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tv Bridgerton Finally Gave Us Queer Storylines. Fans Aren’t Having It.

The show’s first queer storylines have been met with backlash, homophobia, and misogynoir.

Luke Thompson as Benedict Bridgerton.,Liam Daniel/Netflix

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

At long last, Bridgerton has found its queer storylines! Aaaaand, of course, the celebration has already been cut short thanks to a frustrating mix of homophobia, misogynoir, and book purists.

As a television show with an enormous fanbase, Bridgerton has naturally provoked strong responses from audiences with the second half of its third season, which Netflix released over the weekend. Much of it once again divided devotees of the books from Netflix-only viewers. The show has never been a fully faithful retelling of the Bridgerton books by romance novelist Julia Quinn — but that’s a selling point in its favor because the OG Bridgertons and their love interests are all straight and white. 

The show’s biggest change thus far has been its famous color-conscious casting. Now, at last, we can add queer representation to the list. Among the plethora of romance plot lines the show was juggling in its eight-episode season, released in two parts, were tantalizing hints at queer representation from two characters’ storylines.

The first was a development the show teased early on but then seemed to have forgotten about. Benedict Bridgerton (Luke Thompson) has been what we might call queer-adjacent since season one, primarily through his dalliances with London’s sexually liberated underground party scene. He finally stumbled his way into discovering his identity after a casual fling introduced him to the wonders of threesomes with men. It’s a turn that feels long overdue, and I’m thrilled that I no longer have to designate him “the inexplicably straight Bridgerton.” 

The second was a rather charming bait-and-switch. Francesca Bridgerton (Hannah Dodd) featured prominently for the first time after casting issues kept her AWOL, so we spent most of this season getting to know her. She turned out to be a rare thing for a Bridgerton — shy and retiring, arguably neurodivergent, and most shocking of all, steadfastly dedicated to the idea of a sparks-free romance with her new suitor John Stirling, Lord Kilmartin (Victor Alli). The pair made an adorably low-key couple of besties who stole my heart in the season’s first half — only for Francesca to meet John’s stunning, vivacious cousin Michaela (Masali Baduza) in the final moments of the season and go fully lovestruck. 

It’s interesting that Bridgerton chose these two routes toward queer diversity. Benedict’s storyline in the books is a loose retelling of Cinderella, with Benedict in the role of the prince. Giving Benedict his own male version of Cinderella would not only be an interesting way to flip what is perhaps the most patriarchal, heteronormative fairy tale in romancelandia. It would be deviant and exciting on a number of fronts — exactly what we’d need to keep the show’s romances from becoming stale. The third season has already pointed us toward this storyline in season four, but exactly who Benedict’s suitor is remains to be seen. 

(There’s a whole rather delicious sidebar here about fans’ ongoing attempts to figure out exactly who this casting choice is, only to be thwarted; at one point many fans were convinced that Baduza had been cast in the role of Benedict’s future flame, only to learn with the final moments of this season that she’d been cast as Francesca’s instead. That means there’s still plenty of hope for a male/male Bridgerton romance to come!)

As for Francesca and Michaela, theirs was a twist we didn’t see coming at all, mainly because John and Francesca were already  subversive. This season continually emphasized Francesca’s quiet confidence in her attachment to the socially awkward John, all against the advice of her mother (Ruth Gemmell), who kept telling her that true love was supposed to feel like a heady, emotional event, the fabled lightning strike. That Francesca and John were simply adorable and notably nonsexual together was a strong and unexpected but welcome display of support from the show for romance on the asexual spectrum ... until it wasn’t. 

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Around the time Lady Bridgerton finally accepted that there were multiple ways of being in love and that perhaps her daughter was right, Michaela showed up and struck Francesca speechless. Does this mean Francesca is demisexual, meaning she’s only interested in romance and sex with someone she’s already first grown to love? Possibly, but it seems like that’s a subtlety that Bridgerton — which doesn’t have the greatest track record when it comes to nuance — doesn’t have the capacity to contend with, and we’re instead supposed to read Francesca as having been naive and misguided about her feelings all along. 

It’s also true, however, that the show’s third season feels a bit like a reset, with expanded possibilities for all of its characters. So giving Bridgerton the benefit of the doubt here, we could also be set up for a fun, fascinating story of consensual polyamory — one that allows for love between both Francesca and John as they deal with marital plot threads from Francesca’s original storyline and gives us the heady adventure of Francesca falling in love with her husband’s cousin. In other words, rather than forbidden love, we could be getting a story that embraces both queer and open, polyamorous relationships without ultimately devaluing what Francesca originally felt for John. (Quinn’s original storyline rapidly dispatches with John altogether to make way for Francesca’s new love interest, so anything that allows him to stick around for a while would be a positive — he’s a delight.) Season three’s showrunner Jess Brownell has stated she wants Francesca’s storyline to play out over several seasons, so we could well be exploring all of these possibilities in the future.

