For many Pakistani Bridgerton fans looking for an escape, a brown Kate Sharma isn't what they signed up for
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Bridgerton is the most watched English language series on Netflix. Many of its audience in Lahore love the happily-ever-after romance drama for its Regency-era setting. They are fascinated by the horse-driven carriages, castles, period costumery, and the essential Englishness of the dialogue.
This audience is predominantly comprised of women belonging to the upper-middle or elite socio-economic class, with a background of English-medium schooling. They relate to the on-screen representation of the Regency era and many of them are readers of the Jane Austen-inspired genre of romance fiction. However, most, if not all of them, have reservations about the diverse, colour-conscious casting in the series. Particularly, the South Asianisation of the main character in season two, which has been received with a pinch of salt by these viewers. The Lahori viewers of Bridgerton look at the importation of Kate Sharma into the Bridgerton world as an exotic tool used to increase the market reach among viewers of South Asian origin.
The show is based upon Julia Quinn’s best-selling Bridgerton series, which consists of eight Regency historical romance novels, each featuring one of the eight children of the late Viscount Bridgerton: Anthony, Benedict, Colin, Daphne, Eloise, Francesca, Gregory, and Hyacinth. Quinn’s genre romance novels were quite popular in the Anglophone romance reading communities in Pakistan even before the success of the television show. Pirated, used, and "original" copies of these romance novels are visible in old book shops of Lahore, as well as big bookstores like Readings and Liberty Books.
My opinions on Bridgerton are informed by the comments of readers of the genre series and viewers of the show, which I have collected from group interviews, Facebook discussions and Twitter debates.
The combination of the fictional world of Regency-era England and feel-good romance holds immense appeal for the Lahori viewers and readers. Leaving aside the nuances of this appeal for some later discussion, I focus now on the reception of colour-conscious casting by people of colour.
The first season of Bridgerton followed the story of Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) and her eventual marriage to Simon Basset, Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page), based upon the novel The Duke and I. Simon’s dark skin was an instant topic of debate among the viewers here, but the casting received overwhelming appreciation. To quote a 25-year-old student of genre fiction, “Romance heroes are traditionally tall, dark, and handsome. Simon is absolutely dashing.”
But the dark-skinned Kate Sharma from season two got mostly negative comments. This season uses the enemy-to-lovers trope and overall frame of The Viscount Who Loved Me and presents the love story of the eldest Bridgerton son, Anothony, and Kate Sharma who has just returned from India. In the book, Kate’s surname is Sheffield and she moves from the English countryside with her sister and mother to be a part of the social season in London. The role is played by Simone Ashley, who is an actor of South Asian descent. Overall, the character is given a different backstory and different demographic for better diversity optics.
Ms Sharma’s presence in a whitewashed story world can be validated by historical facts, but it fails to blend with the romance schema of many viewers as it appears to be a rather forced effort for inclusion of people of colour. Some avid readers of historical romances and Bridgerton season one fans were particularly disappointed with what I have started calling the “Sharma Phenomenon".
Many viewers believe that the concept of colour-conscious casting and representation has been stretched “too far” with the inclusion of a dark-skinned Kate in the Bridgerton universe. A particularly livid 30-year-old fan said, “Of course it is all fiction and imagination, but a dark hero makes sense and kaali (black) heroine does not.” Such responses correspond with my data of the readers of the Regency historical romance genre in Pakistan — they do not want to see themselves in these books.
The readers claim that the "Englishness" in these romances was exotic and sophisticated. To borrow a snippet from the readers’ conversations, “You won’t develop the taste for it if it won’t be the original white love story. I’m frying my brains with it, so it better be something of standard.” For viewers holding similar views, the introduction of Kate Sharma diminished the exoticism of whiteness, and consequently, the escape value.
The masala Indian
Apart from Kate's skin tone, Bridgerton has been criticised for its general “masala treatment” of Indians. Viewers were especially skeptical of Edwina Sharma’s reference to the famous Urdu poet, Mirza Ghalib, because she used an anglicised pronunciation of his name. Most of them were highly critical of the Bollywood music that played in the background in some of the scenes as well. One student from Lahore quipped, “So Kate is actually a kaali Katrina, who drinks masala tea, wears embroidery waly jorey, and reads Ghaleeb. I was like this is so annoying. Kuch reh tau nai gaya? (Is there anything left?)” Her sentiments were shared by her peers who discussed how season two has added unnecessary “masala” for the sake of diversity and inclusion.
The scene where the Sharma sisters apply turmeric on their faces was also criticised for its “obvious attempt to bring India where it does not belong.”
Interestingly, there was a clear difference of opinion between resident and diaspora Pakistani viewers, which helps us understand the dynamics of race and ethnicity in two different regions. What is exotic for one audience, is everyday ordinary for another. The viewers in diaspora, particularly those living in the Anglosphere, were ecstatic about a heroine with a darker skin tone and all the desi references because it means more representation and inclusion for them.
They appreciated the Sharma sisters because they were able to see women like themselves in stories that they love. It would also be an exaggeration to assume that all resident Pakistani viewers did not respond well to the South Asian Kate. Some viewers believed that a dark-skinned heroine in a popular Western show may ultimately help in changing the colonial infatuation with fair skin tones in Pakistan.
Exoticism and diversity
Pakistani women love books and shows set in Regency-era England because the exoticism of Englishness appeals to them and because they relate to that period. All the talk about Bridgerton brings in comparisons between the patriarchal, social, and economic systems of present day Pakistan and 19th century England. A participant from my research group defined the relatability of the Regency world: “I love how you can relate to it in some ways, the whole concept of parading the girls around suitors, courtship, formal engagements, arranged marriages [and a] class system. And being obsessed with marrying the daughter off to the guy with the most titles and lands etc, etc. Sounds so familiar, no?” However, this relatability does not extend to questions of race and ethnicity.
When desi women watch dramas or read books set in Regency England, they want a momentary escape to a world that is 'exotic' because it is white, not the other way around. These readers and viewers’ seemingly natural preference for whiteness is very close to their cultural values wherein, within their own families, the preference for fairer complexions is endorsed.
It is also a question of desire linked with the image of white heterosexual protagonists in a love story. This desire does not, for the most part, translate into a desire of the other in straightforward sexual sense of the word. One way to understand it would be to relate it to internalised racism of women living in postcolonial Pakistan. But such an explanation would be simplistic and would also undermine the strong pull of genre romance. Another point is that an overwhelming majority of Bridgerton fans are well aware of what they call their “colonial hangover.”
Pakistani audiences' reception of a fictitious Regency-era England relates to their concept of superior social mannerisms, class, and cultural finesse. The Bridgerton world provides them with an exotic place to escape to, and tokens of their lived reality, like darker skin tones or Bollywood music, interrupt that escape.