Toxic Romance: Problematic Faves

In December of last year, a little show called Bridgerton dropped on Netflix. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? Based on a series of romance novels by Julia Quinn, Bridgerton became an overnight smash and the most streamed show in Netflix history

After bingeing the show, many viewers became interested in the source material and began reading Quinn’s novels. Some fans took to Twitter to share their surprise upon discovering that while the show is diverse in its casting, the books the series is based on, are not. Frankly, Quinn’s Bridgerton books are over twenty years old and some of the content has not aged well. Yes, Julia Quinn’s books are frothy and delightful. She is the queen of writing witty dialogue and her books frequently make me laugh out loud. And while the Bridgertons are an historical romance staple, in romance years, they’re dinosaurs. 

The Duke and I was the first romance novel I ever read, so it will always hold a special place in my heart. However, on a recent re-read, I found it hard to finish the book. In the wake of #metoo, the scene where Daphne has sex with her intoxicated husband in an attepmt to get preganant without his consent, hits differently than it did 20 years ago. Which, to be clear, it also was not great then. However, as a society, we’ve come a long way in acknowledging and teaching the importance of consent. Modern romance readers expect to see consent on the page, which was not always the case in romance.

Romance is a genre that is constantly evolving. While traditional publishing doesn’t move as quickly as it should, romance has become more diverse in recent years. And with so many fantastic romances being published by authors of color and LGBTQ+ authors, it does beg the question, why the Bridgertons?

As a fan, it can be difficult to acknowledge that something you loved when you were younger has not stood the test of time. American society today is more diverse and inclusive than ever, and yet entertainment remains largely cisgender, heterosexual, and white. 

I run on nostalgia as much as the next person, but I also firmly believe that representation is important. It’s hard not to look back on a favorite childhood TV show or movie with the lens of a modern viewer and not see the glaring lack of representation of people of color and LGBTQ+ characters. Or notice that when representation was present, it came in the form of harmful stereotypes. 

Furthermore, it’s not just the content of books or shows that frequently make them problematic, but the people behind them as well. The most obvious in recent years being J.K. Rowling. If you’re not familiar with the reasons JKR is problematic, you can find them here. We’re not going to dive into the details of that particular situation, but suffice it to say, it’s a total bummer when the creator of a series we love turns out to be a not-so-great person. It can really put a damper on your relationship to a fandom that you’ve spent much of your life invested in.

I’m personally not a big fan of cancel culture, but I firmly believe in accountability culture. And part of that includes keeping ourselves accountable. If we really want to see change in our entertainment, that begins with us as consumers. As someone who works in education, I saw a huge shift in curriculum following last year’s BLM movement. Many of the schools that I work with have refocused their diversity initiatives and thrown out books like To Kill a Mockingbird in favor of books such as The Hate U Give or Dear Martin instead. 

Changing up the books you teach may not seem like too radical of an idea, but think back to the 1999 film 10 Things I Hate About You. While chastising Julia Stiles’s character, Kat, the English teacher Mr. Morgan says, “ask them why they can’t buy a book written by a black man!” We knew in the 90s that teaching a bunch of old, dead white men was an issue, but many schools across the country are still sticking to the status quo. It’s all well and good to appreciate the works of William Shakespeare, but I can honestly say that reading Romeo and Juliet in 9th grade didn’t leave nearly as much of an impression on me as reading The Bluest Eye in 10th grade.

So the next time you pick up an old favorite that maybe has some questionable content or was created by a problematic human, take a moment to consider what it is about that book or show that keeps drawing you in. Once you’ve figured out that X factor, take another moment to consider the problematic elements. I’m not saying to throw all your books in the trash. However, I do recommend examining your own biases. If you love Harry Potter, there is nothing wrong with that. The books are really good, but it might be time to leave them on the shelf and go find a new series to love, preferably one that isn’t transphobic. 

As our society grows more inclusive and accountable for past missteps, it’s important to be a good consumer. If you don’t like an author’s stance on a particular issue, don’t buy their merch. Instead, see if there are any small shops where you can get shirts, etc. that celebrate your fandom. 

If an older romance has some problematic elements, find a newer romance that is more reflective of current attitudes and behaviors. Lastly, give yourself some grace. It’s okay to like things that others don’t. There is always going to be something that you love that others take issue with and that’s perfectly fine. We’re all human, we’re all growing, and sometimes you just need a guilty pleasure!