Does ‘Bridgerton’ hold a Mirror up to South Asian Culture?

Netflix’s ‘Bridgerton’ has taken the world by storm. We explore similarities between the period drama and traditional South Asian culture.

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“How does a lady come to be with child? I thought one had to be married?"

Netflix’s Bridgerton premiered in December 2020. The record-breaking period drama, set in 1813 London, has been streamed in over 82 million households.

It has quickly gained the status as Netflix’s most-watched series ever. The series has been viewed more than other popular shows such as Stranger Things (2016) and Money Heist (2017).

This regency-era romance has received a great deal of attention. Fans have gone onto praise Bridgerton for its colour-blind casting and modern take, along with the brilliant acting.

Since its release, many critics have been differentiating it from other period dramas based on Jane Austen’s novels and Downton Abbey (2010).

The series, created by American producer Chris Van Dusen, has been described as “the sauciest Regency drama ever.”

Due to this aspect, many have expressed how the show is a completely different genre to the usual period dramas, with lead actor Regé-Jean Page telling The Wrap:

“It’s a little bit of Jane Austen meets ‘Gossip Girl’ with maybe ‘49 Shades of Grey’.”

Despite providing a contemporary touch, Bridgerton, like other period dramas does hold some parallels to South Asian cultures. A 2019 article by the International Examiner expressed:

“Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is well-known to South Asian readers and many see the parallels between Jane Austen’s world and South Asian cultures.”

This is a similar case with Bridgerton. You may be thinking Bridgerton and South Asians – what is the correlation?

At first look the glistening lives of the debutantes of Regency London may seem worlds apart from South Asians.

However, despite being set in the Regency era, the storyline, characters and highly regarded societal norms can be very relatable for a South Asian audience.

From the marriage obsessed mothers, double standards and the importance of honour, DESIblitz explore some similarities between traditional South Asian culture and the glistening world of Bridgerton.

The Emphasis Placed on Marriage

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One of the first similarities between Bridgerton and South Asian culture is the emphasis on a woman getting married.

The entire plot of Bridgerton is centred around the lives of upper-class debutantes. The young girls are being presented to society, in order to find a suitable husband.

In particular, the show follows the life of Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor), as she makes her debut on the marriage market.

When attending the first ball of the season, Lady Whistledown, voiced by Julia Andrews, conveyed:

“Titled, chased and innocent – this is what they have been raised and trained for since birth.”

Daphne, despite being the fourth child, is the eldest daughter. Therefore, her whole life had been spent preparing for the marriage market. The character frequently acknowledges this point:

“This is all I have been raised for, this is all I am, I have no other value. If I am unable to find a husband, I will be worthless.”

When other characters such as Penelope Featherington (Nicola Coughlan) and Eloise Bridgerton (Claudia Jessie) express they want something more in life than marriage they are frequently shut down.

High society from the 19th century placed a great deal of emphasis on a woman finding a suitable husband.

Daphne admits these social expectations, as when speaking to the Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page), she maintained:

“If I am unable to secure another offer then there’s no alternative. Unlike you I cannot simply declare that I do not want to marry I do not have such privilege.”

This is replicable in South Asian culture, as there is more pressure on women to marry by a certain age.

The Pink Ladoo Project is a campaign that is trying to encourage “the South Asian community to recognise the damaging impact of gender-biased traditions on young girls.” The campaign was established in 2015.

On February 19, 2021, a picture was posted on their official Instagram with a quote on the image stating, “stop telling girls they can only be free after they’re married.

There was also a caption, which read:

“Marriage is so often presented as freedom. “you can do that after you’re married.”

“Then we create a generation of women fixated on marriage because they see it as a key to their own liberation. This is so damaging.”

This is certainly the case, as frequently young South Asian women are told they can only do things and have freedom “shaadi ke baad” (after the wedding).

Similar to Daphne, many women within South Asian culture are raised with the mentality that their value and independence will only come after marriage.

Furthermore, aspects of Bridgerton are reflective of the South Asian marriage market in the modern times. This relates to the protocol of grand balls and suitors visiting the woman’s home before the confirmed engagement.

Double Standards and The Importance of a Woman’s Izzat

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Similar to South Asian culture, in Bridgerton there is a stark difference between what is socially acceptable for men and women.

This double standard is especially seen if you compare the characters of Anthony Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey) and Daphne Bridgerton.

Anthony, the eldest son of the Bridgerton family is seen having a sexual affair with Siena Rosso (Sabrina Bartlett).

Due to Anthony being a man, his pre-marital relation does not ruin him and his family’s honour.

Anthony’s mother was aware of his relationship but did not blink an eyelid. The affair is not treated as something that could ruin the family.

However, for Daphne it is a different case. Simply being with a man unchaperoned could have potentially ruined her reputation.

