Monday, October 21, 2019

Disability in the World of the Bridgertons [The Duke and I]

Ready for Part 1 of the Let's Talk About the Bridgertons series? Kat's talking about THE DUKE AND I today. Enjoy!

Please note: This post contains spoilers for The Duke and I and To Sir Phillip, With Love.

The Duke and I: Disability in the World of the Bridgertons

Julia Quinn’s initial offering in The Bridgerton series focuses on Daphne Bridgerton, who is actually fourth in age of the siblings. I haven’t figured out why she goes out of order at two points in the series (Daphne, Anthony, Benedict, Colin, Eloise, Francesca, Hyacinth, and Gregory), but I wonder for the first one if she began writing the story and then the saga developed out of it.

Regardless, our initiation into the Bridgerton family and their social circle is through the perspectives of Daphne, a nice and friendly, though not stunningly beautiful, woman and Simon, a cool and collected duke with a player reputation.

Daphne is still on the market because while she’s amazing and #NotLikeOtherGirls, no one can picture her naked (or something). She’s just Too Nice to marry. Simon, on the other hand, is a reluctant duke. He hates his father, he doesn’t want his title or the pressures of his lineage, and he plans to never marry or sire children. The ducal line and the Basset name stop with him.

The prologue gives us insight as to why there is a rift between Simon and his father. Simon’s speech development was delayed and he has a speech disability: he stutters, particularly when he is anxious or upset. His father, who wanted only to fulfill his duty to his title (the health of his wife being of no consequence, as he effectively fucked and impregnated her to death) shuns Simon when he learns of his disability. Later we find out that the old duke even told people Simon had died. Apparently dad was so ashamed at the idea of having “inferior stock” or whatever, he decided he’d rather pretend Simon didn’t exist than acknowledge his existence.

We’re meant to feel sympathetic for Simon and he is sympathetic. Through sheer will and determination (of course) he overcomes the obstacle of his disability, at least for the most part. He doesn’t speak much, which leads to his developing a reputation for being aloof, and when he speaks he’s sometimes accidentally cutting, which earns him higher points among the ton. Simon is also super smart. He’s a mathematician (though we’re really only told this fact; it doesn’t come into play at all in the plot), who did well at Cambridge, and after graduation, he went abroad to Foreign Lands.  Like, the “exquisitely blue seas of the Mediterranean, and … the mysteries of North Africa.” He also swans down to the West Indies to check that out.  (Quinn does not mention anything about the Indies’ slave economy, an oversight that is incredibly glaring.)

Anyway, Daphne is introduced as a sweet girl, who is nice even to Nigel Berbrooke, a man who would probably be an incel in another time. Simon is introduced as a mysterious duke, just returning from abroad. Their meet-cute is at a typical ton party, where Simon has been trying to avoid the “Mamas” and Daphne has been trying to fend off Nigel’s unsuccessful and progressively creepy advances. Simon intervenes, thinking to assist Daphne, who insists that Nigel isn’t malicious… he just, you know, wants to own her because she’s the only who’s nice to him. The amount of time Daphne defends Nigel is vomit-inducing. Dude continually tries to sexually assault her and she softly explains it away, at least until she decks him. All the while, Simon is observing and his inner monologue is… not great. He’s thinking about her tits, basically. He wants to “ravish” her. As she’s fending off a sexual assailant. And with that, all the goodwill Simon built from his rough childhood disappears. He is no longer likeable, and honestly, he’s a haughty asshole. Simon and Daphne haven’t been talking more than a handful of pages when he threatens bodily injury:

The duke took a step forward, his stance positively menacing.  “Miss Bridgerton, I feel I should warn you that I am within an inch of strangling the information out of you.”

This is our romantic hero, folks. In response, Daphne literally backpedals. I’m just swooning, I tell you.

The basic plot of this story is that Daphne and Simon concoct a plot to be Fake Fiancees so that Simon isn’t beleaguered by women looking to marry (and their mothers) and Daphne can look good in comparison (the scarcity principle, I guess). Daphne is swarmed by potential suitors when it looks like Simon is interested in her, but for some reason, she just can’t get Simon out of her mind. She’s intrigued by him. For his part, he basically just wants to fuck her. His monologue doesn’t really indicate that he sees her as anything other than an object on which to slake his lust; this impression is also helped along by his repeated insistence that he doesn’t want to marry and won’t have children.

