Why Bridgerton Season 2's South-Asian Representation Matters

Two female actors of South-Asian descent being cast in leading roles in a breakout Netflix period drama is an absolute win for representation, essential to the ever-widening discourse of on-screen inclusivity. Personally, as a South-Asian woman from India, the presence of Simone Ashley and Charithra Chandran in their respective roles as Kate and Edwina Sharma in "Bridgerton" season 2 thrilled me to no end, as it is rare to see South-Asian women play lead romantic roles, especially in a period drama. It is (finally) time to break the mold of representing characters from India within the stereotypical mold of overused (and exhausting) archetypes, which often alienates countless viewers like me and presents an inherent problem in inclusivity.

Thankfully, "Bridgerton" season 2 does not participate in token representation, as the characters of Kate and Edwina are seminal propellers of the central plot — both characters are confident, self-assured women, who embody their agency with ease (as they should), whilst being at the center of an inadvertent love triangle with the Viscount Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey). Their cultural background and history are not erased either: the Sharmas have arrived at the 'ton from Mumbai, with the intention of securing a match for Edwina, whose mother, Mary Sharma (formerly Sheffield), had been ostracized from Regency society years ago for marrying outside of her societal status.

Kate and Edwina dress in bright, vibrant colors, sporting intricate jewelry throughout season 2, seminal being Kate's beautifully ornate bangles, which act as an important plot element during the show's climax. This element of faithful representation (referred to in subtle ways, such as Edwina calling Kate 'didi,' which essentially means 'big sister' in Hindi) is refreshing to behold, as opposed to disappointing instances of representation, such as Parwati and Padma Patil's culture-inaccurate and lackluster lehengas during the Yule Ball in "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" (a major gripe with South-Asian Potter fans to this day).

Is it historically accurate?

While the overarching response around Ashley and Chandran's casting, and the way in which they have been portrayed in "Bridgerton" have been positive, there has been much criticism surrounding the historical accuracy of South-Asian women being accepted by the British aristocracy in the Regency era. "Bridgerton" has attempted to address these racial aspects in season 1 via a specific lens, with several Black characters at the forefront, key being Duke Hastings (Regé-Jean Page), Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh), and most importantly Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel), who is based on a real historical figure believed to have had "significant African ancestry" (via The Guardian). Hence, the answer is neither yes nor no in this respect, but lies somewhere in between the fabric of history and empowered reimagination. 

Historical accuracy is a nuanced and complex discussion and inclusive representation in a period drama with reimagined dynamics can be empowering in many ways. After all, this is not the first time anyone has included prominent women of color in 18th century fiction: Jane Austen herself included a woman of color, Miss Lambe, in her unfinished novel "Sanditon," based during the Regency Era (Crystal Clarke played the role in the ITV adaptation of the novel). Apart from this, the Oscar-nominated World War I drama, "1917" also included the character of an Indian soldier within its central narrative.

This begs the question: is the inclusion of the Sharmas historically accurate? The answer is yes, according to Indian historian Durba Ghosh (via NBC News), a professor at Cornell University. Ghosh explains that the Regency lasted from 1811 to 1820, during which countless British officials from the East India Company married Indian women, spurring a migration of their families back to England, key examples being Colonel James Kirkpatrick, who married Khair un-Nissa, a woman of Indian descent. Moreover, the narrative of "Bridgerton" incorporates these historical elements well, as Mary Sheffield and her daughters have returned from India after years of living there, which works well with Lady Danbury sponsoring their stay (who also happens to be an old friend of Mary's) and the girl entering British society while celebrating their own cultural traditions with pride. Most importantly their romances do not predominantly revolve around their South-Asian descent, as they emerge as characters with autonomy, substance, and nuance (I'm genuinely tearing up as I write this).

