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Fated for All: Romanclusivity Captures Our Hearts in Bridgerton and Beyond

An epiphany can strike like an astronomical event, the way love is like the birth of a star. My latest ah-ha moment arrived with the total eclipse of the sun. I’d been pondering romance. Not any old love, but the magnetism of “historical romance” novels when adapted into movies/shows that celebrate inclusivity. It’s a starry-eyed and highly successful sub-genre I call romanclusivity©. They say, “Talking about love is like dancing about architecture.” It must be true. I wasn’t sure how to talk about this phenomenon—until the lights went out. 

While the world feels increasingly more stressed and divided, the eclipse on April 8 momentarily brought us together on our rooftops and in our parks with laughter and wonder. That, Dearest Reader, is the effect of romanclusivity on audiences. It spreads the love, granting the joy of happily-ever-afters to us all.

“On “Bridgerton,” we try to ground every character's narrative in dignity, agency and joy—these are things we all deserve to see as possible for our lives.” –Jess Brownell, “Bridgerton” S3 showrunner/executive producer 

Not a believer? I’ve spoken with showrunners, producers, and directors: Jess Brownell, Debra Martin Chase, and Emma Holly Jones. Their insider insights add a finer focus to these observations. Look at “Bridgerton,” “Cinderella” (1997), or Jane Austen reimagined and you’ll see it. Massive audiences come together to fall in love with historical romances featuring inclusive casts. It makes a lot of sense. The Romance genre is the goddess of the publishing industry; not only for its escapism but for the promise of a happy ending. That pledge isn’t easily kept elsewhere. This is why so many of us have fallen in love with romanclusivity. More than an epiphany, it is a total eclipse of the heart. Points to you if you get that reference.

In the publishing industry, the Romance genre is a billion-dollar babe (reportedly drawing in 1.44B per year). During recessions, even when the industry gasped for breath, Romance kept readers breathless and buying stacks of books each week. It hasn’t stopped. The second most bankable genre, Mystery/Thriller, does half the numbers. Let’s pause to applaud the ladies.

Despite the sustained success of the genre—and our current love for “Bridgerton” and beyond—television and film were slow to catch on. If you’re shouting, “Hollywood has always made romantic comedies,” you’re right. Perhaps those early filmmakers were under the influence of Shakespeare or Austen, but “comedies of manners” (the term of the time) can be traced back to 1924 with silent movies like “Girl Shy” and “Sherlock Jr.” Or for firsts and favorites featuring the whiplash-inducing repartee and the romantic madness we treasure, “It Happened One Night” (1934), starring Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable, is that girl.

Hollywood has rom-com in the bag. They do historical dramas well, too. Here’s where the distinction comes in. While we’ve been watching epic historical dramas dripping in romance forever, our screens lacked the tropes and happily-ever-afters offered by historical romance. Books are built “different” from movies, especially in adaptations, where they have often been stripped of what was considered “silly” conventions that caused heaving bosoms in readers. Here’s the thing, Romance readers still devoured historical dramas on screen, especially in every form of Jane Austen from the straightforward to the “Clueless.”


A Love Unrequited: The Myth of Homogeneity

Cluelessness gives us a perfect segue. While people of color are a big part of historical romance fandoms, the relative invisibility of characters who mirror us is a barrier to entry. Many of us grew up pretending the heroines with their porcelain skin and flaming-red tresses looked more like us, with sparkling eyes of smoky topaz and skin in shades of sepia. When it came to the leading men, it was easier. They were wealthy South Americans, wealthier Sheiks, or noble Indigenous warriors (so many noble Indigenous warriors). Still, most often we were in the background—as servants, enslaved, or persecuted people who depended on the kindness of heroines with sun-gold hair and good hearts. Other than in the gorgeous writing of Beverly Jenkins and a few others: Where could we exist in historical romance while keeping the fantasy and thrills alive? That barrier of entry was strong, yet we persevered because we love love too.

If we consider historical romance as a form of speculative fiction, this allows for a more imaginative interpretation. Jess Brownell agrees, saying, “Romance by nature is a fantasy genre. It's an escape. The “Bridgerton” universe is brighter and kinder and more magical than real life, so it feels appropriate to bend the rules of history in this case.” Just like in science fiction and epic fantasy, historical romance harnesses the power of reinvention and allegory to explore the complexities of human narratives. In this case, matters of the heart. This aspect of the sub-genre appeals to readers who indulge in the otherworldliness of fantasy while appreciating the flights of fancy that truly existed in our world. I’m not saying tragic historical romance doesn’t exist, but unlike SFF (sci-fi and fantasy) the style found in romance novels offers greater opportunities for joy. That, Dearest Gentle Reader, is the promise of happiness unending.

