Bridgerton is a fever dream. Intellectually, the Netflix drama is a precise distillation of countless 19th-century Regency dramas, while mothballing some of the regressive tendrils of the genre. The interpretation of stodgy English high society here is inter-racial and absurdly melodramatic, with heaping spoonfuls of fan service trickling down the sides. Most importantly, there is so much goddamn fucking in this show, folks!
These abstruse dukes and duchesses are attending Bushwick-style orgies and getting it on underneath boxing rings. A dramatic subplot hangs on a royal’s well-hewn pullout reflex. It’s all of the chaste, frocky carnality of the period genre finally bursting through, like the most shameless of Austenian slash-fics come to life. Part of the appeal, I think, is that Bridgerton does away with the high-minded calculus that define some of the 19th-century classics: You don’t need to know anything about Daphne and Simon other than the crystal-clear reality that they long for each other’s bodies on a subconscious, instinctual level. Sometimes, that’s all there really is.
All of which is to say, it’s not surprising Bridgerton has emerged as a late-pandemic hit. Netflix has already renewed the series for a second season, as couples around the country submerge into this wonderland of aristocratic raw-dogging while picking out their 300th consecutive takeout order. Even less surprising: A number of people believe that Bridgerton has served as a sort-of aphrodisiac for their own sex lives. Perhaps the best example of this trend emerged in a now-deleted post to the subreddit r/sex. “Bridgerton Made Wife Insatiable,” reads the headline. The comments are dotted with a multitude of spouses stuck in an intimacy rut, their curiosity piqued. “Note: Add Bridgerton to the to-do list,” writes one of them.
There’s something about Bridgerton — its unrelenting celebration of sex, and the experience of not having it for a while before having a lot of it with someone you really want to do it with — that surpasses the other titillations on TV. Downton Abbey introduced a generation of Americans to the fascinating foibles of the British aristocracy, and the culture absorbed about a billion Khaleesi sex scenes without blinking an eye, but Daphne and Simon brushing hands outside a party? That hits different. “The sex scenes to me were so real, and the emotions were strong between the characters,” says one woman I’ll call Sarah, who understandably wants to remain anonymous. “That type of intense connection just made watching those scenes so wonderful, and I quickly realized that it was turning me on.”
Sarah tells me that for the bulk of her relationship to her husband, she’s been the one with the lower libido. “We have great sex, but sometimes the mental gets in the way,” she explains, which is extremely relatable to pretty much everyone, even some of the characters on Bridgerton. That’s what makes the period drama great therapy for her. There are so many moments in the series where a demure spark of eye contact immediately gives way to some exhilaratingly brainless fucking — the kind of fucking that sucks any lingering doubts of self-consciousness out of your soul like a sponge. Sarah has found that to be instructional. If it’s so easy for them, why can’t it be easy for her?
“We’re having more sex. After watching the show and seeing how passionate and spontaneous their sex was, I felt the urge to do the same with my husband,” she says. “Just seeing them go at it without any second thoughts made me realize, ‘Why don’t I do the same more often?’”
Another woman, who I’ll give the pseudonym Jane, has been with her husband for 14 years. They’re currently trying for a baby, which is the sort of marital chore that can render lovemaking as drab and workmanlike as possible. A friend at work recommended Bridgerton to her, and unlike Sarah, it wasn’t the intensity of the smut that seeped into her pores. Instead, she was most provoked by the quiet moments of arid lust — the most Austenish of this Austen tribute — in which two people are frenzied with hunger for each other but can’t get down to business due to the panoply of impenetrable bureaucratic horse shit that seems to trump every other human priority.
“It was the subtle touches and glances that are taboo and social suicide for that time period,” says Jane, adding that she especially enjoyed the “pent-up aggression” from the eternally tortured and self-destructive Simon. “Sex has become more of a chore for us, and Bridgerton definitely helped liven it up because I wasn’t just having sex because I had to. We’ve been together for a long time; there’s not much new to try!”
Both Jane and Sarah recommend Bridgerton to any lover who currently feels like they’re in a rut. But Jane specifies that she believes the show’s erotic magick might work best on women. Her husband watched a few episodes with her and didn’t care for it much. “He didn’t find the characters sexy,” she says. “Much like a classic Fabio romance novel.”
She’s not wrong. Bridgerton’s parlor tension and never-ending deluge of white-lace galas doesn’t ensorcel everyone. (Maybe you’re more of an Outlander guy.) But it’s undeniable that we, as a society, possess a rich tradition of getting preternaturally horny over austere, PBS-ish romances, which is funny, considering the sheer volume of far more explicit adult content available at our fingertips in the 21st century. But maybe that’s the point. Nora Nachumi and Stephanie Oppenheimer, professors of English at Yeshiva University and Borough of Manhattan Community College respectively, authored a paper examining the taut sexuality in Austen’s body of work. When reached for comment over email, they tell me that the enchantment is an ancient trick of the human condition; there’s a natural carnality about wanting what you cannot have, which is only emphasized by the staid setting.
“Regency romances are all about foreplay. The frocks and formalized rules of courtship act as restraints that magnify the erotic energy that they’re restraining. Whether through narrative or cinematic techniques, these stories let us know that the characters are meant to be together before they know it themselves,” explain Nachumi and Oppenheimer, who condensed their responses into one statement. “Once the characters know they desire each other, the question becomes how the pair can unite. Given that all this is happening in the Regency period, social decorum and clothing tend to get in the way. So the allure for readers and viewers has to do with the fact that delay increases gratification.”
Currently, my girlfriend and I are on Episode Five, which from what I understand is the moment where the show’s audaciousness heads into overdrive. You need to search for little victories in an era so aggressively dispiriting, and so creating a fun little evening — that is, watching glorified softcore before retiring to the bedroom to see if you’ve both accidentally manifested the plight of Daphne and Simon — is a boon I’d recommend to everyone.
2020 took everything from us, and 2021 isn’t looking much better, but at least our parlor dramas are getting hornier.