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Queen Charlotte & the Pitfalls of Representational Politics

Can We Stop Romanticizing the British Empire?

By Alex Mell-TaylorPublished 9 months ago 11 min read
photo by Shakko, Portrait of Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (1744–1818)

The Bridgerton series has officially become an expanded universe with the series Queen Charlotte. The story chronicles the origin of the titular Queen and her tumultuous relationship with King George, which, in this alternate history, leads to the desegregation of British High Society.

There’s a lot to unpack on this show. A surprising delight was how they handled the insensitively named “Madness of King George” (who most likely had bipolar disorder) with actual compassion. The show also included a gay romance and, of course, had plenty of BIPOC characters navigating these new halls of power in style.

Yet, it’s the lack of class commentary that we will examine today. This show advances a form of representational politics that ultimately is very hollow.

A royal problem

Unlike in Bridgerton, the exploration of race is present in the show from the onset. Again, the story is about the desegregation of British High Society (cheekily called “The Great Experiment”), which happens matter-of-factly after King George’s mother accidentally learns that her son’s bride-to-be from Germany is Black. The Queen gives several BIPOC people from the 1% titles to save face.

The contrivance for why this happens is unbelievable and silly from our perspective (see the Royal family’s reaction to Meghan Markle in the 21st century), but for the most part, we are meant to absorb these beats uncritically. Queen Charlotte, the show, not the person, tells the viewer exactly how it wants to be examined. In a wink and a nod to the audience, the gossipmonger Lady Whistledown (voiced by Julie Andrews) narrates: “[This story] is not a history lesson. It is fiction inspired by fact. All liberties taken by the author are quite intentional.”

In other words, stop taking this fun, ahistorical piece of media seriously.

Yet this bit of commentary misses the point of what a lot of the criticism around the original Bridgerton was about. While some triggered conservatives were angered by the alleged revisionism (a point I am not here to defend), many people on the left were not criticizing it for historical accuracy. A work of fiction does not have to be a documentary. Stories can be illogical and ahistorical if there is a reason to do so within the narrative.

However, what a story cannot do and cannot be is apolitical. All narratives have messages being advocated for, which deserve to be criticized. And Queen Charlotte has repeatedly received such criticism for uncritically placing a Black woman at the head of a very racist and exploitative empire on the one hand and advancing a type of meritocratic politics on the other. As the creator Princess Weekes argues in Queen Charlotte & The Bridgerton Problem:

“When it comes to Black people playing monarchs, British monarchs and [not in a theater way]…things get a little messy because of slavery, because of imperialism. Because of what all of that means.”

It’s this historical context that the show both ignores and embraces simultaneously. We are not meant to think about the horrors of colonialism (more on this later), but much of the plot is again about the ups and downs of desegregation. There is an entire subplot on whether the titles awarded will transfer to the heirs of this new Black and Brown aristocracy or if these gains will last a single generation. The narrative wants one to engage with this theme, and from the context, it clearly, wants one to walk away with the moral that royal desegregation is a good thing. “With one evening, one party, we have created more change, stepped forward more than Britain has in the last century. More than I would have dreamed,” one character says of an attempt to integrate the aristocracy.

The show is advocating strongly for the idea that it’s a good thing Black and Brown entrepreneurs and capitalists are being let into the upper reaches of society. “I never thought I would see this day,” the misogynistic Lord Danbury says, admiring the new land bequeathed to him, nameless servants in the background. He continues: “…the old days are over, and that this is a new world. That men are men regardless from whence they come.” One can call this outlook representational politics, or the idea that expanding who is represented in the halls of power will cause other changes to snowball.

Yet who are the old days over for?

Certainly not the many voiceless servants we see throughout the show. This assumption that we should fantasize about letting marginalized members into the halls of oppressive institutions deserves criticism. Because while the world might be getting better for the Queen Charlotte’s and Lady Danbury’s of the world, it’s a debate whether this approach truly helps those at the bottom.

Representational Empire

The British Empire may have desegregated its nobility in both Bridgerton and Queen Charlotte, but it’s still an empire. The aesthetics of their imperial holdings are almost immediate, as the protagonist Queen Charlotte lectures about the Indian sapphires in her dress in one of the earliest scenes in the first episode. The show is very much about the royals: their money, their wealth, and the countless nameless people who serve them, with very little consideration for all the horrors that gave them those shiny jewels.

There is a particularly telling scene where Queen Charlotte is told through a series of interactions that she is out-of-touch and that her “walls are too high.” She learns that her decision to pick her own oranges has led to some of her staff’s dismissal — although it’s not entirely clear if they were switched over to another position or were fired outright. She begins to feel guilty, but we don’t see her try to help these staffers — in fact, she later argues the necessity for her high status to benevolently protect her subjects.

The decision she makes to rectify her insecurities about her power is to attend a ball hosted by a fellow Black royal. It’s this action that King George accredits to being the biggest change to Britain “in the last century.” We are supposed to be comforted by defining progress very narrowly to the expansion of the upper class when historically, we know this Empire they seek to find power in was detrimental to the lives of so many people. The British Empire’s policies would go on to kill hundreds of millions during the age of colonialism. In the early 1800s, when Bridgerton was set, slavery was still very much legal in the Empire.