Our other primary contender for queer rep, Eloise (Claudia Jessie), fits many of the parameters for what we think of when we think of “liberated queer woman” — she’s a proto-feminist with an independent, anarchist streak, she’s got a penchant for hanging with the working class, and she’s shown zero interest in traditional family life thus far. She’s been serving sapphic vibes since the moment she and Benedict first hung out in tree swings together in season one, establishing their private, queer-Bridgertons-only club.

Yet Eloise, queer or not, also presents potentially the show’s greatest divergence from the books because all these details make her a much different character from Quinn’s progenitor. If the show stays strictly faithful to the trajectory of the books, fans of the show might be seriously unprepared for Eloise’s storyline, which sets her up with a country life of motherhood and domesticity. So far, the show seems to be at least feinting in that direction, but this season is an exercise in why leaving the books behind may be the show’s best decision. 

At various points, the themes of the books turn quite regressive, so it’s been heartening to see how the show has polished some (but not all) of the rougher spots while remaining true to them in spirit. Not everyone is on board with the changes, though, especially not when they interfere with book fans’ ideas of their beloved couples.

The fandom has long believed that Quinn indicated the Bridgerton writers were contractually obligated to keep all of the main romantic relationships from the novels intact. Fans have often parroted this narrative, both to reassure themselves when the story unsettles them and particularly to dismiss the possibility of any of the main relationships becoming queer ones. 

In fact, Quinn said the complete opposite: In a recent Facebook comment, she debunked the “contractually obligated” myth, and in a 2021 interview she gushed about the possibility for queer relationships and queer Bridgertons on the show. We shouldn’t even need to point out that it’s a stretch to expect a family as large as the Bridgertons to have zero queer kids among them, and in 2024 we likewise shouldn’t have to point out that changing a character’s gender or sexual orientation doesn’t significantly change anything else about their character in any way. The switch probably wouldn’t even faze most of Bridgerton’s 45 million viewers.

The smattering of viewers who are fazed, however, are incensed at these alterations — particularly the change-up of John’s cousin “Michael Stirling” with “Michaela Stirling.” There’s absolutely nothing about this character’s personality or plotline that can’t map onto a woman, and the one wrinkle this twist provides — a subplot relating to infertility — could easily be dealt with in an interesting way, especially if the show explored nontraditional options for John and Francesca’s marriage. Yet some fans are outraged. 

A “mega-thread” devoted to complaining about the character change on the main Bridgerton subreddit has nearly 1,000 comments. Fans have been bombarding social media accounts for Bridgerton as well as the actors, demanding that the show undo the casting of Baduza. A petition to this effect has garnered 16,000 signatures in the handful of days since the season’s back half dropped; and while it’s satisfying to note that this represents a little more than 0.03 percent of Bridgerton’s viewership, those voices are loud, strident, and very, very bitter.

It’s impossible not to notice that the same level of vitriol hasn’t attached to the show for making Benedict queer. It’s hard not to assume that most of the anger swirling around Michaela’s character seems to be a product of blanket, garden-variety misogynoir and homophobia. 

The mods of the aforementioned subreddit, r/Bridgerton, seemed to recognize this; in their mega-thread for complaints, they also announced a new rule banning general casting complaints: “If you have a negative reaction or want to say you are disappointed that your favorite character is getting a change related to race, shape, or sexuality, it will be removed,” they wrote. “This ruleset covers both LGBTQ casting and POC casting choices.”

This type of didactic decision-making is exactly what the fans who are complaining are mad about — blah blah diversity, something something too woke — but that’s exactly why it’s important. If the loudest, most vocal, most stridently opinionated fans had their way, queer Black characters might never get their moment to shine, and we might never get to enjoy the way Michaela’s eyes sparkle the moment she sees Francesca, or the way Benedict reaches for his first kiss with another man, so haltingly, then with elation. 

I’ve been hard on Bridgerton in the past, if only because I never thought we’d get to this point. But Bridgerton is rare among streaming juggernauts — which are rare enough as it is. It’s a show that not only commits to its diversity, but has the resources to tell diverse stories well. If Bridgerton gets its originally planned eight-season run — and that seems likely given its massive popularity — it will be even more unique among both streaming and Netflix hits for delivering interracial and queer storytelling on a budget rarely devoted to such storylines. 

And those storylines — thank goodness — are happening, whether fans are on board or not.