A sexy Netflix series touted for bringing diversity to a lily-white British period drama genre made me feel invisible.
I binged the entire season of “Bridgerton” in one weekend because I was excited to see how a racially diverse cast of actors would translate onscreen in a genre that was exclusively white. It was history reimagined, and I wanted to be a part of it.
Each night, my darkened living room lit up with images of bucolic landscapes, sumptuous gowns, and corsets being masochistically tightened or passionately taken off. I delighted in seeing multiracial faces in roles of power, not just filling the roles of servants or maids. The series’ queen and the Duke of Hastings are both played by Black actors. Not to mention all the other minority faces prominently featured in high society.
I celebrated this reimagined world.
But as I continued to scan the lavish scenes, a familiar feeling settled in the pit of my stomach. As an Asian American watching the series, I felt unseen and unimportant. In the diverse main cast, I did not see anyone who looked like me. Not one substantial character of Asian descent was included in a series that decidedly set out to be more inclusive.
Yes, I saw the actress who played Lady Richmond in the episode, “Oceans Apart.” Her black hair was in an elegant updo in the dress shop scene. She spoke silently to her friends, cast a perfect side eye, then disappeared. Like the soft melody of a pianoforte, her Asian presence was to simply usher the story to another, more important, part.
I saw the queen’s lady-in-waiting in “The Duke and I” episode. She sat expressionlessly in a lacy white gown behind the queen with the other ladies. Her image lingered on screen for a few seconds as if to say, yes, this show represents everyone.
As much as “Bridgerton” is groundbreaking for its diversity, the series casts Asian faces in the peripheries like ornate vases or fake wisteria vines.
As an Asian American, the lack of representation in popular shows like this one shakes my already tenuous position in the racial social order. I become invisible because even in a reimagined world that transcends race, I don’t have a substantial place.
It’s like reimagining high school as a socially egalitarian place and still not having a spot at the lunch table.
This is the plight of being Asian American. We exist in an racial triangulation between Black and white, a theory coined by Professor Claire Jean Kim to describe Asian Americans as existing in a third space between Black and white. So in a Regency era “throuple” romance, Asians are seen, but fleetingly. We whisper, but our words are inaudible.
I know what you are thinking: stop taking “Bridgerton” so seriously. It is a frothy period piece with a lot of sex scenes to help us all escape our pandemic reality. On the surface, the series is an anachronistic waltz set to “thank u, next” — performed by a string quartet, of course. But “Bridgerton” is also an important social commentary about racial diversity and inclusion, for which many minority groups are still excluded.
For a fan of Regency era dramas like myself, “Bridgerton” is a reminder of my racial invisibility.
Cathy Park Hong in her book, “Minor Feelings,” accurately describes time travel as a perk owned solely by white people. If a time machine existed and I traveled back to any other time period in American history, I would be “enslaved, slain, maimed or chased away by feral children.” I can’t accurately picture myself in British period high society either because I imagine all those consequences apply there, too.
“Bridgerton” draws comparison to another Regency era love story — “Pride and Prejudice.” When I read Jane Austen’s novel for the first time, I pined for Darcy and saw myself in Lizzy’s independent spirit, but I related through the lens of my own immigrant story. My Chinese-born mother always stressed the importance of marriage and children, not necessarily to climb a social ladder, but as a moral imperative for my gender. In the pages of Austen’s novel, I could connect to the struggle against gender roles, but onscreen — with all its whiteness and privilege — who could relate?
When “Bridgerton” promised to break down racial barriers, I hoped for representation. In its absence, it is like being a ghost.
Just ask Jenna, the little Asian American girl in the viral video, who pointed to video footage of “Hamilton” star Phillipa Soo singing “Helpless”, and said the words we all wanted to say, “It’s me.” In Soo, who is Chinese American, little Jenna saw someone who looked like herself onscreen in a popular musical.
The power of that moment cannot be denied. Representation matters.
I am not completely hating on “Bridgerton.” It is a sexy and escapist romp through a more romantic era. And I am also not alone in liking the show. In its opening weeks on Netflix, the series was reportedly viewed by more than 63 million households. I know the series cannot be all things to all people, but under the umbrella of diversity, can we bring more racial groups to the table?
“Bridgerton” is the latest brainchild of Shonda Rhimes, who also created “Grey’s Anatomy.” She is no stranger to diverse casting. Her long-running medical drama included actors of Asian descent like Sandra Oh and Alex Landi in substantial roles. Imagining an Asian American doctor may not be as much of a stretch as an Asian debutante in a British period drama, but if history is being reimagined, can we have more inclusivity?
In the second season of “Bridgerton,” it would be great to see an Asian duchess or the debut of an Asian countess. Maybe a Latinx baron? If we could accept the roles of British nobility and American forefathers played by Black actors, then I want my little Jenna moment.
I want to escape into a television series and see a character who looks like me, and say, “It’s me.”