A More Diverse Past

On the recommendation of a few friends (and in want of something to have on on the background while playing Civilization VI) I checked out Bridgerton some time ago. I went into it someone with very little familiarity with Regency-era England outside of general pop culture osmosis and the card game Marrying Mr. Darcy, so I didn’t really have much in the way of expectations. It was fun enough, a delightful silly melodrama marred by some questionable relationship dynamics and a really crappy and unexplored case of sexual assault. But putting all that side for one moment, what’s perhaps most notable about Bridgerton — especially if you’ve only seen stills or promotional material about it — is the multiracial makeup of its cast.

Bridgerton’s male romantic lead, the Duke of Hastings, is played by a Black man. Other roles, like the seamstress, the acerbic Lady Danbury, and even Queen Charlotte herself, are also given to people of color. The show is downright refreshingly incongruous, here is a period drama where people who aren’t white also get to dress up in the fancy dresses, wigs, and suits and take part in the mythical and melodrama of high society.

Canonically, it’s justified by thin justification that raises more questions, many of which just muddy the waters. Ignoring that, though, here is a period drama cast to look more like a contemporary United Kingdom; this is a show that made a conscious decision that the Regency era — this British myth — didn’t have to be just about white people.

Indeed, the Regency era is as much a part of the British mythmaking as Arthurian legend and Robin Hood. It’s what Jane Austen’s legendary novels are about, it was the time of romance and scandal. It also is — like much of Western history — one that’s all about white people. Ignoring the pretenses of ‘historical accuracy’ and leaning into its mythical nature and letting anyone play a Duke or Count democratizes the story, making it one for everybody.

Kinda like Hamilton.

The founding of the United States that Hamilton is based on is a myth unto itself too. Yeah, there’s the history of it all, but that’s boring so we’ve got The Patriot, Hamilton, and the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. Hamilton’s retelling of the myth is notable for not just having people of color play the (very white in real life) Founding Fathers, but for reframing the narrative as the story of an upstart immigrant. Sure, the musical would probably work with an all-white cast, but with someone like Lin Manuel Miranda or Javier Muñoz in the lead it makes its immigrant story contemporarily relevant. Plus, casting a pool of people who look more like Americans today declares that the myth of America’s nation-building belongs to everyone, two hundred years later.

Of course, this approach to casting is not without criticism. Miranda’s own activism for Puerto Rico is somewhat undercut by his mythologizing of the island’s colonizer (but then, issues like these are certainly more nuanced). Bridgerton falls into some pitfalls with its characters of color, relegating many of them to minor roles and not really doing much with the whole question of race that it poses and quickly forgets. ‘Colorblind’ casting is a noble idea that doesn’t always work, sometimes robbing a character of their race so they can fit into the dominant (usually white and Western) culture of the narrative.

So the question now is: Why even bother. It’s cool to see people who look like me dressed up in Regency flair, but why the continued fixation on these old narratives? I joke that period pieces are all about white people problems, but where is my period piece about life in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, about intrigue in the Ottoman court, about competition for the throne of Imperial China? There’s a lot more to history than British balls, and it’s about time we saw more of it. Granted, some of these stories are being told (Chinese historical dramas are a genre unto themselves), but the US has a pop culture monopoly, so stories from elsewhere are relegated to the sideshow of foreign films.

Look, I Bridgerton’s willingness to upend the usual way of doing things for Regency stories (and do I hope more stories follow its cue!), but I recognize that that alone isn’t necessarily enough, that it’s about time we draw our narratives from elsewhere. Why not let the sphere of stories be that fabled melting pot, where the myths of any culture’s history are afforded the same space and dignity as the next?

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