Monday, December 23, 2019

Romancing Mister Bridgerton: Externalized Misogyny, Internalized Misogyny, and #NotLikeOtherGirls

Kat's back with part 4 of the Let's Talk About the Bridgertons series. Buckle up, let's look into Penelope and Colin's story. Enjoy!

Need to catch up?

Romancing Mister Bridgerton: Externalized Misogyny, Internalized Misogyny, and #NotLikeOtherGirls

Contains spoilers for Lady Whistledown’s identity

What happened last time: Benedict (Bridgerton Sibling 2) lifted Sophie (our Cinderella stand-in) from a life of service (and occasional sexual molestation) to a quiet life in the country with art and love, I guess.

Colin Bridgerton is set up to be one of the more likeable Bridgerton men in the first books of the series. Actually, he’s the only likeable one (the alternatives being Anthony, Benedict, and Gregory). There’s a lot of humor forecast on his personality - he’s witty and he’s always hungry or eating.

Like Rusty in Ocean’s 11.

And Penelope is fucking awesome. In my first time reading the early books, Penelope caught my attention right away. She is an incredibly sympathetic character and is often surrounded by people who don’t recognize her worth. She also has an incredibly obvious crush on Colin, so when I originally read the blurb for Romancing Mr. Bridgerton, I was excited for Penelope to have her HEA. She so deserves it. To be honest, though, Penelope deserves more than Colin. Because, unfortunately, Colin’s a bit of a dick (though I’d like to think it’s because he grew up a Bridgerton, rather than innate qualities, unlike his older siblings).

Romancing Mister Bridgerton opens with the story of how Penelope first meets Colin (in Hyde Park when she was 15 and he was 20, and her bonnet flew into his face, causing him to fall off the horse he was riding) and promptly falls in love with him. That’s in 1812 and our story proper doesn’t begin until 1824. On the one hand, it’s nice to have a romance between characters who are not 18F/35M, but that’s an awful long and depressing time for Penelope to carry a torch for Colin, particularly since she’s literally under his nose for so much of it. (Maybe that’s because it brings back too many memories of unrequited adolescent love… sigh.)

To the outside world of the ton, Penelope is background noise. She’s spinster chaperone material and even in her close friendship with Eloise Bridgerton (sibling #5), she’s expected to grow old and die without being touched by a male appendage. We find out, of course, there is more to Penelope than meets the eye. She is, in fact, Lady Whistledown. I remember when I first read this, I was surprised by the revelation, but only because Quinn does such an odd job of concealing the information from the reader. It wasn’t shocking that it was Penelope - who better to write scathing critiques of society than a woman who society considers invisible and beneath consideration? But the way the story unfolds, Quinn has to bend over backwards during Penelope’s third-person omniscient POV to not give the game away until later in the story. It’s weird and I felt annoyed by that. But anyway.

Colin is recently back from Greece and feeling at loose ends. He wants to do something that has purpose but isn’t sure what that is. Then he starts developing sexual feelings for Penelope, which is practically incestuous given how long he’s known her, etc., he never considered her as a potential wife, etc., but look how interesting and attractive she actually is, etc. To be honest, Colin’s storyline is pretty boring. This is Penelope’s show.

Penelope’s conflict throughout is that she wants to retire from being Lady Whistledown without having her secret revealed, but she also doesn’t want someone else taking credit for her years of work. Particularly someone like Cressida Twombley, who is just The Worst, and who does try to take credit for being Lady Whistledown. Colin’s conflict is that he’s having a hard time overcoming his feelings of inadequacy and jealousy when he realizes what Penelope’s done and believes that he’ll never do anything of similar consequence. Could he really publish his travel journals? Could he be a successful author? (Of course he could, he’s an upper-class straight white guy.)

There are a few fights between Penelope and Colin and they try to navigate The Big Secret, Colin’s jealousy, and Penelope’s ambition to continue to be excellent. The fights resolve, but not without my increasing levels of disappointment at Colin’s controllingness and pettiness. Just let her have this, Colin! She deserves all the things. Penelope does end of revealing her secret identity (well, Colin does, sort of without her consent, ugh, but she goes with it) and everyone toasts her for being so badass.

Men Who Hate Women

So, there aren’t many male characters who are just 100% supportive of women in this series. It’s pretty obvious. Whether men are talking amongst themselves or deigning to talk to women, their misogyny drips through their dialogue. For example, early in The Duke and I, Simon and Anthony are having a conversation about London society, and Anthony cautions Simon to avoid society events because of the women:

"Society mothers, you dolt. Those fire-breathing dragons with daughters of - God help us - marriageable age. You can run, but you’ll never manage to hide from them… And when they find you, you will find yourself trapped in conversation with a pale young lady all dressed in white who cannot converse on topics other than the weather, who received vouchers to Almack’s, and hair ribbons."

"Now we don't have time to unpack all of that."