These decisions still negatively impact the lives of people to this day. How this Empire drew up borders from everything to the partition of India and Pakistan to the Middle East continues to have devastating geopolitical consequences. This is not to mention the resource extraction that British companies (as well as the US and other European ones) are still doing to the Global South.

It’s perfectly fine to tell a story with royals, but when one’s narrative is about how “cool” it would be to diversify the institution without providing the context of its horrors, the story ends up laundering that institution’s reputation. The conversation ends up being about who is in the room of these institutions and if they can “modernize” or not, and not whether these rooms should have existed in the first place.

Now, fictional narratives don’t have to talk about these issues in a historical way. The Bridgerton universe certainly doesn’t, but how they narratively approach the problem of monarchy, particularly the British monarchy (i.e., whether it’s ethical or not), deserves to be criticized. The one time the monarchy’s dissolution is brought up is in jest when King George mentions what’s at stake if he doesn’t appear before High Society, and it’s framed as a bad thing. If we are not getting points of view in support of abolishment (and we don’t), an alternate history that treats de-colonialism thoughtfully (and we aren’t), or at the very least highlighting the abuse of the monarchy (nope), then the narrative ends up uncritically propping up the importance of this terrible institution.

The show is so firmly planted on the side of royals that non-royals are treated chiefly as passive objects. The public is viewed as sycophantly worshipping the monarchy from a distance. Many nobles, no doubt, felt this way about the public. However, there is a difference between a character’s perspective and the viewpoint of the narrative overall. And Queen Charlotte does not care to examine any of the problems we have mentioned, preferring to go along for the ride. The few non-royal characters, much like the upstairs-downstairs relationships of Downton Abbey, are staffers quite loyal to the people they serve and are mostly narrative objects for their lord’s emotional development.

While the creators had every right to make a work like this one, we are likewise entitled to criticize it for this rather significant failing. Again the British Empire, more broadly speaking, was straight-up evil to the world’s poorer, browner residents, and it is unconvincing that “The Great Experiment” would change that status quo. Is this Blacker aristocracy attempting to disband the East Indian Company? Have they apologized for being instrumental in the slave trade? For it still existing? We certainly don’t know either way because this show doesn’t want to dive into those topics and risk having us instantly lose empathy for our royal characters — Black and white alike.

Instead, the world these new royals are aspiring to is quite conservative. They are accepted into high society because of their wealth, education, and breeding. As a young aristocrat says to rebuke her mother’s blatant racism:

“Mother said they were not us. But the king gave our family a title and land. All the families of the ton got their titles and land from the king…and mother, they are gentlemen. Daddy always defines a gentleman as a well-educated man of a good family…so they are exactly like us. Better in some cases considering several of them are from royal families of their own and have much more money than we do.”

This is an argument based on tradition and meritocratic capitalism, and given this girl’s mother is framed as unreasonable (her husband rolling his eyes and everything), it’s one we are meant to be amenable to. Yet just in the same way that today’s Black and Brown billionaires do not uplift the Black and Brown workers beneath them, we have no indication that this Blacker and Browner aristocracy will engage in more radical politics that helps the working class. The one servant character serving Queen Charlotte who has any story arc does not find acceptance. His gay lover is not around during the flash-forward scenes as it seems queerness is far from accepted in this more tolerant society. The Queen is depicted as so demanding that he has hardly had time to make a life for himself outside of serving her.

This show presents a very selfish and non-intersectional type of diversity, celebrating those at the top who “work hard” (never mind the hundreds of servants in the background who also work hard) for “getting theirs.”

A queenly address

Queen Charlotte’s narrow scope — one only interested in a pastiche of royalty in a way devoid of context — is a very telling one. We are presented with a narrative entirely removed from the effects and reality of monarchy. One that insists that through expanding the representation of those of means, their gains will trickle down to the rest of us.

Despite attempts to frame it otherwise, that is not a progressive narrative but a conservative one. It’s impossible for a pro-monarchist narrative not to be. From Game of Thrones to Downton Abby, this criticism does not apply only to the Bridgerton universe but to most modern monarchy narratives (see Our Obsession with Westeros (and Royalty in General) Is Unhealthy). Queen Charlotte merely makes this problem more visible because we are asked to imagine a world where this terrible institution is “reformed” and instantly come up against the limits of this perspective.

You cannot morally improve Empire and have it still remain an Empire.

Some will claim not to take this show too seriously, that it’s merely a fantasy, but this is naive. All fantasies have things to say about our world, and Queen Charlotte has profound things to say. Light superficial content does not have an entire subplot where a main character is tortured. With its beautiful messages about mental health acceptance and the need for greater tolerance, it seems silly to say the show does not want its viewers to be moved and occasionally even to think.

We are allowed, as viewers, to disagree with some of the messages advocated here while appreciating others. And when it comes to how this show frames monarchy, my dear gentle reader, it has much to be disagreed with.

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About the Creator

Alex Mell-Taylor

I write long-form pieces on timely themes inside entertainment, pop culture, video games, gender, sexuality, race and politics. My writing currently reaches a growing audience of over 10,000 people every month across various publications.

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  • Sonia Heidi Unruh7 months ago

    Excellent analysis. There was something that bothered me about this show that bothered me but I couldn't put my finger on it until now. Desegregation of oppressive institutions does not erase the oppression.

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