Bridgerton: Why Costume-Drama Queerbaiting Erases LGBTQ+ History

CW: references to homophobia.

Before we go any further, let me just say: it’s ok if you like Bridgerton. Gorgeous outfits, lots of ethnic diversity, steamy romance-novel sex… no wonder it’s one of 2020’s most popular shows.

Sadly, however, the only romances I’m here to talk about are the ones which were conspicuous by their absence. Specifically, remember that blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gay sex scene in the teaser trailer? Well, that turned out to literally be the only gay sex scene—with only one named character, a minor player with no real affect on the story. Accusations of queerbaiting swiftly made the rounds and, understandably, people felt betrayed.

My not-so-favourite part? That the sex scene is shown in the trailer right as the voiceover says, “If there is a scandal, I will uncover it”, giving the distinct impression that it’s the sole purpose of queer people in this show. No-one cared about giving us genuine representation, i.e. through complex characters with fully developed storylines. We were used to boost the show’s sexy, illicit, ‘scandalous’ credentials, and then discarded and forgotten.

But for this questioning-but-probably-queer nerd, the issue isn’t just the queerbaiting; it’s the fact that they did it in a historical show. Because that setting, from the costumes to the candle budget, means that Bridgerton’s show runners aren’t just betraying modern-day queer viewers; they’re also dismissing centuries of LGBTQ+ history.

History Is Gay (and here’s a podcast all about it)

It’s honestly difficult to stress how much your perspective on history changes once you realise it’s all so, so much gayer than you thought it was. Sadly, one of the reasons we know that is thanks to the raft of homophobic laws different governments have passed. Here in England, sexual relationships between men first officially became illegal in 1533, with convictions punishable by death. Then in 1861, the Offences Against the Person Act very kindly made it ten years’ imprisonment instead. Partial decriminalisation wasn’t achieved until 1967, with things going very slowly uphill from there. Lesbian relationships, meanwhile, were always taboo but never explicitly outlawed. (The government did consider making lesbian relationships illegal in 1921, but changed their minds because they feared that drawing attention to female homosexuality would encourage more women to explore it.)

Of course, it’s debatable whether those laws’ targets would actually have identified as gay, bisexual, etc. (even the now-archaic term “homosexual” wasn’t coined until early gay rights campaigner Karl-Maria Kertbeny first used it in the late 1860s). Still, non-heterosexual relationships were very real. And just because queer people often couldn’t live openly, that absolutely does not mean they didn’t exist.

Finding them, however, is even more complicated once you realise that any evidence of queer relationships—like diaries or love letters—was often destroyed to avoid stigma. Sometimes queer people did this themselves, because the fear of persecution outweighed any sentimental instincts. And without concrete proof, like Oscar Wilde’s life-ruining conviction for “gross indecency”, past historians have bent over backwards to justify writing potential gay couples as ‘very close friends’. And yet, when you read between the lines…

“History will say they were best friends”…

Case in point: from 1760 until her death three years later, Italian princess Isabella of Parma had a notably intense ‘friendship’ with her sister-in-law, Archduchess Maria Christina. Intense because her letters to Maria said things like, “I am madly in love with you, virtuously or diabolically, I love you and I will love you to the grave.” Some decades later, Emily Dickinson had a very close relationship with her sister-in-law which many scholars, for obvious reasons, now interpret as romantic. Oh, and one of King James I’s letters to a male courtier reads, “Praying God […] that we may make at this Christenmass a new marriage, ever to be kept thereafter; for God so love me […] I had rather live banished in any part of the earth with you, then live a sorrowful widow-life without you.” I could go on and on. (The exploration of trans people throughout history needs an essay all on its own, but if you’re especially interested in their stories this Pink News list is a good start.)

And that’s just the rich and famous. Remember how lots of queer people destroyed their own incriminating writings? During the 1940s, virtual unknowns Gilbert Bradley and Gordon Bowsher kept up a passionate correspondence, with declarations like, “My own darling boy, There is nothing more than I desire in life but to have you with me constantly.” Understandably, at one point Gordon wrote, “I want all my letters destroyed. Please darling do this for me.” Gilbert evidently took this request about as seriously as he took monogamy, i.e. not very, and the letters were eventually rediscovered after Gilbert’s death in 2008. Yet many other similarly ‘ordinary’ people were undoubtedly more cautious and avoided being publicly outed and persecuted throughout. Their sexualities and relationships have been lost to time—which for them would have easily been the least-worst scenario.

Somewhere in the echoes of history, then, were so many queer people whose loves and lives were hidden and forgotten—and who deserve that overdue celebration, not least because of the message that would send to the LGBTQ+ community today. Except by definition, it’s impossible to acknowledge most of those people by name. So, how do we do that? Well, historical fiction is a good start. Make up a story set in the past, and throw in some gay characters to represent their real-life counterparts. Simple, right? Hell, for Bridgerton it should have been even simpler: that show has so many main characters it’s like a Regency Game of Thrones. With all those potential relationships and character arcs available, the show runners could have really done something special. They had a chance to acknowledge all those forgotten, unnamed people, and give them a voice.

And yet, like so many before them, they failed.

Image courtesy of Shayna Douglas.

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