Editor’s Note: Shaun Armstead is a historian whose research centers on Black women’s international activism in the 20th century. She holds a PhD in history from Rutgers University-New Brunswick. An outgoing predoctoral fellow at the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies at the University of Virginia, she starts this fall as a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Africana Studies at Brown University. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.
A Black noblewoman finds love and happiness as the wife of England’s king: That is the heart-warming if improbable plot of Shonda Rhimes’ latest historical miniseries ”Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story.”
The six-episode prequel to “Bridgerton” is currently streaming on Netflix. “Queen Charlotte” explores the origins of the racially-integrated aristocratic society to which viewers were introduced in two earlier seasons of the wildly popular series.
It ought to be clear that an interracial love story between royals in a late-18th century Britain where people of all races interact on near-equal footing, is fantasy. And for those who don’t know that, a disclaimer at the start of the first episode of “Queen Charlotte” offers a reminder.
But its departure from history has not detracted from its appeal: the series has charmed millions of viewers since its debut this month. For some, its celebration of a multiracial but purely fictional British aristocracy may even be a big 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 Portugal’s royal family, and some even debate whether or not she had African ancestry.
Viewers meet Charlotte as a 17-year old German princess forced into an arranged marriage with the British king. Upon her arrival in London, some in the royal court express concern that her complexion was darker than they’d expected. Despite this initial hiccup, the marriage ceremony proceeds as planned.
It is a remarkable scene, since we know that even today, whiteness is the central feature of the British royal family, underscored by the furor caused by the marriage into the family a few years ago of a biracial member.
At the center of “Queen Charlotte” is the “Great Experiment” – an attempt to introduce, by royal fiat, greater racial and social equity in the realm. As the series gets underway, leading members of the court, including the King’s own mother, have made the decision to grant land and titles to people of color – a radical social change meant to legitimize the marriage between a Black queen and White King. Before this union, some nonwhite subjects were wealthy, but presumably none possessed aristocratic rank. Thus, the interracial romance in this tale is a catalyst for racial breakthrough and social progress.
“Queen Charlotte” furthers an ongoing project to expand representation in television and film. Series like “Bridgerton,” “Insecure,” ”Pose,” ”Vida,” and ”P-Valley,” and movies like ”Black Panther” and ”Crazy Rich Asians” don’t just center characters of color – they contextualize them in storylines foregrounding race, class, sexuality and spirituality.
Shonda Rhimes, one of the co-writers of “Queen Charlotte” and executive producer of “Bridgerton,” has been at the forefront of this work. Her efforts most notably include her groundbreaking ABC series ”Scandal,” which was the first American primetime television show in decades to cast a Black woman in the lead role. (The previous one was the cop show ”Get Christie Love!” back in the 1970s.)
Yet, “Queen Charlotte” and the entire “Bridgerton” universe offer viewers a racially integrated world that upholds Eurocentric paradigms. The diversity championed in these shows is one in which Black and Asian characters are welcomed as long as they conform to the values and norms governing western societies. This imagined world, consequently, begins and ends with Europe.
Reimagining history in this way ignores the painful truths of the era. Imperial domination 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 beyond Europe to the margins of the plot. The African continent, for instance, earns only fleeting mention. A more meaningful incorporation of Africa and its diaspora would require “Queen Charlotte” to have reckoned in some way with histories of oppression.
Such creative departures unmooring “Bridgerton” from the past are, in my opinion, alarming. We are served a sanitized version of history at the very moment when more accurate narratives of the past are under attack.
Since the antiracist protests of 2020, the classroom has become a battleground for suppressing this knowledge. Politicians and activists on the right take issue with students learning histories centering the American nation’s legacy of settler colonialism, slavery, and Jim Crow. As a result, Leaders across the country have crafted legislation to monitor and limit what educators at every level can teach. The most notable example of this trend has been Florida Governor and presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis.”
These reactionary efforts promise to exacerbate a decades-long trend of declining historical knowledge. It has never been more important that we have accurate reflections of the past. The very least we could hope for is entertainment that presents a truer approximation of oppressions formed in the past that persist today.
I welcome greater on-screen diversity and lighthearted entertainment. The world is too diverse for art to default, as it almost always does, to dominant perspectives. And after three years of living in a pandemic, pervasive gun violence, environmental crisis, and economic anxieties, those who want stories of happily-ever-after romance should have them. Yet depictions of the past as racially progressive imperil efforts to create more just societies that confront enduring legacies of racism.
“Some shows offer models to follow. Take, for example, the character of Peggy Scott in the HBO dramatic series ”The Gilded Age,” set in New York City in the 1880s. Although an educated, respectable member of the Black elite, Scott nevertheless possesses less social capital than Marian Brook, a poorer, less educated woman, because of Whiteness. The writers incorporate this unpleasant but historically accurate reality while still delivering entertainment.
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Race can be handled astutely even when the subject matter is more fantastical. We see that with AMC’s adaptation of “Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire.” The main character, Louis de Pointe du Lac, is a light-skinned Black man in early 1900 New Orleans finds that Jim Crow racism continues to affect him, even as a vampire in the afterlife.
Such productions, unlike “Queen Charlotte,” acknowledge the hierarchies of the periods they depict. In so doing, they offer audiences a dramatized depiction of how Whiteness impacts and limits nonwhite characters.
Using art as a vehicle to pursue greater social belonging is a necessary objective. Forging a better world for us all requires creative vision. But these efforts demand reparative work that accounts for the long trajectory of marginalization and oppression. “Queen Charlotte” shows that we cannot fantasize away or ignore the injustices of the past – they haunt us still.