In episode four, Daphne and the Duke of Hasting’s are caught kissing by Anthony. Anthony believed the Duke’s action had dishonoured his sister. Thus, he challenges the Duke to a duel and expresses to Daphne:

“It is more than just your honour at stake. It is your sisters too, the entire family name.”

Furthermore, when Daphne addressed the Duke she maintained:

“If you do not marry me, I should be ruined.”

It is acceptable for the men in Bridgerton to have pre-marital sex. However, if a woman simply kisses a man she has dishonoured her family name.

This aspect of a woman’s personal actions and relationships affecting her whole family’s honour is parallel to South Asian culture.

A family’s izzat is heavily dependent on the behaviour of women and their ability to conform to societal norms.

South Asian women’s chastity is a central component to her family’s izzat. Traditionally, a woman’s body is considered to be a fragile container of not solely her own reputation, but her family’s credibility.

A woman’s inability to conform to societal norms surrounding marriage, sex and relationships can bring shame on her family within the community.

Furthermore, the men in Bridgerton can engage in relationships and sex. However, them not baring the same dishonour as women is comparable to South Asian culture.

Men can have sex before marriage and get away with it.

Yet, if a South Asian woman is not a virgin on her wedding night this is considered problematic. Many like to state that in the 21st century, men and women are treated equally in regards to this.

Though, according to the Honour Based Violence Network an estimated number of 1000 honour killings take place in both Pakistan and India yearly.

This figure highlights how these double standards between men and women in desi communities are still prevalent.

Pressures on Men

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Within the South Asian community, much is spoken about the pressures on women, yet very little is spoken on the pressures on men.

Following the death of Lord Bridgerton, Anthony becomes in charge of the finances and his family.

In episode 1, when discussing Daphne’s lack of suitors, Lady Bridgerton (Ruth Gemmell) asserts:

“If your father was still here Daphne would have already been matched, he would have made an arrangement with an old friend.

“The man would have done what was necessary. So, you must ask yourself are you merely an older brother or the man of this house.”

Due to 19th-century gender roles, men were expected to be the sole provider for their family. A woman’s role was within the home, looking after the children and preparing their daughters for marriage.

Lord Featherington (Ben Miller), due to his gambling problem, struggles to live up to this status for his family and feels the pressure.

In episode 4, Lady Featherington (Polly Walker) finds out about her husband’s gambling problem. She confronts him about what he will do, having spent all their money and daughters dowries.

In response, Lord Featherington breaks down and starts crying, saying:

“I have failed you; I have failed our daughters. I do not know what to do.”

The pressures felt by Anthony and Lord Featherington are similar to the pressures on men to provide within desi communities.

A 2014 article on Indian societies idea of a good husband by Youth Ki Awaaz touches on this issue:

“Men are forced to accept stable, high-paying professions that they are not passionate about, such as medicine, engineering, finance and consulting, because of the job security and social status that they provide.”

The article further reinforces the financial and monetary aspects:

“Unfortunately, Indian society dictates that money and stability are what men are good for.

“In Indian society, a good husband is measured by the expense account he affords his wife.”

The latter point does draw many similarities to the world of Bridgerton. This is because many of the suitors within the series are only being judged by their title and finances.

Traditionally, within South Asian families, men are considered to be the breadwinners.

Dr Faiza Mushtaq, a sociologist, speaking exclusively to the Safety & Security Magazine says that this creates a lot of pressure for men:

“If a man has grown up building his entire identity and self-worth around the idea of being a provider for his family’s financial needs, then a failure to perform that role will lead to a serious identity crisis.”

Bridgerton not only provides a parallel to traditional South Asian culture in regards to women, but also men and the pressure to provide.

Gossiping Aunties

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Another factor of Bridgerton, which holds likeness to South Asian culture is the gossiping element. In particular, the fact that news spreads extremely quickly amongst the community.

In episode 1, three mothers stand judging and gossiping about the young ladies at the Danbury Ball.

One of the mothers is quick to gossip about a young lady who was caught with a man unchaperoned:

“She is lucky her gentleman agreed to a hasty marriage after she ruined herself…loose skirts.”

Similarly, after Lady Bridgerton finds out about Nigel Berbrooke’s (Jamie Beamish) illegitimate child that he sent away, she wants the news to spread fast:

“We should do what women do…we shall talk.”

Subsequently, the news spreads extremely rapidly across town, almost like a game of Chinese whispers.

The way the news spreads is replicable of some South Asian communities. All South Asian communities, in varying intensities, are full of gossiping aunties in a similar manner to Bridgerton.

Watch a humorous Urdu sketch by Zaid Ali of how Desi aunties gossip:

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Sex as a Taboo

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It is rather surprising that considering the vast amount of sex scenes and obsession with marriage, the female characters remain extremely uneducated on the world of sex.

