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Daphne Bridgerton and Simon Basset in Bridgerton. Artwork by Anusha Kav

Netflix’s Bridgerton raises questions about sexual consent and power today

Unequal power dynamics. Sexual violence. The main couple in Netflix’s hit series Bridgerton is a fan favourite in spite of it all.

By Anusha Kav , in Culture , on March 4, 2021

Spoiler warning for season one of Bridgerton and trigger warning for sexual assault.

The relationship between the main couple in Netflix’s series Bridgerton is toxic by our modern standards. In spite of that, many progressive women are among the 82 million viewers who still root for Simon Basset and Daphne Bridgerton.

So how are these fans in the 21st century grappling with the show’s main couple despite glaring issues of consent and power in the series?

Experts say it’s because rooting for unhealthy couples is nothing new. It’s part of a history of problematic relationships at the centre of romantic narratives. From Maddie Hayes and David Addison in Moonlighting to Blair Waldolf and Chuck Bass in Gossip Girl, the list of unhealthy relationships fans have rooted for is endless. 

Rooting for a problematic love story is nothing new

Lise Gaston, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia who specializes in 18th-century studies and Victorian literature, said she wasn’t surprised by audiences supporting Simon and Daphne.

“I find it incredibly realistic that we would do that based on how we’ve been trained to read and enjoy romance,” said Gaston. “Like the beginning of the show, when they’re at odds with each other, that goes back to Shakespeare, that goes back to Pride and Prejudice. That’s the basic narrative of how we kind of get invested in a character relationship.”

You don’t have to go back very far to find these relationships in modern stories. Shonda Rhimes’ production company Shondaland alone has many examples.

Meredith Grey and Derek Shepherd in Grey’s Anatomy

“If you watched Scandal, you watched a desperately unhealthy relationship for multiple years, and you rooted for them anyway,” said Tiffany Potter, professor of teaching at the University of British Columbia, and a scholar of the 18th century and television studies.

“If you watched Grey’s Anatomy, you watched a relationship that was unequal in terms of its power, that involved deceit regarding adultery, I mean, all of those things, and yet, we root for them.”

Fitzgerald Grant III and Olivia Pope in Scandal

These narratives compound over time and become part of how we understand romance. Gaston and Potter said it can become second nature to overlook harmful aspects of relationships on television because they’ve long been romanticized in television and film.

The bigger problem with Bridgerton

In Bridgerton, the oppressive political, legal and economic climate of the era further complicates the romance between Simon and Daphne and make Daphne’s rights tied to Simon.

Given the lack of power women had at the time, Daphne, too, engages in manipulative behaviour in order to achieve her goals, no matter the cost. Most glaring, in episode six of the series, Daphne ignores Simon’s withdrawal of consent during sex and forces him to ejaculate inside her.

The scene itself did receive sharp criticism from critics and fans alike who called into question the show-runner’s choice to portray what was, by today’s standards, a sexual-assault scene.

Some fans, like Erin Blackmore, a lover of Jane Austen and other novels from the era, came to the series expecting a conflict between her own values today and the norms of the series. She understood Daphne’s actions as a product of her naivety around topics of sex, romance and healthy relationships, which was common of aristocratic women in the 19th century.

“I just feel like she was never set up for that lifestyle,” Blackmore said, but stressed knowing that didn’t change how she viewed the sexual-assault scene.

“I would definitely say that scene was sexual assault,” she said. “The dialogue today is no matter at what point in a sexual experience, if someone is showing distress or saying ‘No,’ it stops. He obviously was showing distress, wanting her to stop and she didn’t.”

Rooting for such a harmful couple in Bridgerton is even more relevant today as data shows 21st-century audiences are still wrestling with power, boundaries and consent in relationships. According to Statistics Canada data, sexual violence is still a prevalent and concerning issue. Thirty per cent of women and eight per cent of men in Canada have been sexually assaulted since the age of 15.

And not all fans are like Blackmore. With compilation videos on YouTube racking up hundreds of thousands of views, and Instagram pages dedicated to their relationship, support for Simon and Daphne’s relationship shows many are willing to overlook these unhealthy relationships in 2021.

Bridgerton can tempt audiences to justify Simon and Daphne’s actions as reflective of the social norms of the 19th century instead of seeing the couple as part of the aforementioned history of dysfunctional T.V. couples.

But experts like Daniela Chávez Vega, who is the education program co-ordinator at the University of Alberta sexual assault centre, say using a 21st-century lens of consent can help us work towards tackling sexual violence today even in shows like Bridgerton.

“I think we can’t rewrite history,” she said. “So, can we do these shows ethically? Yes. It’s not changing the story though. It’s naming and acknowledging, because the reason we are continuously in this ebb and pulled towards oppressive structures is because our society is rooted in systems of that.”