Let’s talk about young women’s bodies. After all, from episodes 1-3 the Bridgerton creators have been forcing us to look upon them as commodities. Indeed, this is supposed to be a reflection of the marriage market, which puts us as viewers in the position of potential suitors, I guess. Well, we have bought into this, right? We enjoy looking at beautiful bodies, regardless of the sex, but we also enjoy criticizing bodies, especially those that break the stereotypical mold.
Bridgerton offers us such conforming and nonconforming bodies. Let’s start with the norms. While watching episode 3 with my partner, I was asked “Do they all have their boobs smashed like that and popping out over the top of the gown?” “Yes, they do,” I said. This is partially true for Bridgerton. If you played a smashed-boobs-popping-over-dress game, you’d be drunk within seconds of watching any episode. Of course any scene will include cleavage, but some of them show what appears to be outright torturous breasts. Take the opera singer, Siena’s décolletage. I was looking at it in episode 3 and thought that it looked utterly painful. How unnatural to force young, unmarried women to behave properly but require them to parade their breasts this way. Breasts for sale! Oh, sorry, it’s window shopping. You can look, but don’t touch…or if you touch don’t let anyone know.
Even our heroine Daphne is exposed in such a fashion. The only female characters not showing cleavage are Lady Danbury and Eloise. This is actually quite shocking, to be honest. I’ve seen a lot of period shows, and age does not prevent you from showing your cleavage. So what gives? I think it has something to do with women reclaiming their power. Lady Danbury doesn’t need anyone to define her, and Eloise doesn’t want a man to limit her.
Talk about (re)claiming your power…oh, oh, oh my god. Daphne found her groove in this episode, and I was shocked. I didn’t expect this, and as I watched this scene I laughed and said, “Well, this certainly isn’t Austen,” and thought about all those Janeites who must surely have been blushing. There’s only one thing truly off-limits when it comes to sex scenes in these kinds of shows–and that is women pleasuring themselves! Men and women having sex on screen is acceptable (for many viewers), same-sex sex is pushing the boundaries, male masturbation is taboo, too, but female onanism, well, that’s just forbidden. Women are not supposed to engage in autosexual activities, right? They are supposed to become wives, let their husbands have sex with them, and then have lots of babies. That’s how its supposed to be. Pleasure? Eh, that’s for men.
Not in Bridgerton! Young women enjoy sex in this show. That’s how we are introduced to Siena. We know Marina has had sex (cuz preggers). And now we know that Daphne can experience sexual pleasure…with herself! 🙂 The episode actually begins with what you might call a wet dream. Daphne has fallen for Simon Hastings, and she’s dreaming about him a lot. There are a few scenes in the first three episodes where we see the power of touch when they are dancing, and in scene three when their hands graze each other’s in the gallery. But this is all set up for Daphne touching herself.
What’s most interesting–to me–is not that she fondles herself, but that she had not thought to do that before Hastings instructs her–in public–how to do it. What a weird, uncomfortable scene. In a sense, he is acting as a friend, a guide in this scene (and in others), and what he’s really preaching here is women’s lib! He says something like, “It’s OK to touch yourself, you know.” Alas, poor Daphne seems to not have any concept (like her sister, Eloise, apparently) of what happens at night between a husband and a wife. Hastings has to address this, albeit indirectly, too. Sheesh! These girls need to read Fanny Hill! It’s an awkward scene, and the actress plays it well, when Hastings schools her about sexual pleasure and then turns and walks away. A good student, Daphne heeds the lesson well and gets an A+ that night. 🙂
I think this is an example of a nonconforming body–it shows viewers that young women can find their own pleasure. They don’t need a man to make that happen.
But there’s one more example I ask you to think about, and it’s one that’s neither shocking nor unexpected. This has to do with the size of women’s bodies. There are a few scenes in episodes 1-3 where viewers are asked to see how girls whose bodies are not deemed slender are made to feel like they are pariahs. There are a few references to eating cake–too much cake–and the size of Marina’s belly is called out in episode 3 when she is fitted for new clothes. But we expect that, right? She is being shamed for having sex outside of marriage.
Let us not forget in episode 1, though, that Penelope’s mother and sisters fat-shame her. It’s a quick moment, but it’s one that struck me, and upset me. It felt very modern to me. I know Austen made fun of girls’ bodies in her juvenilia, and I imagine within a household we might expect similar conversations to have taken place, but in a period show, bodies larger than a size 6 are not usually addressed. Rather, these bodies are the ones we don’t look at because they do not matter. Bridgerton has called these bodies to our attention, but I wish we could have just had Penelope be Penelope, not the “fat” sister.
I would love to see Penelope as a real love interest for a suitable suitor, not the girl who gets a pity dance (remember episode 1). Let’s do better. Maybe Bridgerton will do better in future episodes?