anticolonial and/or antiracist? Clearly not, because the central conceit maintains the hierarchies of our present that were brought about by our colonial past – a point which I shall expand upon in the next section. So, somehow in the Bridgerton present, race exists and does not exist. Interracial marriages abound and are nothing out of the ordinary. The horrendous Sheffields [Kathani’s step-grandparents] in season 2 are an example. Yet the royal marriage seems to have healed a racial divide? What caused this divide? Was it something that erupted entirely of its own accord, out of nowhere and was happened up suddenly during a noon-time promenade? Easily snuffed out by a well-placed romance? Surely not, dear reader.
So what does representation signal in Bridgerton then? The best way to describe the representation attempted by Bridgerton is one that is un-colonial and non-racial. Which is in itself a contradiction, as the very existence of categorisation by race is the antithesis of these things. Thus, Bridgerton attempts to have its colonial cake and eat it while being a symbol of representation. On the one hand, I am so happy that non-white actors get parts in these types of programmes. [Ke Huy Quan who played Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was forced to take a 20 year break from a profession that he loved due to the absence of parts for Asian actors.] I am also delighted that people get to see characters who look like them in these sorts of romances. Not only in stories about crime, terrorism, racial injustice and similar trauma. But on the other hand, we must not forget the limits of representation… especially when the structure of power through which narratives about the world are produced remains undisturbed.
In “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Spivak invites us to the core of this very question. Who is representing who? What are they representing? And most importantly, in this self-congratulatory celebration of representation, whose voice “is doubly in shadow”? In this essay, Spivak uses an intellectual conversation between Deleuze and Foucault, to explain how, inter alia, attempts at representation will, without more, not give voice to the subaltern. The subaltern of Subaltern Studies is one placed at the very nadir of a social-political structure. Spivak’s essay unravels the ways in which law, education, colonisation and the global division of labour, operate to create and silence the subaltern. She then asks us to avoid equivocation in our attempt to give voice to the subaltern – distinguishing between “vertreten” representation and “darstellen” re-presentation. The first can be a politically “speaking for”, while the latter can be found in the ways in which we portray or depict the subaltern. But how can we do either, when we do not and cannot know the subaltern’s interests or desires, through our structures for knowing interests and desires? How can we speak for or portray what we do not and cannot know? What world and what humanity are we then representing and re-presenting? Where does the power lie in deciding who gets to speak for whom and which stories get told? Thus, we can only get limited glimpses into the long back-histories of Hastings [Season 1] and the Sharmas [Season 2]. Therefore, because the subaltern cannot speak through our vaunted structures for representation, Spivak asks us to stop futilely attempting to speak for the subaltern and to re-present/transform ourselves and our structures for producing narratives about reality.
Applying this framework to Bridgerton, I suggest that its attempt to represent and re-present does not call into question the structures through which this is happening. And maybe it cannot. Nevertheless, its representation can only go so far before being distorted through the structures that make representation necessary. There are still subalterns within that world. Who knows, we may yet see a dark-skinned Black woman being the main character. How, furthermore, is the opulence in this fictional past accounted for? On whose back does the accumulation of wealth happen? Whose labour makes all of this possible? Thus Spivak’s question remains unanswered: “On the other side of the international division of labor from socialized capital, inside and outside the circuit of the epistemic violence of imperialist law and education supplementing an earlier economic text, can the subaltern speak?”
In the context of Bridgertonian representation, the answer continues to be in the negative, despite the beauty of the romance that draws us in. On the other side of it, the subaltern remains in shadow. Representation only scratches the surface.
The Allure and Failure of Counterfactual Histories of Race
One of the reasons that representation in Bridgerton (and I would argue almost any cinematic story-telling medium), can only go so far is its inability to properly sink its teeth into the narrative devices that it uses, or more importantly, to subvert them. Firstly, by presupposing that racial categories are naturally occurring, the Bridgerton present seems to be brought about by a racial past in which the “races” were equal but divided. Which is not what race is or does. Any attempts at racial representation that do not begin with the premise that “race” (as we know and experience it) is produced through the capitalist-colonial-enslavement project as an evolving regime of domination, will fail in its onward application.
