“I love that character so much; I think that Golda Rosheuvel, who plays her, is just brilliant,” said Quinn at an event hosted by the Department of English on Zoom on March 24. “I wish I had her in the book and in some ways I’m glad I didn’t because I don’t know if I could have done it as well.”
Quinn credited producer Shonda Rhimes and a diverse team of writers for giving her stories a new twist, not the least of which was casting the English queen as Black. She said colorblind casting was something that “hadn’t occurred” to her, but that she’s loved the emotional reaction to it.
“This is what I look like, I’ve always been able to see myself in the stories,” said Quinn, who is white, referring to her own skin color.
“As the show came out I began seeing the reaction from people being like, ‘Oh, my brown-skin queen!’ she said. “We now have people saying, ‘Finally someone who looks like me in the fancy dress.”
Fact and Fantasy
Well before the event, Brandy Monk-Payton, Ph.D., assistant professor of communication and media studies, and Susanne Hafner, Ph.D., assistant professor and director of the German program, discussed the “blind casting” of Black actors in the show’s upper-crust 18th-century London setting. Payton is a media and Black cultural studies scholar and Hafner is currently researching Black culture in medieval Europe. The two teased fact from fantasy for the show’s major characters, particularly Queen Charlotte.
Monk-Payton noted that Rhimes has been doing colorblind casting for quite a while, with shows like Grey’s Anatomy.
“And when I say colorblind casting for her, she talks about starting the show and not casting actors based on their race or ethnicity. So this is how you get a chief of surgery on Grey’s Anatomy that is Black, that never discusses [it], but has this very powerful role on the program, and is in a position of authority, right?” she said. “Later on in the show, they very much discussed racial issues, but those early seasons were not necessarily informed by perspective on Blackness or racial politics.”
She said that Rhimes brings that casting experience to the table with Bridgerton. But she added that Blackness cannot always be mapped onto stories that are based in whiteness, because there are other dynamics at play. She noted that one of the major criticisms of Bridgerton is that the show ignores the very real specter of racial violence and slavery of the time.
“There’s been a lot of discussion around the desire of doing this kind of colorblind casting and that’s always the question–how it’s trying to intervene in the historical record,” said Monk-Payton.
History’s Harsher Reality
During their discussion, Hafner noted that the Crusades first introduced Europe to Black people, though at the time the definition of Black extended well beyond the continent of Africa.
“There were people who moved to Europe because of the Crusades and trade with the East who had dark skin,” she said. “Part of the problem for me and my research is trying to figure out what Black really means, where these people were from, and what they actually looked like.”
The cross-cultural exchanges of the Crusades also brought about a fetishization of Black bodies, said Hafner.
“Black skin was considered erotically attractive and people were even more interested in what the children of a white person and a Black person might look like,” she said.
Mixed-race children were depicted in art of the time with black and white polka dot skin or like a magpie, she said. Over time, a “fair number of princes” had affairs with Black and brown women and Europeans began to see what the children of an interracial relationship actually looked like, she said. By the late 18th and early 19th century a drop of Black of brown blood was no longer considered exotic, but a cause for derision.
The actual Queen Charlotte was married to England’s George III in 1761. Hafner said that the myth that she was part Black probably began as an oft-repeated insult. Born Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz in Germany, Queen Charlotte entered the English court as an outsider and was dubbed a mulatto by her detractors.
“This myth about her being Black has been passed around, so this is not something that the creators of Bridgerton invented, it has always been around,” she said. “But it seems to have started just with unkind comments from people about her looks.”
Among Queen Charlotte’s aristocratic ancestors was the 13th-century King Alfonso of Portugal whose mistress was allegedly the origin of a Black bloodline in that particular German house. Hafner said that the recent dust-up with the House of Windsor over Meghan Markle has sparked in renewed interest among scholars seeking to locate Black bloodlines among the royals.
Expanding Opportunities with Casting
While depicting Black royals on stage and screen has been rare, there have been recurrent roles in which Black actors are cast, such as Shakespeare’s Othello. (Though Hafner noted Othello was still played in blackface on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera as recently as 2015.) Still, opera was blind casting long before television with Black sopranos Leontyne Price and Jessye Norman holding court at The Met throughout the 1970s.
Today, blind casting has expanded opportunities in television for Black and brown actors, said Payton. She noted that Black actress Jodie Turner-Smith has been slated to play the lead role in “Anne Boleyn,” a show about the ill-fated wife of Henry VIII on British TV. Monk-Payton noted that during the ’60s and ’70s, most of the representations on television of Black people were of the poor and working class.
“The Jeffersons may have been moving on up, but mostly we don’t see rich Black people until Diahann Carroll played Dominique Deveraux in Dynasty, which has its own kind of this-can’t-be feel,” she said.
Monk-Payton said she that as she watched Bridgerton with her mother, the two embraced the full-on fantasy aspect of the show.
“There are moments in Bridgerton that I find delightful as a Black woman, like the queen and her elaborate 19th-century wigs that use braids or an afro,” she said. “There’s this Black culture and Black expression in a European period piece, which up till now has been by and large a story of whiteness.”