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Issue #35: Genre Shit 📺
Bridgerton + The Expanse
Apparently, it’s Friday, and a new year, you heard it here first. We’ve reached the umpteenth wall of this pandemic where time feels slippery, and all the days run together, and honestly even working in a job that requires me to schedule things for days, I still have a tenuous grip at best about what the date is. What I do know is every day I thank God we are going through a global pandemic in an era with streaming TV.
That’s right folks, it’s another TV issue! This time we’re digging into two genre shows, and talking about how genre can sometimes plaster over some uncomfortable concepts. First up we’ve got Cate on Bridgerton and its massive blindspots; then we’ve got Zosha on The Expanse, and how it does what so much of sci-fi cannot.
Cate on Bridgerton
The latest entry into the extended Shondaland TV universe is Bridgerton a Regency-era romance drama centered on the Bridgerton family, and specifically, its heroine Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) and her pursuit of a suitable marriage match. As a way to bolster her chances, she enters into an arrangement with one Simon Basset, the Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page). Together, they plot a pretend romance—for her, his interest increases her prospects and for him, his outward courtship forestalls any other attempts to get him to marry. As these things always go, the two fall in love anyway, and marry each other, despite Simon’s vow to never do so, and on the explicit understanding that their marriage will never bear children.
If this show only exists in the periphery of your consciousness then it’s likely all you’ve heard about it is that it’s racebent and horny. Daphne, the jewel of the season is a young white woman, and Simon is a handsome black man. But the discourse around the show intentionally seems to sidestep any and all discussion of the sexual assault that happens in the main couple’s marriage bed. After a blissful few weeks as husband and wife, Daphne discovers that Simon is in fact preventing the conception of a child, rather than being incapable of doing so as she had assumed. Enraged and devastated at the prospect of never having her own children, she asks a maid to explain the mechanical details of sex, then sets upon her husband, intentionally preventing him from pulling out when he climaxes.
In the scene, Simon is obviously and visibly shaken. His childhood stutter returns momentarily after Daphne ignores his pleas to stop. He is shocked and upset and bewildered that his reproductive choices have been taken from him.
Now here is the point at which I note that the existence of the scene itself does not offend me in any way. I don’t believe that difficult things should never find their way onscreen. But I do believe the narratives that make their way there should be responsible in their depiction of the stories they tell. I would have been perfectly okay with this plotline (ripped from the books upon which they are based) had it ended with an acknowledgement of the reproductive coercion that had occurred. Instead, Daphne immediately berates her husband, blames him for her actions and insists that she had no choice.
Generally speaking I hate reductive “what if it were a woman” arguments but in this case it’s a fitting one: What if Simon had been the one to forcibly impregnate Daphne against her explicit stated wishes? Would the fandom be so quick to dismiss a marital rape? While I quite enjoyed the top half of Bridgerton’s season, the show lost me from this episode, because at no point did it demonstrate that it understood Daphne to be the villain in this scenario. In fact, the fallout of that night is that Daphne is upset that her husband will not forgive her, and terrified that he will leave her if she isn’t in fact pregnant. At no point does the show consider how Simon must feel to have this very important choice stolen from him. And in the end, when they reconcile, it isn’t because Daphne apologizes, (in fact, she never does) but because Simon sees the error of his ways for denying her the family she so desperately wants, and they have a child anway.
Part of the problem here is that like many recent shows, it racebends its cast without any real consideration for what the presence of black people would mean for the story. With a show set in the regency period, there needs to be a meaningful discussion of how race functions in the society so that there are rules upon which to map racial and interpersonal dynamics. Here, the only explanation is that the King fell in love with a black woman, making her Queen. The status of black people has apparently changed overnight, elevating them to positions of high society. But as we’ve seen with *gestures broadly at the state of the world* existing racial tensions do not simply disappear simply because a law may will them so.
The racial implication of a white woman raping her black husband and being made the hero in that dynamic are upsetting and rooted in a historical understanding of black bodies as unrapeable, and always the property of a white owner. The idea that the show would reproduce this dynamic without question is unconscionable. Here, Daphne’s desire to have children, Simon’s children, trumps his own choices about his life and lineage. And that’s just not a story I can get behind.