They bring Anthony (the eldest Bridgerton brother) into their scheme, if only so he won’t kill Simon in some misguided patriarchal bloodlust. Things are going great. Then one night at a party, Simon can’t contain his desires, and Daphne (who is totally unknowledgeable about sex, a point I’ll expand on later) begins to feel some stirrings herself. They have a nice little makeout sesh with a little groping action and then they’re discovered by Anthony, because of course. In the resulting furor, Anthony challenges Simon to a duel, and Simon, who restates his inability to marry Daphne, accepts. Daphne manages to disrupt the duel the next morning, convincing Simon to marry her. Simon tells her that he “can’t” have children (that will be important), and Daphne resigns herself to a childless future, though with someone she thinks she’s falling in love with.

Disability Discourse in Regency London

Simon’s disability isn’t referred to as such. We’re treated to a painful exploration of the reaction by his father to his stuttering during his childhood and Simon’s inner monologue shows us that he hates his speech impediment and thinks it’s a sign of weakness. His father (repeatedly) calls Simon an idiot, which, while used often today, was at that point in time a way to refer to someone as intellectually disabled. So his father thinks that he’s mentally disabled and Simon himself thinks he’s weak for being unable to talk correctly.

Simon doesn’t stutter often in Daphne’s presence, but during a major fight where his high emotions cause him to have trouble speaking, Daphne doesn’t seem to know how to respond. For a long time, even after they’re married, Daphne doesn’t know about Simon’s stuttering. She hears about it from a staff member; Simon doesn’t want her to know about it.

I’m not sure that Quinn framed this story in her mind as disability representation, though that’s what it is. At the point she was writing, in the late 1990s, third wave feminism was still happening and feminist activists and scholars were pushing the concept of intersectionality. It would have been nice for Quinn to show us something unexpected in a disability narrative. Sure, Simon would feel frustrated by his stuttering, but it would be nice to see him come up with some healthy coping strategies, and communicate his experiences and feelings with Daphne.

Content note: depression, attempted suicide

Simon’s is also not the only represented disability in The Bridgertons. In the fifth book, To Sir Phillip, With Love, which is Eloise’s story, the late wife of the titular Sir Phillip struggled with depression. Marina, who is actually a distant Bridgeton cousin, seems to have been melancholy from a young age. Eloise recalls that Marina never laughed as a child in her sole memory of her late cousin.

From Phillip’s perspective, Marina just didn’t try hard enough. He didn’t love her when they married but it sounds as though her depression was already present at the time of their wedding, then continued to worsen. She most likely also suffered from postpartum depression. Phillip is frustrated by Marina’s unwillingness to try harder to be happy, and because she is dead most of the book (she is briefly alive during the prologue, but it’s told from Phillip’s perspective), we never hear of her frustrations.  Having been depressed myself, I can confirm that it’s super frustrating to not be able to just “buck up.”

Really the only voice Marina has in the story is at the beginning, after she attempts suicide by walking into a lake. Phillip dives in a saves her before she drowns and her only response is “no.” It’s clear that she does not want to live and that she is in a lot of pain.  Phillip isn’t able to see the situation from her perspective, unfortunately. He only sees the toll Marina took on him and on their children.  On the one hand, that feels authentic. Given the period of time, the characters wouldn’t have access to cognitive behavioral therapy or psychopharmaceuticals to help Marina feel better.  On the other hand, as with Simon, Marina’s story is a missed opportunity to explore disability in Regency England. Rather than a full person with hopes and dreams that were never realized, Marina and her death are a plot device to unite the lovers and begin their happily-ever-after.

The Unforgivable Action

Content note: dubious consent

In addition to Simon’s speech disability, to me the other stand-out plot point was Simon’s betrayal of Daphne. When Daphne literally pleads for Simon’s life on the dueling field, Simon tells her,

“...if you marry me… I can’t have children… If you marry me, you will never have children.  You will never hold a baby in your arms and know it is yours, that you created it in love.”

Daphne asks how he knows and Simon replies,

“I just do… I cannot have children… You need to understand that.”

So Daphne agrees to the terms, assuming that Simon is infertile and that he’s been tested or something. Surely, as a man, he would know that he can’t have children.

The crucial part of this is that Daphne is completely unknowledgeable about sex and procreation.  The night before her wedding, Daphne’s mother fumbles through some bigger picture stuff (“you’ll learn to enjoy it, maybe,” “he’ll know what to do”) and fails to impart any real information about intercourse or body parts or pleasure. So when Daphne is introduced to fucking by Simon, she assumes everything is on the up and up. How would she know better?

