Shonda Rhimes’s Bridgerton has a rape scene, but it’s not treated like one
December 26, 2020
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Bridgerton, Shonda Rimes’s first collaboration with Netflix, may be a sumptuous, scandal-laced frolic through Regency London. But like many Shondaland series, it has plenty of dark and disturbing moments, and the show’s first season leaves us with more questions than answers. Chief among them: Does the creative team realize how badly they handled the rape scene?

Romance novelist Julia Quinn wrote the novel series on which Bridgerton is based, starting with The Duke and I in 2000. The first season, written by Shondaland veteran Chris Van Dusen (Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy), follows The Duke and I fairly closely — including one scene that’s central to the plot but that has been called out repeatedly by romance readers over the years as a rape.

In the two decades since the book’s release, much of society has become more aware of what is and isn’t consensual sex, and the show deliberately made changes to the scene to make it less explicitly nonconsensual. That indicates to me that Van Dusen and his fellow creatives knew the problems with the scene they were adapting. But the version of this scene that ended up in the show is still nonconsensual, despite the tweaks. And although it’s framed as a serious violation of trust between consenting parties, it passes without any explicit acknowledgment on the show’s part that what just occurred was a deeply disturbing violation of consent.

Bridgerton is thematically concerned with the dynamics of informed consent, which makes it even stranger that this scene was left unaddressed; indeed, if there are any lasting repercussions for the victim of the assault or their dynamic with their rapist, we don’t actually see them.

Because it happens pretty quickly and the narrative moves on immediately from the specifics of the sexual encounter itself, I’m not sure everyone will judge this scene in the same way I do. But that’s why we should discuss it.

Spoilers below!

Our hero has a secret that sets the stage for everything

Bridgerton is a historical romance set during London’s Regency era, a period of whirling 19th-century ballrooms and high-society intrigues. Our story revolves around gorgeous debutante Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) and the fake courtship she arranges during her debut on London’s “marriage mart,” the upper-class ritual of social functions that help eligible ladies and gentlemen make a match.

Despite coming from a powerful family and making a splash at her debut, Daphne is having trouble attracting suitors — so she bets (correctly) that faking a courtship with a very eligible duke will reignite the attention of other gentlemen. Her choice of bachelor: Simon, the hunky Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page), a Black man whose family was recently elevated to the peerage. Simon is trying to avoid matrimonial plots because he’s sworn off marriage, due to his solemn vow never to father children in order to let his entire family line, title and all, die with him. It’s a promise he made in order to spite his abusive late father, who emotionally abused Simon all his life and cared more about his dukedom than anything else.

The relationship ruse is mutually beneficial for Daphne and Simon, as it allows him to avoid seriously participating in the marriage mart. But of course, in between bickering and pretending to be in love, the two fake lovebirds soon develop a very real romance. Through an unlucky turn of events involving epic misunderstandings, secret love trysts, and a duel — y’know, the usual — the storyline scoots Daphne and Simon into a hastily arranged marriage. This leads to lots and lots of sex scenes because they’re a hot couple who are hot for each other. But their newfound love also creates a whole new set of problems arising from Simon’s vow never to sire a family — a vow Daphne knows nothing about.

This subplot contributes to Bridgerton’s most interesting thematic idea, if one it ultimately squanders: the relationship between scandal, secrets, and informed consent. The plot revolves around Simon’s choice not to tell Daphne that he has vowed not to have children. Instead, he only tells her that he “can’t” have children, a clear difference from “won’t.” This deception places her in a doubly vulnerable position: Daphne’s in the dark about sex generally, as a woman who’s had no sexual education, and since she’s getting most of her tutelage from him directly, she has no way of knowing that he’s hiding things from her about his sexual health and practices.

Simon’s duplicity is, to some extent, unwitting — he doesn’t intend to trap Daphne into marriage, but when events conspire to make marriage a necessity, he goes along with it, spinning a story that implies his inability to father children rather than tell her the truth. The narrative treats the difference between “can’t” and “won’t” as a crucial distinction, one that fills Daphne with horror and bitterness when she realizes it. It’s an interesting turn because Bridgerton frames Simon’s deceptive phrasing as deliberate, along with his choice to continue lying to her by omission. This deception placed Daphne in the position of being unable to give informed consent, either to sex or to their entire relationship.

The problem is that she only figures this out by raping him.

Let me back up. (Warning: This is about to get pretty graphic and gross.)

The rape scene is brief and disturbing, but it’s not treated as a rape

Daphne knows nothing about sex when she gets married. Her mother, too embarrassed to give her the specifics, sends her off to her marriage bed completely unprepared. Meanwhile, instead of telling his new wife what’s up, Simon enjoys ravenous sex with Daphne but adopts the ol’ tried-and-true contraceptive method of pulling out every time. Eventually, Daphne figures out that there’s some connection between Simon never completing the act and his insistence that he can’t have children. Determined to figure out whether he’s capable of it, she takes control during sex and positions herself on top of him so he can’t pull out.

