Why that uncomfortable Queen Charlotte racism moment was so important
Queen Charlotte spoilers follow.
When Bridgerton first debuted there was something deliciously different about it. You could almost taste the signature Shonda Rhimes magic in its vibrancy, its tonality, in the intoxicating way it absorbed you into the drama.
Many factors contributed to the Regency drama's fresh appeal. We need not list them all but perhaps one of its defining qualities was the way it addressed race. Or rather, didn't.
The Ton was (and still remains) a melting pot of races and yet no one was bound or defined by theirs. There was an erasure of racial discrimination. As if the very thought of penalising someone for their skin tone had never crossed their marriage-obsessed minds. It was joyous. That's a fact. There's no other way to describe it.
Seeing people usually othered by ethnicity released from the burden of bigotry is joyous. Perhaps that's why the presence of racism in Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story felt like a slap back to reality that we had happily traded-in for the pretty, ideal world of Bridgerton.
At best it was an adjustment coming from a universe where race had been a non-issue to suddenly finding it central to the reason this royal was hand-picked for King George (Corey Mylchreest). At worst we ground our teeth at Charlotte's early Ton experience. Charlotte (India Amarteifio), with all her Blackness, trapped in this 'great experiment.' We recoil.
The first racist kernels appear subtly and early on. The recounting of the British Empire – with all its might and influence – "hunting all the way across the continent", to a tiny province in Germany to quietly enforce that might in their selection of Charlotte.
"We had no choice," Charlotte's brother and guardian Adolphus (Tunji Kasim) almost shouts whilst simultaneously pleading for understanding in his tone. "I know that no one who looks like you or me has ever married one of these people, ever, but I cannot question because I cannot make an enemy of the most powerful nation on earth."
The echoes of enslavement that began with Charlotte questioning her betrothal now ring crisply with threatening power of the empire. A familiar achy-gut feeling ensues. We were still chewing our way around the fact that race would play some part in this iteration from the Bridgerton universe when the disturbing scene in question takes place.
A camera pans across a room full of white, aristocratic men, loitering on Princess Augusta (Michelle Fairley) before drawing Charlotte into the frame. Augusta circles the Queen to be, her unwavering eyes running up and down Charlotte's still body. It's predatory, in a way that makes one anticipate danger.
"Teeth," Princess Augusta orders and all respect slides out of the room, if at all it was ever there to begin with.
"Teeth," she insists again when Charlotte's stunned expression mirrors our own.
After some prompting from Adolphus, Charlotte obliges, presenting a neat row of teeth. The scene is unbearably jarring. It's more than jarring, it's rage inducing.
In this one moment the Bridgiverse's racial blindness erupts into hyper-focused technicolour and we see the ugliness of discrimination in all its shades. The symbolism is crystal clear: Charlotte is not Charlotte anymore, she is a slave at a chattel market. Augusta might as well have stretched apart her lips for further inspection.
"Mhmm," Augusta utters in agreement before demanding more of Charlotte's body.
"Hands," she orders and Charlotte turns them over under the princess' scrutiny.
Augusta takes Charlotte in as though she is a second-hand car, inspecting for any possible flaws that could be lying beneath the hood, and Charlotte is made extraordinarily vulnerable by Augusta's dehumanising treatment of her. In spite of her royal lineage, her intelligence, her pride, in this moment Charlotte is reduced to a commodity.
As if to underscore this point, Augusta finishes with: "You have good hips, you will make lots of babies. That is good. That is your job. As many babies as possible for my son."
And just like that Charlotte has passed her MOT check. That is until Augusta crudely licks her own thumb and attempts to rub the Blackness from Charlotte's cheekbone.
'Good, but not good enough' she is saying with a harsh sweep of the digit across her skin, but while Charlotte may not be perfect, Augusta is satisfied enough. After all, no Black person could ever truly be perfect. Right?
What follows throughout the season are many micro (and not so micro) aggressions against Charlotte pertaining to her race.
Naturally she is not the only one affected by racism as the Sierra-Leonean Lady Danbury (Arsema Thomas) and her husband Lord Danbury (Cyril Nri) receive their fair share of discriminatory treatment.
However, this one scene encapsulates the perception of non-whites in the wider community in this sector of the Bridgiverse world. It also sets the tone for what's to follow.
Initially, this additional racist thread in the franchise felt like a hurtful betrayal of what was so special and magical about this Regency world. There was a beauty in racial acceptance existing in a period drama for no other reason than 'just because'.
While it was upsetting to lose that uniqueness, however, Charlotte's racially discriminated past adds new layers to the world we love. It allows the audience to not only better understand the complexities of Bridgerton's Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) but also forms more robust foundations for the Bridgiverse.
Bridgerton's racism-free utopia isn't so because the creators wanted it to be, nice as that is to imagine. It was something Queen Charlotte fought to shape. With the help of Lady Danbury we can see the inception of inclusivity and watch it come into fruition in the most meaningful way for non-whites.
Having Charlotte fight to gain influence free of her husband – and more importantly free from Princess Augusta's steering hand – makes one appreciate her world more fully.
Through her struggles with George's illness and the harsh bigotry she endured she lost a little something of herself. But what she lost of herself she gave to her King, to her community, to the marginalised of the Ton – and that makes it all the more rewarding.
All episodes of Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story are now available to watch on Netflix. Bridgerton seasons 1-2 are streaming now on Netflix, and season 3 is in production.
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