Social media is afire with the new period-drama series Bridgerton, which is about debutantes making their entry into high society for the express purpose of finding a husband. It follows the lives of the eight Bridgerton siblings and their friends, the Featheringtons.
The first season is mainly about the eldest Bridgerton daughter, Daphne, and the Duke of Hastings, Simon Bassett. It explores how society puts pressure on young women and men to marry, and to marry the right partner in terms of social standing, irrespective of intelligence or compatibility. If a woman is lucky she might find a husband who meets all three of these criteria but that is not always the case.
Take Daphne, for example. She is an intelligent and beautiful woman. And because she is the eldest daughter and sister, she is under even more pressure to find the best match, which will set the stage for the rest of her sisters to find their own ‘acceptable’ husbands. It does not help that when she comes out, the Queen and therefore British high society, known as the Ton, describe her as the ‘Diamond of the First Water’, meaning she is the best of the best. As time passes and she does not secure the right offers, she becomes subject to gossip, especially in Lady Whistledown’s scandal-sheet where her desirability to suitors is questioned. Whilst her brothers and her mother are willing to allow her time and space to choose a mate, even they feel pressured by the rules and expectations of society to quickly find her a husband.
Even though Bridgerton is a period drama, the rules governing marriage and singledom seem to have been passed down the ages and still prevail. In India, from the time a girl is born, many parents begin collecting money for her dowry, and as she grows up, they commence scouting for a ‘suitable boy’. When the time comes for her to marry, they start introducing her to acceptable candidates keeping in mind religion, caste, class and such factors. Few women are truly lucky to be able to choose their spouse and even fewer can stand up to their parents and postpone their marriage, or be truthful and say that they are not interested in marriage at the time or at all.
By and large, society expects a woman to marry. Often people in one’s circle judge a woman if she doesn’t marry, inquiring about what could be wrong but most never assuming that it could be out of choice. The very fact that one would go against the grain is hard for people to imagine – living on one’s own, not depending on solely one person for companionship or sex, being financially independent and self-reliant whilst not depending on another for a financial security net, and so on. As a single woman, I know this from first-hand experience. And it is tiresome to constantly explain oneself. The fact that one might have other ideas about what one wants to do with one’s life apart from marriage, like Eloise in the series, is alien to most of society. Eloise wants to study and to explore the world, and marriage is the last thing on her mind. In fact, she is grateful to Daphne for being the ‘perfect’ woman as that reduces the societal pressure on her to project herself as an acceptable bride.
As for the young men in the series, they too feel trapped by the mothers of the young single women constantly hounding them to arrange a match. But by and large, the freedom they enjoy to live life, explore what it has to offer, make acquaintance with other women outside of their social milieu, explore and experiment with their sexuality is not available to women. These gendered roles have also carried on through the ages. Recently, the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh announced that under a new programme to be put in place, a woman leaving her house for work will have to register herself at the local police station and will be tracked for her safety. In Bridgerton, the women are chaperoned and can never be seen alone with a man in public. They could freely socialise only after marriage which gave them a title of respectability.
When Daphne and Simon are ‘caught’ kissing in the garden by Anthony, Daphne’s brother, Simon is given an ultimatum to marry Daphne or else to duel Anthony. All this in the name of ‘honour’, another concept that implies women need to be pure and virginal and if their reputations are ruined, even through actions of others, it would bring dishonour to their families. Anthony is willing to die for his sister’s honour. This is again not an alien concept, given so many reports of the infamously termed ‘Love Jihad’ and ‘honour killings’ of women who supposedly bring dishonour to their families by falling in love with a man from another religion, caste, class, or simply by daring to exercise and assert their agency.
As I watched Bridgerton, I was appreciative that I live in a family and at a time where I can choose – choose whether to marry or not, choose whether to have a child or not, and choose my spouse. The choices I make are available under law which has been hard-fought to secure. But whether these choices are allowed to be made and freely lived by one’s ‘Ton’ or society or community is very contextual. And even though allowed by law, some of these choices still come with sacrifice, personal battles, and call for strong will power. One might still have to face backlash from society, rumours and harsh judgements, and maybe even ostracism. Nevertheless, we have progressed from the Regency era and its myriad of restrictions stifling women’s lives where they were expected to marry, could not choose their spouse, live on their own, take a walk without a chaperone, run their own business if they were of a certain social class, or go to college like their brothers.
As we start a new decade, let us ensure that we, with our own actions and beliefs, pave the way for a more affirming and safe society for all people, especially non-conforming individuals, to be able to make their own choices and not have to abide by rigid and out-dated rules.
Cover Image: IMDB