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Brexotica

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been asked what I think about Harry and Meghan more times than I’d like for one lifetime. The honest answer is “as little as possible.” But then I started to be told how I felt – how all Britons feel – by commentators in the US and UK, and it set me thinking about bricolage and discourses and whether some aspects of Orientalism are always in play – not just in conditions of colonialism.

The thing that really set me off was this podcast from the NYTimes, where Sarah Lyall calls the monarchy “the glue that holds [British] society together.” According to Lyall, British people felt they had to be emotionless robots until former-princess Diana talked about pain in an interview, and that gave them permission to feel pain. With reference to Harry and Meghan: “the monarchy is sort of setting the tone here. It’s the rest of society. I mean, it’s as if they’re sort of waiting for license to discuss these things in a new way.” That struck me as strange because it didn’t reflect my own experience, growing up in Britain in the decades immediately preceding this apparently epochal interview.

Elsewhere in the interview Lyall allows that there might be two kinds of Brits – “establishment people, older people, men,” and “younger women, people who were unhappy in love, people who had struggled with mental health issues, people who maybe had eating problems or other problems,” but together they only form one kind of society, and that society needs permission from the royals to feel things, otherwise it will come unglued. And that set me thinking about some rather incautious anthropology I’ve read, like e.g. where Jim Siegel uses Freudian analysis on the population of Indonesia to claim they were collectively tramuatized by the death of Sukarno’s pet dog. Back before the rise of post-modernism it was quite common in anthropology to discuss the workings of the “savage mind,” to boil (neatly bounded) cultures down into a few phrases, to understand foreign Others as primitive emotional mechanisms, trapped in their backward mythologies. The discussion of the British and their fatally flawed relationship with their royal family looked to me a lot like bad old Orientalism.

Edward Said’s Orientalism is a book-length diatribe against this sort of superiority complex analysis, where the writer stands aloof from the people they’re looking at, maintaining an exterior perspective that allows for blanket judgments about whole populations. Said identifies the complex as a handy tool for colonialism but also a dangerous self-delusion, since  “cultures are always made up of mixed, heterogenous and even contradictory discourses.” But Said also claims that Orientalism is always wrapped up in colonialism – it only really functions to reproduce power distance between two populations. And I’ve often wondered, what if there are no relations of colonial domination in play? If we see the colonial-Orientalist thought pattern dominating cultural interpretations in non-colonial contexts, how would we know that it’s actually colonial and not just a basic interpretive framework linked, perhaps, to ideas of which communities we identify with or against?

So I was thinking all this when I finally got around to watching Jojo’s Bizarre Adventures and I realized that its Barbie palace setting was supposed to be 19th century Britain. Big deal, you say, it’s anime. Moreover, it’s Jojo, i.e. baroque anime (thanks Mateo). Season 1 Jojo draws on British (or American-dressed-up-as-British) gentleman adventurer genre conventions, so… sure. Japanese artists adopt another genre, fine. But when the “16th century knights” Bluford and Tarkus showed up, the misrepresentation started to be so blatant, so willful, that I began to think there was something deliberate going on.

Here’s Tarkus, sporting a horned helmet, like the Vikings didn’t wear. He’s supposed to be a knight in the service of Mary Tudor.
Here’s Ed Courtenay, an actual nobleman in the service of Mary Tudor, for comparison.
He’s not a knight but an Earl, but that really just means he can afford a more expensive portraitist.

I started wondering if these romanticized Vikings standing in for Renaissance dandies were some sort of comment on ignorant/careless depictions of Samurai and Ninja in Western media. If they were supposed to make me think more carefully about depictions of Japan, they were working. I also started thinking about Britain’s place in other countries’ mediated imagination – Japan was effectively in the US’s colonial orbit until the 1980s, the US was in Britain’s until the 1780s. Can UK/US relations be called non-colonial? Or does the colonial trace still apply two centuries later?

And that set me back to Shonda Rhimes’s recent adaptation of Bridgerton, an old-fashioned bodice-ripper erotic/romantic fantasy that has the novel element of pretending that 19th century Britain could have had race relations that 2020 Hollywood would feel good about.

Bridgerton’s romantic leads. He’s been “traveling outside Britain for business,” which is as close as Bridgerton gets to mentioning colonies. She, obviously, has waited at home like a proper English rose for the precise moment of plucking.

