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Bridgerton: History Meets Modernity In A Battle For Female Agency

4 min read

Image © Laurence Cendrowicz, Netflix

The women of Bridgerton may be navigating a world of elaborate social etiquette and pre-determined matches, yet beneath the surface lie timeless struggles for love, respect, and self-discovery. While the societal constraints of the Regency era differ vastly from our own, the show offers valuable insights that transcend time. By delving into these, we can glean much about defying expectations and forging our own paths.

Set in the 1800s, history tells us that feminist discussions were fleeting. Women weren't allowed to vote until 1918, so high society was very far from accepting a lady's own desire for education and power. This is reflected in 's depiction of this time period with its central female protagonists displaying a thirst for knowledge. 

The portrayal of sex in Bridgerton is unique but always considers the time period. Women, expected to remain virgins until marriage, are not afforded the same luxuries as men. In season one, Daphne Bridgerton is described as “damaged” and “not intact” by Lord Berbrooke, a potential suitor, as he insinuates she has already been “bedded.” To have lost her virginity is social suicide to a lady of high society and she is expected to marry immediately or will be at risk of becoming a spinster (a danger Kate Sharma faces in season two before she meets Anthony Bridgerton). Men do not carry the same burden, with frequent scenes of the gentlemen from the Bridgerton family sleeping around before finding their true match — this is not questioned. Today, there still remains a stigma against women for promiscuity, meanwhile men's reputations are unaffected by their lifestyle choices. 

Eloise Bridgerton is the most defiant character when it comes to rallying against inequality. She perceives that society doesn't forge affection among women. Her rigour is clear from the moment she steps on-screen in season one, with her choices constantly questioned by her relatives and peers. Her mother, Violet Bridgerton, views Eloise's attitude as a hobby and attempts to find her a suitor who matches her “rebellious spirit” before being put right. Eloise wants to find a purpose which fulfils her, such as attending university. 

However, Eloise is often criticised because she judges others for conforming to societal pressures from a position of privilege. The problem that emerges from mixing historical and contemporary themes is that Eloise is not seen to embrace intersectional feminism. While Eloise's critiques of societal limitations resonate with modern audiences, particularly those familiar with third-wave feminism, judging her solely through this lens overlooks the radical nature of her views within the Regency era. The show's inconsistent portrayal of social norms creates a disconnect, leading some viewers to misinterpret Eloise's actions as entitled rather than recognising her as a true pioneer for her time. 

By the end of Season 2, Penelope Featherington is discovered to be the besmirched Lady Whistledown by Eloise. She attacks Penelope for her tarnishing of the Bridgerton name in her gossip sheets, and Penelope retaliates, stating: “You only ever talk about doing something.” Penelope may be a morally grey character but she is more action-oriented than Eloise. She sees injustice and picks up her pen, rather than complain about it to her peers, much like Eloise. As a result, Penelope makes a vast amount of money to support herself and begins to learn to make her own way in the world. This is where audiences start to see how the counters fall when it comes to a woman choosing her own path away from the prying eyes of society. 

With regards to the marriage mart, its biggest symptom is it pits women against each other. The previously-detestable Cressida Cowper is desperate to secure a husband, reflecting the limited options available to ladies in Regency society. Her inability to form genuine friendships highlights this. In Season 3, she confides in Eloise, admitting that while it has been difficult to secure a husband, it has been further challenging to find a true friend. She tells Eloise: “I've not had many [friends] since my debut — not real ones. I did as a girl, but the season has a way of coming between young ladies, pitting us against one another.”

The most significant difference between Cressida and Eloise, however, is revealed when viewers are invited to see behind closed doors. The Cowper household is cold and dark and Cressida's father is firm in his beliefs — so much so, Cressida faces being trapped in an arranged marriage with a much older gentleman, purely for his wealth. She must marry for prospects and is not afforded the same opportunities as Eloise or the Bridgertons in marrying for love. Similar pressures are faced by Penelope, however she manages to escape them through a love match with Colin Bridgerton.

The women of the ton vary dramatically in their personas and willingness to follow tradition. Portia Featherington, mother to three daughters, is strong and confrontational. She is clever in a dramatically different way to her daughter Penelope or to Eloise, personally stopping Lord Jack Featherington from swindling her family. Smarter than her male counterparts, she has learnt to defend her daughters and family name in ways that matter when put into action. Agatha Danbury is another character who holds much wealth, stemming from her marriage to an older man who died, leaving her a young widow. She is unsurprisingly widely considered one of the strongest characters in Bridgerton thanks to her ability to manipulate her peers and help her friends while maintaining her vital social status. 

Bridgerton is a captivating exploration of timeless female desires nestled within a bygone era. While the societal constraints may seem distant, the show's core themes resonate deeply. Whether wielding a pen like Penelope or navigating the marriage mart like Daphne, these characters inspire us to challenge current societal norms and write our own stories. 

All three seasons of Bridgerton are available to stream on Netflix.