Bridgerton season one spoilers follow.
New Netflix period drama Bridgerton is guaranteed to be many viewers’ sex-positive cup of tea. The Regency series is produced by Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal producer Shonda Rhimes, who is once again attaching her name to a feminist, empowering, and decidedly sexy project. In its eight-episode run, Bridgerton touches all these bases and then some, most notably in a refreshingly female-centric masturbation scene.
Healthy depictions of female pleasure on screen are more common nowadays, with some period dramas leading the way on the small and big screen. Nonetheless, clitoral and vaginal stimulation is still mostly uncharted territory in the genre. Throughout the years, mainstream media have pushed evocative images of fruit, or pristine blossoms deflowered by perfectly manicured fingers in its place. Despite being suggestive, such symbols of female masturbation aim to sanitise a moment that should be fun, exploratory and messy.
In Bridgerton, the heroine playing solo turns into a groundbreaking narrative device to expose the hypocrisy of sexual double standards.
Created by Chris Van Dusen, this inclusive, delightfully camp series revolves around the 1800s London marriage market. Young women are pushed by their mamas to secure the best match. Tragically, they are provided with little to no information about what happens after tying the knot.
Sex – in the form of heteronormative, male-centred “marital relations” – is often hastily reduced to something women will have to endure rather than enjoy. The unmarried ladies who dare cave to their instincts almost instantly lose their status, falling victims to a system that still regards virginity as the most desirable quality in a woman. Even more than a substantial dowry.
While men are free to indulge in affairs, respectable young women are shamed into suppressing their impulses. Their sexuality constantly policed, they’re left in the dark about the way their bodies function. Those same bodies, however, are heavily sexualised, squeezed into diabolical corsets and petticoats designed to appeal to gentlemen. Taking care of the flesh tingling under those layers is another matter, one that is hardly ever addressed.
Bridgerton’s protagonist Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) is no exception. At least until she strikes a deal with Simon, Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page.) As the pair pretend to court to get their way in the market, Daphne is introduced to the joys of masturbation. In ‘Art of the Swoon’, a steamy, explicit dialogue prompts the young woman’s sexual awakening.
“I’m laughing at the absurdity of how little mothers tell their daughters,” Simon says as they promenade.
“They tell us nothing,” Daphne confirms.
She seeks advice, aware that only a fake suitor would tell her the truth. While having a man instructing a woman on how to pleasure herself might seem problematic, the sequence is respectful and sensual. When the Duke realises Daphne has never masturbated, the atmosphere gets tenser. Brimming with anticipation, the exchange lays the groundwork for the second, possibly sexier half of the season.
“When you are alone, you can touch yourself… anywhere on your body, anywhere that gives you pleasure,” Simon tells Daphne.
“But especially between your legs,” he whispers, causing half the audience’s heart rate to accelerate dramatically.
The scene that follows is a defining moment for Daphne. Bridgerton presents viewers with the on-the-nose symbology of the candid flower. Significantly, the heroine leaves the white rose Simon gave her behind as she follows his advice. She starts by gently touching her body, then hikes up her nightgown. The camera follows her every move as she slowly but surely reaches for the centre of her pleasure.
Unlike other mainstream depictions of masturbation, Bridgerton doesn’t shy away from unequivocally focusing on Daphne’s body as well as face when she climaxes.
This amusing edit seals the deal for this scene, that ends with the young woman playing the piano the next morning. Having experienced her very first orgasm, Daphne is relaxed and manages to complete a song she was struggling with. Hilariously, her mother congratulates her on “finishing.” Even though a man had told her how to touch herself, Daphne takes full ownership of the moment.
Alongside Bridgerton, a number of other costume dramas have also portrayed female masturbation in recent years. Outlander episode ‘Surrender’ sees Caitriona Balfe’s Claire thinking of her lover Jamie as her husband Frank is asleep. In such a sex-positive, female-focused show, this masturbation scene felt a little lacklustre.
Unlike Daphne, Claire is a modern woman who has had sex before and knows what she likes. Yet the moment is filled with guilt and shame as she’s torn between familial duties and exciting adventures in another time and place. Later in the episode, she tries to make it right by sleeping with Frank, though it’s clear she isn’t enjoying herself.
Similarly to Bridgerton, The Great on Hulu is a caustically witty, sexy, not entirely historically accurate period drama. The series about Catherine, future Empress of Russia, has its best character in Aunt Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow). In ‘And You, Sir, Are No Peter The Great’, Elizabeth gets it off in public, looking at a statue of late emperor Peter the Great. The dolly zeroes in on the character masturbating on the palace’s staircase, the scene observed from the statue’s point of view.
In the pilot of 2013 teen period drama Reign, Mary’s lady-in-waiting Kenna (Caitlin Stasey) is turned on by a bedding ceremony. After spying on a couple on their wedding night, she searches for relief. She touches herself off-camera and is then joined by the much older, married King of France.
The case of Reign is emblematic. In 2013, the original scene was trimmed by The CW prior to airing, proving that the taboo around female pleasure was still alive and kicking. The risk is having women internalise that shame. According to a 2020 survey on masturbation, 53% still feel uncomfortable discussing solo sex. But pop culture might help tackle the stigma and celebrate masturbation against all patriarchal attempts to control women’s bodies.
In Bridgerton, particularly, the masturbation scene isn’t just played for laughs like in The Great, nor is it a way to bridge the gap between two lovers as in Outlander. It’s certainly not an invitation for a man to join in, as is the case with Reign.
It’s Daphne’s moment, and hers alone. A self-care act to understand her desire and finally reclaim power over her body. That’s not to say that masturbating might not improve a couple’s sex life. Au contraire. When Daphne and Simon marry, he asks her to show him what she enjoys in the bedroom. This is a very modern exchange that’s only possible because at this point, Daphne knows what she wants and how she works.
That utilitarian, sensuous masturbation scene fits into Bridgerton’s wider, much-needed conversation on consent and sex-positivity. Not bad for yet another period drama.
Bridgerton season one is now available to watch on Netflix.
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