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Sunday, October 1, 2023

What Do TV’s Race Fantasies Actually Want to Say?

Not all fantasies are created equal. Take Bridgerton, the multiracial British period drama that is producer Shonda Rhimes’ first show for Netflix. It was an unprecedented hit: Reaching 82 million households, the Regency era romance became Netflix’s most watched show ever, an immovable colossus of pop culture. Our eyes dart and sway, our attention rarely pauses for longer than a click these days, yet Bridgerton freezes us in place, it catches our gaze—why?


In some ways, the appeal is obvious. Bridgerton is sexy and sex-obsessed. It’s witty and subversive and the kind of show that makes TV better for everyone, a signature of Rhimes’ Midas touch. Her shows are women-led and inclusive, emotionally lush. It also doesn’t hurt that Bridgerton is costumed in a trendy TV subgenre—high-society dramas about the machinations of the rich—and shares DNA with precursors like Gossip Girl and Downton Abbey. Familiarity engenders popularity. It’s the sort of saccharine escapism this very moment responds to. We want fantasies that allow for easy detachment, that appeal to our human senses. Bridgerton does just that.

What first tempts our attention is a tangled affair between Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor), courting season’s It Girl, and Simon Basset (Regé-Jean Page), a reluctant duke with daddy issues. Their relationship is the heartbeat of the series but not its most mesmerizing attribute. What held my attention across Bridgerton’s eight episodes was its seeming racially utopic backdrop and, more specifically, the inclusion of Black British royalty.

This is where Bridgerton, based on a book series by author Julia Quinn, deviates from its source material. The books are ignorant of race, it’s mostly a nonfactor, whereas the TV adaptation elevates equality to the point of inevitability. Not only are Black Brits part of English society; they govern over it. “We were two separate societies divided by color until a king fell in love with one of us,” says Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh), explaining how the multiracial aristocracy came to be. “Look at everything it is doing for us, allowing us to become.”

At first, the revisionism plays like a fun thought experiment. We get to see how a Black queen of England rules—fiery and fearsome, she's a monarch who prefers her pageantry with a side of gossip. We’re privy to the daily life and innermost feelings of a Black duke. It’s an amusing game of What if?, but only for so long. In the end, these race fantasies go nowhere beyond pure entertainment. What seduces eventually repels.

Let me say here that I very much liked the show. Still, there was something about it that didn’t sit right. What purpose does the kind of representation Bridgerton represents serve?

Bridgerton is a show that, in one sense, challenges “the limits of the archive,” as cultural historian Saidya Hartman might put it. That unwillingness to abide by history’s set of rules, to sidestep its insistence on fact, is its most alluring bit of fiction. It is also Bridgerton’s most troubling one. Troubling because, at heart, fantasy is about envisioning something new, perhaps another way, in service of a higher truth. The futility in the show's use of fantasy is how it plays with race. It wants to say something important but can’t. And it can’t because there is no higher truth to serve beyond its entertainment value.

If the inclusion of Black aristocracy feels necessary to the point of revisionism, if Quinn’s vision alone does not suffice, would it not be just as easy to relocate the show to Haiti circa the 19th century, when Henry Christophe ruled, or during the reign of the Kingdom of Benin before it was annexed in 1897? Granted, that would make it a completely different show—Bridgetown, not Bridgerton—but the history, the drama, the backdoor scheming, it’s all there, ready for thoughtful excavation. Why not give real Black royalty the extravagance of a Netflix budget?

As I see it, what the show speaks to is a much larger issue. Part of it feels like the Hollywood machine doing what it does best, engaging Blackness only in proximity to whiteness rather than on its own terms, which perhaps suggests, in part, a kind of reluctance to confront our scariest issues and realities. Would it not benefit us more to write the world as it was, as it is?

Bridgerton is a hypnotizing romance; it’s the very work that compels us to contemplate tougher questions, questions about the kind of art we are deserving of, the kind of art we still don’t see on TV. But we need defaults. Rhimes is no stranger to the practice, a torchbearer in giving Black women a leading voice in prime time when it was unheard of (lest we forget how pioneering Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder were when they debuted). We need more shows like Ramy and Queen Sugar, like Pose, Little America, and I May Destroy You, shows that don’t fantasize about a more perfect past or present, but instead illustrate other ways of looking at stories, circumstances, and histories we can’t go back and change.

That was the major problem of Hollywood, another Netflix vehicle, which held a mirror up to the very industry it critiqued. The Ryan Murphy-created 1940s miniseries is partly about structural barriers to success, giving voice to Black, queer, and women actors trying to find their way amid the noxious racism and gender discrimination of the era. But then, in the end, those filmmakers—all of whom challenged convention and made a film with a Black actress as the lead—won Oscars in the last episode, glossing over the painful inequalities of the era in service of a happy ending. So what’s that saying? All it was was a liberal fantasy—sentimental, unhelpful, a little embarrassing.