For a while I couldn’t articulate what it was that bothered me about Bridgerton. Other people who complained about its non-traditional racial presentation were accused of everything from boring historicism to closet racism. But the business around Harry and Meghan made me realize that what bothers me in particular is that it deploys its fantasy Britain (or “Shondaland,” as the title card suggests) to have its cake and eat it too, dodging 2020’s arguments about representation by presenting itself simultaneously as fantasy and not-fantasy in a very Orientalist way.

It’s pretty obvious to me that Bridgerton chose to be notorious for its Progressive take on race, in order to avoid being notorious for its regressive gender politics – which are those of a remarkably traditional bodice ripper (a bold move when even Adventure Time has had a go at the genre’s cliches). That is, it’s nostalgic about women being submissive as a social fact, so that it can tell a story about how the heroine manages to get comfy in her bondage. So that explains why it’s set in 1813 Britain – because that setting “explains” the gender politics… except that Bridgerton’s alt universe, with its more acceptable 21st century casting, makes it clear that it’s not an Austen or a Bronte story, and so it doesn’t have to come to Austen or Bronte type conclusions. The leading characters are notably more interesting and sophisticated – more like the audience – than their benighted Regency supporting cast. They can have frank conversations about female masturbation on the model of Dr. Ruth.

Not like this lot, who are fine actors all, but not leading lady material. Also, they’re dressed in an acid-coloured parade of the worst fashions of the first half of the 19th century, as opposed to the lead’s more 1810s-by-way-of-1910s elegant simplicity.

So the show is simultaneously in and not-in Britain and its leads are simultaneously British and other-than-British – more specifically, the show is set in a fantasy Britain that rests on a particularly American conception of what it means to be exterior to British history, to be defined as not-British and to parade that difference in certain highly-reified ways (tea, polite skepticism, some obvious markers of the class system, dentistry). It uses British actors and is filmed in British locations, to reproduce a specifically American gaze. In the end it’s no closer to British history, really, than Jojo. Negar Azimi calls the Orientalist view of the Orient “a skewed mirror upon which Europeans could project their motley desires and fantasies.” Applying that here, we see Shondaland obscuring any “real” British history, replacing Britain with stuff that might never make it onto the air in an outright US-in-the-US romance. Projecting subby desires onto a primitive, peripheral Britain allows them to be (a) depicted for the metropolitan US audience and (b) alienated from them, so they can watch it all without owning (up to having) the desires. Kinda like all those steamy French paintings about the sinful life of the harem, created to titillate/concern the bourgeoisie of the Second Empire. Imagine those poor white women, enslaved by the brutally moustachoied Moor!

Ingres, of course. The Turkish Bath. This one’s actually pretty tame, although a rare excuse to get a lot of naked women on one canvas. For the full-bore experience check out nearly anything by Gerome.

Returning to Harry and Meghan, their story is one of an American, sophisticated-sympathetic heroine, wounded by mean, racist, backward old Britain in the form of a shadowy Royal Family (“not the queen, though!”), her pain acknowledged only by her loyal leading man, who is willing to be rescued from his “unconscious racism” by her teaching… and I guess I see how this story has all the right receptors, both for making a statement in the current moment of US politics and for sweeping up any bits of Orientalism swimming around in the body politic. Britain already plays an important part in the American imaginary as a sort of villainous uncle the US has outgrown – it’s kept perpetually in the imagined position of a privileged bully, belittling the US, despite the fact that the two countries’ actual, practical relations have been completely reversed for at least 70 years now.

And I guess what I think about it is that, in this story, Britain is the less attractive, less interesting supporting cast, the perpetrator of racism and the holder of revanchist bad traditionalism, contrasted against our heroic leads… and that Britain might be standing in as a skewed mirror of the US – a method by which Americans can be called to stand together against racism in the US, soothing the tensions of last summer… as long as the visible racist enemy comes in the form of some inferior foreigners. We can all agree on the failings of Others.

To be clear, I’m not saying that this image of the British royal family is false, nor am I saying that I doubt Meghan’s story, nor anything like that… but I note that the interview had no very specific moment that it had to become news (it wasn’t urgent like a plane crash or a sport result). H&M had moved out of the palace months before. They weren’t going anywhere. It was a story with a long shelf life, waiting to claim its optimal moment in the US’s attention, and it does seem pretty relevant to the current moment – with Trumpist racism fading against hopeful Bidenism. A moment for resettling, clearing out dirty laundry, declaring that “we are not those people.” Certainly not those people. Those royals that we snubbed 250 years ago.