Secondly, and particularly in the case of Bridgerton, the counterfactual history fails because its premises are either missing or distorted. Counterfactual histories are, “alternative versions of the past in which one alteration in the timeline leads to a different outcome from the one we know actually occurred.” (Evans 2013: xv). This is the device used by the Marvel series “What If?” to create parallel alternative timeline-stories within that universe. In the case of Bridgerton, the alteration in the timeline seems to be the existence of racism. What if there was no racism? The Bridgerton present, nevertheless, preserves races without racism, and colonial wealth without colonisation.
Counterfactual histories are often used in stories of racial and other social [in]justice. In those instances, they sometimes invite the dominant group to step into the shoes of the oppressed group. For example: What if women ruled the world? What if the Earth had not been placed in ecological danger? What if there was no disease or hunger or war? Thus, counterfactuals invite us to consider alternative possibilities to perditions we currently face. They are a means by which we can strive to change what we have now, through visions of possible futurity. But counterfactuals fail as reconstructive imagination for present action, when they have “no grounding” then they are “merely an act of imagination, and unconstrained imagination at that.” (Bunzl 2004: 845). Thus, the non-racial and un-colonial world of Bridgerton, which does not account for the colonial origins of regency opulence, rather than inviting us to work towards the possible, presents to us a complete fantasy world, so near to our own, but completely out of reach. The romance of it the closest thing to our reality.
Bridgerton and the Power of One: Adaptation and decay and why romance is not our way out of hell
And yet I say that romance is not our way out of this hellish earth. These limitations of cinematic/televisual representation of romance in stories of race are also illustrated in The Power of One – also a book-to-film adaptation. Both the book and the film tell the story of Peekay, a white South African boxer growing up in the early days of institutionalised apartheid, who finds closer affinity with the indigenous Black population than with the policies of the minority white government. In the book, the Power of One signifies the importance of doing one thing… taking one step. In other words – perseverance. The film departs from the book in a number of major ways. [I will detail them at length in an upcoming post]. In a nutshell, the film puts Peekay in the driver’s seat of a movement in which he is only tangentially involved – erasing the agency of the indigenous movements. It also removes and dilutes most of his personal journey, and thus the main message of the book – which is essentially that becoming a good athlete requires focus. But most importantly, and most relevant to this essay, is that the film introduces the character of Maria [a politician’s daughter] and Peekay’s ensuing angsty romance with her. This includes her climatic and traumatic death and funeral scene, which is as unforgettable as it is heart-wrenching.
So why was a romance introduced into a story about racial justice? And why was the racial justice aspect of the original source material made the main focus of the movie? While I do not claim to know the mind of the movie makers, the timing of the movie indicates a couple of things. One, this was the time of anti-apartheid movies. Furthermore, romance is a way to get people into cinemas and drawn into the story. We all want to be loved is the popular refrain. However, I want us to reflect on how we often take isolated individual stories of love and romance as signals of great societal change. Interracial romance or love in racist environments are not wins for racial justice. In many cases, they exemplify the very exploitation upon which structural racial injustice depends. [Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings is the common example. I also talk about this in my review of Palm Trees.] In their most positive instance, stories of interracial love are no more than what they are – two people finding comfort in each other for howsoever long their love may last. That is a big thing to the people involved. When we watch these stories, we can imagine this for ourselves too, love in the midst of chaos. But that is it. Romance is not our way out of this hell.
Televisual/cinematic adaptations of fictional and non-fictional romance play around with race and romance in different ways. I have compared two ways in this post. The Power of One is a story about racial justice whose screen adaptation has a romance interposed within it; Bridgerton is a romance whose television adaption has pretensions of racial justice interposed within in. They both inadvertently try to sell us a straightforward happy ending to the hell of racial injustice which we have created. But the truth is, there are no real happy endings to racism in the racial, carceral, and necropolitical state. Yet, Hollywood-ification in storytelling always tries to sidestep this fact. While we may use these stories to mentally and emotionally escape for a short while, in the end, romance is physically not our way out of this particular hell.
Spivak, Chakravorty Gayatri, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (eds). Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. 271-313. University of Illinois Press, 1988.