Debra Martin Chase, the executive producer of the 1997 “Cinderella,” starring Brandy and Whitney Houston, shared why the promise of a happily-ever-after matters so much in her version of the fairytale, saying, “To me the real importance of “Cinderella” is that it reinforced for Black females of all ages that we are beautiful and wonderful and special. I made the movie because I knew how important and affirming it would have been for me to have had a Black Cinderella when I was growing up.”

However, despite the potential of these genres to celebrate difference and root for the underdog, the erasure of POC is glaring. In the past (ooh a pun), we found ourselves either absent from these stories or confined to those stereotypical support roles. Could the allure of the “Bridgerton” series, and the rise of similar historical love stories, have bloomed from the introduction of overdue inclusivity into the whimsical realms of period romance? In genres such as historical romance, science fiction, and fantasy, erasure is an act in progress, but people of color have long craved seeing our reflections in these gilded spaces. While the Romance fandom is consistently given idealized depictions of the past, people of color aren’t allowed to share in them equally. Inversely, when BIPOCs craft inclusive narratives, accusations of “historical inaccuracy” soon follow.

“When people call historical accuracy into question, I find it funny as movies and art more generally are fundamentally subjective and very much escapist by their very nature. If you want historical accuracy, a rom com probably isn’t the place to start. Documentaries come to mind! –Emma Holly Jones, “Mr. Malcolm’s List” director/producer 

Historical accuracy in the media, particularly in historical romance, is an argument in perpetuity. The confusion comes from the idea that history equates to predominantly white casts, especially in settings like Regency England. This falsehood attempts to erase that the Moors held Spain for 800 years, the Ethiopians were the premier swordfighters and the bringers of coffee, Arabs established trade routes over land and sea (the spice must flow, baby), Chinese inventors gave us pasta and gunpowder, and South Americans curated libraries so brimming with knowledge that Europeans burned them to the ground. Which is ironically the core problem with historical genres—the obliteration of actual history. 


Before the 1400s, the dominant form of discrimination was classism. Afterward, to fuel the sugar trade, racism was invented to substantiate the horrific myth of a less-than-human “beast of burden.” 623 years later actress Francesca Amewudah-Rivers is being verbally attacked for her upcoming role as Juliet opposite Tom Holland’s Romeo. Both characters are fictional. No one knows how those star-crossed lovers looked. More accurately, Juliet was played by male actors in the times of The Bard. Italy is a “ferry ride” from Northern Africa. How can “historical accuracy” be accurate when it demands that a talented woman face down baseless misogynoir? You’d think Shakespeare never wrote a Black character, but we know better.

These cries for false historical accuracy overlook the diversity that was very much part of historical reality. There is a rich and varied history of BIPOCs in every era. This makes the recent popularity of inclusive historical romance on screen so juicy. These shows and films challenge misconceptions by portraying the diversity that existed in actual history; providing a more accurate representation rather than the fabricated absence we see most often.

Brownell has a similar take, “I think [this] opens up an interesting discussion about the erasure of people of color, not only in period television and film but in history in general. Regency England was a much more diverse place than the history books might have you believe. Maybe people of color weren't as prevalent in the upper classes as they are in the “Bridgerton” universe,” she added, “but they certainly did exist. Amma Asante's fantastic “Belle” documents one such example. And yet, when a period piece comes out featuring an entirely white cast, there aren't the same demands for accuracy.”

Since historical romance stands accused of lacking historical fidelity, there’s one more point before we return to escapism. The argument for the absence of people of color falls further flat when we consider the genre has always taken liberties with the facts. For instance, characters of color are portrayed by white actors, the use of modern language and attitudes, or the omission of the less glamorous aspects of daily life in the past. These are rarely questioned. You have to wonder why the outcry for historical accuracy seems to arise predominantly when it comes to diverse characters. It's a paradox when the genre is somewhat speculative already. People of color dream of escaping into fantasies where we are the most desirable, the most worthy, and the chosen ones too. Ultimately, we’re left with the question: Do we not love as vividly? 

Romance + Inclusivity Equals... 

Back in February, when I reviewed the latest version of “Sense and Sensibility,” I wrote: “Austen’s works have a relatable quality that keeps us coming back, from the wit to the social commentary, from the bittersweet swoon-worthy romances to the sharp-edged satire. The newest “Sense and Sensibility” from Hallmark weaves the enchantment of Jane Austen’s storytelling with the modern remixes of shows like “Bridgerton” and films such as “Mr. Malcolm’s List” and the 1997 “Cinderella.” This continued wave of inclusive casting in historical romances might be ready for a sub-genre, especially since each entry resonates with narrative depth and stylistic innovation. Can we call it: romanclusivity?