Zosha on The Expanse
In episode seven of The Expanse’s fifth season, Naomi Nagata takes a big leap. Specifically, she hurtles herself from an airlock, devoid of any space suit to protect her from the harsh vacuum, and launches herself into the void to escape the ship she’s being held captive on. The only reason Naomi ended up on this ship in the first place was a passing chance to rescue her son, connecting with him decades after she first left him. And now, having given up hope that she can ever get through to him after years of indoctrination by his extremist father, she hopes to fare better in outer space.
The thing to note here is that she doesn’t die; it’s not even an attempt to kill herself, or an act of recklessness. Instead, unlike so many science fiction mothers before her, it’s a chance at liberation—a chance to live.
By escaping, Naomi hopes to stop a trap set for her crew (or at least the people who have allied themselves with her crew) on the Rocinante. She is literally and figuratively turning her back on her goal for this season, and for many seasons leading up to it. As early as season one, we saw Naomi lay the groundwork for finding her son Filip, and as new information was eked out over the years it became a sort of third rail for the show.
Naomi is not the first woman to go from space hero to motherhood (*in terms of how the audience receives the character motivation). In Aliens we learn Ripley isn’t just a lieutenant but also a mother, a noxious plot element that will haunt and distort over the course of the Alien franchise. Gravity explored grief and survival in space, but Dr. Ryan Stone’s main driving emotional arc is whether it’s even worth clinging to life after her daughter has died and destruction has left her stranded in orbit. The Cloverfield Paradox, Away, Arrival—same thematic thrust of motherhood, loss, unending grief.
This is no slight against those characters; some of my best friends are moms. And these stories and works are each great, in their own way. But like with any trope, it’s worth examining how a recurring thematic foil can curdle a strong character. It is all too often that female characters get thrust into certain roles—girlfriend, wife, mom—that overwhelm their motivations. After all, films like Ad Astra or 2001 or First Man don’t stand in the way of men going to space or surviving just because of their parenthood status. And even when Interstellar makes room for parental guilt, it never overshadows the story the way it does with motherhood. Matthew McConaughey is wracked with sadness over his choice, but he gets to make it and go have adventures.
On the other side, too often in sci-fi motherhood gets treated as a powerful double-edged sword. It can inspire great strength and life-giving, but it can also create monsters, hollow women robbed of children, or else just uniformly defined by them. You can go to space, but usually it’s because you’ve already lost a child.
I feared the same would happen to Naomi Nagata, one of my favorite space badasses. Despite how the slow drip of information about Filip kept him on the backburner to much more pressing matters, I had seen this happen too much. Wasn’t Ripley just a badass until she was retroactively a grieving mother (and then, later, a mother)? With season five scattering the Roci crew to winds, the climate seemed perfect for Naomi to become single-minded with her relationship with her son.
But instead, The Expanse gave a much more human viewpoint on her story: She had only abandoned Filip all those years ago because his father’s activism had grown too dangerous for her. But when she left him, he hid Filip—and despite searching for months on end, she couldn’t find him. As she contemplated death by suicide, she realized, “either way, alive or dead, you were going to grow up without a mother. I never wanted to leave you. But walking away was the only choice I had left.”
In that moment, Naomi chose to live, if only for herself.
It should not, on its face, be so radical to say that this woman obviously has something to live for beyond motherhood; in episode seven she makes the same decision, this time for her own fate, and also that of her allies and the fate of the universe. And yet in the world of science fiction, Naomi’s ability to see herself as more than just one thing, more than just a mom, but a human worthy of a happy life one way or another, is something that is not only so sorely missing from the genre, but messaging to women in general. I’m no mother, and I certainly don’t mean to diminish the hard decision Naomi made here. But with Naomi we finally get a three-dimensional character who still chooses to escape a situation no longer serving her. She’s a mom, but that would never, could never be all she is.
Assorted Internet Detritus
CATE: The exquisite Doreen St. Felix on the delicate balance of The Real Housewives of Orange County, why Justin Timberlake should apologize, how care work can be decoupled from romantic relationships, the failures of Judas and The Black Messiah, and the return of screenwriter Kristen Wiig.
ZOSHA: How a simple chronological narrative helps the empathy along in the Britney Spears documentary. Also, on the same doc, what sympathy for Britney means for sympathy for ourselves. Still thinking on this beautiful I May Destroy You essay. The oral history of the Friends Super Bowl episode. How to think about work-life balance now that it’s no longer an optional nebulous concept.