I once took a college course on British Romantic literature, which is a class offered at liberal arts schools so that men can meet women with family money.
Bridgerton, as we know, takes place during the Regency period (1795 to 1837??) with little concern for historical accuracy. As I watched the show, however, I was struck by how easily our current streaming economy slots us into the role of the early novel reader. Let me explain.
The second half of the 18th century was dominated by the sentimental novel, in which characters succeeded based on command of their own emotions, often in romance. Much of their success depended on their acuity in navigating a social hierarchy, particularly with the sub-genre of the “conduct novel” which took etiquette and gave it a plot.
*Taylor Swift violin instrumental intensifies*
Then, Jane Austen came along and said Get in bitch, we’re doing literary realism now. Her girls got their man, but ironically. She aligned the novel of manners with the comedy of manners (a 17th century thing) and lampooned social class as much as she forced her characters to grapple with it.
The thing that sentimental novels and mannered comedies have in common with the streaming economy is that they are narratives designed to elicit social debate. The chatter around television has created a meta comedy of manners, with everyone weighing in about the proprietary of this or that and policing norms. Too much sex, not enough sex. The wrong kind of sex. (After all, there’s an entire episode of Daphne Bridgerton trying to figure out what cum is.)
Part of the entertainment is this public discussion. “What is exciting about Bridgerton is that there’s a world of fans and cultural critics waiting to watch it, revel in it, debate about it, and critique it,” writes Dr. Tricia Matthew in Los Angeles Review of Books. Especially the choice to make the cast of the show interracial, and to tie the fortunes of the black aristocracy to England’s first Black queen. Dr. Matthew continues:
“Predictable arguments will be lobbed at the series; credulity will be strained along the lines of racial representation. People will, and I think should, debate the fate of a mixed-race heroine.”
She alludes to her fellow academics, but at this point we all might as well have a PhD in Netflix. The ability to stream a middlebrow show on demand and then take to Twitter and debate it in real-time has created a new generation of amateur TV critics, who are engaged in shaping the social norms of our time. Welcome to the miniseries of manners.
But in light of the world of Bridgerton, I prefer to believe we’ve become British Romantics on the cusp of a reality check. — By Daisy Alioto