“Part of our broader vision was that our regency film [Mr. Malcolm’s List] would be a mix of fantasy, comedy, and historical romance,” says Jones, “allowing us permission to create our own world with it, breaking from historical conventions and the expectations of the genre onscreen. The direction was all about making our own rules within the fictional world we were creating. She goes on to say, “I wanted these women to reflect women today and our audience today. I wanted to create a film that gave young black and brown women their own sort of Jane Austen film, whether it's actually Jane Austen or not.”

Inspired by “romantasy,” a cozy fantasy genre with romance as the focus, my creation, romanclusivity is a very different cocktail from historical drama. Romanclusivity features all the tropes and happily-ever-afters required of historical romance novels. It also contains multicultural casts that allow all audiences to experience the pomp, circumstance, and decadence intrinsic to those stories. So, let’s go back to where it began. 

Most of us would start with the “Bridgerton” series on Netflix. It is the most successful and influential, but it is not the first. Others of us would be tempted to say it started in 2019 with the proof-of-concept for “Mr. Malcolm’s List.” Directed by Jones, posted by Refinery29, and starring Gemma Chan and Sope Dirisu, this 117-minute film is a contender. Still, I’d like to present my choice for champion: Martin Chase and Whitney Houston’s “Cinderella.”

“Cinderella” (1997)

“I think that the immense and enduring success of our “Cinderella” laid the foundation for “Bridgerton” and “Mr Malcolm's List”—both of which I personally loved! But it's really remarkable that it took some 20 years for these successors to come into being. I think it says a lot about the entertainment business and its slow evolution to fully embrace diversity and inclusion.” –Debra Martin Chase, “Cinderella” (1997) executive producer

While Disney’s “Cinderella” is more romantasy, it should still be credited as the progenitor of romanclusivity. Produced by Whitney Houston and Martin Chase, featuring a Black-American Cinderella in Brandy and a Filipino-American Prince Charming in Paolo Montalban, the film was groundbreaking in its inclusive casting. This wasn't just a nod to inclusive romance but an embrace, wrapped up in a historical-styled magical setting. The '97 “Cinderella” gave audiences a taste of the wonder, multiculturalism, and romance they craved, proving that fairy tales are for everyone, regardless of ethnicity.

Martin Chase shared more from the casting process: “”Cinderella” was one of the most difficult projects I have ever produced—and one of the most rewarding! Craig Zadan, Neil Meron, Whitney and I always wanted a diverse cast. But we did not do color blind casting. We very intentionally put together an ethnically diverse mosaic. Not easy in general but particularly difficult because we wanted stars in almost every role.” Unsurprisingly, they received pushback. “While we were putting the movie together there were a lot of naysayers-- how is having a Filipino prince with a Black mother and a White father going to work? But once people actually saw the movie the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. And in fact now—over 20 years later—the diverse casting is one of the reasons the movie is so beloved and has stood the test of time.” 

“Cinderella” (1997) also popped off when it first aired, with an estimated 60 million viewers tuning in to watch the retelling of the classic fairytale on ABC. It became an instant favorite among fans, earning seven Primetime Emmy Award nominations. Even better, when the movie was added to the Disney+ platform, it happened because the fans demanded it.

When I mentioned this fact, Martin Chase added, “Yes! And the demand online—and on my social media—led me to go to Disney and push them. There were some rights issues that had prevented them from including the movie on the Disney Plus platform initially.” She continued with. “But my friend Vanessa Morrison, the President of DP, dug in and got the issues resolved. It was so rewarding and wonderful to get such a huge response to the premiere of the movie on that platform! So much publicity and love from audiences.”


The “Bridgerton” Effect

When Netflix sent out the early episodes of “Bridgerton” in 2020, my fellow journalist, Alex Bear and I teamed up to shower the series with verbal confetti:

“For years we’ve been asking for, searching for, and hoping for something that felt like reading a romance novel (on our screens, that is). No, not a rom-com, not a romantic drama, but a chapter-by-chapter, trope-by-trope, romance with all the feels of the genre. Shondaland works magic with “Bridgerton”… Of course, no happily ever after could be complete without delicious scandal, turnabouts, and anonymous gossip. Imagine a frothy cocktail of Jane Austen’s characters, Oscar Wilde’s witty antics, and a touch of Little Women…prepare to be swept away by Bridgerton.”

If there is an apotheosis of romanclusivity, “Bridgerton” is it. This show delights in the conventions that Romance readers adore. For those of us traditionally sidelined, Shondaland and original showrunner Chris Van Dusen celebrate inclusion—making it known people of color existed in Britain before the Regency era, including in Queen Charlotte’s African ancestry. Brownell was part of that team and continues the tradition in Season 3:

“The decision was rooted in real life conjecture that Queen Charlotte may have been mixed race. When casting the first season, Shonda, Betsy, and Chris used this as a jumping off point to imagine an alternate history in which more viewers could see themselves represented.” Brownell added that, “It's been lovely to see such a positive response. I'm certainly aware of criticisms that the show's casting erases the realities of history. As showrunner, I'm always listening to both sides of the argument and trying to do what feels best for our show.”