You may remember that Simon is uninterested in continuing the family line. It’s not that he can’t, it’s that he won’t have children. How does he aim to do this? Good ol’ withdrawal. Basically, he comes on the bedspread every time they have sex - pulls out right at the last minute. As Simon is her only sex partner, Daphne assumes that it’s just a regular part of the process. It’s not until late in the story that she connects the pieces and understands the significance of the seed-spilling he undertakes each time.

So there you have an initial betrayal: Simon weaponizes Daphne’s sexual ignorance against her. It’s repulsive and vile. Simon takes advantage of the fact that women were purposefully kept in the dark about their bodies. And honestly, that condition hasn’t changed much, literally 200 years later. Girls and women are still kept in the dark via horribly inaccurate sexual education. But I digress.

What Simon does to Daphne here is bad enough. But she gets her revenge by effectively assaulting Simon and forcing him to ejaculate inside her. She gets him super aroused by doing a little cowgirl position action. He’s really into it, but then as he’s getting closer to orgasm, realizes that she’s on top, and he can’t easily pull out. And it’s obvious then to him (and us) that she did this on purpose. Her motivation is made even clearer after he comes and pushes her off of him, and she curls up, seemingly attempting to hold the semen inside herself. She wants a baby, by any means necessary.

A love for the ages, folks.

Where to Go From Here

So. Eventually Daphne and Simon make up, because of course they do. They have a few conversations, apologize, and smooth everything over. Like it never happened. But this first Bridgerton offering foreshadows some troubling trends.

First, there is a lot of violent language in these stories. I don’t mean swear words or discussions of violence. There are lots of threats of bodily injury, between siblings, between major and minor characters, and particularly between love interests. I think this is supposed to be “banter,” but I don’t personally find it romantic when a man consistently threatens to strangle a woman he claims to be in love with.

Second, the men are kind of assholes and the [Bridgerton] women are #NotLikeOtherGirls. The men all have “rake” reputations which is bad but somehow good. There are lots of double standards, as there were during this time period, but as a romance trope, it’s tired. Aside from the Bridgerton women and their small circle of friends, all women are either mothers trying to marry off daughters or boring debutantes who have no wits about them. The cardboard cutout misogyny is not flattering in any way; I’ll talk about this in greater depth with Colin’s story.

Third (and finally, for now), Quinn seems to only be interested in certain people’s stories. There are plenty of folks who lie on the margins of these stories, either on the page or in history. Everyone in these stories has a creamy complexion (unless they have freckles, which is just awful). The Bridgertons are wealthy, so our perspective is mostly upper-class (trade being tasteless) and staff or working class folks are rarely portrayed in a flattering light. Seriously, the class politics of this series are quite horrible. It’s M/F romance, so of course everyone is straight, but the assumption and expectation of it (aka, the heteronormativity) is also unfortunate.

I know that this book was published back in 2000. But Kimberle Crenshaw was talking about intersectionality in 1989. Beverly Jenkins published her first story in 1994. There were so many historical sources and people in the field of romance that it seems unbelievable that characters and stories could be so blinkered to the reality of the times. Of course, I don’t want to put all the faults of the romance genre onto the shoulders of one author or one series. But I think this is a good representative for where we’ve been and where we could go in the future - and especially what I hope to see in the series on screen.

~ Kat

The Duke and I by Julia Quinn
Publisher: Avon (April 28, 2015) current ebook version
Series: Bridgertons, 1
Genre: Historical Romance (M/F)

Can there be any greater challenge to London's Ambitious Mamas than an unmarried duke?—Lady Whistledown's Society Papers, April 1813

By all accounts, Simon Basset is on the verge of proposing to his best friend's sister—the lovely and almost-on-the-shelf—Daphne Bridgerton. But the two of them know the truth—it's all an elaborate ruse to keep Simon free from marriage-minded society mothers. And as for Daphne, surely she will attract some worthy suitors now that it seems a duke has declared her desirable.

But as Daphne waltzes across ballroom after ballroom with Simon, it's hard to remember that their courtship is a sham. Maybe it's his devilish smile, certainly it's the way his eyes seem to burn every time he looks at her . . . but somehow Daphne is falling for the dashing duke . . . for real! And now she must do the impossible and convince the handsome rogue that their clever little scheme deserves a slight alteration, and that nothing makes quite as much sense as falling in love.

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Thanks for today's discussion post, Kat!

Check back soon for the next installment in the Let's Talk About the Bridgertons series.


Until Next Time,

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