Disclaimer: This post is not a comprehensive look at the whole Bridgertons series, as I have not finished the series. Additionally, this post is focusing on the books so I won’t be bringing up issues in the Netflix show aside from using comparisons between the two stories.
Issue No. 1: The men want to be bad
Thus far, the Bridgertons series has presented a similar structure for each couple. The heroine is underestimated as a marriage match, and largely considered unacceptable for one reason or another–she has also been marriage age for a few years, placing the age gaps a little more comfortably (the women have been generally between twenty and twenty-three, the men thirty-one at the oldest). The man has been the exact same every time: no interest in falling in love, a reputation as a bit of a “ladies man” (rake is the preferred term in the series), and some flaw relating to masculinity that has to be overcome in order to achieve a happily ever after.
Every single man thus far seems to believe himself a villain in a way. Simon and Anthony especially, as they had “bad reputations,” prefer to allow their heroine to think poorly of them rather than risk the emotional connection that comes with being honest and vulnerable. This leads to awkward moments though in which the men do behave poorly–red flag is the phrase that comes to mind. Each man is around thirty when the romance takes place, making them supposedly more mature than their heroine counterparts. Additionally, the men do have more life experience (with perhaps the exception of Sophie Beckett). However, when the young and inexperienced heroines commit a transgression or present with a flaw, the heroes respond as if this were equal to their own flaws and generally lash out in anger. In the case of Simon–something I touched on in my review of The Duke and I–this anger can even be frighteningly violent.
Because these characters prefer their “bad boy” personas, they also prefer to let the heroine suffer and be upset by them for a period of time before admitting to their feelings and capitulating to marriage. Again, Benedict and Sophie’s story doesn’t always fit this mold but they have their own issues.
Issue No. 2: A bit of a lack of empathy
Each of the male heroes in Bridgertons has some unresolved trauma, but instead of making these respective men more empathetic they become less so. There’s a lot of derision and “you haven’t suffered as I have” going on even with characters that have definitely suffered. And each time it’s squarely on the heroine’s shoulders to handle their man’s trauma while only barely addressing their own. Kate does address more of her own trauma throughout her story, but coincidentally Anthony does as well and I would argue that his addressing trauma is more important to the story overall. This especially becomes poignant when you recognize that due to their ages and the sheltered nature of most of the heroines, the men in the stories have more overall life experience but behave as though they don’t. The heroines are expected to have the same level of emotional maturity and intelligence as a man ten years her senior and if she makes a mistake or speaks carelessly, she is an object of scorn.
Issue No. 3: Forced Marriages
By now I’m sure most people are familiar with the unusual note in the marriage of Simon and Daphne. Most romance novels would never dream of having the characters do anything sexual before at least their official engagement, in large part because being a “shot gun wedding” isn’t quite as fun as a genuine one. However, the Bridgertons series subverts this expectation by having–so far–every couple not only be in a compromising situation but be caught. So, despite genuine attraction between the characters, at the point where the couples are engaged and rushed into their wedding, they are generally not in love yet (Benedict and Sophie don’t wholly fit this, but I don’t think their relationship is any stronger or benefits from the longer length before engagement). Thus, the characters are forced to marry before they are ready, before they’re certain they even want to marry. The characters react poorly to this, and though of course the romance sweeps the characters up in love and they have very happy marriages in the end, it’s an uncomfortable trend to read book after book.
Issue No. 4: Sexual Repression is Encouraged
Hear me out, okay? So, this series is known for being steamy, with a lot more sex scenes than your average Regency era romance series. As I mentioned above, nearly all the couples have premarital experiences as well which isn’t as common in romance novels set in this time period. However, except for Sophie, all of the female characters have been actively encouraged by all the men around them towards abstinence. As we know, there is historical precedence for this idea of the men being free to sleep around but requiring chastity from their future brides. Sophie and Benedict share a different relationship approach because Sophie is perceived as being lower class in comparison, and thus is pressured into premarital sex. Yes, Benedict outright asks her to be his mistress and does pressure her into agreeing, even if their first sexual encounter is not in this context. Despite the sexual liberation encouraged in the heroines after marriage, there is still a lot of repression encouraged before marriage. If it weren’t for the weird “this series is sex positive!” discussions I see floating around, I wouldn’t have pointed this out though.
I wouldn’t say these patterns are indicative of a big issue, or even that they’re uncommon in romance novels in general. However, part of critical consumption of media is noticing these patterns, especially when a piece of media is gaining a lot of attention. Since the TV series, all of the Bridgertons novels have been checked out at my library and impossible to find in local bookstores due to demand. Veteran romance readers are pretty good about critically reading certain tropes and trends in order to not internalize any harmful behaviors. My concern is that as new readers are introduced to this series, they may absorb some of these patterns and begin to implement expectations in their real lives based on them. The series definitely has some great moments, and the books are enjoyable and have loving relationships throughout. It’s just smart to be aware of these issues when reading.