Monday, December 30, 2019

Just Don't Call It Identity Politics: The Bridgertons Books 1-4

Kat's back with an in-depth recap of the Let's Talk About the Bridgertons series so far (1-4) and how it relates to the HEA/HFN. Enjoy!

Need to catch up?

Just Don't Call It Identity Politics: The Bridgertons Books 1-4

In four previous essays, I’ve gone into the first four books of Julia Quinn’s The Bridgertons series. We’ve walked through how the four eldest Bridgerton siblings (Anthony, Benedict, Colin, and Daphne) have met people who are perhaps not the best suited to them when they marry. However through epilogues (and second epilogues), Quinn tries to make it clear that yes, indeed, these are HEAs, not just HFNs.

It’s not a cash grab, ok?

Within the first four books, some themes jump out at me, which I discuss in more detail below.

Family Matters

Not all book series rely on families with many siblings to serve as the cohering element. Plenty of series feature friend groups or peripheral characters who then get their own stories in subsequent books. The Bridgertons is, of course, a book series that focuses on the Bridgerton brothers and sisters, and the family dynamic is important to the stories in a few different ways. 

First, it provides each book with a common mythology to build from. To some degree, each Bridgerton sibling will talk about the impact of the early death of their father and how that affected their upbringing. Anthony claims to be the one who was most influenced by his father’s death, but other siblings discuss it as well. Francesca (featured in Book #6) has a really great conversation with her mother, Violet, about what it was like to be widowed and how Violet moved on from it. Hyacinth (Book #7) grew up without Edmund’s presence at all; Violet was pregnant with her when he died. So the situation of the patriarch’s death can be used as a common bond among the family and also as a ready-made method of distinguishing the siblings’ relationships to each other and to their mother.

Second, the sibling dynamic provides an excuse for the characters to be around each other a lot. We see more character development for those who get later books. Hyacinth in particular, who is the youngest (though Book #7), matures throughout the series. The Duke and I takes place in 1813 and On the Way to the Wedding takes place in 1827. That’s quite a spread of time. Being related, siblings also appear in others’ stories and enhance our feelings about them, whether nostalgia or disappointment. This is true of other characters, too, like Penelope. The sibling relationships can also rely on off-page groundwork; we don’t need to see each relationship develop, because they’re already established. So we can just know that Colin and Eloise are close and we’ll accept that.

Finally, it provides a way for us to learn about what’s happening with other characters and a reason to know it. How do we know that Benedict had a painting in a gallery? Colin thought about it in his inner monologue, and of course he’d know because they’re brothers. No need for contrived circumstances to hear about other characters.

Heteronormative Epilogues

Quinn included epilogues in all the original books. Then she wrote second epilogues for each book. Both sets of epilogues range in time passed since the main story and the focus of the addendum. Some epilogues are designed to show how much in love the couples still are. For example, in The Duke and I, the first epilogue focuses on the birth of Simon and Daphne’s first child and in the second epilogue, Daphne is pregnant once again (at 41 this time). In the context of Simon and Daphne’s relationship, having children is important. It seems like they both got over the mutual betrayal of Simon lying to Daphne about his ability to have children and Daphne’s quasi-assault. Good for them. 

In fact, a not-insignificant number of epilogues in the first four books deal with HEAs of the heteronormative variety. Heteronormativity is when being straight is expected and assumed. Everyone is assumed to be straight and society and institutions are built in a way that relies on that. In addition to both epilogues in The Duke and I, Sophie reveals another pregnancy in the first epilogue of An Offer from a Gentleman, while her stepsister Posy gets her HEA in the second epilogue. In the first epilogue of Romancing Mr. Bridgerton, Penelope is pregnant (and almost due) and in the second, Colin and Penelope (and the rest of the Bridgertons) travel to Eloise’s wedding.

It’s not uncommon in historical romance to have only straight couples. (It’s not uncommon in all romance for that matter, unfortunately.)  I might be willing to give the straightness a pass, but for the additional assumption of motherhood. Throughout each book, it’s a given that the female protagonists want to marry and want to have children. Even Sophie’s reluctance to bone Benedict prior to marriage was due to her unwillingness to have children out of wedlock; it’s not that she didn’t want them, she just wanted them legally protected. The fact that romance novels are not the best vector for representing and discussing childlessness or pregnancy loss is not a surprise. Jen has capably written about miscarriage in romance before. It just irks me as a person who neither has nor wants children, that there are no protagonists that share that quality with me.

Whiteness is an Identity

These books were written before “identity politics” became a controversial phrase. (And by controversial, I mean scary for people who are the societal default in all identity categories.) As I’ve discussed before, Quinn does have some disability representation for physical (well, speech) disability and psychological disability. She also has some terrible representation for the non-ruling class. But it’s kind of obvious who the audience for this series was intended to be: straight, white women, probably middle-class, probably Christian. (Though we don’t see much Christianity performed on the page, references to God and blasphemy represent typical Christian dominionism.) 

The fact that so many of our romance novels are stories about white people written by white people is problematic, and for two major reasons. First, we’re discriminating against authors of color and their stories (many of which are #ownvoices stories), and second, we are lying to ourselves that these white stories are representative of everyone’s experiences. Exposure to dominant narratives that star white folks helps to cement implicit associations in our minds where we connect success, and happily ever after, and romance, and love with a specific type of person (white, straight, cis). That’s a big reason why there’s such an outcry against historical romance depicting Black stories and Latinx stories and Indigenous stories and East Asian or South Asian stories, against queer stories and trans stories. These folks have always been here, but given how inundated we are with “default” stories, it can feel false to us (white folks) to see such characters getting their own HEA.

It won’t be a surprise when I get to the post about my hopes for the Netflix series and talk about how I hope the producers use colorblind casting. And by colorblind, I mean, let’s cast some amazing (not-white) folks. We can say that The Bridgertons is a series that was a product of its time (in the 2000s), that the romance industry hadn’t gotten wise to the fact that it was doing a piss-poor job of advocating for authors of color and their stories (especially Black authors).

Gods know, we have a long way to go.  From the 2018 State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing Report by The Ripped Bodice.

But we also can’t just use that as an excuse to demand better. Knowing where we’ve been, let’s continue to push harder.

Fuck, Marry, Kill

On that hopeful note, I do want to briefly say that I was pretty amazed by how problematic the men are written in the first four books. Colin is the best of them, but that’s not saying a lot. If I had to rank my preferences for these books, it would be:

  1. Romancing Mr. Bridgerton
  2. An Offer from a Gentleman
  3. The Viscount Who Loved Me
  4. The Duke and I

Honestly, the bottom three are a tie for worst. :/  I’m not sure if it’s a product of not being able to quite take the perspective of another gender or it’s leaning hard into proto-alphahole typology, but these men are generally douchebags, and I am really hoping that the next four men are better.

To answer the question posed: fuck Penelope, marry Sophie, kill all the men.

Next time, I’ll be getting back into the books, checking in with Eloise, who left London during Romancing Mr. Bridgerton, before learning that Penelope = Lady Whistledown.

~ Kat

Thanks for the discussion, Kat! I'm still laughing at your FMK answer but also: ACCURATE THO.

If you missed part 4, you can find it HERE.

Stay tuned for part 5 (book 5), coming your way in 2020!


Until Next Time,

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