As a TV creator, Murphy is one of the great queer maximalists of this generation, which is perhaps why Hollywood was unable extract real meaning from its story. Whereas the ballroom drama Pose, another Murphy endeavor, thrives on a lack of subtly in its celebration of an overlooked scene and people—trans stories remain mainly absent from TV—Hollywood would have benefited from it, especially with regard to how it could have folded the real stories of actresses like Hattie McDaniel and Anna May Wong into the arc of the series, and more finely detailed what was actually going on in their lives. But perhaps that might shift the story too far from the center of whiteness these sort of race fantasies depend on—Blackness, queerness, and womaness are only interesting tethered to the white core, when white people are championing it.

In a 2017 interview, Color of Change president Rashad Robinson talked to Vox about diversity in Hollywood. “We are looking for representations that are authentic, fair, and have humanity. Where Black people are not the side script to larger stories and are not just seen through white eyes,” Robinson said. “There is a way in which we get the same types of representation over and over again, which kind of decreases the sensitivity and humanity that people receive because the media images we see of people can be so skewed.”

Two years after Robinson’s chat with Vox, in the summer of 2019, Saidiya Hartman spoke at the Hammer Museum about her just-released book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. The book chronicles the lives of Black women in the early 1900s and takes a unique approach to biography, leaning heavily on creative license. It was praised widely for its use of expansive source material, which included case files, old social surveys, photographs, and plantation documents. One critic noted that Hartman was “original in her approach to gaps in a story, which she shades in with speculation and sometimes fictional imagining.”

For scholars like Hartman who tell Black stories rich in sweep, historical records—that is, information categorized as fact—can read like betrayal. Those records, which is to say those stories about Black life, are shaded by all kinds of prejudice: racism, classism, sexism. The powerless remain at the mercy of those who catalog their history. The same thinking applies to how we understand what stories are told, and how they’re told, on TV. Hartman proposes an alternate route with her use of fictional imagining. “What does it mean to try to push against the limits of the archive, to do a certain violence in the context of an archive that’s already violent, but still maintain some kind of fidelity to it?” She worried that to do so, to pledge loyalty, would only freeze us in a static loop. Hartman concluded that “given the kind of violence and power that has engendered this, why should I be faithful to that limit. Why should I respect that?”

Where Hartman’s practice differs from shows like Bridgerton or Hollywood is in her style of world-building. She is attempting to write a history that was erased from the mainstream, to put the pieces back together in some new form, not write a history that never existed. Dickinson, the Apple TV+ series about the prolific poet Emily Dickinson, is one of the more recent shows to tow this line with a better sense of context. Influenced by Hartman’s practice, creator Alena Smith applied her own creative license to the script and took a more imaginative approach by not solely sticking to history’s version of Dickinson. Portraying the young writer in a modern light, the show is more concerned with truth-finding than truth-telling. And more shows like that are in the pipeline, including Underground Railroad, the Amazon Prime limited series by Barry Jenkins set to premiere in May, about an actual below-surface train system that slaves used to reach freedom in the north (the show was adapted from the 2016 Pulitzer-winning novel by Colson Whitehead).

Or maybe, just maybe, all of this comes down to something else Hartman said: respect. I think of shows like Los Espookys, like P-Valley and I May Destroy You, and how they register as singular feats because of what little respect they have for form, for an archive, for a Hollywood system that in some sense wants them to always attach their stories to a white cultural body. I think of new shows, like We Are Who We Are and Generation, which premieres this month on HBO Max, two queer dramas about young people that have their eyes forward, that want to make sense of their world in their way. I think of all of these shows and how they challenge us, provoke curiosity and awe, how they make us better in having been exposed to something true and different.

Because what good is world-building in worlds already past, lost to time and ignorance and exclusion, in putting Black faces in white spaces for the sake of a representation that ultimately feels empty? The greater pursuit here seems to be in envisioning the world ahead, the one unfolding right in front of us, the one right at our fingertips.

Defaults are a necessary mechanism for change in how we tell stories on TV. There’s power in centering Black people in Black stories, in allowing them to achieve fullness on screen. But their shape needn’t always be backward-looking. Progress is not changing the color of history, as with Hollywood and Bridgerton (though Queen Charlotte’s backstory is partly drawn from real life; the other Black royals, including Simon and Lady Danbury, were make-believe). Progress is depicting it more bravely, owning up to the ugliness. Progress is showing how it is because of how it was.

Would it be better to just tell individual Black stories? Absolutely. I welcome it. I also believe that if Rhimes, Murphy, and other creators want to develop period pieces and include Black cast members they should. There is space to play with form and subvert old styles. Using the tools of fantasy to envision a different or more utopian world is one thing. Rewriting history as a way of softening the painful parts, however, is not the hope of fantasy; it’s meaningless wish fulfillment.

Fantasy, at its most elemental, is about possibility—the possibility of what can and should be—in service of truth. Of course, fiction doesn’t owe us accuracy, historical or otherwise. The genre is not bound by the rigidity of fact. Still, I can’t help but want it to work toward the truth of who we are. I can’t help but want for fantasy to speak toward a future that doesn’t betray the past wholesale. That is where the real wonder comes from.

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