Once, when I was in Year 9, we had to make a video about life in the Victorian era – I suggested I step out of the group because “there wouldn’t have been people who looked like me back then in England”. Such stickler instincts for historical accuracy are presumably what motivates a vocal minority online to complain about the second season of Bridgerton, because the main characters, Kate and Edwina Sharma, are South Asian sisters – and therefore constitute a “tick-box exercise”.
It is certainly true that in the past, British period dramas only featured people of colour as downtrodden maids in the name of “authenticity”. But I think such criticism rather misses the point: Bridgerton’s USP is that it is a candy-land fantasy of the Regency period, replete with rainbow costumes and implausible dialogue. It is gloriously unabashed in its total disregard for historical accuracy. I’m bored with only seeing myself in moralistic films depicting Asian women as victims of racism or protective parents (as was the case even in Gurinder Chadha’s brilliant Bend It Like Beckham). It is a joy to see myself represented in something as ludicrous as Bridgerton, just as it was to see members of the Asian diaspora such as Deepti Vempati and her family appear in the second season of the reality dating show Love Is Blind. Apart from anything else, the belief that the appearance of people of colour in popular culture must be a box-ticking exercise is predicated on the assumption that the blank canvas must be all white to start with – that people of colour couldn’t possibly be included simply because they deserve their role in the story.
I never watched the first season of Bridgerton, but I’ve found myself fast-forwarding through the second, impatient to see scenes featuring the Sharma sisters, played by Simone Ashley and Charithra Chandran. Their South Asian rituals are delicately folded into stately English fare: they oil their hair at night, hang heavy gold jewellery (sacred to many members of my family, who are Tamil like the Sharmas) over their empire-waisted dresses. I don’t like to admit this, but it makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside.
It’s not something you might think much about if you’re used to seeing people like you on television all the time, but for me it is precious. When I was growing up, Asian people tended to be oddball add-ons never central to the plot: Kevin G in Mean Girls, Parvati Patil in Harry Potter. It’s not impossible to be a main character in life without seeing main characters who look like you, but it certainly doesn’t help.
Perhaps it’s embarrassing that I care; no one should need Netflix to confirm that they can be a beautiful heroine. But I’m human, and Bridgerton means something in a society where having golden hair is still the gold standard of desirability as a woman. Most of all, Ashley and Chandran have darker skin than the South Asians you usually see in TV and film (the likes of Priyanka Jonas and Deepika Padukone) – even in the Indian entertainment industry, many are so fair-skinned they appear ethnically ambiguous. Strangely, Bridgerton is now superior to colourism-heavy Bollywood in this respect.
It is so common that in today’s world “prizing” Asian women and their culture often involves fetishising us – for being exotic, oppressed or submissive (a stereotype we commonly encounter on dating apps in the West). Or it’s expected that our ethnic background has no influence at all on our outlook and beliefs, as though we are white women painted brown. Yet the beauty of Bridgerton is that Kate and Edwina are valid as main characters intrinsically, in their own right – they derive part of their character and power from their heritage, but it does not define them. Bridgerton might be set 200 years ago, but in this regard, it represents a society many years ahead of ours.