Shondaland: a parallel universe worth aspiring to


In Ryan Murphy’s Netflix series Hollywood, the 20th Academy Awards become the unexpected backdrop of social change.

A perfect storm of events sees an African American actress, an Asian American actress and an openly gay African American man all win Oscars.

Their truths are celebrated in an otherwise prejudiced world, the happy ending of a series created to pose the question: “what if…?”

In reality, the 1948 Oscars were a safehouse of predictability and white privilege.

Best Picture even went to a movie called Gentleman’s Agreement.

Murphy’s series got pasted for preachy over-reach (and it is over-reach to assume even golden age Hollywood could accomplish so much).

But it’s hard not to watch the fictional Oscars night unfold without imagining all the good that might have happened in the decades since.

What if, indeed!

But for all of Hollywood’s well-intentioned raging against the machine, a new series by legendary producer Shonda Rhimes and production company Shondaland just left it in the dust.

A Regency-era romance of all things, an otherwise frivolous nonsense called Bridgerton, just shattered Euro-centric history with one piece of casting.

It made 18th century Queen Charlotte of England black.

Image: Wikimedia Commons
Queen Charlotte is contended to have had African ancestry through her Portuguese forebears. The Queen was depicted as caucasian in her portraits however her physician Baron Stockmar described her as having “a true mulatto face”. Charlotte worked publically to abolish slavery.

Bridgerton’s advance publicity made it clear the series would represent the ethnic diversity of the Regency era, and the cast is a wealth of nations.

But what becomes clear as you make your way through the series’ nine episodes is something much grander is at play.

Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was a German aristocrat raised to the rank of Queen Consort by King George III of England because he wanted an apolitical bride.

They were engaged as total strangers and married in 1761 on the day they met.

Miraculously, the couple went on to have one of the most stable marriages in English royal history.

They had fifteen children together and Charlotte defied expectation to prove her husband’s intellectual match and a formidable political player on the world stage.

By the time King George was stricken with porphyria and rendered incapable of governing, she was a serious contender for regnal power and was given immediate control of the royal court.

Her son, George IV, solidified his place as Prince Regent with his mother’s eventual support.

Together, they came to symbolise the Regency era.

Bridgerton’s Queen Charlotte embodies these qualities but at first it appears the casting of African English actress Golda Rosheuvel is more to satisfy 21st century audiences than to make a statement.

Twenty minutes into the fourth episode, the series shows its hand and unveils the drastic social change created by its fictional, inter-racial royal marriage.

Another African English character, Lady Danbury, reveals we are witnessing the third generation of a society successfully overcoming racial prejudice because “a King fell in love with one of us.”

It’s phrased as a quick, quiet metaphor: love conquers all and opens new doors.

The subtlety covers a revelatory act of social rebellion, not just in the Bridger-verse.

An English language tv series has never offered a parallel universe possessing such profound social and historical change.

Adjoah Andoh as Lady Danbury and Rege-Jean Paige as Simon Basset, Duke of Hastings in Bridgerton

In the Bridger-verse, the marriage of the formidable Queen Charlotte and George III has led to large numbers of people from many ethnic backgrounds being elevated to royalty and aristocracy.

It’s 1813 and inter-racial marriage is completely without stigma.

Some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in Europe are BIPOC.

Lady Danbury is a veteran of this new world and she speaks of initial fears of her new role and how she overcame them.

“I sharpened my wit, my wardrobe and my eye and I became the most terrifying creature in any room I entered.”

Adjoah Andoh’s performance leaves no room for debate.

The BIPOC cast members deliver this incredible new world with tantalising understatement even as their performances carry the series.

They’re in a parallel universe where their forebears were released from prejudice and allowed to thrive on a playing field that could at last be evened.

The historical consequences of this African English Queen Charlotte are staggering to consider.

In this world, slavery was repealed in the British Empire before American Independence in 1776.

We no longer need Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton pandering to worrying nationalist tropes; multiple US founding fathers could be BIPOC here.

The social divide of the American north from the “deep south” vanishes taking the American Civil War and the Trump “cold war” along with it.

Imagine an Indian peninsula governed by Indian English viceregal figures and a British East India Company influenced by powerful Indian shareholders.

Countless Indo-Asian wars vanish, as does the Raj.

Imagine colonial Africa governed by Africans.

In the Bridger-verse the colony of New South Wales would be 25 years old.

Say goodbye to Terra Nullius and hello to Indigenous Australian aristocrats, and, dare it even be dreamed, a standing treaty between colonists and Indigenous nations.

In a single marriage, history is unwritten and as the full force of these changes wash over you, it’s hard not to thrill at their ambition.

Dido Elizabeth Belle is one of the few celebrated BIPOC figures of the Regency period. Belle was born into slavery, the daughter of an African mother and Admiral Sir John Lindsay. She was raised by her aristocratic family in England.

Historically, Regency England was proud of its emergent racial diversity.

London’s status as a global city was celebrated as a reflection of the growing power of the British Empire.

But this ethnic diversity rarely elevated the social newcomers above the middle class and even more rarely into the pages of contemporary history.

The experiences of BIPOC people in Regency and Victorian era England were unrecorded or suppressed and remain rarely told.

In Bridgerton, Shondaland has created a narrative artfully placing them front and centre.

The challenges to the tropes of its own genre are clear.

What if racial prejudice began to collapse 260 years ago?

What if culture and society in Regency England became richer for embracing BIPOC lives and normalising the telling of their stories?

What if culture and society became richer for doing those things with BIPOC people now?

Stripped of its social ambition, Bridgerton is a dull bit of work; Gossip Girl by way of the Bronte’s with a dash of Fifty Shades.

But stripped of its banal, tweenage love story, it’s the most compelling piece of alternate history ever created for television.

What if we had more shows and movies with ambitions like this?

What if audiences began to expect them?

What if we applied such social ambition in our daily lives?

What if…? What if…?

Shondaland has just changed the game. Here’s hoping it sticks.