Colorblind Casting, Racism, and “Historical Accuracy”: Unpacking the Bridgerton Casting “Controversy”

Last week, casting news for  The Little Mermaid live-action remake began making waves (hehe) on the Internet, and it was followed up this week by the casting announcement for Shonda Rhimes Bridgerton  Netflix series. And while both pieces of news had me excited, due to Little Mermaid being my childhood favorite and the Bridgertons being my all-time favorite historical romance series…other people weren’t so happy. And setting aside the understandable reservations that some have about the casting of the Bridgertons series, such as the implied changes and new characters, many of the worst comments shared a similar theme with The Little Mermaid’s casting reactions in being focused on the race of some of the actors. 

Among the cast, we have Regé-Jean Page playing Simon and Adjoa Andoh as Lady Danbury, those being the choices that have been the targets of the biggest race-related comments, due to the characters’ prominence in the book series. 

Most, like with the Ariel comments, chose to make it about “historical accuracy,” accusing Shonda of “changing [history] to fit her narrative,” with others questioning why the change was done when Julia Quinn did not make them POC in the first place, pulling the “create original stories” card, which are very familiar to anyone who was following the insanity from the Ariel casting last week. 

` And I just find it laughable and sickening at the same time. Laughable because historical accuracy is their excuse, but neither Disney nor JQ are necessarily known for their strict adherence to historical accuracy. And it’s even funny for historical romance readers to cry about that stuff, because they’re totally fine with thousands of young, virile dukes (a complete fiction), not to mention some of the anachronistic shenanigans of historical romance books, but an aristocratic historical romance hero (or heroine)  portrayed as a person of color? Pitchforks! 

Also, I’ve seen the claim touted that if black people existed at all during the Regency, they were servants or slaves. Vanessa Riley (and many serious historians) would beg to differ, having written a number of books set in the period, with black people in different walks of life, from servant to aristocrat, and featuring a wealth of information about Black people in the Regency on her website. 

For the most part, it all goes back to colorblind casting and each of the people chosen being who they felt captured the spirit of the role. The main  defense given for Halle Bailey as Ariel is her killer pipes, and I have to agree, especially given the fact that some people’s ideal casting choices don’t come close to hitting her range vocally. And while I’m not familiar with any of the cast for the Bridgertons series, I don’t think it’s out of character for Shonda Rhimes, who has produced diverse series like Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder, to cast people of color here either, and am open to giving all of the cast a chance to prove what they can do, instead of passing judgment prematurely. 

But regardless of who’s in charge, it’s just disheartening to see so much hatred over the casting of fictional characters, especially since the accusations are the same every time (like, legitimately, I heard the same things come up in response to both Ariel and the Bridgertons, and every other colorblind re-casting)? Becoming “too PC?” Heard that one before. “Black people should make their own show?” What do you think they’ve been trying to do for decades? “Not historically accurate?” See above. 

It’s sad that we still have people who hold these antiquated beliefs in 2019. I understand having a love for a childhood classic film or a beloved book series, and dreading changes when a remake or new adaptation comes around. But that’s no reason to be hateful and exclusionary to others, especially to entire groups of people who have put up with decades of not being represented in media, due to systemic barriers in their way.

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