Coda:
so I wrote all this stuff about Orientalism and the interview and Bridgerton because I thought it wasn’t super obvious – because I had to work through what I thought about it, myself. But it bothered me that there might not be a clear enough link in this post between the stuff Said lambasted and the light entertainment on TV – if you weren’t familiar with the arguments, you might not see what I was seeing. But then last weekend I found Orientalism in all its vainglory, with the gloves off, in Hulu’s “anti-historical” comedy-drama The Great. If you watched Bridgerton and think I’m making the Orientalist discourse up, then this is what it looks like when fashionable opinion really doesn’t care about what its subject thinks.

here’s young Catherine, about to get beaten up by the ladies of the court under guise of rustic native dancing.
They’re wearing candy-coloured wigs to signal that they’re unseriously sophisticated, like that Marie Antoinette movie.

Ostensibly, it’s about Catherine the Great of Russia, and ostensibly, it’s a comedy. that last part is important to its selling points, so let’s start there.

What tells us it’s a comedy is really just its breakneck pacing and the fact that you can always tell what everyone’s thinking, because they say it out loud. “I am quite annoyed at you and I might have you killed, except that you’re also making me horny.” That sort of thing. If, instead of this, the characters turned half away with an unreadable expression for a few seconds and you had to infer their plots over the next few scenes, it would be straight back into premier TV territory, because under the pacing it’s an endless succession of intrigues and betrayals and imminent danger, just like Game of Thrones. And because it contrasts its antic palace parties with some gruesome death and dismemberment, it’s a black comedy. A satire. It tells us on the title card that it’s “occasionally true,” but it neglects to tell us which occasions. What tells us that it also intends to be taken somewhat seriously as a historical drama is its authentic…. Britishness. it’s shot on location in British palaces, with British accents. If you think that might prevent a certain distinctive Russianness from shining through, well, it was the enlightenment. Everyone was aping French fashion anyway. It’s up to the audience to navigate this hall of mirrors and decide which bricolage pieces are structural at any particular moment.

So it manages the sneaky internet troll trick of saying the cruelest, most brazen things, while claiming that it’s only kidding. It paints the Russian court as a wildly abandoned, wildly dangerous, non-stop orgy; Russian religion as laughable, magic mushroom fueled, cynical superstition; the Tsar’s family as a bunch of lunatics; and the nobles as terrified sycophants, getting drunk and throwing each other out of windows for the Tsar’s amusement. In other words, it repeats exactly the image of the Russian court that western Europe constructed in the 16th-19th centuries – as being an Oriental despot’s whorehouse, dressed up in European clothes. “Scratch a Russian and you’ll find a Tartar,” as the French moralist Joseph de Maistre said, while Catherine was on the throne. And it gets away with repeating these old formulas with the satirist’s disclaimer that nobody escapes its sharp tongue – Catherine, the one foreign viewpoint character, is just a whisker more reasonable when she first arrives, but quickly has to adapt to barbarism in order to survive.

But what is it satirizing? What work is its Orientalism doing? Well….. if, in today’s USA, it is safe to hold prejudices about Britain, it is downright dutiful to hold prejudices about Russia. Putin plays up to the part of a Bond villain, the ever-more-intolerant laws of his regime seem designed to offend US progressives, and his meddling in US politics on Trump’s side (whatever its actual aims) serves to give him a particular kind of US political identity. “Scratch a Russian” is as relevant today as it was two centuries ago. Against that, Russophiles can hold up Catherine the Great as a rare moment of progressiveness in Russian history – Helen Mirren’s recent miniseries was straight-up laudatory, maybe an appeal to Russia’s better angels, comparing Catherine with Britain’s Gloriana, hinting that Russia might find friends over here if only she could remember her more enlightened moments. The Great, in contrast, tells us that Catherine represented a momentary deviation from the normal Russian character – she was a naive foreigner who briefly thought there was a rational mind under the bear’s fur. Her illusions are brutally crushed by a flurry of huzzahs and thrown glassware. As Viktoria Riyabikova notes, underneath its costumes it’s really about Russia today – or about Russian-British-American relations. I think Riyabikova might be being too charitable, though, in thinking that it wants to talk to Russians about reform. I suspect it just wants to talk to Americans and Britains about how irrational the bear, and court systems, and power and politics really are.

