Bridgerton and the Not-So-Innocent Black Girl Trope

I would definitely be lying if I said that I was not one of the hundreds of people raging about Netflix’s newest era piece, Bridgerton. I mean, I didn’t know how much my life needed the classical remix of thank you, next by Ariana Grande and a step-by-step tutorial on how to be the “diamond of the season” until this show. And let’s not forget the honorable and incomprehensibly hot Duke of Hastings. Bridgerton bridged a historical gap between what was then and what is now, sneaking smalls glimpses of our generation today into an era so far away and so lost that it makes these moments of modernism feel like home. Of all the show offered me, the most notable was that for the first time as a Black girl, I was actually in the story.

Ruby Barker as Marina Thompson

Growing up, I’ve always wanted to be represented and seen at tea parties, doing the waltz, and indulging in the modest Victorian romance that is an era piece. Bridgerton offered me the chance to vicariously live through Marina Thompson, the less fortunate countryside cousin of the Featheringtons. Unlike the novel The Duke and I by Julia Quinn, which the show is based on, Marina Thompson is a beautiful Black girl with luscious curls, a charismatic personality, and a dash of mystery. Although joining the marriage season later, she grasped the hearts of every suitor leaving the Featheringtons living room, filled to the brim with gifts and flowers from prospective matches. All the while, the Featherington girls and Daphne, the queen’s proclaimed diamond of the season, sat aside and glared at Marina’s praise and glory from Lady Whistledown. No matter how much I want to deny it, these moments of praise for the beautiful, Black Marina Thompson made me feel like I had won, like no matter the history and the persistent misrepresentation of Black girls as the last choice, we too finally had a fair game against our white counterparts for love. And for these reasons I was high on cloud 9 for Ms.Thompson because she was doing something the media never let Black girls do before: she was winning.

But before we even dive into episode 2, we find out that the mystery that follows Ms. Thompson isn’t a secret talent, but a secret pregnancy — a pregnancy out of wedlock which is more than emphasized within Marina’s story arc. Once again, my representation in the media is sized down to another pregnant Black girl in a town of innocent, pure, virginal white girls.

On the same screen that made me feel included, no short of an episode later, it also made me feel misunderstood, misrepresented, and shrunken down to the same trope for the rest of the series. 

Once again I, the Black girl, was the jezebel and I was no longer winning or on cloud 9.

The ‘jezebel’ trope was designed and is almost always designated to women of color, particularly Black women. The jezebel is a hypersexualized, sensual woman governed by her physical sensation and her sexual experiences, often younger and far more ‘experienced’ than her white counterparts. In White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color, author Ruby Hamed discusses how the jezebel stereotype is the “mirror opposite of the victorian-era lady of the house” and is directly connected to not only the representation of Black girls and women in society, but the characterization of our very own Marina Thompson.

From left to right: Polly Walker as Portia Featherington, Ruby Barker as Marina Thompson, and Kathryn Drysdale as Genevieve Delacroix

Marina being the only Black girl in the show is contrast enough to the surrounding characters, but making her the only young girl in the high-class society who has come to social demise by being pregnant only amplifies the innocence, purity, and virginity of white girls in society. Where Marina is stressed to be saved from the persecution that is pregnancy out of wedlock, her white counterparts Daphne, Eloise, and Penelope can’t even fathom the concept of sex, much less how pregnancy outside of marriage comes about. It is quite literally the lines “how does a lady come to be with child? I thought one needed to be married” by the too-smart-for-her-own-good Elosie, and Daphne’s failure to understand the Duke of Hastings’ advanced pull-out game (much less pregnancy while married) that emphasize the taboo that surrounds Marina throughout the series. It was in these moments that I felt the emphasis on the innocence and naïve nature of these white girls, who are presumably the same age as Ms. Thompson. It’s almost as if in an innocent, whimsical way, the show attributes sex and out-of-wedlock pregnancy for the lower working-class and minority women. This is implied in Marina’s trip into town with Mrs. Featherington where she makes it clear that this child will lead Marina only into poverty and social decline.

Marina’s pregnancy not only forces her to face the fickle accounts of class but also forces her into love out of necessity rather than one filled with romance. As the charming Colin Bridgerton falls for Marina, she is forced to be cunning and deceptive in the hopes of being married before her pregnancy can no longer be hidden. Marina’s desperation to trick Colin into marriage is another characteristic of the jezebel trope, who is also dangerously deceptive in her moments of need. The jezebel is not offered simple love, but is always in need of it for the sole purpose of protecting her from society — yet, she is not a damsel. And as Marina’s plot is revealed through Lady Whistledown’s column, she loses social respect, prospective matches, and has no choice but to marry her late lover and baby’s father’s brother, Sir George, in an effort to protect her status in society as a respectable lady. Marina, as I feared, became the last choice for love. Again, we were no longer winning.

The jezebel trope not only reduces Black women to be either overly sexual or aggressive, but also forces us to choose which one we will be in real life.

Luke Newton as Colin Bridgerton and Ruby Barker as Marina Thompson

The media never shies from this trope — we have seen it on TV through characters like Kelli in Insecure, or Tiffany Haddish’s character Dina in Girls Trip. In 2017, T. Rees Shapiro wrote an article in The Washington Post that described an Epstein study that “found that adults view young Black girls as less innocent than white girls of the same age… indicating that children’s race may affect how their actions are perceived.” This lack of innocence is referred to as ‘adultification’ and goes as far as to explain “why Black girls in America are disciplined much more often and more severely than white girls — across our schools and in our juvenile justice system.” This failure to see Black girls as they are renders Black girls less protected and far more susceptible to sexual advances and experiences at younger ages. This portrayal of Black girls through the jezebel trope furthers this paradigm in society — Black girls go to school and are treated as sexual adults and then go home and watch themselves portrayed as such. Even in the most modest, virtuous, innocent of societies, Black girls still can’t avoid or escape being the infamous jezebel.

While watching the show, it made me really question whether it’s because Marina becomes pregnant that her character was naturally and comfortably casted as a Black girl. Or were none of the other side characters scandalous enough to be cast as Black? Marina’s character is very telling of how the media feels about Black girls and our fate — that we inevitably embody the jezebel trope, and it’s a trope that we have yet to see the end of. While Bridgerton sparked a flame for me and filled a space opened up by quarantine to obsessively watch the show, I shy away from openly feeling represented by our Black Marina Thompson because Marina’s character plays into the TV/media trope and stereotype that I’ve been running from my entire life. In the end, even in fictional characters, even with an introduction to an innocent society without the boundaries of racism, the Black girl still ends up with scraps.