“Bridgerton,” with its sweeping manors, string quartet remixes of Billboard pop, spicy entanglements, and diverse cast, is the biggest historical romance on our screens. Based on Julia Quinn's novels, the series illustrates diverse characters can thrive in any era while captivating massive audiences. Love needs no exclusions. The show's first season thrilled 82 million households globally within its first 28 days. Season 2 became the most-watched debut in Netflix history at the time, boasting 627.11 million hours viewed in that same span. Edging out the 625.49 million hours for Season 1. Notably, 76% of the viewers during its first week were women, highlighting the show's strong appeal among an audience we can bet contains millions of romance readers. With the anticipated “Polin pairing” of Penelope and Colin up next, those viewership numbers are likely to rise. These impressive metrics underscore the broader appeal of romanclusivity done right. 

Those numbers may also be why “The Buccaneers” from AppleTV+, a series based on an unfinished Edith Wharton novel, is heading into its second season.

Mr. Malcolm's List

“Mr. Malcolm’s List” (2022)

Released during the pandemic, the feature-length version of “Mr. Malcolm's List” drew a $2,024,507 worldwide box office, not quite the same glow as the short film (2.2M views on YouTube). Still, it exemplifies the warmth and intrigue found in romanclusivity. Based on the novel of the same name by Suzanne Allain and set in Regency-era England, this part-Austen part-Wilde romp is a charmer. Starring Zawe Ashton, Freida Pinto, Sope Dirisu, and Theo James, “Mr. Malcolm's List” sets the stage for more multicultural historical romances to delight viewers.

Jones gave us a peek into the process, sharing, “When I found Suzanne’s screenplay via The Black List website, I fell in love instantly, but I also knew this wasn’t going to be an easy to screen journey: first time female director and screenwriter and a period piece. The short film was reverse engineered to give us the best chance at getting this film made. I teamed up with producers Laura Rister and Laura Lewis, and we collaborated with Refinery29’s female short film fund (which sadly no longer exists) to make a short/proof of concept that we shot in 2018. We all then decided that releasing the short online might give us the best chance at proving there was an audience for a film like this (please note this was pre-”Bridgerton!”) and luckily, we were right. Refinery29 has a large, young, female audience, so the reaction being so positive spurred us on to get that feature made.”

Finally Austen! “Sanditon” and “Sense and Sensibility” (2024)

Jane Austen's influence on historical romance and romantic comedy is undeniable. What surprises is that she foresaw romanclusivity coming. Perhaps she started the trend. Her unfinished novel Sanditon, featuring the Black-Caribbean heiress Georgiana Lambe (Crystal Clarke), proves Austen as a visionary. The 2019 PBS adaptation of the book, alongside the reimagining of “Sense and Sensibility” from earlier this year, offers a wider variety of inclusive historical love stories to challenge conventions. These adaptations serve as a reminder that the past wasn't as homogenous as often depicted and period romances can and should reflect the scope of humanity.

As a sidebar, the super sexy thriller “365 Days from Netflix, based on the book by Blanka Lipińska, also proves the strength of Romance subgenres when adapted as intended. Whether it’s romantasy, cozy, historical, spicy, paranormal, or mystery—the beloved tropes in Romance novels are winners in every medium.

What Dreams May Follow

There’s no denying it. We want more romaclusivity because of the joy it brings to various audiences. Yet, I do wonder if the subgenre could swell beyond historical romance. Imagine if Shondaland expanded the “Bridgerton-verse,” allowing it to overflow into contemporary romance and more. I’m envisioning a Bridgerton Romance Universe (BRU), a world reshaped by the existence of our favorite fictional Queen Charlotte and her Ton—where their descendants fall in love in other eras. In response to my musing, Brownell said, “I would love to see it! I'll be first in line with popcorn.”

These stories are a space for escapism—havens where the discriminations of daily life don’t exist. Audiences of all backgrounds deserve breakaways that heal rather than batter. Romanclusivity is a great place to find it. As Emma Holly Jones said, “Every human being deserves to have faith in achieving happiness. Movies are a place that inspire that sort of hope and faith, through spectacle, through story. I grew up with so many characters who inspired me as a young girl on screen… Every human deserves those sorts of inspirations however simple and small.”

“Bridgerton” returns on Netflix tomorrow, May 16th.

Romanclusivity© is copyright 2024 Sherin Nicole. All Rights Reserved.

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