Let’s set aside the fact that fathers and brothers are nowhere to be found in this. They’re off somewhere, not near women, or at least not near women you have to care about (i.e., sex workers or serving staff). Women who are mothers are horrible because they’re trying to successfully marry off their daughters.  Women who are daughters are horrible because their bases of knowledge are confined to societally-appropriate things, like weather, fashion, and other people in society. It’s not like they’re going to Eton or Harrow, you dbags. They don’t have a lot to work with because men want to confine women to small narrow spaces in society and in the home. Also, only white people need apply here, natch.

That conversation is pretty representative of chats that men have with each other in each book. Beware of women! They have ulterior motives! Which is to say, they’re trying to navigate within constricting class and economic systems where their literal livelihoods depend on marrying into other sources of inherited wealth.

I’d like to say that Colin, as the Best Bridgerton Brother, is better than that. Alas, he is not. In other books, like An Offer From a Gentleman, he’s always trying to get away from ball settings, trying to avoid dancing with “eligible young ladies.” His internal monologue gives us compelling observations like, “Nothing worse than a female who chattered forever about nothing,” and even Colin is not immune from fantasies of murdering women when he imagines killing Eloise almost halfway through.

He’s also really controlling. Surprisingly so. For example, in an early encounter between Penelope and Colin, where Colin comes across Penelope walking to his mother’s house to visit Eloise, he yells at her for not having a maid with her. Penelope’s like, “it’s just a few blocks, dude. I’m fine.” And Colin’s like, “nope, you still need to have a chaperone, something could happen to you, even if you’re 28 and nobody notices your presence.” 

The great reveal of Lady Whistledown’s identify (at least, to the reader) happens because Colin stalks Penelope and steals and reads a letter she dead-dropped for her publisher. He’s jealous that she has this other identity, this huge secret, and, as is the norm throughout the story, takes out his feelings of inadequacy on Penelope, who at times seems genuinely frightened of him. The stuff of romance. Possibly Colin’s only saving grace is that he knows he’s being an asshole; he recognizes it in his inner monologue. So that’s a good start, but not quite enough.

Women Who Hate Themselves

Another super problematic theme in this series is that women don’t actually like themselves or each other, either. In many of the books, there are rivalries (petty and grand) set up between women. Romancing Mister Bridgerton has the notable continuing conflict between Cressida and Penelope. Cressida has picked on and humiliated Penelope for many years. We’ve seen Cressida get a bit back in previous books, like when Anthony gave her The Cut Direct in The Viscount Who Loved Me, but she always manages to come on top. Beyond her sycophantic cluster, no one really likes Cressida. She is really mean and she obviously delights in making Penelope miserable.  

What does it mean that there are few likeable female characters outside of the Bridgerton circle? Female protagonists are often tagged with #NotLikeOtherGirls. They’re different and special and not petty or opportunistic. They want to make their partners feel special, too. Penelope is excited for Colin’s writing, even though he’s a giant douche about hers. We don’t get too many developed characters outside of the Bridgerton clan and their partners, but I’d say that there aren’t too many who are given a pass at the wand of misogyny.

We also often see this misogyny internalized. I’m not sure that Penelope, who was characterized as overweight in the early books, would have been “worthy” of Colin had she not lost some weight. At the beginning of the story, Penelope reflects, “It helped that she’d lost nearly two stone and could now call herself ‘pleasantly rounded’ rather than ‘a hideous pudge.’” For those who can’t do the stone-to-pound conversion in their head, that’s almost 30 pounds. Fatphobia shows up elsewhere in the series, but here we have internal monologue from a character acknowledging that her worth to society increased as her scale number decreased. Yikes.

Honestly, I do not understand why Penelope actually likes Colin. It’s totally natural for her to crush on him when she was younger, but she put him on a pedestal for literally 12 years and didn’t really know much about him when they start having real conversations and fucking around. His humor is his shield and he gets angry and he’s really petty. He doesn’t really deserve Penelope. There’s only one person who deserves Penelope. But that’s a conversation for another entry.

Next time, I’ll look back at the first four books of the series and talk about some broader themes.

~ Kat

Romancing Mister Bridgerton by Julia Quinn
Publisher: Avon (November 24, 2015) Latest ebook publication; originally published 2002
Series: Bridgertons, 4
Genre: Historical Romance (M/F)

Everyone knows that Colin Bridgerton is the most charming man in London . . .

Penelope Featherington has secretly adored her best friend's brother for . . . well, it feels like forever. After half a lifetime of watching Colin Bridgerton from afar, she thinks she knows everything about him, until she stumbles across his deepest secret . . . and fears she doesn't know him at all.

Colin Bridgerton is tired of being thought of as nothing but an empty-headed charmer, tired of the notorious gossip columnist Lady Whistledown, who can't seem to publish an edition without mentioning him. But when Colin returns to London from a trip abroad, he discovers nothing in his life is quite the same—especially Penelope Featherington! The girl who was always simply there is suddenly the girl haunting his dreams. When he discovers that Penelope has secrets of her own, this elusive bachelor must decide . . . is she his biggest threat— or his promise of a happy ending?

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Thanks for the discussion, Kat! *

If you missed part 3, you can find it HERE.

Stay tuned for part 5!


Until Next Time,

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