When he realizes his predicament right before orgasm, Simon looks alarmed and tries to stop — he cries out twice for Daphne to wait — but it’s too late. Once she’s achieved her goal, she stops, and he processes what just happened in shock.

The strangest thing about this moment is that I’m not sure the show’s writers consider this scene to be a rape scene. Daphne is immediately furious with Simon for lying to her, and the show then focuses on her betrayal and rage; she even has a semantic speech about the difference between “won’t” and “can’t.” It’s clearly intended to spell out the intricacies of informed consent, but none of Simon’s duplicity justifies the way Daphne pulls his secret — and, to be clear, his semen — out of him. One bad moment of uninformed consent does not justify a moment of nonconsensual sex. And depriving Simon of his consent to both sex and fatherhood, even at the moment of climax, is still rape.

If the show had really explored the idea that Simon’s lie led to another similar violation of consent, that could have resulted in some really interesting narrative choices involving the two of them dealing with the fallout of both their betrayals and learning to communicate more clearly and carefully and sensitively.

But the show doesn’t dwell on Daphne’s choices, or on any long-term aftermath from that moment. The incident doesn’t seem to impact Simon’s ability to trust Daphne in bed. Instead, the show turns toward Daphne’s distrust of him for lying to her, dwelling on Simon’s need to win her forgiveness and give up his vow for the sake of their happiness.

I should note here that an even more nonconsensual version of this scene also occurs in the novel. Quinn clearly wrote the scenario as a violation: “Daphne had aroused him in his sleep, taken advantage of him while he was still slightly intoxicated, and held him to her while he poured his seed into her.”

Since the book was written, countless romance writers and readers have inserted productive commentaries on the role of rape (and tropes of dubious consent like “forced seduction”) in romance fiction. But according to Quinn herself in a reported recent exchange with romance vlogger BooksandKrys, the consent issues in that scene flew under the radar at the time The Duke and I was published. “Yes, it was shocking, but no one seemed to feel that Daphne had done anything morally wrong,” she told BooksandKrys. “It was only as years passed and we gained new understanding of ‘consent’ that people started to question her actions.”

Quinn offered some perspective on the dynamics of rape as early as 2003; speaking then to Time, she commented, “I can’t imagine a romance novel published today where the hero rapes the heroine and she falls in love with him … I can’t think of anything in my books that any feminist would find objectionable. … And I consider myself a feminist.”

Yet by 2010, the scene was being discussed among readers as an example of sexual assault and lack of consent. By 2015, readers were dissecting the scene to point out its disturbing dynamics.

That the show’s creatives included this scene while making it less broadly, but still explicitly, nonconsensual, suggests they knew it needed fixing. But it seems like they failed to see how badly they ultimately handled it. Without signaling more effectively that Daphne’s choice was just as violating for Simon as his secrecy was for Daphne, Bridgerton undermines its entire experiment in exploring the boundaries of consent.

Through this moment, the show also undermines its central relationship, causing us to question the whole foundation of Daphne and Simon’s affection for each other. Because Bridgerton doesn’t make an effort to depict Daphne’s rape of Simon as a huge issue that must be addressed for them to heal their marriage, we don’t really have much way of understanding whether their mutual trust is really fully repaired in the end. And we’re given no assurance that she won’t violate his trust the next time she decides he might be lying to her.

It’s also frankly a giant gaslight; even as I write this, I’m wondering if maybe I’m wrong and that the scene wasn’t rape — or if, perhaps, maybe this is the one time in history where somebody gets raped and it’s just not that big a deal, so it’s just kinda okay that the show glosses over it and moves on and Simon seems totally fine afterward.

Obviously, these are horrible takeaways for a show to leave us with. The dynamics of consent are complex and often frustrating and confusing, but one thing is almost universally certain: Rape is a big deal, and it often hugely impacts and alters both the rape survivor and the rapist. For Bridgerton to ineffectively convey that Daphne raped Simon and then treat it like it was a minor side note to the much bigger issue of him lying to her makes it more difficult for audiences watching it to understand what consent looks like.

The fact that the rape victim here is both male and a person of color makes it even more egregious that the show is glossing over the incident. Men are often considered silent victims of sexual assault, and Black men in particular are often made scapegoats for sexual violence, which further erases the status of Black male victims of sexual assault. In this context, the show’s emphasis on Simon as the instigator of Daphne’s choice basically paints him as being responsible for his own rape. This aligns with the broader cultural gaslighting of Black men and the shifting of blame away from the white men and women who enact violence upon them.

Bridgerton has drawn its fair share of rave reviews as, among other things, “delightful trash.” As a huge, lifelong lover of the sorts of romance stories Bridgerton is adapting, what I hate most about this summation is that it implies that the ingredients of this story are a part of the inherent nature of the raunchy, racy historical romance. Not only is that a condescending attitude toward a genre that is frequently very literary and very serious, but it’s flatly wrong: Rape, especially unacknowledged rape, is by no means a feature of historical romance writing, nor was it going unaddressed and undebated back when Quinn wrote this story 20 years ago. Countless romance writers have done better than this. Bridgerton could and should have followed their example.

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