  1. March 23, 2021 at 10:47 am

    Another good post Richard

  2. March 23, 2021 at 3:42 pm

    Two only-vaguely-related remarks:
    First, I think Bridgerton (and similar historical-ish dramas) are interesting because it’s the same kind of exoticising of The Past and Foreign Parts as all of those interminable harem paintings, but created for and by straight women. Different “gaze”, similar use of cultural stereotypes.
    Second, have you ever seen Babylon 5? There’s one alien culture in it, the Centauri, who are sort of a soup of all of the worst parts of pre-Enlightenment Europe, but with starships. (The show is an American production.)

    • March 23, 2021 at 6:55 pm

      The sexual identity/orientation of various genre audiences is always a bit mystifying to me
      (most famously https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yaoi_fandom ) – I agree the gaze is different, but the discourses seem to be flexible enough to fit, don’t they?
      It’s politically relevant, I think, that straight women are the main market here, but then even among the straight women who are specifically interested in Bridgerton, I guess there’s a lot of diversity in what they’re looking for? I haven’t really thought of any answerable questions that could form the basis of a research project on this.

      “We Centauri live our lives for appearances, positions, status, title.” – this sounds a bit like a satire on social class distinctions. I wonder what it says about the author’s idea of their own society.

      BTW I totally failed to mention the class-and-race drama I would actually recommend for examining Regency attitudes about race, almost exactly contemporary with Bridgerton: the story of Princess Caraboo;
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Princess_Caraboo
      in which an English serving girl reinvented herself as an enigmatic, shipwrecked diva and charmed the British nobility for 10 weeks before being recognized. The 1994 film about the incident is its own kind of fantasy, but it plays very well as a comparative case for Bridgerton, with some basis in real life:

  3. Griffiana
    March 24, 2021 at 3:29 pm

    Fascinating. You voiced my issues with Bridgerton precisely.

  4. Skerples
    March 29, 2021 at 8:04 am

    I’ve been percolating a blogpost for several months on how the Conjuring horror film series takes a similar line on Catholicism. All the trappings, but a really weird misunderstanding (that would be hilarious if deliberate or satirical, but doesn’t seem to be) of the substance. For example, in “The Nun (2018)”, the secret anti-demon weapon is a vial filled with the blood of Christ.

    You could also replace any film/series in your article with “The Favourite (2018)” and not need to make any significant changes.

    • March 29, 2021 at 2:47 pm

      Oh lord. I had a fever when I watched The Favourite… I kind of think it was the ideal condition to be in. My fragmentary recollection is that it was very pleased with itself for having lesbians in it, and that Hatfield House looked gloomily gorgeous, as ever.
      I see Tom McNamara was already working on The Great when he got brought in to script doctor The Favourite – and he brought Nicholas Hoult with him. And both productions are shot in Hatfield House. Maybe he’ll also do a series of Neil Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle and we can have him completely colonise the period.

    • March 29, 2021 at 3:05 pm

      BTW Hatfield House, where The Great and The Favourite were filmed, is pretty much the pre-eminient example of a house of apartments, where each important personage can retreat from the public rooms into their ever-more-private chambers – like the Huis ten Bosch, outlined here: https://lurkerablog.wordpress.com/2020/03/16/maps-of-some-classic-dungeons-3-ramsess-linear-psychopomp/

      Both Fave and Great make some use of “meeting people in their chambers” and of chambers being invaded, but there’s a whole subtle play of where you meet people, how far you let them in, which they miss out on.

      • Skerples
        March 29, 2021 at 3:59 pm

        I don’t know, a fever might have improved the slow motion duck race in “The Favourite”.
        Ah, houses of apartments, the physical embodiment of C.S. Lewis’ Inner Rings: http://www.lewissociety.org/innerring/

        • March 31, 2021 at 1:35 pm

          exactly. Note the all-important Back Stairs, where the ring becomes a single ligature, or line. Every time I reach some back stairs in a big house I think “this is where the business happens. From here, disgraced maids and incriminating letters fan out into the world.”

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