How Bridgerton set my soul on fire during my heart's coldest Christmas
For Téa Mutonji, the Netflix romance was a warm reminder of the healing power of representation
Warm Blanket is a series of personal essays from Canadian writers and artists reflecting on the pop culture that has brought them comfort and coziness during one year of the pandemic.
I grew up on a strict diet of romance novels, romantic comedies and musicals. My childhood was my dreamland. I was an actor and spent a very big chunk of my time performing, feeling certain that I would end up on Broadway or in the modern remake of Pride and Prejudice. I lived for the escapism of it. I was a sucker for intimacy (though at the age of ten, I would have called it "a fuzzy feeling"). Then I got older and learned that there wasn't much space for Black actors in the world, and then I got even older and there wasn't much of a place for Black people at all.
During these years of cultural identity awakening, I got discouraged and quit acting. Far from the magic and whimsy of my childhood interests, I found myself gravitating toward cinéma vérité, favouring dark, indie, often triggering films and literature that addressed the world as we live in it — to the point that sometimes when I read my own book, it doesn't feel like something that the young me could have ever read, let alone interacted with. And then I got stuck there. I lost my glee, my singin' in the rain approach to life. Romantic comedies became inaccessible to me, and when reflecting back to my strings of bad romances, so did love. I don't think I ever stopped believing in it, but I definitely stopped believing that it would happen for someone like me.
But then the pandemic hit. And the earth stopped. And I knew that the only way I was going to survive the world's collective pain was to go back to the place I felt safest. So, I pressed play. Romantic comedy, after romantic comedy, after romantic comedy. It did the job, but still, something was missing. And then, on Christmas day, Bridgerton arrived and set my soul on fire.
It was Christmas and I was spending it alone in my apartment, feeling sluggish and uncomfortable. So, without prerequisite, I saw "created by Shonda Rhimes" and my knee-jerk reaction was to press play. Within minutes, I had this deep, warm, Anne-Hathaway-in-Princess-Diaries-pop-kiss type of feeling boiling all around me. There was something about Daphne's youthful naivete that brought me right back to imaging my own fairytale wedding. And the costume and design, the big ballroom scenes, the hair and makeup — it reminded me of what attracted me to performance in the first place. I'm a sucker for the glamour. You had me the moment an Ariana Grande song was delivered via string quartet. This is the type of fantasy that makes me get up in my living room and re-imagine myself as a pop-infused contemporary dancer with an important audition like in Save The Last Dance (although perhaps less cringy).
It was just so beautiful, plain and simple. And I think that it's primal, to want to look for beauty in storytelling. Forget the content, forget the plot, forget the much-needed discourse on colourism, forget the fact that they almost (almost!) had it right with their blind* casting — it was just so beautiful. And I would like permission and more opportunities to remain in beauty for just a while longer. I can't remember the last time I saw a Black man as a leading man like this: as the one to be desired, romantically and sexually, and not in a fetishized kind of way. It was even somewhat jarring at first, after months of seeing Black men die on my television; there was something a little disarming about seeing one being loved by the very same type of "Karens" I'm sometimes nervous around when I'm grocery shopping at the Whole Foods across the street. For me, when I'm engaging with anything textual, I think it's possible to be satisfied with the superficial alone. And in a time like this, I want to put down my critical writer's hat and just be here for the spectacle. In fact, I think I sometimes need this.
I had a similar feeling while watching Tessa Thompson in Sylvie's Love. On a purely aesthetic level, I was in awe of her beauty. The long scenes that capture her as a desirable woman make me feel breathless; they make me cry. I'm not used to seeing this so clearly on my screen. I didn't have this growing up, and I wonder if it would have made a difference. Most of the romantic heroines I loved, like Julia Roberts or Keira Knightley, were white women, and as a child you begin to simply accept it as the way things are. But now I can see someone like Simone Ashley, who has just been cast as the lead for Bridgerton Season 2. And so, I'm choosing to hope. I'm choosing to believe in a world where Black characters (again, colourism aside for one sec) can be the sort of leading characters we lust over. Give me more representation so that my heart can grow larger. I need this. We all do.
Bridgerton isn't a perfect show. It isn't necessarily the most memorable or exceptional thing I've ever watched. But it brings me back. It makes me crave the dramatic, the orchestral, the journey of falling in love. I swear I suddenly remember Juliet's entire monologue in that one Shakespeare play, and today, I find myself asking everyone who calls, "What's in a name?" Musicals, romantic comedies, love songs: all these little elements that once played such a significant role in the way I saw the world are coming back to me. Sometimes, you just need the reminder, and Bridgerton is my reminder.
For ten hours straight, get into this world where a Black woman is queen, where a neglected Black boy grows up to be a duke instead of being seduced by a life of crime. (Though, arguably, The Duke could use some therapy.) Come into this world and wonder. Get lost. Remember the magic of Hollywood onscreen, and dare to see yourself in it.
Can Bridgerton do more in their subsequent seasons? Absolutely. But for now, it is enough for me. I find healing when I hold on to the little things. I find comfort when I see people dancing, when I see rain. I take what I can and I wrap myself inside of it. Inside of Bridgerton, I take beauty, I take friendship, I take the love of a mother and that of a best friend, and yes, I live for the gossip. Today, I'm urging myself to believe, one day at a time: I'm a woman deserving of love, too.
Read all 12 essays from the Warm Blanket series here.