Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
The Case for Joy in BIPOC Stories
As someone who still considers Pride and Prejudice (2005) to be a favorite feel-good movie, I binged both seasons of Netflix’s wildly popular television series Bridgerton. The show is undeniably catnip for lovers of period dramas set in Jane Austen’s England. And although it features an admirably diverse cast, it doesn’t infer its BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) characters with historically accurate backgrounds based in oppression. And that’s a good thing.
In Season 2 of Bridgerton, British Indian actress Simone Ashley plays Kate Sharma, a dark-skinned South Asian woman who arrives in England to find a marital match for her sister, Edwina (Charithra Chandran). Kate falls in love with the Viscount Anthony Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey), and they find themselves in a complicated romance.
Kate is a female protagonist unlike any other in Regency-era England: She exists in a world that is almost exclusively White as an empowered, dark-skinned woman and an immigrant who is resilient and, although initially reluctant to prioritize her happiness, becomes capable of experiencing love and joy in abundance.
Instead of becoming a BIPOC body that is the site of historical racism and violence, Kate’s body becomes a site for pleasure, happiness, and love.
Even as Kristen Warner’s article about the show in The Cut warned against doing so, I, a Southeast Asian woman, projected myself onto Kate’s blushing, on-screen body. Watching Kate set aside her desires in the name of duty to her family, and seeing how she had to be a parental figure after her appa died, situates her story within a much more modern one than we might expect in 1800s England. It is a story particular to first- or second-generation immigrants in the West, a feeling of indebtedness to your parents that runs deep because of their suffering.
I can relate to this. In Episode 8, Kate packs for her return to India instead of getting dressed for Lady Featherington’s grand ball. Mary (amma) approaches her, concerned that Kate is choosing to flee a difficult situation. Kate cries that she was supposed to help the family because she owed everything to her amma. The reply from Mary is a declaration to children of immigrants that we never had to earn our place in our family, that love is never something owed, and that we deserve all of the love in the world. This dialogue is a conversation I wish I had had with my mother. For this and so much more, Kate’s background as an immigrant rang true in a way I hadn’t expected.
But then the show does something unexpected. Instead of becoming a BIPOC body that is the site of historical racism and violence, Kate’s body becomes a site for pleasure, happiness, and love. It is no wonder why Gary Younge’s article in The Nation criticizes Bridgerton’s depiction of racial difference. Younge writes, “It suggests that characters live in a void in which a key determinant of their life chances is irrelevant: that they can either be themselves or have a racial identity—but not both.”
Younge examines how Executive Producer Shonda Rhimes de-emphasizes racial difference in the show but contradicts that by inserting racial critique. In Season 1, Lady Danbury and Hastings discuss the biracial marriage of King George III and Queen Charlotte as the marriage that united “two separate societies divided by color.” Younge notes that Bridgerton never mentions these “separate societies” again.
I argue that this is the perfect example of why we shouldn’t look to a period piece to inform us about racism—because it can’t, at least not in a meaningful way. And that’s OK. By crafting a simple backstory, and also a trivial plot point, Rhimes explains why Black people appear as royalty in 1800s England. In doing so, she breaks the rules that have excluded BIPOC characters from this beloved setting, and does so blithely, almost challenging other creators to do the same.
Mediums like films and shows allow us to imagine a world that does not yet exist, in which BIPOC are not only surviving but thriving.
To be clear, I’m not saying that the creators of Bridgerton are without fault. We have a long way to go in terms of imagining and creating what it means to exist together in films and shows when there is so little precedent for diversity on-screen and in the writing room. However, by demanding that writers and creators encompass so much spatial and temporal history, we ask them to compress it into a digestible version that minimizes the historical realities of BIPOC.
Cathy Park Hong writes in her bestselling book Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning: “Patiently educating a clueless white person about race is draining … [b]ecause it’s more than a chat about race. It’s ontological. It’s like explaining to a person why you exist …” White stories centering White people are not subjected to the same degree of scrutiny as BIPOC stories. We don’t demand White characters to out themselves with questions like: Were the characters’ ancestors racists or bigots? Where did their ancestors come from? They simply take up space.
Borrowing from These Wilds Beyond Our Fences: Letters to My Daughter on Humanity’s Search for Home by Bayo Akomolafe, our conceptualization of racial representation and racial justice are set within an apparatus that thrives and continues to work because of the binary of White–Black. To demand BIPOC stories be told through a lens of oppression is to reaffirm the idea that to be BIPOC is to stand in opposition to White. And it’s just not that simple.
