Editor’s note: Shaun Armstead is a historian whose research focuses on black women’s international activism in the 20th century. She has a PhD in History from Rutgers University-New Brunswick. A outgoing graduate student at the University of Virginia’s Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies, she will begin this fall as a postdoctoral fellow in Brown University’s Department of Africana Studies. The views expressed here are their own. To read more opinion at CNN.
A black noblewoman finds love and happiness as the wife of the king of England: this is the heartwarming, albeit unlikely, plot of Shonda Rhimes’ latest historical miniseries, Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story.
The six-part prequel to Bridgerton is currently streaming on Netflix. “Queen Charlotte” explores the origins of the racially integrated aristocratic society introduced to viewers in two previous seasons of the hugely popular series.
It should be clear that an interracial love story between nobles in late 18th-century Britain, in which people of all races interact with each other almost as equals, is fantasy. And for those who don’t know, a disclaimer at the beginning of the first episode of “Queen Charlotte” is a reminder.
But her departure from the story hasn’t diminished her appeal: since debuting this month, the series has enchanted millions of viewers. For some, the homage to a multiracial but purely fictional British aristocracy may even be a large part of its appeal.
Unlike Bridgerton, Queen Charlotte uses real historical figures to create this fantasy world. The main characters, King George III. and Queen Charlotte, were real people. The main character, Charlotte (1744-1818), was a descendant of the Portuguese royal family, and some even debate whether or not she was of African descent.
Viewers experience Charlotte as a 17-year-old German princess who is forced into an arranged marriage with the British king. Upon arrival in London, some members of the royal court expressed concern that her complexion was darker than expected. Despite these initial difficulties, the wedding proceeds as planned.
It’s a remarkable scene as we know that whiteness is still the central trait of the British royal family today, underscored by the excitement sparked by the marriage of a multiracial member into the family a few years ago.
At the heart of “Queen Charlotte” is the “Great Experiment” – an attempt to introduce more racial and social justice in the kingdom through royal decree. At the start of the series, senior members of the court, including the king’s mother, made the decision to grant lands and titles to people of color – a radical societal shift intended to legitimize the marriage between a black queen and a white king. Before this union, some non-white subjects were wealthy, but presumably none were of aristocratic rank. Thus, the interracial romance in this story is a catalyst for racial breakthrough and social advancement.
“Queen Charlotte” sponsors an ongoing project to expand representation in television and film. Shows like Bridgerton, Insecure, Pose, Vida and P-Valley and films like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians not only focus on characters of color – they contextualize them in storylines , which emphasize race, class, sexuality and spirituality.
Shonda Rhimes, one of the co-writers of Queen Charlotte and Executive Producer of Bridgerton, spearheaded this work. Most notably among her endeavors is her groundbreaking ABC series.scandal“The first American prime-time television show in decades to star a black woman. (The predecessor was the 1970s police series Get Christie Love!.)
Yet “Queen Charlotte” and the entire “Bridgerton” The universe offers viewers a racially integrated world that perpetuates Eurocentric paradigms. The diversity promoted in these shows is one in which Black and Asian characters are welcome as long as they conform to the values and norms of Western societies. This imaginary world consequently begins and ends with Europe.
Such a reinterpretation of history ignores the painful truths of the time. Imperial rule and dispossession, as well as slavery, enriched the coffers of British and other European nations and monarchies.
These realities find no place in “Queen Charlotte”. Consequently, it confines the world outside of Europe to the fringes of the plot. The African continent, for example, deserves only a passing mention. A more meaningful inclusion of Africa and its diaspora would require “Queen Charlotte” to have reckoned with the history of oppression in some way.
Such creative deviations that detach “Bridgerton” from the past are alarming in my opinion. We are being served a sanitized version of history just as more accurate narratives of the past are being attacked.
Since the anti-racist protests of 2020, the classroom has become the battlefield for the suppression of this knowledge. Politicians and activists on the right oppose students learning stories that center on the American nation’s legacy of settler colonialism, slavery and Jim Crow. As a result, leaders across the country have enacted legislation to monitor and limit what educators at all levels can teach. The most notable example of this trend was Florida Governor and presidential candidate Ron DeSantis.”
These reactionary efforts promise to exacerbate a decade-long trend of decline in historical knowledge. It has never been more important that we accurately reflect the past. The least we could ask for is entertainment that is a more realistic approximation of the oppressions created in the past that continue to this day.
I welcome more on-screen diversity and light-hearted entertainment. The world is too diverse for art to draw on dominant perspectives, as it almost always does. And after three years of living in a pandemic, pervasive gun violence, environmental crisis and economic fears, those who want stories of happily ever after should have this one. Yet portraying the past as racially progressive jeopardizes efforts to create more just societies faced with the lingering legacies of racism.
“Some shows offer role models to follow. Take, for example, the character of Peggy Scott in the HBO drama series The Gilded Age, set in 1880’s New York City. Although Scott is an educated, respectable member of the black elite, her whiteness means she has less social capital than Marian Brook, a poorer, less educated woman. The authors incorporate this uncomfortable but historically accurate reality while still providing entertainment.
Races can be handled skilfully even when the subject is more fantastic. We see that in the AMC adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. The main character, Louis de Pointe du Lac, is a fair-skinned black man in early 20th-century New Orleans who finds that Jim Crow racism continues to affect him, even as a vampire in the afterlife.
In contrast to “Queen Charlotte”, such productions take into account the hierarchies of the epochs represented. In doing so, they offer audiences a dramatized portrayal of how being white affects and limits non-white characters.
Using art as a vehicle to foster greater social inclusion is a necessary goal. Creating a better world for all of us takes a creative vision. But these efforts require reparations that explain the long road to marginalization and oppression. “Queen Charlotte” shows that we cannot fantasize away or ignore the injustices of the past – they still haunt us.