Dearest Reader, Netflix's Brigerton Has A Race Problem.
Barring rare exceptions like Firefly and The Expanse, it is quite hard to find shows with a mixed-race cast wherein the black and/or person of color characters are treated with dignity and equality. It is too much to ask that some stereotypes, humiliation or historically insensitive micro aggression not be evoked. Brigerton is no exception.
As a fan of period dramas, I was excited to see Brigerton pop up on my Netflix recommendations. When I saw that they included non-white characters I had a glimmer of hope that we’d get an inclusive portrayal of real humans however, I was worried that the writers would employ age-old tired tropes that have permeated the media since the times of RECONSTRUCTION. My worries were not misplaced.
Marina Thompson: Out of wedlock pregnancy, hyper-sexualized, treated like a slave, objectified. Jezebel trope.
When we meet Marina, there is hope. She is a black/biracial girl who is considered beautiful and the catch of the season. All hope is lost however when we discover that she is pregnant out of wedlock. How original! Her baby’s father (or baby daddy; if you will) was able to entice her with (drumroll please) cake, not diamonds or rubies or a symphony but cake. I love cake but come on!
No it does not end there, dearest reader. She is examined like a slave, including having her teeth checked. Side bar: George Washington was known for “buying” teeth from his slaves. Much historical context, much progression. She then tries to seduce poor, innocent Colin! What a Jezebel!
Of course she’s also a strong black woman who can handle everything; so she attempts abortion, cue the pundits rattling off purported statistics about black womens’ abortion rates. All in all, Marina is a very stereotypical character despite her speaking French and touted beauty.
The Duke of Hastings : Sexual assault victim, objectified, hyper sexual, likes a “loathsome and barbarous” sport. Fearful Black Spector of uncivilization.
Our next black character is a male and no he didn’t grow up with his father. The Duke is a known as a ladies man. His white friend reminds him how he gets down with the ladies. Rather than doing a sport like fencing or even croquet, his sport of choice is the “loathsome and barbarous” boxing. His sexual assault is brushed off and we are supposed to empathize with his white wife. Dearest viewer, did we really need to see his bare buttocks so often? Objectification alert.
Lady Danbury: Strong black woman, called the b word multiple times. Tragic lace front. Sapphire trope.
The B-word is commonly used these days however, under then lense of history and it's unsavory use towards women in general and black women in particular, coming from the lips of an angry, white man directed towards a black woman absolutely adds to the racial insensitivity. Lady Whistledown refers to herself as a “scribbling b-word) but it is entirely different for her to refer to herself that way than for a black woman to be called that by two men scrutinizing her actions. There are also some mammy-ish vibes here. We don’t know anything about Lady Danbury apart from the fact that she rescued The Duke and became his kinda sorta mammy. And here is Lady Danburry’s strong black woman quote to sum up her character “So instead, I made myself frightening. I sharpened my wit, my wardrobe, and my eye, and I made myself the most terrifying creature in any room I entered.” Yikes!
Queen Charlotte: Boring, undeveloped character. Gets called the b word by her raging white husband. Dang not even black queens can escape this fate? Do better people, do better.
Will: Broke, good at sports, not fencing or croquette, popular sports of that era but rather the very physical again “Loathsome and barbarous entertainment” that is boxing. He is also a dishonest, scammer who throws a match - but he did it to take care of his family. So that’s ok I guess? They did make him a decent husband to his light-skinned wife so slow clap to someone, maybe.
Now dearest reader you may be thinking this show was created by the production company Shondaland, owned by a black woman. However if you look at other Shondoland productions like “How to get away with murder” and “Scandal”. They were also filled with stereotypes.
In How to get away with murder, Annalise Keating is almost every stereotype: Jezebel, the Mammy, and the Angry Black Woman, Srong black women, Saphire.
In Scandal, Olivia Pope started off great but eventually became a Jezebel stereotype, she even got sold into slavery. So maybe I should not be surprised at Brigerton’s race issues.
All of these criticisms could be avoided with a truly revolutionary all black cast or an all white cast.
When I was younger, Shondaland also produced “Still Star-Crossed”, another period piece that continued a Romeo and Juliet’s story. That was quite a while ago but I don’t remember any of the racial shenanigans found in Brigerton. Still Star-Crossed did get cancelled and most people are really enjoying Brigerton, so maybe Shondaland is just giving their audience what they want.
“We try to imagine history and the world in the way we wanted to see it,” executive producer Betsy Beers told Entertainment Weekly.
Dearest reader, as a black woman I would be terrified to live in such a monolithic, stereotypical world and hope we can look forward to more nuanced portrayals of black characters in media and an all-black period drama would be pretty nanty narking. That's Victorian era slang for great fun!