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‘Bridgerton’s’ Portrayal of Female Sexuality Coddles Viewers

The fairytale romance treats women as sexually naive waifs, perpetuating harmful myths about masturbation and the elusive female orgasm.

"Bridgerton"

“Bridgerton”

Netflix/Screenshot

[Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for “Bridgerton” Season 1.] 

It’s not surprising why “Bridgerton” has been such a hit with Netflix viewers. The steamy period drama astutely balances a few tried and true genres: Come for the society intrigue doled out by a “Gossip Girl”-esque omniscient narrator, stay for the athletic love scenes in perfectly staged Romance novel cover configurations. If she had time for TV, Stacey Abrams would surely be a fan.

Based on the bestselling historical romance novels by American author Julia Quinn, “Bridgerton” follows the marriage prospects of the aristocratic Bridgerton family, beginning with eldest daughter Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor). Set in Regency-era London, the Bridgertons enjoy lavish debutante balls, replete with new silk dresses for each outing and the occasional anachronistic firework display.

In her determination to find the most eligible suitor, Daphne strikes a deal with handsome Simon, Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page), a known rake who has pledged never to marry. The young couple pretend to form a bond in order to satisfy the thirsty onlookers, raising Daphne’s stock and affording Simon some peace and quiet. Naturally, bickering repartee leads to sparks of passion, and the two eventually marry for real. But unlike Jane Austen novel, it’s not all happily ever after post-nuptials.

Having sworn not to continue his familial line out of revenge on his abusive father, Simon tells Daphne he can’t have children. Being naive in the ways of marital relations, Daphne accepts this as fact. The faux-highbrow facade of the high society period drama devolves at that point, when it becomes clear the rest of the story will hinge on the mechanics of the “pull out” method.

But Simon is pulling the strings of Daphne’s sexual awakening even before they consummate the marriage. During a private promenade, he is shocked to learn she has never touched herself (his phrasing). Stepping in closer and lowering his voice, Simon explains: “When you are alone, you can touch yourself. Anywhere on your body, anywhere that gives you pleasure, but especially between your legs. And when you find a feeling you particularly enjoy, you can carry on with that, until the feeling grows, and eventually you reach a pinnacle, a release.”

This is a fairly eloquent account of an orgasm, and it’s refreshing to see a man take an interest in a woman’s pleasure. It’s unfortunate, however, that Daphne’s sexual awakening arrives entirely at the hands of Simon, a man. It may be progressive for the Regency era, but it’s condescending and coddling to today’s women and girls.

Later, as she places a white rose (metaphor alert!) from Simon at her bedside, Daphne caresses herself to images of Simon. And just like that, her flower has bloomed. Daphne magically discovers her first orgasm.

Good for Daphne. But no woman in the history of the world has ever had her first orgasm that quickly and with such little knowhow, much less one who has lived a sheltered life preparing to be a very proper lady. Television has to contend with running times and economy of storytelling, but the easiness of her self-discovery perpetuates harmful myths about female orgasms.

According to the Kinsey Institute’s most recent data, only 64 percent of women reported having orgasms during intercourse. In The Case of the Female Orgasm, Elisabeth Lloyd finds 11 percent of women have never had orgasms at all. Media portrayals like “Bridgerton,” where girls magically orgasm from the mere image of a handsome prince charming, don’t help narrow what’s been dubbed the “orgasm deficit.”

The masturbation scene is also the only clear orgasm we see Daphne have. The rest of the sex scenes are entirely focused on Simon’s orgasm, more specifically his ejaculation.

Having sex for the first time, Simon asks if Daphne “touche[d] herself, like we talked about?” Asking her to show him, he slowly moves her hand down with his, touching her for approximately 3 seconds, which squares more realistically with most cis men’s attentions to women’s pleasure. “Tell me what you thought about when you were alone,” he says. “I thought about you when I touched myself,” she whispers. “I always think about you,” and this pledge of attraction and devotion spurs him to his own climax, leaving Daphne breathlessly unfulfilled.

This is not the only time Simon leaves Daphne hanging. He later does it purposefully as punishment, in an episode titled “Oceans Apart.” In a scene that has been widely discussed elsewhere as potentially non-consensual (Vox has a good explainer), Daphne gets on top of Simon and doesn’t allow him to pull out. Incensed by Daphne’s marital betrayal, a cold pall has descended over the once-happy young couple. Unable to deny their chemistry during a fight, Simon goes down on Daphne on his grand estate’s stairwell. As his head bobs between her legs (far too quickly to be pleasurable), he suddenly stops.

“Shall we go into the bedroom, and finish what we started?” she asks breathlessly. “No,” he replies as he walks away, his doublet hanging open.

Depiction of women’s pleasure onscreen being so rare, Simon’s interest in his partner’s sexual enjoyment could be considered progressive, even feminist. Certainly for the time period, it would have been. But knowing the popular Netflix show has reached far and wide to the women and girls of today, it paints a dismal portrait of women’s pleasure as entirely dependent on and connected to men and their whims.

With a serious lack of practical sex education in this country, the main source of information for most people is the media they consume. There’s no shortage of actual sex onscreen, but the mechanics of it are rarely discussed, much less thoughtful and honest communication between the people having it. Left to their own devices, young people are led to believe sex will be a wildly passionate, mind-blowing experience right out the gate — if they’re in love. This old yarn is spun from the many movies, books, and TV shows that uphold everlasting love as the pinnacle of life. For most people, especially women and girls, this is a total fallacy (pun very much intended).

At first glance, “Bridgerton” appears to disrupt some of these staid romantic notions, but a peek behind its ornate veneer reveals that it behaves like any other TV show in this regard.

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