Stolen glances, secret meetings, a great fear of discovery. Nothing could be gayer than the period piece, and yet…the two most popular costume dramas of the year, The Gilded Age and Bridgerton, struggle to incorporate queer storylines.
Julian Fellowes and Shonda Rhimes have given viewers new, rose-tinted windows into the 19th century, complete with grand ballrooms, innocent maidens, and gentle gestures towards the realities of class and race. Their ensemble casts embody nearly all the archetypes beloved in the genre. But the fantasies on offer have left me on my knees, praying to Sappho for…je ne sais quoi…lesbians?
The Gilded Age and Bridgerton come from opposite sides of the Historical Accuracy™ spectrum. The first is so caught up in the minutiae of which fork goes where that it can forget the appetites of its modern audience, while the second puts its girlies in dazzlingly anachronistic gowns but very honestly depicts the stakes for those girlies as they scramble for husbands. Both have overarching narratives that boil down to “women be scheming.” Neither has listened to girl in red.
These shows are at their best when women in overstuffed armchairs conspire within the confines of polite (ie. patriarchal) society to secure bearable futures for themselves. So why not include the greatest womanly scheme to exist in days of yore: being so discreet about attraction to other women that to this day historians and journalists refer to clearly romantic partners as gal pals?
Alas, petitioning for two women to kiss on The Gilded Age might be a lost cause. After all, Fellowes had plenty of time throughout six seasons of Downton Abbey to try something similar, but Mr. Landed Gentry spent them all asking, “Ah…wouldn’t life be better if the help were nicer?” Even the rare portrayal of a gay man in 1910s Britain in the form of Thomas Barrow, villainous footman, was softened to demonstrate how open-minded Lord Crawley is (he went to Eton!) compared to his uneducated (and thus bigoted) servants.
But a girl can dream. Let’s imagine the second season opens with Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski!!!) entirely rejecting New York’s adoption of the nouveau riche and instead accepting an invitation to Natalie Barney’s very lesbian salon in gay Paris, never to look back. Quick, call Keira Knightley’s agent!
As for the earlier 1800s of Bridgerton, we need only reference the Ladies of Llangollen, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, who became the original cottagecore lesbians after scandalizing their “ton” (Ireland) and running away together. If Eloise Bridgerton can quote feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft from memory, she can certainly scrounge up William Wordsworth’s poetic tribute to Butler and Ponsonby.
For a series with so many opportunities to make a “coming out” joke, Bridgerton feels like an even greater missed opportunity for historical LGBTQ representation. However, with such high ratings, there’s time for a course correction yet!
Like, the absence of the Duke of Hastings (who is away on important royal affairs since actor Regé-Jean Page is away on other acting affairs) leaves room for the very lonely Duchess Daphne to acquire a very companionable lady-in-waiting to help her pass the time. Or better yet, when the formidable Lady Bridgerton and Lady Danbury finally marry off all their wards, they can find new ways to enjoy widowhood…together!
Several films and TV series in recent years have depicted women-loving women with depth, humor, and accuracy. In fact, there’s enough for people to joke, “Give lesbians electricity!” But as much as I adore Dickinson, Gentleman Jack, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, their leading ladies exist in relative isolation. Little wells of loneliness peppered throughout the countryside.
The continued absence of lesbian and bisexual women in big-budget ensemble casts perpetuates this myth of separation. In reality, most women couldn’t afford pastoral escapism. They had to carve out space and sanity within their existing worlds. They joined “sewing circles” and traded violets and existed right alongside their heterosexual counterparts. Harlots, which follows the lives of fictional 18th century sex workers, gets closest to capturing this reality, but fell victim to the Bury Your Gays trope and a cancellation after season three.
I’ll likely be tuning in for subsequent seasons of The Gilded Age and Bridgerton, because I crave frothy, low-stakes television. Glittering dresses and instrumental versions of pop songs are a balm in turbulent times. But it’s a shame I’ll have to go elsewhere for a dose of Sapphic sexiness.
Trope This Finds You Well is a love letter to all the ways film, TV, and books can infuriate, surprise, and delight us through the use of controversial, subverted, or well-worn tropes. Written for all the Beautiful Dead Girls and all the pianists who stop playing at the precise moment a stranger walks into the saloon.
Private Theatricals (1884)
By Louise Guiney
You were a haughty beauty, Polly
(That was in the play),
I was the lover melancholy
(That was in the play);
And when your fan and you receded,
And all my passion lay unheeded,
If still with tender words I pleaded,
They were in the play.