Perhaps instead of looking to the entertainment sector to provide us with this necessary education, we should be asking why our education systems are failing us in the first place. The demand for more nuance and BIPOC stories to be told using a lens of oppression points to our education system’s glaring omissions on these matters. In Germany, it is a requirement that students study the ugly history of the Nazi regime and the horrors of the Holocaust. In comparison, here in the U.S., 36 states have restricted the teaching of critical race theory, and others are moving to pass similar legislation.
But we need students to learn about CRT, and we need more funding to create museums like the Whitney Plantation to display the ugly histories of slavery. If these lessons are part of a required curriculum, then we can stop relying on the entertainment sector to educate the audience.
Instead, we are often angry at Hollywood over the erasure of BIPOC. We focus this well-meaning anger on a show like Bridgerton and demand that it deliver storylines about racial justice.
There is room for historically accurate portrayals of BIPOC in films like Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari or Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. But does “historically accurate” have to mean historically oppressed?
“The subject of blackness has taken a strange and unsatisfying journey through American thought: first, because blackness has almost always had to explain itself to a largely white audience in order to be heard, and second, because it has generally been assumed to have one story to tell—a story of oppression that plays on liberal guilt,” said comedian Richard Pryor as quoted in Minor Feelings. We trap ourselves in a dichotomy of powerful–powerless that becomes an oppressive lens for communities of color in general. Therefore, if you are a South Asian woman in Regency-era London like Kate Sharma, your body is not just a body, but also the site of historical violence and racism.
In Minari, where we follow a Korean American family that settles on a farm in Arkansas, the characters experience joy only as it pertains to the capitalist myth of the American dream: You struggle as an immigrant, but if you work hard and hustle, eventually, you feel joy when you’ve “made it.”
Meanwhile, McQueen’s film 12 Years a Slave invites us to witness the intimate and cruel details of slavery, recreating scenes that take us through the daily work rhythms of the enslaved and the enslavers’ unsettling violence toward the enslaved. In such scenarios, there is obviously little room for joy.
The off-screen lives of BIPOC are often violent and oppressed. There is very little room for joy when news headlines remind us that Black bodies are targets of police brutality and Asian bodies targets of hate crimes related to the outbreak of COVID-19. Therefore, “accurate” depictions on-screen remind us how oppressed we are already when what we need are visual cues that joy is possible for us.
Shows like Bridgerton fill that void. We need to see stories with BIPOC protagonists experiencing love, joy, and pleasure. We need to practice world building, where we visualize the world that we want. And mediums like films and shows are apt formats, because they allow us to imagine a world that does not yet exist, in which BIPOC are not only surviving but thriving.
A year ago, I watched a screening of Las Flores de la Noche, a documentary by Eduardo Esquivel and Omar Robles. The filmmakers spent five years following a group of young transgender women living in a rural Indigenous Mexican community, creating a familiarity between the camera and the group that allowed the women to be completely vulnerable in showing up as themselves on-screen. In one scene, a woman is shaving her legs in the bathroom in an outdoor space with dirt floors and water from a large bucket. The level of vulnerability in that scene surprised many in the audience.
After the screening, the filmmakers had a Q&A, and an audience member asked, “Why didn’t we see more conflict in the story?” Perhaps they were unable to believe that trans women living in a rural community in the state of Jalisco were anything but oppressed.
Suffering does exist in their world, but the filmmakers chose a lens of joy with which to tell the story of care and community between the marginalized trans women. In Minari and 12 Years a Slave, we are observers looking in from a place of privilege. However, as we sympathize with the harsh and oppressive realities of the characters in the stories, we reaffirm BIPOC as victims and survivors. In contrast, the women of Las Flores de la Noche are joyful and willing to share this joy despite facing hetero-cis-patriarchal violence.
It is an act of defiance to choose joy every day, even as oppressive systems make us feel so unwelcome in our own space and bodies. Placed within the context of works by Audre Lorde, bell hooks, and adrienne maree brown, we can perceive joy and love as the antidote against structures of domination. “When we choose to love we choose to move against fear—against alienation and separation. The choice to love is a choice to connect—to find ourselves in the other,” writes hooks in All About Love: New Visions.
It is no longer enough to watch BIPOC merely surviving oppression on-screen. I understand that a BIPOC like me would not have had the privileges that Kate’s character possesses in Bridgerton, but it does not make me want to be part of the story any less. Seeing Kate’s joy embodied on-screen signaled these two things to me: You should be here, and you can experience joy.
Regina Gunapranata is a Mexico-based, Indonesian-Canadian multi-disciplinary artist exploring what self-actualization looks like for the children of immigrants. She can be reached at sotobetawi.substack.com.