In episode 2, the Featherington household are sent into a frenzy after the pregnancy news of Marina Thompsons (Ruby Barker).

Penelope Featherington confides in Eloise about the pregnancy. The pair are perplexed at how a woman can get pregnant without being married.

They are afraid that the same can happen to them unknowingly. Hence, they try to figure out how this happened. Eloise then proceeds to ask her mother:

“How does a lady come to be with child? I thought one had to be married? Apparently, it is not even a requirement.”

Lady Bridgerton immediately shoots Eloise’s question down, explaining how it was an “improper topic of conversation” for a lady.

Watch a video from Bridgerton, discussing this topic:

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Similarly, Daphne, the oldest soon to be married Bridgerton daughter, knew little to nothing about sex and the wedding night.

She in fact finds out about masturbation from the Duke of Hastings. In a conversation with the Duke, she states that there must be other things, aside from friendship, that hold a marriage together.

She further expressing that mothers “tell us nothing” about what goes on between a husband and wife.

Similarly, South Asians are pretty much left in dark about sex and are left to figure it out themselves. Asian parents and the sex talk are two things that do not collide.

It is no hidden fact that within South Asian family’s sex is presented as a taboo topic that is avoided at all costs.

Usually, the closest thing Asians get to any mention of sex in front of their parents is the awkward scrambling for the remote when an intimate scene comes on the TV.

The traditional nature of South Asian cultures has left sex as an extremely awkward topic of discussion. A 2018 Metro article on British Asian’s relationship with sex claims:

“In places such as India and Pakistan, the impact of colonialism and empire meant that sex outside of marriage was and still is seen as a taboo subject.

“These attitudes and views of sex carried themselves across oceans with the arrival of the first wave of Asian immigrants into Britain during the 50s and 60s.

“The double bind of language barriers and a lack of access to sexual education meant that this attitude of relegating sex as a functional activity for married folk largely went unchallenged, and has been passed down from one generation to another.”

Sex is viewed as only something for the confines of marriage. Therefore, it should not be discussed or even explained to your children.

Just like within Bridgerton where the women are kept in the dark about sex because it is “inappropriate”, South Asian parents gloss over all talk of sex.

Lesley Hall, a historian of gender and sexuality, explained how this topic in the nineteenth-century was also put to the back burner.

“There would have been nothing in the way of formal sex education.”

“Mothers might have given some premarital counsel to daughters, but although it almost certainly wasn’t actually ‘Close your eyes and think of England’ it may not have been much more illuminating.”

In episode 5, on Daphne’s wedding day, hours before her wedding night she is still very much clueless about sex and children.

Daphne’s mother attempts to equip her daughter with the sex talk on her wedding day, The talk is not very illuminating, leaving Daphne in a more state of confusion about what sex is.

Lady Bridgerton is extremely uncomfortable during the talk and tries beating around the bush.

She just asserts that the matrimonial act “is most natural, much like rain soaks a field in autumn and spring flowers grow.”

She further adds:

“When you were younger, do you remember we had two hounds in the country. Well, no one explained it to them but there were puppies.”

Lady Bridgerton’s avoidance and use of metaphors can be comparable to South Asian parents.

Watch a Lily Singh sketch of Indian parents using similar avoidance and metaphors:

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Food for Thought

We have discussed the different similarities between traditional South Asian culture and the world of Bridgerton.

At first glance, the lives of the characters seem worlds apart from South Asians. However, in reality, some of the societal norms does hold a mirror to South Asian culture.

After comparing the two worlds, one question becomes apparent – Could Bridgerton provide the much-needed push for change within South Asian communities?

British society has moved far away from the societal norms and double standards presented by Bridgerton in Regency London.

Though, the fact aspects of modern South Asian culture is replicable to a drama set in the 1800s is alarming.

South Asian culture definitely has a full list of positives, Having said that the outdated, almost toxic norms that many are familiar with need to change within the South Asian community.

In particular, the norms surrounding a woman’s value only being judged based on her husband and differences between what a man and woman can do.

Bridgerton presents sex with certain limitations. Daphne’s lack of knowledge on sex, her body and reproductive system certainly holds a mirror up to South Asian culture.

Due to the awkwardness of the topic, many South Asians grow up misinformed about sex and their bodies. This is an aspect that certainly needs to change within the South Asian community.

Can Bridgerton be the shock the South Asian community needed to change some outdated practices?

Besides, having a resemblance to South Asian culture, Bridgerton is a very good watch.

Nishah is a History graduate with a keen interest in History and culture. She enjoys music, traveling and all things Bollywood. Her motto is: “When you feel like giving up remember why you started”.