Identity and representation are two peas in a pod

Of course, my identity as a woman of South-Asian descent is an important one, and seeing a chunk of my core identity represented in a series like "Bridgerton" is extremely important to me. This has been done before via Devi Vishwakumar's (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) character in Netflix's "Never Have I Ever," which attempts to delve into the contrapuntal aspects of Indian-American identity and succeeds for the most part. "Bridgerton" takes it a notch further, placing the characters of Kate and Edwina in an empowering light: they are characters who are accepted for who they are, which is at loggerheads with the traditional, often stereotypical representation of South-Asian women in mainstream media, if at all.

While this is nowhere near enough, it is essential nonetheless. Indian-Malaysian comedian Prakash Daniel talks about the essentiality embedded within diversified inclusion and representation in mainstream media:

"It is about time to show the world that Indians, in particular, are more than IT experts, doctors, and all the stereotypical roles. As for the viewers, it also gives a diversified outlook to society, especially in the context of a historical drama."

There's a history of marginalization inherent within the South-Asian experience, especially if you identify as a woman with contrapuntal identities. While efforts towards practical inclusion and equity need to be grounded in evolving societal perspectives that recognize and address these chasms of ostracization, positive on-screen representation can genuinely help innumerable South-Asian women like me, who can finally identify with a character on an innate level. After this, representation and inclusivity can influence ways in which we perceive ourselves and one another, affirming our identities in ways never possible before.

This does not necessarily mean that the appeal of fictional characters is solely restricted to a certain personal experience — experiencing any visual narrative is an active exercise in empathy, making identity-specific portrayals universal in nature, thanks to the inherent complexity and beauty (also suffering) of the human experience.

How Bridgerton excels in South-Asian representation

"Bridgerton" does not shy away from portraying plenty of details in terms of Indian clothing, ways of familial addressing, and wedding ceremonies that are an integral part of the culture (of course, not every South-Asian identifies with sporting ornate jewelry and adheres to traditional Indian wedding customs, but sure is a small step towards inclusivity). Both Kate and Edwina wear elaborate "jhumkas" (a specific, bell-shaped traditional Indian earring) with their outfits, which vary per their personalities: Edwina wears soft, pastel shades that underline her naivety and gentleness (which are not to imply that she is not a strong, assertive individual) while Kate wears darker, jewel tones that highlight her desire to carve her own path as a woman in Regency-era society.

Indian-inspired prints are also on full display, from paisley patterns to jacquard embroidery woven into Regency-era clothing, adorned with flowers not typically native to English gardens, such as marigolds, jasmine, and hibiscus. Aesthetics aside, there's an elaborate "Haldi" ceremony that takes place before the wedding, and it is affirming to see the Sharmas hold their own private ritual, which involves rubbing turmeric paste on parts of the skin as a sign of approaching happiness and prosperity. The intimate aspect of the sacred ritual is beautifully captured here, as the Sharmas are seen participating in it with the intention of forging stronger emotional bonds while making sure Edwina feels safe with her loved ones before embarking on a new journey with the Viscount.

The reason why these instances of representation matter are multifold, but I wanted to include a quote by /Film's Fatemeh Mirjalili, also an Indian woman of South-Asian descent (like me), and her perspective on "Bridgerton's" inclusivity and how much it mattered to her:

"It's empowering to see that South-Asian women can be leading heroines during the Regency era (I don't think I have ever seen this happen before). I love how Indian culture is represented in the show centered on two strong, compelling South-Asian female characters — no one raises questions about the color of their skin — they're accepted the way they are. While Bridgerton does not address the issue of Indian colonization, it is understood that the show has always been an escapist fantasy of sorts, for the most part. Nonetheless, seeing little details about the authentic representation of Indian culture — from culturally accurate dresses and jewelry to important pre-wedding traditions – has been extremely empowering on a personal level."

It is affirming to see a period drama like "Bridgerton" succeed (for the most part) in terms of portraying the South-Asian Indian experience while weaving a smoldering, emotionally-tethered narrative that wonderfully mimics the "enemies-to-lovers" trope. Here's wishing that more Kate and Edwina Sharmas grace our screens in the near future, hopefully, supplemented with the portrayal of more grounded, nuanced conversations about socio-political and historical identity that lead to meaningful conversations towards more diverse perspectives.